Eoghan Harris: RTE News is guilty of a disservice to democracy
Published 23/10/2011 | 07:17
LAST Thursday, the Limerick Leader led with Ann McCabe’s attack on Martin McGuinness. Canvassing in Limerick, the Taoiseach and Gay Mitchell piled the pressure on McGuinness.
But RTE’s David McCullagh dismissed it as “just another newspaper cycle dominated by his republican past”.
Take a moment to ponder that “just another newspaper cycle dominated by his republican past”. Because it’s likely to find a permanent place in the lexicon of political and media jargon. If not, I can rent it a room. McCullagh is consistent.
Two weeks ago, he was equally downbeat in his reaction to David Kelly’s devastating confrontation with Martin McGuinness on the streets of Athlone. His restraint was the more remarkable given that the greenest observer could see that Kelly had dealt a deadly blow to the McGuinness campaign.
Both the McCabe and Kelly news stories involved the IRA slaughter of a member of the Republic’s security forces. From the moment McGuinness declared, I called on RTE News to make such victims central to any interview with McGuinness. This RTE news presenters have consistently failed to do for no rational reason. Let me be clear. Sean O’Rourke, David McCullagh or Cathal Mac Coille are not supporters of Sinn Fein, sneaking or otherwise. Like most RTE and BBC presenters, their private views probably tend to the liberal or left-liberal end of the scale. But that makes their approach to McGuinness even more baffling and raises three questions.
Why the contrast between the print media and RTE News about confronting McGuinness with specific victims and specific crimes?
Is RTE News following some internal protocol of impartiality that prevents poking around specific crimes connected by chain of command to McGuinness? If so, can we see these protocols ? In recent days the reluctance of RTE News to press McGuinness on specific crimes has been extended to the IRA’s long links with the Libyan tyrant Gaddafi. If you doubt this, go to Realplayer and study RTE News’s coverage of two linked items: the murder of Det Garda Jerry McCabe and the death of Gaddafi.
‘The greenest observer could see that David Kelly had dealt a deadly blow to the McGuinness campaign’ They are linked because Gaddafi almost certainly supplied the AK rifle that riddled Jerry McCabe with 14 bullets.
Astoundingly, you have so far heard little — actually nothing — from RTE News about the IRA’s Libyan links. Here are a few facts, seemingly not known to the national broadcaster. From 1972 Gaddafi was the chief arms supplier of the Provisional IRA, in which Martin McGuinness was a major player. According to former RUC Chief Constable Sir Hugh Annesley, Gaddafi provided the Provo IRA with 1,500 Kalashnikovs in addition to the Claudia haul in 1973.
In the 28-year period that Gaddafi provided it with thousands of Kalashnikovs and six tonnes of Semtex, the Provisional IRA killed some 1,665 people, or 94 per cent of the the 1,771 it killed in this period.
To put it in perspective, during the IRA’s ‘Libyan’ period it killed six times as many people as the 270 killed at Lockerbie. Given that background, the coverage of Gaddafi’s death on RTE News was bad beyond belief. In any newspaper it is axiomatic in covering any foreign story to look for an Irish angle. RTE News had at least three Irish links crying out for comment.
First, Gaddafi’s guns, in the hands of IRA comrades of Martin McGuinness, almost certainly killed Det Garda Jerry McCabe. Second, there were two abortive Libyan arms shipments to Ireland while Martin McGuinness was one of the directors of IRA operations. Third, there is a clear chain of command link between Libya and a candidate for the Presidency.
Did we get a detailed run-down of these lethal links? No. What we got was Margaret Ward, RTE’s foreign editor, waffling away happily as if the death of Gaddafi was a standalone foreign story with no deadly Irish links. Baffling, but not as baffling as the coverage of the McCabe statement.
For the print media, that news cycle began with the Limerick Leader headline: “McGuinness not fit to be our President: Ann McCabe.” The core of the story was the McCabe family’s belief that McGuinness met Kevin Walsh, one of the gang that gunned down Detective McCabe on June 7, 1996 in Adare. The Irish Independent headline honed in on that too: “Martin McGuinness met the killer of my husband in an IRA safe house.”
So did the Irish Examiner and the Irish Times, which also carried a Mary Fitzgerald sidebar: “Ireland and Libya: the connection.” ‘You can vote against it next Thursday — give Sinn Fein the boot, ballot box in both hands’ Realplayer reveals the stark contrast between newspaper and RTE News coverage on the McCabe statement news cycle.
Thursday’s 1pm RTE TV news heads gave a cursory nine-second summary of the McCabe statement, followed by nine seconds of Gay Mitchell in support of her. Total, 18 seconds. We then went to in studio. Aengus Mac Grianna’s pre-packaged question did not ask McCullagh about the strong statement from the McCabe family.
It asked about McGuinness’s response. McCullagh emphatically agreed that it was “quite a strong statement” from McGuinness. He then gave what came across as a gung-ho summary of McGuinness’s response for 40 seconds — compared with the 18 seconds given to the McCabe statement — downplaying the damage the McCabes might have done to McGuinness's campaign with these concluding words: “But obviously its just another newspaper cycle dominated by his republican past.”
Still digesting McCullagh’s deathless phrase, I sat staring at the screen. Why had RTE News given us Martin McGuinness’s robust response to Ann McCabe’s statement, rather than Ann McCabe’s statement, followed by McGuinness’s response?
Was I alone in thinking this was the wrong way around? Luckily, no. Tom Carew, a retired senior official of the Post Office Group of Unions and a meticulous analyst of media bias in relation to both Israel and the IRA, has sent me a copy of a complaint that he has sent to both McCullagh and Noel Curran, director general and editor in chief of RTE.
Carew cuts to the chase: “We got no interview with the McCabe family. Or an interview with anybody from the Limerick Leader. When will you share with the listening and viewing public what exactly the McCabe family themselves said?”
Friday’s Morning Ireland continued the continuity of RTE’s crabbed coverage. Cathal Mac Coille did not press McGuinness hard on the McCabes’ charge that McGuinness had met Kevin Walsh. Nor did he press McGuinness on the IRA’s links to Gaddafi. RTE News’s constrained coverage of McGuinness’s campaign does a disservice to Irish democracy. Far from bad publicity “backfiring” as Sinn Fein’s media supporters mendaciously claim, it has driven McGuinness steadily down in the polls. But it was the newspapers and not RTE that did all the heavy lifting.
The Evening Herald knows how to hold the hard line. Last Friday it ran a headline: “Adams ‘horrified’ at killing of terrorist ally.” The story recounted Gerry Adams’s regret at the manner of Gaddafi’s demise, including this immortal line: “I regret any death, particularly violent death.” You couldn’t make it up.
But you can vote against it next Thursday. Mitchell and Higgins or Gallagher, in order of your choice, but no mark for McGuinness. Give Sinn Fein the boot: ballot box in both hands.