RTÉ Prime Time Investigates is dead. But what happens next?

Okay, so RTÉ Prime Time Investigates is dead ahead of a critical report due to publish from the BAI tomorrow…

On Tuesday night, Vincent Browne brought together a first rate panel to discuss the wider issues flowing from the mater… The discussion here falls roughly into two parts. The broken system of journalistic checks and balances, and the value of RTE’s public service broadcasting product as opposed to privately owned print journalism…

YouTube video

Three things occur:

– This case demonstrates that through the offices of the BAI (OFCOM in the UK) broadcast journalism is ultimately held to a much higher account than print journalism (or indeed bloggers, in case you’re suspicious I may be taking some kind of free ride on this)… This is not always obvious to the public at large.

– Despite some powerful polemic to the contrary (and, perhaps, a general illusion created by free access to the Internet), in Ireland and the UK journalists are not any kind of protected species. There is no constitutional clause in either jurisdiction that guarantees the basic freedoms manifest in the first amendment of the US Constitution.

– The cost of such a high profile and egregious mistake is less the internal loss of confidence involved (something that ought to be useful in charting a new course), than as Brendan O’Brien points out in the programme the likelihood that when faced with controversy, editorial decisions attenuated by a new and complex chain of command will in future tend towards the conservative.

Will killing off the brand and shuffling a few staff around suffice? There’s been criticism that this move by RTE is just a piece of news management in order to lessen the public impact of the report when it comes tomorrow. Time will tell.

But there is some evidence of a wider culture in journalism, that even RTE for all its great virtues, is not immune from. John Lloyd towards the end of What The Media Are Doing To Our Politics noted this dynamic at play:

Laser guided journalism goes to straight to what it conceives of as the heart of darkness and remains there, demanding an explanation for the darkness on its own terms. The relative weight of what is seen as darkness is not its business: by shining the lazar beam on it, it elevates it to absolute importance.

In the last few years the traditional slippers-by-the-fire Q&A format was ditched for more the confrontational, ‘I’m-with-the-rebels’ editorial frame of FrontLine. A dangerous presumption was made against incumbent/government/status quo. Enter #Tweetgate.

Sometimes the mob is right (as, post facto, it largely has been over the Father Reynolds case). But journalists need to be free as possible to make cold decisions on what is real and what’s not. Balancing the rather puritan demands of the craft with its democratic mission to keep all forms of power under scrutiny is crucial.

If they can’t do that, then we are all in trouble.

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