Eilis O'Hanlon: You can't find time to discuss Lowry – the public begs to differ
Marian Finucane managed to spend just two minutes at the end of her show on the topic
This weekend's poll shows that six out of 10 Irish people think the Taoiseach is wrong to ignore the questions which Michael Lowry, his former party colleague, still has to answer; so when Joe Duffy finally got around to mentioning the Lowry tapes briefly on Liveline late last week, when quizzing former tycoon Ben Dunne about his friendship with the Tipperary North TD, he was on the pulse. He actually referred to their contents as "jawdropping". It was still less than a minute out of hours of broadcast time, but that word jumped out of the radio.
If the Michael Lowry tapes are "jawdropping", does that not make it even more astonishing – even jawdropping in itself – that RTE has all but ignored them for so long?
I was going to say "the controversial Michael Lowry tapes". A former government minister begging a Northern businessman not to reveal the handing over of a large sum of money because, if it came out, "I'm f***ing ruined ... I'm f***ing begging you," would certainly be considered controversial in most functionally democratic, open countries.
But clearly the tapes can't be controversial, otherwise RTE would be doing more about them – and a Government composed of his former Rainbow colleagues wouldn't be equally keen not to mention the war.
Last week, Marian Finucane offered up a mere two-and-a-half minutes of her two-hour show to the issue, so if you have an estimated time closest to that on your ballot ticket, then claim your winnings now, I'm begging you, if you don't you'll be f***ing ruined.
After which you might also consider buying journalist Sam Smyth a pint, since it was only thanks to the veteran scourge of corruption that the story was mentioned at all. If he hadn't been in the studio on Sunday morning, that girl in accounts who got a ticket marked "zero minutes and zero seconds" in the sweepstakes would now be quids in.
Marian's guests had obviously given her a heads-up on what they wished to cover. That's how it works. RTE doesn't just switch on the microphone and let its contributors riff freely like the journalistic equivalent of jazz improvisers. But with time ticking down before the end of the discussion of that morning's newspapers and no sign of the subject he wished to address, Smyth was forced to stage an exasperated intervention.
"Marian," he said, "if we don't get in now we have only 80 seconds to discuss why RTE and the Government have ignored the Lowry tapes."
"One minute," the host replied. Whether Marian meant she would get to the subject in one minute, thereby leaving a mighty 20 seconds to discuss the issue, or that she was going to give Sam one minute to talk, was unclear. Either way there was no time to waste and, to be fair to fellow panellists, they didn't fudge it.
Eddie Hobbs made a heartfelt plea for "senior executives" in RTE to get their own journalists on to the story, and poet Theo Dorgan expressed how "profoundly disappointed" he was with the Government for not tackling the Lowry issue head-on. Sam Smyth, though, never got his chance to speak, a remarkable missed opportunity considering there are few commentators with a deeper understanding of the events and personalities involved in this murky monied world.
"Okay, we'll leave it there," Marian wound them down just as they were getting warmed up. "I'm sorry there's been so little time on it."
And why would that be? She made it sound as if it just happened, like the weather.
"A lot of people wanted to come in on that." Surely a rather obvious sign that more time should've been devoted to it?
Marian Finucane, interestingly, made five interjections during that two-minute discussion. The first was to defend her own show against the accusation that Lowry was being ignored, telling Smyth: "Clearly you weren't listening to this programme when they were published." The second was to defend Prime Time against accusations that it had mothballed the story on the spurious pretext that the Moriarty tribunal was closed. Marian's "understanding" was that it only failed to cover it because it couldn't get an interview with Kevin Phelan, the man on the receiving end of the begging call from Lowry.
The other three remarks were to ask panellists who expressed concerns about the burial of the Lowry story whether they really wanted the tribunal reopened.
What we have here is a classic example of knocking down an argument that hasn't been made. Sam Smyth never mentioned tribunals. Marian was the one who brought the subject round, three times in two minutes, to tribunals. Smyth said he wanted to "discuss why RTE and the Government have ignored the Lowry tapes". He couldn't have been clearer. He didn't get his wish. The why of it went conspicuously unexplored.
Stories, likewise, are not dropped by the State broadcaster solely because interviewees refuse to appear. Many programmes have been run about Bertie Ahern without a single contribution from the one-time Taoiseach or his associates. As for defending her own show, even if she did discuss the story on the morning of the publication of the Lowry tapes, it still didn't answer Smyth's question of why, since then, RTE has "repeatedly ignored the issue".
It would be understandable if no one gave a monkey's about Michael Lowry's doings, but the fact Marian's panellists were keen to discuss the issue in vigorous terms put paid to any notion that this was merely some eccentric bugbear of Sam Smyth's. It was her responsibility to find space to let her guests speak about what concerns them. Time management is a basic tool of the professional broadcaster. Squeezing an important subject into the last few minutes is treating it like the funny story about a cat stuck up a tree at the tail-end of the news..