Eoghan Harris

Wednesday 30 July 2014

RTE's silence over Lowry tapes is now the story

Eoghan Harris

Published 24/03/2013|04:00

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FOUR weeks ago, the Sunday Independent broke a major news story on the Michael Lowry tapes. All the national media covered the story. TV3 played the tapes. But so far, RTE has failed to cover any aspect of the story.

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When I say "failed to cover" I am being generous. Last week, Eilis O'Hanlon chronicled how the Lowry story was blotted out by every major RTE news and current affairs programme. In effect, it was spiked.

RTE's self-censorship on the Lowry story is now a story in its own right. Already, the leader of Fianna Fail has been asking awkward questions. The longer the silence lasts, the more questions.

Let me start with a simple one. Why won't RTE do a story on the Lowry tapes? Why won't they play them or parse them or even ponder them? Why is the Lowry story taboo?

So far, RTE has been hiding behind a flimsy legal hedge that allegedly prevents it from playing tapes which the Irish Examiner, Irish Times and TV3 treat as authentic. There is nothing to prevent RTE dealing with the politics of the story.

So why won't RTE deal with the political implications for Fine Gael and Labour that follow from the Lowry story? No need to play any tapes. Just note that Lowry does not deny that it is his voice on the tapes and then start joining the political dots.

But joining the political dots is precisely what RTE seems to be dodging. Possibly it is following Labour's policy of playing down a potentially huge political scandal. But even if that scandal is suppressed now, it will certainly surface at the next general election and cause even more trouble for Fine Gael and Labour.

I believe that the Lowry tapes are only the small tip of an immensely dangerous iceberg that is on a collision course with Irish democracy. Because that small tip, the stuff on the tapes, is prima facie proof of a bigger political crime followed by an even bigger political cover-up.

Lowry is a major story. But so increasingly is the disturbing silence from the national broadcaster. Certainly, the Lowry tapes have political implications for Fine Gael and Labour. As long as they can be covered by a free media, however, they do not threaten Irish democracy.

But what does threaten Irish democracy is the chilling of media coverage of the Lowry linkages in deference to powerful financial figures with links to Fine Gael. RTE is now playing a leading role in that chilling. And that is very much a threat to Irish democracy.

In fact, RTE's failure to follow up the Lowry story is the worst example of self- censorship I can recall in RTE in 50 years. And I was in Montrose when Jack Lynch, Sean Lemass and Charles Haughey all agreed in some sense that RTE was an arm of government.

Back then, RTE staff never bowed to that belief. When Haughey came down hard he was stoutly resisted by RTE staff, from director general Tom Hardiman down to the lowliest director. Today, that moral courage seems to be missing from the corridors of Montrose.

From Morning Ireland, Today With Pat Kenny and Prime Time up to the director general and the chairman of the authority, there has been neither any attempt to cover the Lowry story nor any concern about the lack of coverage.

But while the buck stops at the top, the first responsibility for covering the Lowry tapes rested with Kevin Bakhurst, the managing director of RTE News. Bakhurst was brought in from the BBC to clean out the Augean stables after the Fr Reynolds debacle, to deal with groupthink, to make a fresh start.

Faced with his first major test in the form of the Lowry tapes, however, Bakhurst apparently failed to recognise a major news story when he saw it. So I have to ask him a question. Would he recognise the Lowry tapes as a major story if presented in British terms when he was deputy head of the BBC newsroom?

Let's suppose Bakhurst was given tapes showing that a former Tory minister, forced to resign in disgrace,, most likely lied to a British state inquiry. Let's further suppose that David Cameron was refusing to reopen the inquiry. Let's finally suppose that ITV has already broadcast the tapes.

Would Kevin Bakhurst not treat the tapes as a priority news story and do his best to save the BBC's blushes? Of course he would. Any news editor who missed that massive story would be considered unfit for purpose.

Accordingly, two questions logically follow. If Kevin Bakhurst can't see the Lowry tapes are a major current affairs story, he is not behaving at RTE as he would at the BBC. Some Irish people might find that patronising.

Conversely, if he can see the Lowry tapes are a major story but has done nothing to cover them, then he is not fit for purpose on more fundamental grounds. So which is it?

Kevin Bakhurst seems to be a natural news broadcaster. So why has he not reacted to the Lowry tapes as an RTE executive as I am certain he would have done as a BBC executive? The most likely answer is that because he is still feeling his way into Irish politics, he either asked for or was given advice.

RTE implicitly acknowledged Bakhurst's need for local political guidance in a somewhat strange appointment it made after his arrival. Michael Good, who was already managing editor of radio news, was given a second job – as deputy managing editor of RTE News, acting as number two to Kevin Bakhurst, effectively his local adviser.

Bakhurst might also have sought, or been given, advice from David Nally, head of TV current affairs. Here we can make a reasonable guess about the nature of any advice sought or given. Nally was still pondering the tapes when TV3 went ahead and acted like a national broadcaster.

So much for the chiefs. But what about the Indians? Back in my day, producers and reporters would not have been waiting for programme suits to decide whether or not the Lowry tapes were transmitted. They would have been beating down the doors to do the story.

So what is wrong with the current affairs antennae of the producers and reporters on Morning Ireland, The Week In Politics, Prime Time and RTE News? Why, with only one honourable exception, have RTE reporters failed to follow up the story?

Having been his strongest critic, I am happy to credit David McCullagh with the courage to break the RTE consensus of silence. Last Wednesday, he asked Micheal Martin about the tapes on the plinth outside the Dail. Alas, neither McCullagh's question nor Martin's answer made the actual bulletin. Why?

Last Sunday, while doing What It Says In The Papers, Deirdre Purcell seemed to unduly stress that five Sunday Independent journalists were following Michael Lowry. She did not stress the fact that not one RTE journalist was following him. Thereby hangs a tale.

Irish Independent

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