Eoghan Harris: Groupthink? No, RTE's real problem is sheepthink
Published 13/05/2012 | 05:00
RTE is the most important influence in shaping the Irish moral imagination. The results of referendums can be reversed by acts of political will. Not so the indelible impact of the stream of images and ideas from RTE -- and if they have no impact, then the advertisers are wasting their money.
The public is acutely aware that the Fr Reynolds affair is only the tip of an ideological iceberg. That is why the BAI report warning about "groupthink" struck a deep chord. Alas it's a chord to which Aoife Kavanagh and Brian Pairceir still seem deaf, given their response to the report.
Last Tuesday the RTE board touched obliquely on "groupthink" by promising to "assess the cultural and working environment at RTE in which editorial and creative decision-making takes place". How an RTE group can challenge RTE groupthink remains a mystery.
The problem was pointed up by that evening's RTE TV News. It carried the story of Claire Lomas, who finished a marathon wearing a bionic suit. The bulletin briefly described the working of the suit. But it did not mention that an Israeli company had invented it, as even the Israeli-critical London Independent had done.
Last Monday, writing in the Irish Times, Conor Brady correctly attributed the concept of "groupthink" to the psychologist Irving Yanis. But he then wrongly applied the concept to the Fr Reynolds affair. He is not alone in using the term "groupthink" too loosely.
Groupthink is continually confused with consensus thinking. But the Yanis concept concerns small groups under great pressure to make a decision. The classic example is Kennedy's Bay of Pigs fiasco.
But there was no such pressure on the Fr Reynolds team. Nor on RTE News when it failed to ask Martin McGuinness about Jean McConville during the presidential campaign. Or on Frontline when it facili-tated Gallaghergate and failed to say sorry properly.
Everybody in RTE is anxious to divert discussion of the BAI discussion into defective editorial practices. But the egregious editorial failings of the Prime Time team during the making of the programmes does not explain the attitudes that supported them. We need a theory that takes us deeper than Yanis's "groupthink".
Henri Tajfel's Social Identity Theory seems lot more relevant to RTE. A holocaust survivor, Tajfel had a special interest in how people buy into a bad ideology. They did so by adopting the ideology not just to strengthen the group's identity but -- crucially -- their own identity. And more so when the ideology is enmeshed with their employment, as in RTE.
Since I left RTE in 1989, I have watched this process grind down generations of new recruits to RTE. Many of them I knew personally. They would go into Montrose with middle-Ireland politics. But within months, they would be conforming to RTE's canteen culture on everything from Israel and the IRA, to the Catholic Church and the Sunday Independent.
A few weeks ago, I met two RTE people with whom I had been fairly friendly in the past and whose politics had reflected the decent pluralism of middle Ireland before they joined Montrose. But over a cup of coffee it became clear that since joining RTE they had enthusiastically embraced the national broadcaster's norms on a wide range of issues.
After a few probes I pointed out their new hardness on Israel and softness on Sinn Fein. They claimed to be still thinking for themselves. At which point I asked them to take a simple sit-down-and-be-counted test which would prove whether or not they were prisoners of the canteen culture of RTE.
Would you, I asked them, at a programme meeting or over lunch in the RTE canteen, publicly tell your peer group that you (a) thought that Israel was being unfairly singled out for human-rights abuses while offenders like Syria were left off the hook (b) say you thought Sean Gallagher had been badly treated by Frontline (c) say you agreed with the Sunday Independent that RTE News should have asked Martin McGuinness from the start about the murder of Jean McConville.
The Sunday Independent question was, of course, the real deal breaker. One of them shrugged and smiled and stayed silent. The other got sullen and then got stuck into the Sunday Independent -- of which he had been a regular reader before his RTE colleagues showed him the light.
Listening to his spiel, I was reminded of Patrick Pearse's description of the most dreaded nightmare of the Dublin bourgeois: being seen walking down Grafton Street with a brown paper parcel under his arm. Likewise, the new RTE bourgeoisie cannot bear to admit to reading the Sunday Independent.
Considered rationally, this makes no sense. Last week, apart from news coverage, we carried, at a rough count, some 25 articles relating to current affairs. We have far more commentators in that field than any of our competitors. We break at least one big story every week.
So how can RTE current-affairs staff claim to have their fingers on the pulse of public opinion while fearing to publicly admit to their peers that they read and enjoy a newspaper that is read and enjoyed by one million Irish people? What is this if not sheepthink?
Again, how can RTE programmers claim to reflect public opinion on Sinn Fein? Many RTE reporters do not share the view of a majority of their fellow countrymen that Miriam O'Callaghan was right to put Martin McGuinness under pressure on how his Catholicism could be reconciled with his bloody actions.
Look closer at the Fr Reynolds and Frontline debacles and you find that a mindset came first, then editorial mistakes came second. As John Waters pointed out in the Irish Times, ideological prejudices infect all areas of the national broadcaster. And like closed cultures, RTE is impervious to reform from within.
The Reynolds and Frontline affairs -- and coverage of the presidential election -- show a powerful and pervasive ideology at work within the group called RTE. That is why I believe my concept of an RTE "canteen culture" is closer to Tajfel's theory of Social Identity than Irving Yanis's theory of groupthink.
This canteen culture is not confined to a small stressed team of groupthinkers. It is an ideology of prejudices that seeps through the whole station. It has its roots in history, not psychology. It began with the victory of the anti-Section 31 activists in the mid-1980s.
This struggle created a corrupting sense of solidarity between RTE staff and Provisional Sinn Fein. This solidarity soon merged with the radical chic socialism of the metropolitan media class from which RTE mostly recruits. It has left a legacy of political correctness on certain subjects to which any group of activists can appeal in pursuit of a skewed political agenda.
Last week, Alison Pearson, writing in the Daily Telegraph, castigated British police, who, fearing accusations of racism, failed for five years to charge Pakistani men with grooming and raping young girls. She concluded: "If you inhaled enough toleration of the intolerable, then you were well on your way to the opium of political correctness."
Trust me on this. Pearson's judgement has no purchase in RTE. You see the Daily Telegraph is another newspaper outside the Pale which protects its prejudices.