Presentation from RTÉ - Matters relating to Governance

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport,
Communications and Natural Resources.
Wednesday 25 March 2015
RTÉ Opening Statement by
Chair of the RTÉ Board, Moya Doherty and
RTÉ Deputy Director General, Kevin Bakhurst
Thank you Chairman for inviting RTÉ to appear before this Committee today to discuss
governance at the station and the policies and procedures RTÉ has in place to prevent
political bias in our programming and reporting.
I am joined today by Kevin Bakhurst, Deputy Director General and Managing Director of
News and Current Affairs; Tom McGuire, Head of RTÉ Radio 1; David Nally, Managing Editor,
RTÉ Television Current Affairs and Deirdre McCarthy, Political Assignments Editor, RTÉ
I hope that between us we can address any questions members may have.
At the outset I think it useful for me to set out the clear statutory and regulatory framework
within which RTÉ must operate and the overarching governance role of the RTÉ Board.
I will then ask Kevin to give members a clear understanding of the editorial structures,
policies and procedures that RTÉ has in place to ensure independence, fairness and
impartiality across RTÉ’s output, particularly as it relates to RTÉ’s political coverage.
This division is very deliberate, as it echoes the distinction between the governance role of
the Board and the operational role of the Director General, the Executive and line
management. The RTÉ Board should not and does not involve itself in day-to-day editorial
decision making. While the Board must satisfy itself that editorial decision making is being
appropriately managed along with other activities in accordance with RTÉ’s and its
obligations, the day-to-day making of individual editorial decisions rests with programme
makers, their editors and editorial management.
Notwithstanding that the term ‘independent broadcasters’ is routinely used to describe
commercial television and radio broadcasters in Ireland, the public service broadcasters,
RTÉ and TG4, are the only media organisations in the country that are prescribed by law, in
Section 98 of the Broadcasting Act 2009, to be independent in everything they do.
Furthermore, as I said to this Committee when I was here a few weeks ago, it is the
prescribed duty of the Board of RTÉ to safeguard this independence from state, political, or
commercial interests.
As a not-for-profit public service media organisation, RTÉ is not here to serve the interests
of shareholders, wealthy owners or private equity firms - but rather the public, with clear
statutory obligations and appropriate regulation and governance.
This fundamental difference is crucial to understanding the very high levels of trust RTÉ
retains with Irish audiences.
RTÉ exists to give space to the different shades of political opinion, to be accessible to
younger and older people - be they farmers, teachers or technology workers from anywhere
and everywhere in the country. RTÉ is here to give voice to the views of water protesters as
much as those of Irish Water.
As it clearly states in Section 114 of the Broadcasting Act, RTÉ must be responsive to the
interests and concerns of the whole community and, as I said a few weeks ago to this
committee, representing the interests of viewers and listeners is the Board’s first duty.
Different groups of people and interests will challenge and disagree with RTÉ’s
programming and editorial choices from time to time – that is to be expected. RTÉ wouldn’t
be doing its job otherwise. What is crucial though is that RTÉ is not beholden to any group
or viewpoint, and that we ensure RTÉ is as fair, impartial and accurate as possible.
There are a range of codes, regulations and processes designed to ensure that RTÉ maintain
these standards, which I will explain shortly, but ultimately it is the public trust we retain
with audiences which is so important.
In any given week 96% of Irish people access RTÉ’s services. Across last year, when surveyed
by the independent research company, Behaviour and Attitudes, 87% of Irish adults (18+)
indicated that they trusted RTÉ’s news and current affairs output. As part of the same
analysis RTÉ itself came out as one of the most trusted organisations in the country.
It is only because of these high levels of trust, earned over a long period of time and
countless editorial decisions, that RTÉ can and does take on the most difficult of subjects.
It is why when a current and a former Government minister decided to give very personal
interviews recently they chose to do so on two different programmes both on RTÉ Radio 1.
It is why when very significant news events occur, either domestic or international, that
RTÉ’s viewership, listenership and online statistics grow substantially.
And it is also why when RTÉ made serious editorial mistakes a number of years ago that it
was an issue of such concern both inside and outside RTÉ, leading to a thorough review of
all RTÉ’s editorial processes.
Maintaining the trust of the public is the most important measure for public service media.
The independence, impartiality and accuracy of RTÉ’s programming and reporting is
essential to this trust. The notion that RTÉ could or would perpetuate political bias in its
output as suggested by the invitation here today makes little sense, primarily because it
would fundamentally undermine the public trust in everything RTÉ does.
Statutory Framework
Nor indeed would it be compatible with the law or tolerated by the regulator.
The law is very clear about what is required of broadcasters when it comes to news and
current affairs programming.
RTÉ, like all licensed broadcasters in the state, is required by the Broadcasting Act 2009 to
report and present the news in an objective and impartial manner and without any
expression of the broadcaster’s own views.
In current affairs programming, including matters which are either of public controversy or
the subject of current public debate, broadcasters must be fair to all interests concerned
and the broadcast must be presented in an objective and impartial manner and without any
expression of the broadcaster’s own views. Should this prove impracticable in relation to a
single programme, two or more related broadcasts may be considered as a whole, if the
programmes are transmitted within a reasonable period of each other.
There are a series of regulatory mechanisms by which RTÉ must account for how it fulfils
these core statutory obligations.
Every year RTÉ must submit to the BAI an Annual Statement of Performance Commitments.
Within this process RTÉ makes clear commitments that relate to maintaining and growing
trust in RTÉ’s News and Current Affairs output and in maintaining public confidence in the
impartiality and objectivity of key output. The Board recently signed off on RTÉ’s 2015
Annual Statement of Performance Commitments.
Unlike other parts of the media, broadcasting in general and public service broadcasters in
particular, is subject to significant regulatory oversight, oversight that is firmly rooted in
statute. Such oversight would simply not tolerate political bias within the country’s primary
public service media organisation.
I am conscious that I have only recently been officially appointed Chair of the RTÉ Board and
that this Board was only fully complete in February. It has only met twice to date.
Nonetheless I am very clear as to what role the Board has in relation to the impartiality and
accuracy of RTÉ’s news and current affairs programming and reporting.
Just last week Kevin gave the Board a very thorough briefing on the editorial decision
making structures within RTÉ News and Current Affairs. Such engagements will continue to
be a regular feature of the Board’s work, but at this point the Board and I have no reason to
believe that RTÉ is not discharging its editorial responsibilities correctly and with the
appropriate checks and balances.
I will now ask Kevin to give you a brief overview of RTÉ’s current editorial structures, policies
and procedures.
RTÉ’s editorial structures, policies and procedures
Thank you Chairperson.
Each week RTÉ produces over forty hours of live news and current affairs programming
across its radio and television schedules, within which programme teams and editors make
thousands of editorial calls and judgments.
All editorial staff work to RTÉ’s Journalism Guidelines, which were updated last year. These
provide detailed guidance on a whole range of journalistic issues and are rooted in
overarching editorial principles of trust, accuracy, impartiality, integrity, fairness, public
interest and accountability. RTÉ’s guidelines also reflect and take account of the
requirements in the BAI’s Code of Fairness, Objectivity and Impartiality in News and Current
Prepared under Section 42 of the Broadcasting Act 2009, the BAI’s Code, sets out the rules,
principles and guidance for all broadcasters in relation to fairness, objectivity and
impartiality in news and current affairs programming. This code was most recently updated
in 2013.
In such a dynamic news and current affairs environment inevitably we don’t get everything
right. For the most part we try to quickly correct mistakes either in the programme in
question or soon after in another programme.
The BAI provides very clear guidance for viewers and listeners if they consider a programme
or broadcaster is in breach of any of its codes and they want to make a formal complaint.
RTÉ itself is required to have and has very clear guidance for people who wish to make a
formal complaint regarding any of RTÉ’s output.
Of course, sometimes formal complaints are lodged regarding our programming and
relatively infrequently they are upheld by the BAI. RTÉ received a total of 114 such
complaints in relation to programmes broadcast 2014. Of those just two complaints were
fully upheld, with four partially upheld.
In the case of political parties and Government our editors and programme makers are
constantly in discussions with party and Government representatives, sometimes very
robust discussions, regarding our editorial choices, guests, etc. That permanent tension
between the political system and RTÉ is a healthy thing and one that, I’m sure, is
experienced by other media organisations.
RTÉ very consciously combines a decentralised editorial structure with clear lines of editorial
responsibility and accountability.
At a high level, RTÉ has a number of editorial divisions, namely; News and Current Affairs,
Television and Radio. Each of these divisions has their own editorial structures and systems
with high levels of editorial independence at the individual programme level. Each week the
relevant Managing Director chairs editorial board meetings within his or her division to
review the week past and preview the week coming.
All programme areas in RTÉ submit their plans for the next week to the weekly Corporate
Editorial Board, which is attended by senior editorial representatives from all areas and is
chaired by the Director General, who is RTÉ’s Editor-in-chief. The Corporate Editorial Board
meeting both reviews output and looks ahead.
For the purposes of today’s discussion, I think it is worth going into a little more detail for
members on the editorial structures in the News and Current Affairs Division and how those
structures impact on editorial decision making and coverage.
In relation to News output, the agenda for coverage, or news list, is drawn up daily by the
news editors. This list is informed by material gathered for the news diary of expected
events prepared by the news desk, by forward plans given by programme areas, by
suggestions of possible assignments from the specialist and regional correspondents and by
the news editors’ own judgment. In relation to political coverage, in addition to the political
correspondents and Oireachtas staff, the Political Assignments Editor, Deirdre McCarthy
(who is here today) would also make a significant contribution.
The news list is presented to two main news conferences during the day in the morning and
early afternoon and from those come the story assignments. I usually attend both news
The TV News programme editors and Radio News bulletin editors then select their material
from these assignments throughout the day and in the case of TV often augment it with live
interviews and their own pre-planned feature material. The content for the Radio News
programmes such as Morning Ireland and the News at One is selected by the programmes’
editorial teams - often incorporating material from the central News assignments.
Editorial issues relating to coverage are often reviewed at the morning news conferences
and at a weekly futures meeting.
Television Current Affairs, led by its Managing Editor David Nally (who is here today),
operates as a separately managed unit within the News and Current Affairs division. Its
editorial selections are made by the programme teams within the department (Claire Byrne
Live and Prime Time) and coordinated through the weekly editorial meeting, chaired by me,
which reviews output and discusses future coverage.
RTÉ’s Investigations Unit operates within Television Current Affairs and it leads RTÉ’s
investigative reporting. Such reports are typically aired within Prime Time specials and on
occasion with Radio programmes, such as Today with Sean O’Rourke and Drivetime.
Both the daily Today with Sean O’Rourke and Drivetime programmes and the weekend
programmes; The Marian Finucane Show, Saturday with Claire Byrne, and Sunday with
Miriam on RTÉ Radio 1 are managed by the Head of RTÉ Radio 1, Tom McGuire (who is here
today also). He answers in turn to the Managing Director of Radio who also has similar
editorial responsibility for the current affairs output of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta.
Given the nature of much of the programming on Radio 1 there is daily and weekly
coordination between News and Current Affairs and Radio 1 editorial management.
Similarly, there is coordination, typically at the weekly Corporate Editorial Board, in relation
to current affairs or political items and guests on both the Late Late Show and The Saturday
Night Show and documentary programming.
During election and referendum campaigns RTÉ adopts a more formal structure of editorial
management. An election steering group oversees all output, monitors levels of
representation across programming and deals with complaints and representations.
I think it should be clear to members from what I have described that there is no one single
editorial direction when it comes to RTÉ content.
In terms of news, the story selection has a variety of editorial inputs from a range of
different teams throughout the day.
In relation to programmes, which emanate from any division of RTÉ, programme editors and
teams make their own independent selection of what to feature and prioritise often in
competition with other RTÉ output.
And as I have described, all output is overseen by an editorial structure that - in my view both allows and encourages diversity, editorial debate and challenge.
In my view, while we may from time to time make mistakes, misjudgments or omissions,
such an editorial structure would make it virtually impossible for political bias to be present
across RTÉ’s output.
Thank you Chairman, we would be happy to answer any questions the Committee may