Understanding RTE apology for bias in Corrib gas dispute & role of GSOC


Station’s crime correspondent Paul Reynolds falsely reported that recording of Garda rape conversation was ‘tampered with’

Shell to Sea has revealed that RTÉ is being compelled to broadcast an apology ahead of Wednesday's Six-One and Nine O’Clock TV news programmes, as a result of RTÉ's biased coverage of Shell's attempt to build an experimental gas pipeline and refinery in Erris. In this specific case, RTÉ chose to ignore the facts as explained to them by Shell to Sea around technical issues concerning the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) investigation into the conversation Garda had about threatening to rape two women Shell to Sea campaigners they had arrested in April this year. RTÉ instead reported as fact the false suggestions of Justice Minister Alan Shatter, that part of the recording of the arrest had been deleted. 

The requirement for the RTÉ apology follows a complaint to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) by Jerrie Ann Sullivan, one of the women whose arrest led to a senior Garda and his colleagues recording themselves talking about raping the women who were in their custody. RTE falsely reported that the recording had been tampered with, a claim the BAI investigation found to be "harmful", "inaccurate" and "unfair."

RTÉ was aware of the facts: Paul Reynolds, the Crime Correspondent who produced the story, had talked to Shell to Sea spokesperson Caoimhe Kerins on the day of the story (July 28th) and she explained the situation about the deleted video file, but RTÉ went ahead and broadcast what was effectively a smear and an attack on the campaign and on the people who embarrassed the Gardaí by releasing the 'rape tape'.

The technical details around the deletion of the unrelated and confidential interview recording from the camera are complex. In essence GSOC created confusion by selective reporting and exploiting of the facts in their interim report. A separate video file on the digital camera had been deleted but Jerrie Ann and her university lecturers had explained to GSOC that this was an older, unrelated recording which was covered by the rules of academic confidentiality. GSOC’s interim report not only omitted these concrete explanations but failed to state that the deletion had been notified to them at all. Instead room was found for an explanation of where the recording was sent and even the exact times the deletions were made. All no doubt intended to convey a sense of a secretive action being uncovered when the ‘we had been informed in advance that a file had been deleted and had even been offered a chance to witness the deletion’ would have popped that bubble of spin.

Careless reading

To journalists not reading the interim report closely it sounded, as was certainly intended, that GSOC were saying the recording was tampered with. And to make sure that misunderstanding was reported the Minister For Justice ‘co-incidentally’ repeated the false assertion, while at the same time covering himself by saying he had yet to read the report. As a bit of spin it was stunningly successful as RTE and other media outlets reported that the “tape was tampered with” and so the impression was created in many minds that maybe the 'rape tape' was not what it seemed to be. GSOC succeeded in getting this meme or piece of false information into the public mind, now RTE some months later has been forced to take all the blame.

While the finding of RTE bias in this case is to be welcomed, it represents just a single example of RTÉ's bias in its coverage of the Corrib Gas dispute. As Jerrie Ann Sullivan explained: "RTÉ has been forced to admit it was wrong because, as an MA student, I had the time to write detailed letters to RTÉ and to the BAI, but many people in front-line communities such as those facing Shell in Erris do not have the time to challenge the State broadcaster about every inaccuracy." Even, as here, where the time is found to successfully pursue such complaints the apologies broadcast seldom attract anything like the public attention that the original sensationalist headlines commanded.

This apology from RTÉ follows soon after the related apology that Independent Newspapers were forced to issue in October on the same investigation. As it often the case with such apologies the language is pretty incomprehensible. [Read an explanation]

On that occasion, the Press Ombudsman found that a Sunday Independent article had been "significantly misleading‚" in reporting as fact "a rumour or an unconfirmed report" based on "anonymous Garda sources" and a video of a second and unrelated incident. We carried an extensive article looking at this video and the Garda rumours in the aftermath of the release of the GSOC interim report in July.

Compare & contrast

It is worth recalling at this point the very different way RTÉ covered the initial release by Shell to Sea of the recording of the Gardaí discussing using rape threats to make the woman talk. RTÉ, along with a couple of selected journalists, were provided with the entire recording 24 hours before Shell to Sea released the recording to the general media. Despite this, they not only failed to cover the at all until other media had done so, when they did finally start to cover it they used the almost meaningless phrase "alleged derogatory remark" to describe what the story was about. RTÉ storyalso initially refused to allow Shell to Sea campaigners on air to talk about the story unless they first promised not to use the word 'rape'. It was only some 36 hours after RTÉ had been provided with the recording - over 14 hours after a transcript had appeared in the Irish Times and Newstalk had broadcast the relevant segment - that RTÉ finally felt compelled to broadcast the audio.

Contrast that approach with the carelessness with which RTÉ covered the interim GSOC report, resulting in today's apology; add in the fact that RTÉ have systematically shown bias in their coverage of the Corrib gas pipeline struggle, most often through precisely this method of watering down or failing to broadcast statements from Shell to Sea while covering anonymous rumors from the Gardai, Shell and the government as fact.

Throw in the fact that the O'Reilly media are systematically and openly hostile to Shell to Sea, and you begin to understand why it has proved almost impossible for the campaign to get its message to the Irish public. As pointed out on Irish Oil & Gas “O’Reilly’s company will probably try to bring oil and/or gas ashore on the west coast of Ireland, whether at Bellanaboy (the refinery for the Corrib field) or to a new inland refinery in the heart of a community in Co Kerry or Co Clare. In the latter case, the Corrib project provides a precedent for an inland refinery. Either way, the outcome of the Corrib saga could have a direct impact on the O’Reilly family’s fortunes. Journalists at O’Reilly newspapers who undermine Corrib protesters are – either knowingly or unknowingly – helping to fight their employers’ cause.” 

Almost no one, for instance, is aware that in the last two months, while Shell are trying to strip hundreds of thousands of tones of peat from the supposedly protected shores of the Sruwaddacon Bay is designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) there have been almost constant road blockades and site occupations that have slowed their work to a crawl. While RTÉ could find the time to inaccurately headline rumors, where is there coverage of these protests? Why have they imposed a blackout on such coverage, coverage of what has remained one of the biggest stories of people in struggle in the last decade. Films like 'The Pipe', that have been made covering aspects of the Shell to Sea struggle, have won awards at film festivals across the globe, yet the state broadcaster has been almost silent except, as we have seen, when the story has become to big too ignore unless you want to look like the old Soviet era propaganda paper Pravda.

Added post broadcast: Below is the apology as broadcast, graphically as unengaging as it could be, so technical so as to be impossible to understand and not really apologising for misleading people that the deletion effected the arrest recording.  Shameful stuff once more from the state broadcaster.

Why send a Crime Correspondent to a political protest?

It is significant that the two journalists whose stories have been found to be biased are both crime correspondents. Crime Correspondents have a peculiar relationship with police forces as their careers depend to a high degree on police support. To be successful they need to get the story from the police ahead of other journalists and they need to get off the record briefings about what is really going on. The most hostile and biased media reporting on Shell to Sea has all been done by Crime Correspondents, Paul William's material has if anything been even worse than the two discussed here.

Any media outlet that sends a Crime Correspondent to cover a political protest is suspect, the fact that such journalists need to maintain a close working relationship with the Garda is widely known. This makes it almost impossible for such a correspondent to do anything other than report the Garda line on protests, to do otherwise would be to risk wrecking their future relationship with the police. So why would any editor consider them to be the right person to cover a Shell to Sea story given the long and difficult relationship between the Garda and the campaign? What sort of story might they expect them to submit?

Of course editors aren’t stupid. What we are seeing here is not so much an example of bad journalism as the inevitable consequences of the interaction of money & power in the mass media. When the same state that is imposing the Corrib project controls many of the TV and radio stations and when many other media outlets are owned by the same family that owns the major indigenous gas & oil exploration company what other outcome might we expect?

RTÉ not the only ones to blame

Having established the overwhelming bias in RTE's coverage of the Shell to Sea struggle let us return to the other major villain in the piece, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC). Shell to Sea spokesperson Caoimhe Kerins explains that "while RTE's coverage was blatantly false and harmful, some responsibility must also rest with the Garda Ombudsman. Its interim report was highly selective and misleading and was a clear attempt to undermine the women who brought the rape comments recording to public attention. This decision by the BAI, and the recent ruling by the Press Ombudsman against the Sunday Independent, have helped to expose the way in which the Garda and Garda Ombudsman use spin to undermine people who dare to criticise Garda"

Throughout the Shell to Sea struggle GSOC have played the cynical role of re-assuring the media, and through them the general public, that nothing was seriously wrong with the policing of the Corrib project. Media pieces about policing complaints will again and again reference the claim that GSOC have looked at over 100 complaints but that the DPP has claimed there is not enough evidence to prosecute any. As of October 2009 GSOC had in fact only sent 7 files to the DPP, generally in cases where outrageous Garda abuse had been captured on film and failure to do so would have removed all credibility.

For these reasons, when Shell to Sea held a press conference a few days after the release of the Garda rape threat recording, they backed MEP Paul Murphy's call for a "genuinely independent investigation involving residents, community and trade union organisations, into the actions and behaviour of An Garda Síochána in the policing of protests in Rossport." No one involved in the campaign believed there is any chance of justice being found in GSOC but all the same the nature of the interim report was shocking. With any reasonable knowledge of the facts it is impossible to read it and see anything other than a very deliberate attempt to mislead the media and Irish citizens through the introduction of red herrings (the deletion of the unrelated interview) and the smearing of the women at the centre of the story along with the academics who supported them.

In fact while the report open with saying “no evidence of a criminal offence” being committed by any Garda has been found it ends with a threat to prosecute people for obstructing the enquiry and threats were made directly to some of the academics involved. Or in other words the only people presented as possibly facing prosecution from the Garda rape threat investigation are the academics, S2S activists and solicitors who were either the subjects of the conversation or supported the subjects!

In understanding the real role of GSOC, it is significant that last week the Department of Justice announced two new appointments to the GSOC's three-person commission. One of these is a former RTE journalist, Kieran Fitzgerald who since 2002 "has been engaged as a lobbyist and consultant specialising in environmental and media issues". What are we to imagine are the needed skills he brings to the role? The rather obvious answer being the way the interim report demonstrated how GSOC is 'all about the optics' and so having someone whose skills lie in media spin and with a network of media contacts will obviously be useful. The other appointment was Simon O’Brien, deputy chief inspector of the Garda Síochána Inspectorate and former territorial policing commander at the Metropolitan Police Service in London. So the pattern of police investigating police and journalists spinning the results to the media appears set to continue. 

WORDS: Andrew Flood