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Mick Finnegan | 21.04.2003 11:14

Right of reply refused by Irish radio (RTE) after Justice Minister allegations (audio 5 mins). Anti-war activist supports murder, gassing, butchery says unchallenged McDowell. COmplaint to Irish Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

Untitled - mp3

RTE refuses Right of Reply to Anti-war activist accused of supporting, gassing civilians, machine-gunning opponents and butchering human beings.

Text of correspondence with RTE and complaint to Broadcasting Complaints Commission follow. Latest first – letters can be read from the end for continuity.

RTE is accused of violating its duty to be "objective", "impartial" and "fair to all interests" (Section 18 of Broadcasting Act).
To: Broadcasting Complaints Commission
Re BCC 2003/133; BCC 2003/134
Dear Anne O’ Brien
I do not accept Mr Feeney’s explanation (March 31) for rejecting my complaint (BCC 2003/ 134).
Peter Feeney is factually incorrect in his description of the interview in question. While he mentions accusations of Marxism, Stalinism and anti-Americanism, he fails to mention that Minister McDowell said that those against the war support gas attacks on civilians, murdering opponents with machine guns and butchering people generally. He also said they were trying to perpetuate Saddam Hussein’s rule and associated them with those who appeased Hitler – another leader who gassed people.
Also, Mr Boyd Barrett is not, as McDowell asserted, a “trade union official”. There is nothing wrong with having such a position, but it is just another fact he got wrong that could have been checked by asking Mr Boyd Barrett for a response.
Mr Feeney is also wrong and misleading when he writes concerning Mr Hooper’s similar complaint (BCC 2003/. 133) that Minister McDowell’s smears were “toward the end of the interview”. This implies that relatively less time was given to the issues arising out of the proposed war in Iraq.
That is not true.
The interview (excluding the studio intro) lasted 10 minutes. Minister McDowell talked about issues arising out of the Iraq situation for five minutes and 12 seconds. The Shannon situation segment lasted 36 seconds, with the rest of the interview dealing with Mr Boyd Barrett and his antiwar colleagues lasting 4 minutes and 36 seconds. The majority of the interview was concerned with the Iraq situation. As the interview concluded with Minister McDowell’s remarks on the immorality of those opposed to the war in Iraq, these, and the smears that preceded them, were the lasting impressions left in listeners’ minds.
I characterise Minister McDowell’s accusations against those opposed to the then proposed war in Iraq as a ‘McCarthy’ type smear that tried to isolate those who organise the movement from the bulk of the population through character assassination and by attempting to explicitly link them to mass murder, gas attacks and appeasement of the type directed toward Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. I set out in detail below why what was said indicated that Mr Boyd Barrett was due a response.
1. The only person named by Minister McDowell in his attack on those who are behind the anti-war movement was Richard Boyd Barrett.
2. Mr McDowell invited RTE to interview those opposed to war to explain what position they might have had on the war in Kuwait.
3. Mr Boyd Barrett is not a “trade union official”. Mr Boyd Barrett should have been allowed to correct this factual error.
4. In his diatribe Mr McDowell referred to “people who were outright Stalinists until the Berlin Wall fell” in the anti-war movement. This characterisation does not describe Mr Boyd Barrett’s views now or at any time in the past. It is again factually incorrect. It is a serious charge that Mr Boyd Barrett should have been allowed to answer.
5. The Minister referred to “a hardcore of Marxists and post-Marxists who are deeply bitter and deeply hostile to America”. As the Minister said that Mr Boyd Barrett was one of these Marxists, he should have been permitted a reply.
6. The Minister said that “people who see themselves on the left of the political fringe … support a man who butchered his own people, gassed them, who took out people at this party conference and machine gunned them in the yard outside. He said they see Saddam Hussein as “a champion of small nations against large nations”. The Minister said he saw this as “grotesque”.
This is perhaps the most “grotesque” charge put by Minister McDowell – it was left unchallenged by the interviewer and Mr Boyd Barrett, as the person associated by name with Mr McDowell’s charges, should have been permitted to reply.
7. The Minister said that anti-war organisers were like those who appeased Hitler. In conjunction with accusations of support for someone who gasses opponents this charge should have been permitted an answer.
8. The Minister said that “perpetuating Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq is not a moral cause, it is a deeply immoral cause.” Mr Boyd Barrett should have been allowed to respond to the accusation that he is a) supporting Saddam Hussein and or b) immoral.
The interviewer did not play the ‘Devil’s advocate” position mentioned in RTE programme guidelines. He left all of Mr McDowell’s extreme attacks on the moral and political character of those organising the antiwar movement unchallenged. This would have been acceptable had there been a right of response exercised. The Minster’s remarks, which deal with accusations of support for mass murder and gas attacks go well beyond what Mr Feeney refers to as “acceptable political rhetoric”
I contrast the treatment of Mr Boyd Barrett with that of Enda Kenny (Detailed in my letter of complaint to the Commission). RTE argue that Mr Boyd Barrett is not due a right of response because he has appeared a number of times on RTE. I am not aware that he has been asked if he supports gassing people or to machine gunning political opponents, if he supported the Berlin Wall, if he is a Stalinist, or even if he would care to correct the mistaken description that he is a “trade union official”.
Mr Kenny has much more opportunity to appear on RTE programmes than Mr Boyd Barrett, yet RTE took deliberate steps to ensure that Mr Kenny or an FG spokesperson was available to comment on Kevin Myers extreme accusations about his position on the war in Iraq (accusations which were milder than those of Minister McDowell toward Mr Boyd Barrett). Do members of the Commission seriously believe that RTE would dream of allowing a string of attacks on Mr Kenny, without offering him an immediate opportunity to reply? What is RTE sauce for Mr Kenny, should also be sauce for Mr Barrett.
RTE have not shown that there has been any balance afforded to Mr Boyd Barrett in relation to the extreme personal attacks directed at his good name and character by the Minister for Justice and broadcast by RTE. If the terms fairness, impartiality and objectivity mean anything, they should, at the very least, mean an opportunity to clear your name of association with murder.
Minister McDowell’s remarks went far beyond acceptable political debate. He should have been challenged assertively by the interviewer and the person he named, Mr Boyd Barrett, should have been permitted a response.
Finally, although it has nothing to do with the matter at hand, I am not a supporter of Mr Boyd Barrett's political views, I do support ethical behaviour in journalism and a right to respond to extreme allegations from a government minister broadcast by RTE against a named person.
Please confirm by email reply that this response will be given to each individual member of the Commission.
Yours sincerely,
Mick Finnegan

Subject: Complaint (and emails to and from RTE)
Date: Wed, 26 Mar 2003 14:45:02 +0000
Dear Broadcasting Complaints Commission,
I wish to complain about an RTE Radio One broadcast on February 23,2003. I have been in correspondence with RTE since that date by email (11 letters back and forth – all copied below).
My complaint is that RTE allowed the Minister for Justice to launch a politically motivated attack (relating to opposition to the then proposed war in Iraq) on a named person, Richard Boyd Barett, in a pre-recorded broadcast and then refused to allow the latter a right of response. RTE could have asked Mr Boyd Barrett for a response on the programme in question (as the item was pre-recorded) or on subsequent news programmes.

In its defence RTE has asserted that it achieves programme balance over a number of programmes, but RTE was unable (though I invited them to do so) to point out when Mr Boyd Barrett was permitted to respond to the specific allegation in question. The only instance that RTE could point to in correspondence with me was a very short interview with Mr Boyd Barrett on February 28th on Morning Ireland.
However, RTE itself admits that the interview dealt with completely separate matter (I heard the short item, which concerned Mr Boyd Barrett’s attitude to another organisation’s proposal to attack a fence surrounding Shannon Airport, an action Mr Boyd Barrett’s organisation chose not to engage in.)
RTE pointed me in the direction of its guidelines for programme makers and to programme balance being achieved “over a reasonable period”. In this case RTE was unable to point out when the interview with the Minister for Justice was going to be ‘balanced’. I point to an occasion when RTE adopted a correct procedure for achieving balance in my letter of March 20th to Peter Feeney of RTE. A similar type allegation was made against the FG leader, Enda Kenny, by Kevin Myers. RTE immediately asked FG and MR Kenny for an immediate response in answer to Mr Myers’ allegation. As I point out, it would have been regarded as outrageous if RTE had not permitted FG/Enda Kenny a right of response. This was good ethical journalism and broadcasting.
I am apprehensive that RTE might try to argue that this is an issue of balance in relation to coverage of the war in Iraq in general. If so, I reject such a possible assertion on RTE’s part. This is about achieving balance in relation to a specific allegation in a specific programme about a named individual. The allegation was made by the Minster for Justice and concerned ‘McCarthy’ type assertions that an individual and his organisation was a supporter of a brutal foreign dictator, and other matters. RTE is obliged as a consequence of Section 18 of the Broadcasting Act to allow a named person who is the subject of serious political or other allegations a right of response. RTE did not allow this in this case. This was not good ethical journalism and broadcasting. It was the opposite.
Yours sincerely,

Mick Finnegan
Subject: Complaint - attn Peter Feeney
Date: Thu, 20 Mar 2003 11:14:25 +0000
Dear Peter Feeney,
Yesterday in the Irish Times Kevin Myers launched a trenchant attack on Enda Kenny, the leader of the Fine Gael Party, accusing him of being associated politically with the Iraqi dictator. Today, the Irish Times allowed Mr Kenny a right of reply.
Today on Marian Finnucane's programme, Myers was interviewed on the subject and an FG spokesperson was allowed to respond on air to Mr Myers' allegations. Furthermore, because Enda Kenny was not available at short notice today Marian announced that he would be available to respond in tomorrow's programme.

I presume you agree that it would have been outrageous, had RTE interviewed Mr Myers and had made no attempt to contact the Fine Gael party and Mr Kenny for its response. As I outline above, RTE followed the correct ethical procedure.
My complaint relates to a failure on RTE's part to follow the correct procedure outlined above in relation to an interview with the Minister for Justice on the This Week programme on 23 Feb 2003. Mr McDowell accused a named person, Mr Boyd Barrett, of being in agreement with the Iraqi dictator and accused the anti-war organisation Mr Boyd Barrett leads of having a similar position.
Other allegations were also aimed at Mr Boyd Barrett and his organisation. At no stage did RTE attempt to contact Mr Boyd Barrett to ask him if he wished to respond to Mr McDowell's very serious charges, which were not challenged by the RTE interviewer. I wrote to RTE by email immediately after the interview (see copy below).

Eleven letters have passed back and forth between me and Michael Good of the RTE Newsroom, in an attempt by me to get a definitive answer (copied below).
In his last letter Mr Good admitted that RTE has no intention of interviewing Mr Boyd Barrett to allow him a right of reply to the Minister for Justice's recorded allegations (the Feb 28 Morning Ireland interview Mr Good mentions had nothing to do with the McDowell allegations - as Mr Good himself admits. It was quite a short, sharp interview on Mr Boyd Barrett's attitude to another group's intention to attack a fence around Shannon Airport.) Mr Good makes reference to RTE achieving balance over a period of time, but on this particular issue RTE refuses to apply this important ethical standard.

In my opinion this (in)action by RTE in not allowing a right of response is in direct contravention of RTE's guidelines (as I outline below, March 4 and 7) and the provisions of the Broadcasting Act relating to fairness, impartiality and objectivity.

Yours sincerely,
Mick Finnegan

To: Mick Finnegan
Subject: Re: Clarity
Date: Fri, 14 Mar 2003 14:40:46 +0000
Dear Mr Finnegan, Thank you for your emails. Mr Boyd Barrett was interviewed on Morning Ireland on Friday, Feb 28th. This was not in direct response to the Minister for Justice's interview on the This Week programme but as part of ongoing coverage of the issue. I will not be entering into further correspondence with you but, as I suggested before, you are quite entitled to take up any concerns you have with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Best wishes,
Michael Good

Subject: Clarity
Date: Mon, 10 Mar 2003 13:28:00 +0000
Dear Mr Good,
For clarity's sake could I point out to you that I will only be in a position to act on your suggestion that I take a complaint to either Mr Feeney or to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission when you confirm whether a responding interview with Mr Boyd Barrett was either conducted (when?), will not be conducted, or will be conducted at some point (again, when?). In relation to the latter point, you will need to define what the guidelines mean in practice in relation to programme balance being achieved over a number of programmes within a "reasonable period". How long is a "reasonable period"?
If you do not provide this information within 48 hours (if you require more time to get the information, please let me know by return), which is on the basis of a reasonable request from me, I will take it that you are refusing to allow Mr Boyd Barrett to respond to the Minister for Justice's serious allegations that mentioned him by name and the organisation he speaks for. On that clear basis I will be in a position to make a complaint (or not, depending on your answer).
Yours sincerely,
Mick Finnegan

----- Original Message -----
From: "Mick Finnegan" Date: Fri, 07 Mar 2003 17:38:22 +0000

Subject: Re: RTE legal and ethical obligations - response to Michael
Good >
Dear Mr Good,
The argument in relation to Liz O'Donnell allegations was not circular. Ed Mulhall admitted implicitly that RTE was wrong to deny Sinn Fein the right to put forward a spokesperson of its choice in answer to Liz O'Donnell's allegations.
RTE does not have a right to dictate to an organisation who may or may not speak for it, when RTE is obliged to invite that organisation on air in response to broadcast allegations.
In this case also there is no circularity. To demonstrate this I point out that there is a simple question you have not answered:
Your assertion that RTE might at some stage do a balancing interview is not so much circular as completely vague and non-specific. Even your guidelines mention a requirement for an interview within a reasonable period. I note that you choose not to directly respond to my email quoting the guidelines.
The only reason you do not answer these questions, it seems to me, is because your actions are not driven by public service and journalistic ethics, but by power relations in this society. It demonstrates, at the very least, an absence of impartiality.
If you could indicate that you will not or cannot answer the very direct question above, I will decide whether to take the matter elsewhere. Please reply at your earliest convenience.
Yours sincerely > Mick Finnegan

----- Original Message ----- >
From: > Date: Fri, 07 Mar 2003 12:52:33 +0000 >
To: Mick Finnegan > Subject: Re: RTE legal and ethical obligations
- response to Michael Good > > >
Dear Mr Finnegan,
I am not inclined to respond in detail to your questions and become embroiled in the kind of circular arguement you have already engaged in with my colleagues Shane McElhatten and Ed Mulhall. You clearly feel that RTE has breached Section 18 of the Broadcasting Act in the This Week interview with Michael McDowell. You are quite entitled to make a complaint to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission at PO Box 913, Dublin 2. You could alternatively raise the matter with Peter Feeney, who is in charge of RTE's complaints procedures.
Yours sincerely, Michael Good
Managing Editor, News, > > RTE

Subject: RTE legal and ethical obligations - response to Michael Good
Date: Sun, 02 Mar 2003 11:41:32 +0000
Dear Mr Good,
Thank you for your reply. I make two points and ask for clarification on a third.
1. Since the Minister for Justice made specific and serious
allegations on RTE against a named individual, Mr Boyd Barrett, you are obliged to ask Mr Boyd Barrett for his response and to invite him to broadcast that response.
2. Since the interview was recorded, you had foreknowledge that Mr Boyd Barrett was the subject of serious allegations and therefore had the time to ask Mr Boyd Barrett for his response, and therefore the time in which to arrange an immediate broadcast of that response.
3. Are you replying for the 'This Week' programme specifically and assuring me that a response from Mr Boyd Barrett will appear at some future unspecified date? Or are you replying on behalf of RTE news and current affairs programmes generally and assuring me that at some unspecified point in the future Mr Boyd Barrett will be allowed to respond on air to the Minister for Justice's allegations. Please clarify.
Observation: Your obligation to fairness, objectivity and
impartiality obliges you to allow persons who are the subject of allegations broadcast by RTE to be in a position to respond on RTE in a timely manner. Your statement that you have "no specific plans" to interview Mr Boyd Barrett on this matter is unsatisfactory, unethical, and contrary to provisions of the Broadcasting Act. Please respond in relation to the question I ask in point 3, the observations I make on the recorded nature of the interview and your obligation to allow a named person the opportunity to respond on air.
Please also inform me in what capacity in RTE you are writing to me.
Yours sincerely, Mick Finnegan

Subject: Fw: RTE legal and ethical obligations - response to Michael
Date: Tue, 04 Mar 2003 17:
Dear Michael Good,
I have checked out the guidelines and as far as I can see RTE's action in not allowing Mr Boyd Barrett an answering interview is outside the spirit of the guidelines. In particular: "Since the 1976 Act fairness, objectivity and impartiality may be achieved in a series of related broadcasts provided the broadcasts are transmitted within a reasonable period." I believe I used the phrase "in a timely manner" which is not that different in this context from "within a reasonable period".
Your reply to me did not indicate when the answering interview with Mr Boyd Barrett would take place. You explicitly stated that there are "no specific plans" to invite him for interview at all on the This Week programme. If you don't have the specific plan to allow him to respond to Minister McDowell's serious allegations, who does in RTE? I believe we have passed "within a reasonable period" at this stage.
I stick to my point below that your awareness that Mr McDowell had made serious allegations in his recorded interview meant that the fairest way of allowing a response was to permit Mr Boyd Barrett to broadcast it on the same programme. If that was not possible it might have been reasonable to allow Mr Boyd Barrett to respond on the next available news programme, on Morning Ireland the following morning, or on the following day's News at One.
To delay the interview to this point is unfair and unreasonable on RTE's part. Another part of the guidelines state: "When an interview is taking place with only one side in a debate represented the presenter may put competing viewpoints to the interviewee. The devil’s advocate role is clearly recognised as a legitimate and, at times, necessary role for presenters." This did not happen, For example, the presenter did not challenge Minister McDowell's assertion that Mr Boyd Barrett and his organisation were supporters of Saddam Hussein.
I believe, I am still due a considered response to my email of Sunday March 2nd below and that Mr Boyd Barrett is due an opportunity to respond to Minister McDowell's allegations against him. At this stage, I suggest the fairest way to arrange it is on This Week.
Yours sincerely Mick Finnegan


Subject: Re: Fw: Attn Head of News - please forward
Date: Mon, 03 Mar 2003 13:30:02 +0000
Dear Michael Good, Thanks for the very prompt response and the info. What are the chances of a response to the email I sent yesterday (Sunday March 2nd, 2003)?
Your sincerely, Mick Finnegan

----- Original Message -----
From: Date: Mon, 03 Mar 2003 11:51:54 +0000
To: Mick Finnegan Subject: Re: Fw: Attn Head of News - please forward
Dear Mr Finnegan, The RTE Guidelines for programme makers are available on the RTE web site.
Yours sincerely, Michael

----- Original Message -----
From: "Mick Finnegan"
Date: Mon, 03 Mar 2003 10:17:01 +0000 > >
Subject: Attn Head of News - please forward >
Dear Head of News, Please supply me with a copy of your editorial guidelines to staff, dealing specifically with the right of named persons or organisations, who are subject of allegations broadcast by RTE, to have an answering response broadcast by RTE. Email delivery would be preferable. However, if you need to send a hard copy please post it to my home address at your earliest convenience. If you have any difficulty fulfilling this request, please explain why that might be the case.
Yours sincerely, Mick Finnegan

----- Original Message -----
From: Michael Good
Date: Fri, 28 Feb 2003 16:05:42 +0000
To: Mick Finnegan
Dear Mr Finnegan, I have been asked to reply to your email dated 23/2/03. We had no specific plans at present to interview Mr Boyd Barrett following the This Week programme. Balance is achieved in a range of programmes over a period of time. The interview with Michael McDowell was recorded.
Michael Good

Subject: Attn Head of News
Date: Sun, 23 Feb 2003 13:20:07 +0000
Dear Head of News,
In the light of Michael McDowell's allegations against Mr Boyd Barrett on today's 1pm radio news programme, please tell me if and when you plan to allow the latter a right to respond. Please also tell me if the interview was live or recorded.
Yours sincerely,
Mick Finnegan

Mick Finnegan
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