From Irish Political Review: September 2007

Press Freedom: The Right To Misrepresent?

Cathal O'Shannon's sensationalist television documentary, Ireland's Nazis, which was broadcast by RTE, was the subject of complaint by Mrs. Clissman with regard to its presentation of her husband, Helmut Clissman, as a Nazi war-criminal, although he had not been charged with war crimes, still less found guilty.
RTE pleaded in defence of its broadcast that—

"the programme did not include any false statements about Helmut Clissman and that an offer to participate in the programme had been made to a representative of the family, but had not been accepted. On this point it is RTE's view that the inclusion of an interview in the programme with a representative of the Clissman family was not necessary for the programme to be fair to Mr. Clissman or his family."

It then entered the explanation that:

"the documentary was in two parts; the first part dealt with people who were war criminals who came to Ireland after the war, the second part dealt with other people who had participated in some way with the German forces during the war, but were not necessarily war criminals. Helmut Clissman's story was told in the second part" (from Broadcasting Complaints Commission website).

In this pleading, as in the programme, the distinction between people who were war criminals and people who were not war criminals is effectively abolished.

A defence pleading was also entered by David Farrell on behalf of Tile Films, the company that made the programme, arguing that—

"their portrayal of Helmut Clissman was fair and accurate and should not have left the audience with the impression that he was a war criminal".

We doubt that anybody who watched the programme in a receptive state of mind, and who was not otherwise informed, would be left with any impression but that Clissman was a war criminal.

The misrepresentation of fact by means of atmospheric context was so blatant that the Complaints Commission upheld Mrs. Clissman's complaint:

"On viewing the broadcast material, the Commission was of the opinion by reason of the context in which reference was made to Mr. Clissman, that the impression was created that Mr. Clissman was a Nazi War criminal. At no stage in the broadcast was his treatment adequately separated from that afforded others who were the subject of the programme. There was no clarification made that he was not a war criminal. The Commission acknowledges that there was no claim made in the course of the broadcast that he was a criminal. However, in the context of the overall programme, a viewer could reasonably have assumed that Mr. Clissman was a war criminal… The Commission upheld the complaint on this basis."

Tile Films, while claiming that if it did not give the impression that Clissman was a war criminal, hinted that it might have done so by use of "extensive material available from British and American intelligence". This amounts to an attempt to justify the impression which it denied giving. As far as we know, it has not published this material which it did not use but which it considers relevant to its defence of its misrepresentation of Clissman.

RTE said that—

"ultimately what Ms. Clissman wanted was that the programme would make no reference to Helmut Clissman. This could not be agreed to."

Since the programme was in substance about war criminals, and RTE admitted that Clissman was not a war criminal, why could it not be agreed to? Perhaps because RTE itself was taken in by the slick editing and did not realise in time that Clissman was being misrepresented.

Tile Films says that Cathal O'Shannon phoned Inge Clissman to ask for a representative of the family to take part in the programme but failed to get through. Some months later Inge Clissman phoned the producers and said—

"she would consider it if she had some editorial control on how the interview was used. They pointed out that they could not agree to any editorial input or control and their offer of an interview on this basis was declined by Ms Clissman."

Editorial independence, you see! Editors cannot forgo their right of misrepresentation.

Freedom of the press etc. would be a fine thing if we were all litigious millionaires like Albert Reynolds and could meet these powerful media institutions on something like equal terms on a level battlefield.

A release form of the kind which people being interviewed for RTE documentaries must sign before they are interviewed shows what editorial independence means. The document resembles the Official Secrets Act in Britain. And it requires you to give the producers the right to misrepresent you for their own purposes, and obliges you to maintain secrecy about it. Below is such a form, which is currently in use by another company producing documentary films for RTE. Readers are invited to judge for themselves:

Release Form
Production Company: Reel Story Productions Ltd. (The Associate)
Production Title: [Title of Programme omitted] (The Production)

I agree to participate in the production of the above mentioned programme, the nature and composition of which has been explained to me, and hereby give consent for the filming and recording of my activities, acts and performances.

I agree that the tape may be cut or edited for the programme or publicity material associated with the programme, and may be used in association with the exploitation of same.

I hereby grant and consign to Reel Story Productions Ltd the copyright and all other rights and interests of whatsoever nature in my contributions to the programme and the rights to exploit the same worldwide in all media for the full period of copyright including any extensions, renewals and revivals thereof and thereafter to the extent possible in perpetuity. I hereby also waive any moral rights that may be deemed to be in existence in relation to my contributions and participation in the programme.

I acknowledge and agree that my contribution towards the programme and my name and/or likeness may be advertised and used in the exploitation of the programme, at any time and from time to time throughout all the countries of the world in perpetuity. I hereby waive any claim I may have for loss of opportunity to enhance my reputation as a result of the non-inclusion of my contribution in the programme. I confirm and warrant that I'm entitled to enter into this release, and am not under contractual or any other obligations precluding me from doing so. I undertake to keep confidential any matter which comes to my attention relating to the programme. I undertake to execute all and any deeds and take such steps as are reasonably required by Reel Story Productions to give effect to the intent of this release. I am not entitled to a credit in relation to my contribution.

Agreed & Accepted............................................ (PLEASE PRINT NAME)



Tel/Mobile No.:

Signed for Reel Story Productions:


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