By Anthony Sheridan
I have submitted the following complaint to RTE regarding the broadcaster’s failure to abide by its editorial principles.
To Whom It May Concern:
Please find complaint submitted for breach of Section 3, RTEs Editorial Principles – Trust, Accuracy and Impartiality.
This complaint consists of two parts:
The Taoiseach Michael Martin, Tanaiste Leo Varadkar, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee and other Fianna Fail and Fine Gael politicians have accused Sinn Fein of operating a strategy of exploiting the legal system by taking or threatening to take defamation actions in order to hamper investigative journalism and stifle political debate.
Taoiseach Michael Martin: Sinn Féin was placing restraints on freedom of speech because people feel that they could be sued or threatened by legal threats.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe: Sinn Féin’s use of the courts is having a chilling effect on democracy and the free media.
Tanaiste Leo Varadkar: The strategic use of legal action to try and stifle debate is worrying.
No evidence has been provided by these politicians to verify their claims that Sinn Fein is engaged in a strategy of using the courts to undermine democracy and free speech.
In other words, all the accusations against Sinn Fein are hearsay, that is, information received from other people which cannot or has not been substantiated.
Professional journalists and media outlets, particularly national broadcasters, usually dismiss such unverified claims until such time as at least one reliable source is identified and quoted.
RTE has been reporting the claims without the usual caution to the public that there is no evidence to back up the charges.
By reporting the story without a source or verifiable evidence RTE is in breach of its own editorial principles of trust, accuracy and impartiality [Section 3, RTEs Editorial Principles – Trust, Accuracy and Impartiality].
This is particularly relevant to Section 3 [3.4] on the matter of sources which states:
3.4 Sources of Information We normally identify sources of information and significant contributors, and provide their credentials, so that our audiences can judge their status. • We normally require two sources before we broadcast something as a fact. • We must be very confident that the information is accurate and the source is reliable if we have to rely on a single source. • We should acknowledge when we have been unable to verify material sufficiently and attribute the information.
This complaint is specifically centred on a question put to Sinn Fein TD Eoin O’Broin by Sarah McInerney on Drivetime on Monday 17 October last.
Sarah McInerney: I want to ask you about comments by Leo Varadkar today saying that he’s aware of at least three Fine Gael politicians who have received legal letters from Sinn Fein and he questioned if Sinn Fein was underwriting the financial cost of those legal actions saying if they were it was a strategy to stifle public debate.
I just wanted to ask you – does SF underwrite the financial cost of legal actions that their members take against other people or other organisations?
The following issues of trust, accuracy and impartiality arise from this question:
One: RTE/McInerney failed to state if they had asked Mr. Varadkar for the names of the Fine Gael TDs to confirm the source.
Two: RTE/McInerney failed to state if they had verified the claim that Sinn Fein may be underwriting the financial cost of claims taken by party members.
Three: RTE/McInerney failed to state if they had verified the accusation that Sinn Fein was engaged in a strategy aimed at undermining investigative journalism and public debate.
Four: RTE/McInerney did not, at any point while putting the question, utter a caution to listeners in respect to the accusations such as ‘alleged’ or ‘ claims were made without evidence’.
This failure by RTE/McInerney to abide by the most fundamental professional standards of broadcasting is a clear breach of RTEs Editorial Principles of Trust, Accuracy and Impartiality
The leader of Sinn Fein, Mary Lou McDonald, is currently suing RTE for defamation. That action forms an element of the unverified, unsourced accusations made by the above named Fine Gael and Fianna Fail politicians against Sinn Fein.
For RTE/McInerney to engage in questioning a Sinn Fein member on the basis of the unverified, unsourced accusation that Sinn Fein is underwriting the financial cost of legal actions by its members while the leader of Sinn Fein is currently engaged in a legal action against RTE is reckless and unprofessional.
Such interference by RTE/McInerney in a live legal case involving RTE could reasonably be seen as an attempt to influence the case in favour of RTE.
Such interference is a clear breach of RTEs own editorial principles of trust, accuracy and impartiality [Section 3, RTEs Editorial Principles – Trust, Accuracy and Impartiality].
7 November 2022