A DECISION to rap Eamon Dunphy over the knuckles has implications for freedom of speech in Ireland. The latest decision by the Government-appointed Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC) comes hot on the heels of its earlier ruling that castigated Pat Kenny for his handling of an item about so-called psychics.
The BCC often finds itself dealing with listeners outraged by "bad language", and comedian Tommy Tiernan has featured in a number of its judgments. It can now expect new complaints after Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh appeared on RTE's Rattlebag last Tuesday afternoon and read an extract from his latest novel, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. No doubt board members of the BCC were relieved to be informed recently by RTE that the station does not, "in general", wish to hear words such as "prick" and "fuck" broadcast. On that occasion, a complaint against Morning Ireland and Today with Pat Kenny for airing Bono's tribute to Samuel Beckett was rejected by the BCC. But the BCC also deals with serious current affairs, and what these Government appointees say can chill the atmosphere for broadcasters. BCC judgments are also an indication of how the promised new Press Council may behave when it comes to newspapers. With Freedom of Information already cut back by the Government, journalists worry that freedom of speech may also be restricted. The BCC agreed at its most recent meeting that Eamon Dunphy had handled an item about nurses in a way that was unfair to the Health Service Executive (HSE). Health services could be central to the outcome of the next general election, and journalists do not want their hands tied when dealing with them. In the past, Fianna Fail ministers have claimed that RTE's coverage of health cost them vital votes.
On his breakfast programme on NewsTalk 106, on January 13 last, Dunphy interviewed Liam Doran of the Irish Nurses Organisation. The broadcast dealt with work practices among theatre nurses at the Mid-Western Regional Hospital. When the HSE delined to debate with Doran live on air, they were told by Dunphy's programme team to get lost. "We told them to go", Dunphy informed his listeners. The law requires Irish broadcasters to cover current affairs in a way that is fair to all interests. Dunphy claimed that the HSE had their chance and turned it down. Famous for his distinctive style of interviewing, among other things, Dunphy added on air, "They ain't getting away with this any more - neither are any politicians, incidentally."
Dunphy's concern that politicians and others are "getting away" with handling the media in certain ways is a legitimate one. Public bodies and big private companies can seek to avoid accountability by crafting public relations in a way that is informed by specialist spin-doctors.
Broadcasters generally agree that nobody is obliged to do an interview, as the BCC states in its judgment on Dunphy. The fact that somebody refuses to be interviewed does not mean that a biased programme can be made. The person's point of view must still be represented fairly, even by a feisty presenter such as Dunphy.
And if the Broadcasting Complaints Commission had said no more than that, they would have merely repeated a settled view on how Irish broadcasters should behave professionally. But the BCC went further. Not alone did they criticise the content of the programme as unfair and the interview as unbalanced, the BCC also faulted NewsTalk 106 for failing to offer the HSE "a fair right of reply".
If this now means that those who refuse to join a radio or TV discussion have to be allowed on air on their own, or have a statement read out exactly as written, then it is a bad day for broadcasters. What exactly does the BCC have in mind by "a fair right of reply", if a place in a studio discussion is not enough? The BCC has not made it clear.
This BCC, which was appointed last October, seems to be taking a more interventionist approach to broadcasters than did its predecessors. RTE staff were upset by a decision in December that related to a Prime Time report about the Irish Ferries dispute. On that occasion, Irish Ferries declined to come on the programme but issued a statement, which RTE partly used. Prime Time reported Irish Ferries as saying that "independent consultants are looking at issues related to crewing on its ships and for the duration of this review it has agreed to issue no media statements".
But the BCC found that the reason given by Irish Ferries for non-participation "was not clearly expressed in the programme", ostensibly because no reference to the unions also agreeing to media silence was mentioned. If RTE made an editorial judgment that such reference was itself contentious, given that the union was not abiding by media silence, the BCC found that RTE ought to have carried it. This BCC decision could weaken broadcasters who have no desire to be mouthpieces for those who decline to participate fully in programmes.
The Dunphy decision will worry journalists who are already concerned by the BCC's rebuke of Pat Kenny, as well as by another recent ruling in which it took exception to rosary beads and a bible that were used as a backdrop to an RTE news report about the Ferns child abuse affair. The person complaining "found this profane use of the sacramentals offensive". And the BCC agreed with him.
Those who believe that the BCC is getting a bit too busy have welcomed RTE's decision to challenge that judgment in the High Court, the first time the station has ever undertaken such an expensive step in respect of the BCC.
There are various reasonable ways in which broadcasters are fair to those who refuse to take part in discussions. They may include a particular point of view in their questions or quote from a statement, or even make a follow-up programme. But the BCC may now be expecting more than that.
So who are the members of this BCC? Its chairman is Michael McGrath, a senior counsel, and it also includes two solicitors. Other members are Dr Eucharia Meehan, Head of Research Programmes at the Higher Education Authority; Joe Brady, an auctioneer; Sean O'Sullivan, a software distributor based in Cork; John Donohue, a journalist at the Meath Chronicle, and David Tighe, chief executive of the Limerick radio station New 95FM.
Some were surprised by the appointment of a radio station executive to the board, given that it sits in judgment on other stations. Others thought that he had been balanced by the appointment of Miriam O'Callaghan, but this turned out to be a well-known camogie player and not RTE's presenter. Last week, Mr Tighe declined to comment on his apparent conflict of interest.
The BCC is appointed by the Government but there is no suggestion that it has shown political bias. Indeed, RTE is understood to be pleased that its decisions now tend to be more detailed than earlier ones. However, the devil is in that detail. Telling particular presenters that they have been biased is challenging enough. Telling them how to make their programmes is too much.
Professor Colum Kenny teaches broadcasting studies at DCU