Wednesday 26 October 2016

Don't let the facts get in the way of a rant, Mr Rabbitte

Published 01/04/2015 | 02:30

Pat Rabbitte says RTE is biased against Irish Water
Pat Rabbitte says RTE is biased against Irish Water

Some of you half-wits thought the reason for Irish Water's unpopularity was the cack-handed manner in which it was set up and the various scandals that have plagued it since its inception but you are wrong.

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According to former Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte, the real villain when it comes to Irish Water is a subversive media group, intent on undermining Irish Water at every turn - RTé.

Launching a tirade against the broadcaster in the Dáil last week, Mr Rabbitte let loose a series of explosive charges. RTé was acting as a "recruitment sergeant" for the far-left and Sinn Féin, its board had decided to "strangle Irish Water at birth" while it was failing in its statutory duty to "educate" its audience about the merits of the company.

Evidently, on Planet Rabbitte, it is not the Labour Party's predilection for breaking its pre-election promises - "we are not in favour of water charges, we don't believe in a flat rate" - that has driven its former supporters into the arms of the "hard left" but rather RTé's biased reporting.

The proof for the existence of this Machiavellian scheme is that RTé routinely reports on things that are happening - like tens of thousands of people protesting, or the fact that the Government and Irish Water appear to be using an etch-a-sketch to come up with the utility's business plan. All of these stories, as you can see, show Irish Water in a poor light, clear evidence of RTé's bias. If it were really impartial, it would ignore these stories and fill the dead air with stock images of sewage running into rivers and file footage of ministers working furiously at their desks.

Actually, when it comes to backing up his accusations with actual evidence, Mr Rabbitte is long on inflammatory rhetoric but short on facts. He said he wouldn't name a specific programme or presenter that had exhibited bias, instead opting to denigrate its entire news team by implication. His colleague Joe Costello wasn't as coy and launched a broadside at the Labour Parliamentary Pary meeting against 'Prime Time.'

Eager to see this travesty of journalism standards, I watched the show and was somewhat baffled when I discovered it was a five-minute discussion, between reporter Katie Hannon and anchor Miriam O'Callaghan, which featured a brief clip of the socialist TDs as well as a contribution from Environment Minister Alan Kelly.

Looking back at other recent programmes that dealt with water charges, an episode on February 10 featured pre-recorded interviews with Labour Senator Lorraine Higgins, her Dáil colleagues Joanna Tuffy and Joe Costello, with just one from a representative of the anti-water charges campaign, Bernie Hughes. Meanwhile, Mr Rabbitte was also in studio debating the issue with Socialist TD Ruth Coppinger. Oddly, I don't recall Mr Costello wailing about bias on that occasion when the Labour Party outnumbered its opponents by two to one.

Expanding on his conspiracy theory on 'The Week in Politics' on Sunday, Mr Rabbitte said RTé has been interminably "harking on about the mistakes that were made originally" and claimed it had a mole in Irish Water who was "pointing them where to go" when submitting Freedom of Information Requests. Ignoring the irony of a member of this Government, which continually harangues Fianna Fáil for its past mistakes, complaining that RTé is "harking on" about historical errors - or a former minister for communications having such a poor grasp of journalism that he berates reporters for having a source - it is alarming that Mr Rabbitte's main concern appears to be the release of information the public is entitled to and not the content of that information.

He seemed utterly unfazed by the revelation, from RTé, that numerous meetings between the Department of the Environment and Irish Water in 2012 had no minutes, despite many of the problems he alluded to arising during that period. The implication is that he has no problem with a multi-billion utility company being set up with scant documentation existing to explain how important start-up decisions were made and public money was spent.

It would be easy to dismiss Mr Rabbitte's hysterics about RTé bias as an example of self-pitying political posturing - Fianna Fáil was also complaining about bias last week - but his comments tell us something important: he doesn't appear to have any confidence in the ability of his Government or Irish Water to sell its message and instead wants RTé to do it for them.

A succession of Government ministers and Irish Water talking heads have been attempting to hawk the company to the Irish people for three years now and still one-third have yet to sign up. This is despite all the money that ministers spend on special advisers and press officers, not to mention the €4.02m included in Irish Water's start-up costs for "customer engagement and brand development" and its 11 press officers and panel of five external PR agencies.

It has latterly spent €650,000 on an advertising campaign to teach people that drinking water doesn't fall from the sky, while more than €1m has been spent on previous ad campaigns urging people to sign up. But they won't and somehow this is RTé's fault for not focusing more of its coverage on our crumbling water network.

Regrettably for Mr Rabbitte, even when RTé does report on water quality and the need to invest in infrastructure, it does not always work in Irish Water's favour. Last year, it reported a pledge from the company to eliminate boil notices by 2016 but last month it stated that the new target was 2021 - the fact that the deadline had moved by five years in the space of a couple of months was never even alluded to. Previous claims that the company would be investing €600m in capital projects annually have also been indefinitely long-fingered.

Not only are Mr Rabbitte's claims wrong, they're patronising, suggesting those opposed to Irish Water are just too thick to understand that Ireland desperately needs to invest in its water network. Given the ongoing omnishambles that is Irish Water, many people simply don't have faith that the company can deliver.

Independent TD Stephen Donnelly has claimed that the net amount raised by Irish Water will be €90m while the cost of getting that money - paying the staff, consultants, lawyers and PR companies - will be €10m more than that.

Instead of attributing public anger at Irish Water to some kind of diabolical scheme cooked up by RTé, perhaps Mr Rabbitte could explain to us exactly how much money the company will cost and how much it will invest in the infrastructure the country so dearly needs.

Irish Independent

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