Friday 30 September 2016

Too many RTE pet pundits singing same old songs

Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30


Last Friday week, on the night of the General Election count, shortly after the first exit polls I filed my weekly political column.

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As our sub-editors can confirm, I never touched it again. What appeared last Sunday was written over 24 hours before.

Yet nothing in that column has dated. And its concluding prediction - that there would be no FG-FF coalition - still stands.

Meantime, RTE's pet pundits only reluctantly realised a few days ago that their confident prediction of a FG-FF coalition was completely wrong.

Last Monday, on Newstalk's Lunchtime with Jonathan Healy, I did a post-mortem on the General Election and made some further predictions. In doing so, I held firmly to my favourite Orwell dictum: not to repeat anything already said by anybody else.

Listeners responded with enthusiasm to my effort. It was Newstalk's most popular broadcast for days.

Even commentators who did not agree with my analysis praised its edge, energy and effort.

David McWilliams generously tweeted to his 160,000-plus followers that he found it "interesting, trenchant and committed".

Arising from that response, I have a question for RTE's director general Noel Curran and managing director of news and current affairs Kevin Bakhurst.

Given I have been writing about Irish politics for the past 20 years, how can RTE justify excluding me from RTE and current affairs programmes?

Of course, I have contributed to general cultural programmes, particularly those in Irish. The block is in RTE news and current affairs.

Not that I crave the semi-regular status enjoyed by some of RTE's permanent pet pundits.

I firmly believe that most contributors have only one outing in them during any political crisis: having said their piece they should shut up until they fill up again with fresh insights.

Indeed, I regularly turn down most requests from Newstalk and Today FM.

The reason I did Lunchtime was because I was fed up listening to commentators still spouting the same cliches they had spouted during RTE's election count.

The chief cliche is that since there is no policy difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, they should coalesce in the "national interest".

Nobody on the RTE count panel asked how it was in the national interest to leave Sinn Fein alone in opposition.

Or pointed out the historical value of two alternating centrist parties in staving off the politics of fascism and communism.

RTE current affairs teams have no excuse for not balancing the books. They read my column religiously, if only to reject it.

Having read my case against a FG-FF coalition last Sunday, they should have asked me out to Montrose.

Furthermore, my presence might have pepped up the pallid panellists, Geraldine Kennedy excepted.

Before saying what was wrong with the coverage, let me say what was right.

David McCullough was sharp and witty in both the run-up and follow-up election coverage. He was also secure enough to let Katie Hannon's star shine.

Miriam O'Callaghan's interaction with RTE reporters at the count centres was incisive; a whole generation of fresh faces got stuck into the tallies with gusto.

But the studio is the nest to which we return after watching the reporters fly around on location.

By and large, the studio panels were poor. Too many academics. Professor Michael Marsh seemed to suck energy out of the air around him.

What was needed was a permanent panel of people with conflicting views and proven polemical powers: people like Michael McDowell, John Waters, Fintan O'Toole, Nora Owens. And me.

From a broadcasting point of view, it makes no sense for RTE news and current affairs to exclude contrarians who are willing to challenge a cosy consensus of commentators.

But in the past, perversely, the better I performed the more nervous RTE chiefs seemed to get.

After my Late Late Show outing in 2007, Noel Curran and Cathal Goan told an Oireachtas committee they were "uneasy" about my impact so close to a general election.

But then, Ed Mulhall, head of news, implicitly contradicted this, saying the studio audience did not agree with me. Make up your minds.

Although there was political prejudice in the past, I believe the current reluctance to ask me to contribute comes from intellectual insecurity.

RTE presenters seem to prefer pedestrian panels, peddling predictable pap, rather than wrestle with fresh notions.

Added to intellectual insecurity is the habit of bringing on former political employees, who currently run PR companies.

It stands to reason that no PR agency wants to make enemies - but a willingness to do so is what gives energy to television debates.

Accordingly, I was baffled by why Aine Lawlor seemed so pleased by the contributions of Gerry Naughton of Drury PR.

In my absence, there was nobody to answer the cliche that there is no place for civil war parties and no difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

But as I told Jonathan Healy, the American Civil War has been over a lot longer than the Irish Civil War and yet the two parties of that conflict still dominate politics, and will continue to do so.

Likewise, I both hope and believe Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will be still be around in 100 years' time.

The choice between the centrist FF and FG, with Labour moving between them, has saved us from the extremes of European politics in the past - and will surely do so again.

Finally, let me dispose of the foolish notion that there is no difference between the two major parties. Let me give you a rough analogy.

Last week, the Cistercian College Roscrea met Clongowes Wood in the semi-final of the Leinster Schools Senior Rugby Cup.

Although Roscrea is smaller, both are boarding schools. So I do not believe that there are many in Roscrea from deprived homes.

Conversely, I do not believe that every Clongowes boy is born with a large silver spoon in his mouth.

But that said, only a sophist could pretend both schools are the same.

Certainly their supporters showed an awareness of both class differences and the urban-rural divide.

Clongowes supporters regularly chanted "Tractor boys" at the Roscrea supporters, who returned it with chants of "Daddy, buy me a car".

Roscrea roughly corresponds to Fianna Fail, and Clongowes to Fine Gael. Like Jim Cogan's caricature of the Fine Gael frontbench today, there is enough truth in it to make you think.

Finally, perhaps in a portent of things to come, the score was Roscrea 24: Clongowes 18.

Sunday Independent

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