Colum Kenny: RTE should seize TV50 opportunity
Anniversary gives the broadcaster a chance to recall its achievements and open a fresh debate, writes Colum Kenny
RTE seems set to wallow in sentimentality and soft focus as it celebrates 50 years of its own TV service.
The broadcaster has announced various programmes to mark the fact that its first channel has been on air for half a century. But these programmes show little sign of vigorous self-criticism, or of serious interrogation of the station's future direction.
This is despite the fact that RTE's press release about its "TV50" celebrations begins with words used by the President of Ireland on the night that Telefis Eireann was launched, on December 31, 1961. Eamon de Valera prophetically highlighted the pervasive influence of TV, expressing his hopes that it would be "useful for the nation".
Dev said: "I must admit that sometimes when I think of television and radio and their immense power, I feel somewhat afraid. Like atomic energy, it can be used for incalculable good, but it can also do irreparable harm. Never before was there in the hands of man an instrument so powerful to influence the thoughts and actions of the multitude."
At a time when RTE has been forced to apologise for a major error of editorial judgement on Prime Time Investigates, it could be using this anniversary to come out fighting. It should not be afraid to recall its real achievements in controversial current affairs and in drama, and to open a fresh debate about the future of the Irish media at a time of global crisis.
For this is not just an anniversary of television in the Republic of Ireland. It is an anniversary of independent broadcasting. The Broadcasting Authority Act 1960 released the airwaves of the Republic of Ireland from the absolute control of civil servants by establishing a semi-state body that has managed to be more independent than not over the years.
Today, as an advertising recession persists and as governments divert some of RTE's funding elsewhere, the station's future as an influential broadcaster is not guaranteed.
When midnight approach- ed on New Year's Eve 1961, 50 years ago this weekend, a few searchlights criss-crossed over O'Connell Street. It was what passed for high excitement in those days of very limited resources and continuing emigration. As a child, I saw the lights in the sky from my parents' bedroom. My parents were inside the Gresham Hotel, my father invited as an advertising agent to an event being televised to mark the station's launch.
RTE recalled last week that, "Cameras filmed the invited guests who dined and danced in the ballroom and the public who danced outside in the snow on O'Connell Street." In truth, not that many members of "the public" were dancing in light snow, and even fewer of those were sober.
Inside, guests were entertained by what in hindsight seems like the bizarre spectacle of the Artane Boys Band marching up and down. Pride of place on that night's broadcast, alongside Dev, was given to Roman Catholic Cardinal John D'Alton. This prelate seized his opportunity to take a sideswipe at Irish writers and to issue a thinly veiled threat to broadcasters. Repression and censorship augured ill for the new station, but times were changing and RTE helped to facilitate that change.
Another indication of the mean undercurrents of Irish life was the failure to invite to the launch Leon O Broin, that civil servant who had done most to bring us what became RTE. He was put in his place by the powers that be, and it hurt him for years.
No doubt many of the programmes now being mounted by RTE in self-celebration will entertain us. Those that repeat memorable clips will be worth viewing again. But the details released so far suggest a folksy and romanticised version of Irish life, with the archives being milked for quaintness rather than controversy.
There is to be a major overview of television itself, by John Bowman, who is also authoring an RTE radio series about RTE. One of Ireland's best broadcasters, Bowman recently published a book on the station that was more engaging than challenging. I hope his broadcasts will be more biting than his volume.
And in a promotional coup that is worthy of the old dog that is RTE, An Post is issuing three special commemorative stamps. "They each feature an iconic image of RTE," claims the station. And what are these "iconic" images? Well, OK, so only a real carper could argue with Gay Byrne on an early Late Late Show set, or even Anne Doyle in studio. But "Emma O'Driscoll and Ogie from RTEjr in studio" --RTE's new digital service for children is already iconic?
How RTE's competitors must be grinding their teeth. If only they could get postage stamps issued for their new services. And if only RTE would not lay claim to the brand "TV50" as though no other television service has existed for part of that half-century.
Basking in the sun of its own glory, RTE will tomorrow night screen a programme with the shameless title of 50 Years in the Glow. This purports to tell the story of the last five decades of RTE television, "but purely through the eyes of the viewers: there are no experts, analysts or historians".
Viewers, or "ordinary people" as RTE describes mere mortals, may well thank RTE for not yet again rolling out some of its standard stock of experts, analysts and historians. But who is the "ordinary viewer" actually presenting this programme? Pat Shortt.
RTE pushed out its press release on St Stephen's Day. This was a holiday downtime for media that are already unwilling or unable to do much more than regurgitate press releases in too many cases, and the timing has ensured that the story of 50 years of television in Ireland is already going RTE's way.
As one who worked for the station in the late Seventies and early Eighties, I do not begrudge RTE its many achievements. Later, in the Nineties, RTE invited me to independently produce two long discussions on the future of broadcasting. I hope that it has not forgotten again that Donnybrook is not the only place from which to view the history and role of our publicly owned broadcaster.
This is no time for RTE to sit on its laurels. It should use its anniversary to take us by storm with exciting new ideas about current affairs and cutting edge dramas that are "useful for the nation", with open and self-critical debates about Irish society and the nature of media, and with the promise that it will continue to be more than a well-oiled commercial machine.
Colum Kenny is Professor of Communications at DCU and a member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland