News Eoghan Harris

Monday 22 September 2014

Eoghan Harris: Yes, RTE does serve the public -- the public sector

Published 04/11/2012 | 05:00

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Back in 1969, in Sit Down and Be Counted, Jack Dowling penned portraits of some of his RTE colleagues. Mine said: "He had a social commitment to the underprivileged of such intensity that it often frightened his friends as much as his opponents."

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Actually, I was not alone. Many of the golden Sixties generation suffered from the same Swiftian "savage indignation". My passion for social justice -- and rejection of Provo nationalism -- brought me into the Workers Party, where I was later joined by Eamon Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte and Kathleen Lynch.

Today, although sceptical of socialism, I still suffer from savage indigation in two areas. First, my anger against apologists for armed republicanism abides. The murder of David Black brought back the grief many of my generation felt after each fresh atrocity during the 30 years of Provo terror.

In some ways, it resembled the rage felt by Irish people during the executions of 1916. Warren B Wells, an Ulster Unionist, in a insightful letter called 'An Irish Apologia' told his UK readers that Irish people were experiencing "something of the feeling of helpless rage with which one would watch a stream of blood dripping from under a closed door".

I have no doubt that Gilmore, Rabbitte and Lynch share my rage against the Recurring IRA. But I doubt they share my second savage indignation. That is the rage I reserve for the political class -- of which they are a prominent part -- which continues to protect its bloated pensions at a time of serious suffering in the private sector.

Most Irish private sector workers have no pensions. Two weeks ago the Report on Pension Charges 2012 revealed that fund managers were taking a cut of 17.4 per cent from those who do. Add the government levy and private pensioners will have lost €2bn by 2014. Compare their case with those of Cabinet ministers.

Last Tuesday, in the Irish Times, Colm Keena and Pamela Duncan showed it would take €36m to fund pensions for the 15 Cabinet members at current market rates. Domnic Coyle, in an accompanying piece, summed up the feelings of every private sector worker I met last Tuesday in describing Cabinet pensions as "breathtakingly generous in times of economic austerity".

These figures make a mockery of social solidarity, never mind social partnership. They should shame Labour ministers like Gilmore and Rabbitte. They also explain their eroding support.

Coming up to a Budget that will bear down on pensionless workers, the Irish Times story cried out for contextual follow-up coverage by RTE. But starting with Morning Ireland -- which confined itself to Superstorm Sandy, the Children's Referendum and cyber-bullying -- RTE news and current affairs simply ignored the biggest political story of the day.

There was nothing about Cabinet pensions on Myles Dungan presenting The Pat Kenny Show. Nothing about it on News At One. Nothing about it on Drivetime -- and if there was it is not registered on RTE Player.

RTE Television also kept its cameras away from the Cabinet pension story. Nothing about it on 6.01 News, nor on The Nine O'Clock News. Prime Time, which had a whole day to put the Cabinet pensions into perspective, had nothing to say.

Things were better that night on TV3 thanks to Vincent Browne and Constantin Gurdgiev. But, asked for his views, Fionnan Sheehan failed to cleanly condemn the current Cabinet pensions, preferring to flak about those FF ministers who had already gone off with their pots of gold.

Colm Keena's story on Tuesday had finished as follows: "A spokesman for Mr Howlin said he had no comment to make on the figures." A further two days passed without a word from Howlin on RTE radio.

By Thursday, however, Howlin had figured out that RTE was a friendly zone. He breezed on to Morning Ireland with that smiling, plummy sound that politicians produce when they feel safe. Aine Lawlor allowed him to waffle about Oireachtas committees but asked him nothing about Cabinet pensions.

Howlin had what I call a ho-ho interview. At the tail end of it, Lawlor brought up the Eircom jobs. This was a good peg from which to hang a probe about what kind of pensions the Eircom workers would get. But she did not make the connection.

Contrast that with the cogent and coherent coverage on Newstalk's Breakfast show. On Tuesday, Chris Donoghue and Shane Coleman agreed that no party would touch pension reform. On Wednesday they wheeled out the artillery in the form of Eddie Hobbs.

Hobbs summed up the current strategy of the political class in one pithy sentence: "Ireland is in a grip of an over-55 group of insiders whose sole objective is to run the show until they get those pensions when they retire in a few years."

Coleman pointed out that the problem was not confined to Cabinet ministers or even senior public servants. What about teachers in their early 50s retiring on pensions higher than the salary of those teachers coming in? Listening Labour and trade union leaders should have hung their heads in shame.

Hobbs's solution was two-fold: (a) to cap pensions at 40-50 thousand (which at the top would be more than twice my own modest pension) and (b) a universal pension scheme. Both would promote social solidarity.

But of course, there is no chance whatsoever the current parties in Dail Eireann would support this. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas. So until the private sector produces a boutique reform party, the current political class will continue to exploit us.

Last week, RTE advanced the agenda of the political class by not showing the gap between public and private pensions. It behaved like a public-sector broadcaster rather than a national broadcaster. Surely tackling this problem should be a priority for Kevin Bakhurst, the new Director of Current Affairs?

Ironically, while failing to put the problems of 1.4 million private sector workers in the context of Cabinet pensions, RTE was running a promo for a programme called Too Broke To Retire. You can be sure no Cabinet ministers are taking part.

Let me finish -- and yes I will link it to the issues raised above -- with a word about the new Bond film, Skyfall. Contrary to what the critics say, I found it slow. But the main plot problem is that the hammy villain is pursuing a private rather than a public vendetta.

The best Bond films featured a villain who posed a global threat. This gave these films some political gravitas. But in Skyfall there is no such threat to democracy and civilisation.

Lacking any large issue, the screenwriters drag in Tennyson's Ulysses by the hair of the head to give spurious moral weight to a silly and shallow plot. But his great lines have something to say to us in Ireland at this dark time.

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Sunday Independent

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