Will journalists accept responsibility for false reporting, and apologise?
For years I’ve watched the career of Judge Paul Carney of the High Court. For some reason, he seems to have been there forever. Probably because he’s allocated many of the more complex, high-profile cases. I often wondered how he could sleep at night, his mind forever mulling over the raw details of broken lives and trying to balance the multiplicities of rights and entitlements into a fair judgement. I wouldn’t want to have his responsibility.
Most of the time Carney seems to get it exactly right but recently he got it very wrong. It was the case of Fiona Doyle who had been sexually abused by her father, Patrick O’Brien, for years. Carney sentenced him to 12 years in prison but then suspended 9 years of the sentence and granted bail for the remaining 3 years. This meant that O’Brien walked free from court.
The predictable outrage of the next few days was brought to an end when Carney apologised for getting it wrong, expressed profound regret for the distress he had caused Fiona Doyle, accepted that his judgement was inappropriate and withdrew the bail. O’Brien is now in jail.
What was refreshing about Carney’s apology was that there was no self-serving element to it. He got it wrong. He held up his hands. He apologised. And in doing so he enhanced his reputation.
There are apologies and apologies in it, of course. Sometimes in court criminals apologise profusely not because they’re sorry but because they believe (or have been told) that it will help secure an advantage for them. And sometimes too apologies happen because people are forced to make them. Like Lance Armstrong, in that self-serving and unconvincing ‘confession’ on Oprah. Or the RTE apology to Fr Kevin Reynolds, when eventually they were cornered into taking responsibility for defaming him in a Prime Time Investigates programme. The apology was read at breakneck speed and served to compound the offence because it was clear that RTE, using this tactic, was seeking to minimise its importance. No one was surprised when they were forced to re-issue a more respectful apology.
In retrospect part of the reason why the Reynolds case had such a devastating effect on RTE’s credibility was the effort they themselves made to evade responsibility for their failures. If they had behaved as Judge Carney they would have retained more authority and salvaged a bit more of their reputation.
Part of the difficulty is that media people don’t want to admit that they’ve got it wrong. It isn’t just evidence of their lack of professionalism or competence but also because conceding they’ve got it wrong is taken to damage their status and undo the ideology or agenda that they strive to further or defend.
A recent case of this was a Catholic newspaper that quoted ‘senior Vatican sources’ to the effect that there was no question of Fr Tony Flannery facing excommunication, that he couldn’t be excommunicated because the law of the Church didn’t allow for it and that the case hinged on whether or not Flannery accepted the Church’s teaching on the nature of the priesthood.
The story was an effort to torpedo publicity from a Dublin press conference where Flannery said he was ‘threatened with excommunication from the Catholic Church for suggesting that, in the future, women might become priests and calling for this and other matters to be open for discussion’. However, in an effort to undo the effectiveness of Flannery’s position, the paper had lost the run of itself because it got things spectacularly wrong:
(i) an extract from the letter from the Congregation of the Doctrine indicating that the ‘threat’ was there in black and white was published on the website of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP);
(ii) experts in church law made it clear that the Church can and does excommunicate; and
(iii) evidence was produced that indicated that Flannery’s faith in the origins of priesthood and the Church, far from being a problem, had been resolved to the satisfaction of Cardinal Levada of the CDF last June!
So will that paper, that so conspicuously lauds everything ‘Catholic’, apologise for getting things exactly wrong? Don’t hold your breath! Because such reporting is not about addressing fairly the issues of the day but about confronting at every turn forces that they imagine are not as authentically ‘Catholic’ as the version they so self-consciously propagate. So even though a report has been shown to be inaccurate or untrue they will keep repeating it – as they do again this week – in an effort to pretend that it has substance.
Such ideologically-driven journalism lacks intellectual credibility; it consistently refuses to accept responsibility for its mistakes, unless forced to do so for commercial purposes in a court of law; and it compounds injustice on injustice by repeating stories that have been shown (and that they know) to be untrue.
One particular Catholic paper has consistently opposed the ACP from its inception. It sneered at the ACP’s early efforts to establish itself by continually underlining the fact that the ACP represented just 10% of Irish priests – even though the paper itself had a readership of about .001% of Irish Catholics. (When the ACP membership figures crept up from 10% to 20% and to 25% of Irish priests and then went over 1000, that particular line of comment was discontinued.)
A commercial enterprise, it prides itself on presenting an authentic version of Catholicism, while at the same time accepting an unapologetic bias in its reporting; and on the other hand it rings priests in parishes asking them to help them sell more copies of their dismal paper. They won’t win any prizes for the quality of their journalism but they deserve an Oscar for the brassiest of bass necks in Irish journalism.