Saturday 1 November 2014

Eoghan Harris: RTE's public sector bias is a gross abuse of its power

Published 24/04/2011 | 05:00

Edmund Burke says we need our enemies because "they will not suffer us to be superficial". He also believes that "a statesman learns more from his opponent than from his fervent supporters".

How will this Government stay alert with only a nominal political opposition in the current Dail? The answer should be the mass media, particularly the national broadcaster. But how can Brendan Howlin take a hard line if the national broadcaster will not back him up? And doesn't this reluctance amount to a form of bias?

Last week, I did an interview about "bias" in RTE for some sharp film students from Tralee Institute of Higher Education. Like most media students they assumed that he who pays the piper -- in this case the Government -- calls the political tune. But that is not how bias works, in either the public or private sector.

In 25 years working with RTE, and another 20 working for James Murdoch and Sir Anthony O'Reilly, I sometimes had a spot of bother after I had done something. But nobody above me ever told me what to write before I had done it.

Bias in RTE , as in the BBC, begins at the bottom. And to make it worse bias is invisible to the broadcasters, seems as natural as the air they breathe. Like BO, they notice it in others, but not themselves.

Also, bias is more a matter of omission than commission, of taboo than of deliberate manipulation. Historically, RTE has had two such taboos -- Israel and Irish nationalism. Since the recession it has added a third: reform of the public sector.

The bias against Israel -- which is also a form of reflex anti-Americanism common among left liberals -- is a prime example of omission. RTE gave plenty of coverage to the Goldstone report on the flotillas, but it did not regale you with Goldstone changing his mind.

Irish nationalism is another blind spot. RTE News has never been a pioneer of pluralism. This is brought home every day when newscasters describe the state of Northern Ireland as "the North", a phrase that diminishes RTE News as much as Northern Ireland.

Apart from Tommie Gorman, who is passionate about pluralism, RTE News keeps missing chances to confront the primitive ideas which energise extreme republicans. For example, as David Quinn asked in the Irish Independent, why is RTE News playing down the royal wedding?

Maybe RTE News regards this as a pretty cool and politically correct decision. Actually it's an elitist and politically incorrect decision. It pretends that Irish people have no interest in the royal wedding while pandering to the primitive prejudices of those who support the Real IRA sentiments on the royal visit.

Charlie Bird also lost a chance to confront the cretins in his films on Tom Crean. Given the recent murder of Constable Kerr, Bird should have made more of the murder of Crean's brother Cornelius, a married man, with 28 years service in the RIC, who was shot dead in Ballinaspittle in April 1920. And stressed the silence forced on the families of such brave men.

But since the recession began to really bite, RTE has put the public sector at the top of its taboo list. Pat Kenny, in particular, shows a lack of patience with people who talk about pay cuts. When Seanad aspirant James Coyle pledged to cut his own pay, Kenny cut him off sharply and told him it was a stunt.

This taboo about anything that might touch public sector pay -- and by extension RTE pay from Director General to programme presenters -- even extends to Kenny's stand-ins. This is how Myles Dungan prepped a panel for a discussion on public sector pay a few weeks ago:

"Do any of you go along -- start with you Shane -- with the neo-liberal notion that we have an under-achieving feather-bedded public service that's really to blame for our current predicament, it wasn't the bankers and developers, it was the greedy public servants?"

Two questions. First, if RTE presenters can use Trotty phrases like "neo- liberal" to describe the majority of people who believe public sector pay needs the same scrutiny as bankers' bonuses, what will RTE reporting be like when the lead really begins to fly from the public sector unions? Second, who do RTE presenters think they are? Admittedly this is a rhetorical question. RTE presenters now regularly avoid areas which might rebound on them. Pat Kenny's reluctance to probe public sector pay mirrors Ryan Tubridy's reluctance to ask awkward questions about private lives.

This is an abuse of power. The public pays RTE to be a public service broadcaster. The public does not pay RTE to protect its position as part of the public sector. And the protective way RTE reports public sector reform is a privatising of the public interest.

Given the perceived conflict when RTE reports on a public sector of which it is a part, the Director General should spend more time in the diligent monitoring of bias than he does on digital distractions.

As the Fowler Commission on Broadcasting said: "Broadcasting is about content: the rest is housekeeping."

So far RTE has used the banking scandals to distract attention from its own pay packets. Broadcasters waxed angry about Colm Doherty's disgusting €3m pension pay-off but failed to follow up by showing that a minister who retires after 10 years and gets 60 per cent of his salary would need more than €3m to fund that pension in the private sector.

This desire not to draw attention to their own fat cattery explains why RTE is giving the Government a soft ride on the public sector. But this does Fine Gael no favours. Lacking a lethal opponent, Fine Gael has begun to believe that it is loved to bits.

Accordingly, instead of taking Machiavelli's advice to do all the dirty jobs on day one -- as David Cameron did by taking on the public sector unions -- Fine Gael is dawdling away the few days when it can get away with anything.

Fine Gael should have started its term of office with a massive cut in the pay of senior State and semi-State bosses. And forced those who resisted to face the stress of a long legal war with the State. That's one bill the public would have no problem paying.

Why is Fine Gael dragging its feet? For the same reason people refused to believe the property bubble would burst. Thanks to RTE's failure to put them under pressure, Fine Gael has foolishly begun to believe the current phoney peace is permanent.

Although it pains me to admit it, Labour ministers have shown more bottle than Fine Gael in facing up to the problem of the public finances. And if they continue on this course, they will displace Fine Gael as the future preferred party of middle Ireland. Burke, as always, was on the ball.

Sunday Independent

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