News Colum Kenny

Thursday 21 August 2014

Colum Kenny: Don't tar all RTE with one brush -- it's time to move on

The politicians must not neglect issues over media funding and control, writes Colum Kenny

Published 27/05/2012 | 05:00

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RTE's managing director of radio, Clare Duignan, let fly at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications when senators and deputies had a go at RTE.

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RTE has angered the public by making unfounded accusations against a Catholic priest. An opinion poll conducted last week for the Sunday Independent shows that most people want the station's chairman, Tom Savage, to resign at this point.

But Duignan is putting distance between those responsible for the debacle and others. Like many RTE programme-makers she is embarrassed by the Prime Time Investigates mess. She herself is the former director of television programmes at RTE.

She reacted fiercely last week when Senator John Whelan referred to "the systematic failures, poor morale, low standards and, in certain quarters, group-think culture which has been spawned by a cult of the clique and cronyism that is alive and well in Montrose and over which he presides".

The "he" whom Whelan condemned by his remarks was Tom Savage, PR guru and RTE chairman. Savage got a hard time last week when RTE bosses were summoned to appear before Whelan and other members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications.

"I want to say firmly on the record that I completely disagree with that sweeping generalisation," said Duignan, taking some of the pressure off both Savage and RTE's director-general Noel Curran

Duignan felt besmirched and told Whelan so in no uncertain terms: "It is grossly unfair to me, my colleagues and so many hard-working people in RTE, who are deeply unhappy with this programme, with the outcome of it and with the mistakes that were made. They are embarrassed and ashamed by these failings in one programme in one part of the organisation that have been identified."

But she added: "That they have been [identified] does not mean all the people working in RTE are part of a group-think, or part of a clique or that there is an arrogance in how we do our business. I am

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the managing director of radio and our teams are out around the country, day after day, covering community events, programmes, music, the arts and current affairs. I do not think anybody present would say that is what he or she encounters when dealing with people working in RTE. I think it is unfair."

The committee's wish to get to the bottom of the Prime Time Investigates debacle is understandable. But the clock has chimed on Fr Reynolds. There has been a hefty defamation settlement, an apology from RTE, a swingeing report from the BAI and repercussions for individual programme-makers.

There are other media priorities that require urgent attention, yet deputies and senators often show little understanding of such realities.

Watching the committee in action last week it was hard not to suspect that some deputies and senators are licking old wounds, remembering moments when they or their friends were stung. But just because they were stung does not make their media treatment unfair. A robust and professional media is essential for a healthy democracy.

There are independent mechanisms for dealing with complaints of unfairness against the media, and they have been proven to be effective when used.

The fact is that relatively few complaints are received by the Press Council and by the BAI Compliance Committee and even fewer are upheld. Some of those who complain loudest about media bias never use such mechanisms. I wonder why.

If the Prime Time Investigates' failings were "typical" of RTE, then people would have complained loudly about other programmes. Even now, after all the negative publicity surrounding that particular production, there is little to indicate similar major mistakes. Surely RTE's competitors in the media would have been quick to highlight them, as they highlighted the phoney tweet on The Frontline, for example?

For that reason alone, the suggestion that some kind of enquiry ought to be launched into a random selection of past programmes on RTE seems like a waste of time and energy. It would also be impractical in terms of reconstructing what actually happened at some time in the past.

It is entirely appropriate for the Oireachtas Committee to consider recent events in RTE. But they should not neglect other pressing matters that go to the heart of freedom of speech in Ireland. Partly because of differences of ideology and partly because there are few votes in it, politicians have failed to bring forward new laws on media mergers that are urgently needed.

Politicians find it easier to moan about individual broadcasters and journalists than to inform themselves in detail about the complexities of media business.

Meanwhile, the Government is whittling away RTE's licence fee income, using more and more of it to pay for TG4 and reducing the annual amount that the Exchequer gives RTE to cover the cost of "free" TV licences for social welfare recipients.

At the same time, competitors complain that the resulting increased reliance by RTE on commercial income puts the private sector at a dangerous disadvantage and makes it much harder for stations other than RTE to make home-produced documentaries, dramas and current affairs programmes.

Members of the Oireachtas need to focus now on ensuring that we have the best possible Irish media in Ireland. They need to do hard detailed work quickly to ensure that they are aware of what that might involve.

The chairman and director-general of RTE got a good kicking from some members of the Oireachtas last week. It was a reality TV show that entertained media watchers if nobody else.

But now deputies and senators must display equal enthusiasm about pressing matters of media funding and control that are vital to the future of free speech in Ireland.

Professor Colum Kenny of DCU is a member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland

Sunday Independent

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