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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

Prime Time’s Dirty “Harry” and its "star" Smithwick witness Toby Harnden – my extraordinary correspondence with RTÉ

In the correspondence below regarding the Smithwick Tribunal, RTÉ’s Prime Time editor Donagh Diamond admits to quoting the wrong programme in his reply to me, describes a discredited witness as a “perfect guide” and is obliged to retract a smear on my journalistic integrity. RTÉ’s compliance officer meanwhile tells me that the Prime Time editor has responded to me “meaningfully, professionally and with courtesy."

I was so startled by this correspondence with RTÉ that I have decided to make its key points public. I will publish the full unedited version at a later date.

(NB As many of you are aware, I am a seasoned journalist and film maker. In 1997, I was awarded both the overall European Journalist of the Year award and also the National Radio and Television category. I have worked for both the BBC and RTÉ as a film maker and journalist.)

“Colluding with the Enemy”

Last month (3rd of December 2013), RTÉ’s Prime Time current affairs programme broadcast its final report, “Colluding with the Enemy”, on the Smithwick Tribunal. The tribunal, was established to investigate a possible Garda (Irish police) link to the murder of two senior RUC officers in 1989. Throughout the length of Prime Time's report, the RUC officers were referred to by their first names “Harry” and “Bob” – RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan.

Notwithstanding the brutal murder of these two RUC officers, as an experienced journalist who has worked for RTÉ and BBC I was unhappy with this report on a number of levels.

Subjectivity replaces objectivity

In all my time as a journalist and film maker no state broadcaster I ever worked for called an armed group, or indeed a regular army “the enemy”, as Prime Time did here. If that bridge is crossed, the report becomes subjective and emotive. Of course, many many contributors to a programme have excoriated armed groups like the IRA or the UVF, and indeed the British Army, but that is not the job of an objective broadcaster. The title, “Colluding with the enemy”, was not quoting anyone in the film report. It was RTÉ’s own description. This never happened in the BBC, in my experience.

The emotive tone of this report was further compounded by the use of personal names, in the film report and in Miriam O’Callaghan’s studio interviews directly afterwards – where again Chief Superintendent Harry Breen was referred to as “Harry”. This never happened in my time in the BBC and would be an extreme exception in such a case.

To be clear, no senior official of the state, political, legal or police – be they alive or dead – is ever called by their first name. Imagine for example, if Justice minister Alan Shatter, who appeared in the studio element of Prime Time’s report, were to be simply called Alan (he wasn't), or say the head of the Garda Síochána Martin Callinane were to be simply be called Martin. This just doesn't happen and, again, RTÉ crossed the line from objective to emotive reporting by taking this approach.

Toby Harnden - dismissed by Smithwick, lauded by Prime Time

I felt that there was a third major problem with this Prime Time report and this was that the evidence of Toby Harnden, who Prime Time had earlier trumpeted as the expert on Smithwick, was summarily dismissed by Judge Smithwick himself. Prime Time simply ignored this important fact. In other words, the large number of people who rely on RTÉ for current affairs and who also paid for this massively expensive report are unaware of this.

On the 18th of December last year, I wrote to RTÉ to voice the above concerns. To be clear, I was not lodging an official complaint and had no wish to do so. In any case, I had been corresponding with David Nally at RTÉ (whom I regard as a serious journalist) vis-à-vis Smithwick for roughly a year before, so I simply sent my comments to him and David in turn passed them on to Prime Time editor Donagh Diamond. I was shocked to the core at the reply that came from him on the 20th of December, a reply copied to most of Prime Time’s staff. I quote directly here:

Diamond, Donogh 20/12/2013

"Dear Mr. Larkin,
Many thanks for your email in relation to our item on the Smithwick Tribunal.
1) We do feel that the title of the item was quite appropriate. The IRA was an illegal armed force operating in the Republic and, as such, it is reasonable to term them an "enemy" of the security forces of the State.
2) It is reasonable to call people by the names they are, or were, generally known by. Chief Superintendent Breen was widely known as Harry.
3) You seem to suggest that Chief Superintendent Breen's role in the Special Branch would somehow help justify his killing, or at least render it less unjustifiable. We do not feel that that is the case.
4) Toby Harnden was interviewed as an informed commentator to help guide the viewer through the story, and we feel he performed that function well."


The wrong Prime Time. The wrong answers

Leave aside the, for me, astonishing fact that in point 1, RTÉ is clearly stating that it views its own perspective and that of the state as being identical; at point 4, Donagh Diamond cites completely the wrong Prime Time report in his reply to me. A clear indication that he had not read my mail properly. Point 4 also displays total unawareness that Smithwick rejected Toby Harnden’s evidence out of hand.

In point 3, Donagh Diamond clearly suggests that I am somehow justifying the murder of RUC officers by raising the lack of reference to RUC Special Branch collusion with loyalist killers in Prime Time’s report. RTÉ’s “Harry” (Chief Superintendent Harry Breen) has been named by a number of sources, including men who served under him, as a key link to the Glenanne Gang and loyalist assassin Robin Jackson. If journalists adopted RTÉ’s policy as stated here, we could never investigate the RUC, or indeed any police force, for fear they might be attacked. Not only are we back in Section 31 land with this argument for censorship, this was a smearing of my integrity, that was then disseminated to others.

RTÉ apologises and decides to call me "Paul"

After my protests, the blatant inaccuracy, and lack of professionalism in quoting the wrong programme (not to speak of common courtesy) in this reply led Donagh Diamond to then make the following apology:

Diamond, Donagh (email address omitted) 02/01/2014

Dear Paul,
My apologies re. Toby Harnden, he was, of course, interviewed on our programme on the Smithwick Tribunal shortly prior to its publication, rather than that broadcast after the report was published.
I had no intention of in any way ‘smearing’ you or your journalistic integrity, but I feel that if we had made the points you suggest we should have made, about victims of murder, in the context of a Tribunal of Inquiry into their murder, the viewer might well have, quite wrongly, of course, felt we were in some way suggesting that these murders were less to be condemned than others.


Again to be clear, I was not arguing that Prime Time should have made a lengthy reference to RUC collusion with loyalist death squads in its Smithwick report. Rather, that this should have been referred to, given what we now know about the RUC (in particular its Special Branch), and also that victims of that collusion also have sensitivities, which are continually ignored by RTÉ. It's my understanding that Miami Showband and Dublin and Monaghan bomb campaigners were horrified at the almost heroic portrayal of Harry Breen.

However, for accuracy's sake, my specific reference to the ruthless murders of these two police officers said this:

“To be clear, the deaths these two police officers faced at the hands of utterly ruthless killers was horrific, but the dastardly collusion of the RUC with loyalist killers must not, therefore, be swept under the table.”

We have slipped back to a Section 31 mentality

My reason for publishing this correspondence which was also cc’d to RTÉ Director Noel Curran, is to highlight the seemingly complete inability of RTÉ to report the Troubles in a fair and accurate manner, where it bothers to raise the issue at all. As far as I am aware, RTÉ has not carried out an investigation into RUC collusion with loyalist death squads since my own film, "Friendly Forces" (a direct quote from a contributor) with reporter Brendan O’Brien in 1995 – a quite staggering statistic. Not least when one considers that the British government effectively disbanded the RUC because it was too sectarian. A key point that RTÉ refuses to look in the eye.

In short, we are back in that Dublin 4 Never Never Land where senior management and staff at RTÉ clearly regard themselves as part of a Dublin 4 state and a (self) censorship system that was supposed to have been dismantled long ago. An RTÉ management, moreover, that feels it has the right to cast crude aspersions of “Provo” upon journalists and film makers who have the temerity to question soft focus portrayals of a discredited force that was tarnished by its own government and in official reports, cf Stevens, Patten and de Silva.

RTÉ tells me it makes no "judgement" or prior assumption about the RUC. It does, at the very least, to the extent that it calls RUC officers by their first names, a courtesy not afforded to other players in the conflict.

RTÉ "Compliance" Postscript:

RTÉ's compliance officer David McKenna has now written to me to give me his view on the above issues. I quote:

"Although Donagh Diamond may not have responded to your satisfaction in this correspondence, in my view he has done so meaningfully, professionally and with courtesy."

I beg seriously to differ.

@Paul Larkin
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Title: Prime Time’s Dirty “Harry” and its "star" Smithwick witness Toby Harnden – my extraordinary correspondence with RTÉ
Date posted: 17 Jan '14 - 14:26
Filed under: General
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