Wednesday 7 December 2016

How RTE struggled to find its feet

The broadcaster and historian John Bowman has presented political and current affairs programmes on RTE radio and TV since the Sixties. Here, in extracts from his new book on the history of RTE television, he writes about the early days of the TV station

Published 16/10/2011 | 05:00

RTE television had unlikely roots: the politicians didn't want it and scarcely knew what its role might be, but Northern Ireland had two stations, so the Republic better have one. What did the politicians then expect of a national television service in 1962?

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How did the early pioneering generation of television broadcasters keep the politicians, the bishops and the Gaeilgoiri at bay and carve out an independent role for the station? And how did the station establish such a reach to its audience and accelerate the transformation of Irish society in the past half-century?

After one year of the new station and speaking to the television professionals themselves at the inaugural Jacobs Television Awards, the Taoiseach Sean Lemass characterised the first year of television broadcasting as "a period of experimentation". He expected continuous improvement "so that all reasonable grounds for complaint and criticism" would be "greatly reduced".

In private, Lemass's views were more robust. Among civil servants and government colleagues he made no secret of his unhappiness with the independent voice with which the new station was speaking. He told colleagues that the RTE Authority's notion of its independence "was being pushed to an intolerable extent".

It was invariably a perceived lack of balance in programmes dealing with the economy which irritated Lemass most. And like many of his contemporaries, he was especially sensitive on the subject of emigration. In January 1963, he complained about one such programme, describing it as "thoroughly bad and depressing". It represented "exactly the approach to serious national problems that Telefis Eireann should not adopt". The station, he wrote, should "take the whine out of (its) voice".

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It was in the early years that the template for public service broadcasting was established. The second controller of programmes, the innovative Gunnar Rugheimer, had no doubt that current affairs "should be the fulcrum of the entire programming activity". For him it was simply "the thumping heartbeat" of the station.

He pursued the politicians of all parties to drop their defences and embrace "a more detailed treatment, on an adult level, of the political affairs of the nation". He showed no patience with their timidity in engaging with current affairs television.

Lemass wanted to approve the chair of any televised debate and wanted the parties to control which TDs appeared. Manifestly, he lacked confidence in the ability of many of his own TDs to be "good on the box". In this, he showed insight.

Muiris Mac Conghail, presently to become the most controversial and radical current affairs editor, recalled that many TDs were simply not suited to the cut and thrust of broadcast debate. Some few were gifted but for the most part Mac Conghail found himself dealing with "a dull colourless group", whose speaking skills had been shaped by a Dail which was "tame, ordered and structured".

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One controversy which the station covered in its early days was the one that arose following the clash between the farmers -- then represented by the National Farmers Association -- and the Fianna Fail government, especially the then minister for agriculture Charles Haughey.

That Haughey was the politician in this major stand-off was scarcely surprising: he had never hidden the particular disdain he reserved for RTE. He disliked being questioned on anything other than his own terms and was one of those ministers whom his colleague Colm Hilliard had admitted to Kevin McCourt "would never be satisfied". He could prove a whinger about anything to do with RTE: his default attitude towards the station seemed to be one of truculent irascibility.

Lemass's most celebrated definition of RTE's role was made against this background. The Fianna Fail government believed that the National Farmers Association was directly challenging the government's authority. Two years before in the Dail, Lemass had accused them of setting the country on the road to anarchy with their rates strike.

Questioned about ministerial protests to RTE, Lemass was prepared to stand over any actions that any of his ministers had taken. Moreover, he emphasised that Radio Telefis Eireann had been "set up by legislation as an instrument of public policy and as such is responsible to the government. The government have over-all responsibility for its conduct and especially the obligation to ensure that its programmes do not offend against the public interest or conflict with national policy as defined in legislation."

Preoccupied by the need to modernise the country and all too aware of his short period at the top, Lemass had often shown impatience with RTE when it seemed to give disproportionate attention to the views of sceptics.

But despite the general disappointment of Lemass at television's assumed role of independent scrutineer, historian Joe Lee believes that this was ultimately to the Taoiseach's advantage. After all, television's impact on modernising Irish society chimed with the agenda being espoused by Lemass himself.

Television was widening "the opportunity to adopt a more searching attitude towards the serene wisdom of old age". De Valera's Ireland was under scrutiny and was found wanting. Television programmes "took viewers on voyages of discovery of Irish society. Many did not like what they saw. But they now had to exert themselves to even more heroic self-deception to pretend it did not exist."

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When Ryan Tubridy presented his first Late Late Show in September 2009, his first guest was the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen. Some 42 years earlier in November 1967, Gay Byrne telephoned the Taoiseach's office, requesting a meeting with Jack Lynch to discuss the possibility of ministers appearing on The Late Late Show.

He hoped politics might be discussed in a serious manner and had already approached three of Lynch's most senior ministers, Charles Haughey, George Colley and Donough O'Malley. Byrne intimated that O'Malley was available, subject to Lynch's agreement.

The matter was discussed at Cabinet the following day and Lynch told his secretary to tell Byrne that he did not approve of ministers going on The Late Late Show and that provision for political discussions on television had already been agreed. "There wasn't therefore any need for Gay Byrne to call on him to discuss the matter." The party whips were later assured that Byrne had been reprimanded in RTE for making the approach.

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Monica Sheridan had "no more eager fans" than the production team assigned to her programmes. The RTE Guide reported that her "on the air" cooking was done for the studio crew. She had to cook for someone, she insisted. She could not cook for a cathode tube. It would be sacrilege to let such fine fare go to waste.

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RTE television has witnessed a transformation in Irish life over the past half-century.

In 1955, in his address to Congress, the GAA president was critical of the popularity of foreign games and he criticised "the native weaklings" who played the game of "the wily Saxon". Whatever would he have made of "native weakling" Paul O'Connell, half-a-century later in 2007, helping to defeat the "wily Saxons" by 43 points to 13 in a rebuilt Croke Park, a game enjoyed by hundreds of thousands on RTE?

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How did the young station see the requirements for the post of director-general after the departure of the first DG, Edward J Roth?

The station was not much more than a year old and the challenge for the incoming leader would be to consolidate what had been achieved.

An undated, unsigned document, "Director-General: job requirements", probably written by John A Irvine, later to be deputy director-general, is revealing. The young tele-vision service had very high expectations of Roth's successor.

This unsigned document gives some indication of the qualities preferred in whoever would succeed to the job.

"He must have a good, solid, but liberal national outlook and be an Irish national." Moreover, he must be "modern and progressive in outlook", hard-working, an expansionist and an inventive, intuitive leader -- this was "a seven-day-week job".

When it came to programme decision-making, the director-general would need to be "impersonal and dispassionate". His own tastes and opinions "should never be allowed to obtrude". He will have to withstand much public criticism and not let it interfere with his judgment. An impulsive or capricious director-general would be a disaster." He must show courage, discretion and diplomacy; a delegator, he must be -- and be seen to be -- "above politics". Finally, he "should not be an 'egghead' or if he is, he should understand what interests the ordinary man in the street".

(Edited extracts from John Bowman's 'Window and Mirror: RTE Television 1961-2011' is published by The Collins Press at €25

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