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Sunday 25 September 2016

Nuance or subtlety unwelcome at an RTE that's still in groupthink's grip

There are indeed things for which Pat Rabbite might criticise RTE, says John Waters, but bias is not among them

Published 05/04/2015 | 02:30

Pat Rabbitte
Pat Rabbitte

Pat Rabbitte begins to remind me of Garret FitzGerald. After he retired from politics, Garret became a habitual frequenter of public conferences, at which he would sit enthusiastically, compiling abundant notes. When the time came for the Q&A session, he would spring to his feet and, occasionally referring to the disordered sheaf of papers in his hand, offer intricate and brilliant solutions to the issues under discussion.

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Brimful of proposals, brainwaves and brainchildren, Dr FitzGerald would discourse at length on every fissure of the discussion. For the duration of such perorations, the official speakers and audience members would remain spellbound, and at the end would weep as they applauded, united in a single thought: "If only a man with such vision, perception and awareness could become Taoiseach! What a country we would have!"

I had a similar response the other night watching Pat Rabbitte on The Week in Politics, lecturing Aine Lawlor about RTE's "lopsided" coverage of the Irish Water story. All of a sudden, it was as if Pat had become a fan of the Marquis of Queensbury, as he lambasted the RTE habit of interrupting Irish Water spokespersons in the middle of their sentences and reminded Aine Lawlor about the €150m RTE gets from the licence fee. "RTE is the public service broadcaster and there is a statutory obligation to do more than merely report and criticise," he scolded, uninterrupted. "In the words of Lord Reith in respect of the BBC, there is an obligation on RTE to entertain, inform and educate".

If only, I thought, someone with such a passion for balance and gravity in broadcasting could get to be Minister for Communications!

Then I remembered that, between 2011 and 2014, Pat Rabbitte was indeed Minister for Communications - and that for most of that time I was a member of the board of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), the body responsible for policy and regulation. At no time during his tenure did Pat Rabbitte say anything publicly to betray any profound ardour for broadcasting standards - nor, indeed, did he once darken the door of the BAI boardroom.

On closer examination, Pat's passion reveals itself as a narrow, party-pol fervour, perhaps merged with the unrequited zeal of a scorned suitor seeking to show his beloved what she's missing. After being shafted by Joan on her ascension to the Labour leadership, Pat sulked for a while and then returned frayside as a kind of righteous rottweiler defending the indefensible. His motive for sucking the hind tit was a trifle unclear: was he clocking up points for a comeback or taking with grace to a kind of elder lemon sweeper role in the style of Tony Benn or Dennis Skinner?

His attack on RTE was peculiar - not because there was nothing in it, but because there was so much and he missed most of it. His complaint - that RTE journalists and presenters are acting as "recruiting sergeants for those who have taken control of and are manipulating the water charges issues" - was simply silly.

"If I didn't know better," he declared in the Dail, "one might conclude that the lopsided coverage of the water issue derives from a decision of the RTE board to strangle Irish Water at birth."

Interesting sentence. Note how the initial "I" rapidly becomes "one". It may be remembered that, earlier in his career, there was an apocryphal rumour that Rabbitte kept a sleeping bag in RTE to allow him participate in programmes after midnight and then again from early morning. That "If I didn't know better" was to insure Pat against losing the total affection of RTE. Without it, what followed would have amounted to the kind of thing that, delivered from the mouth of a political opponent, would have invited the incomparable scorn of Pat Rabbitte's acid tongue. Pat's aim was to instil mindfulness without seeming like the kind of rhetorical extremist he eats for breakfast on 'Morn Iron', thus ensuring that nobody sent his sleeping bag home with FedEx.

If Pat Rabbitte really wants to have a go at RTE, I can identify three major headings under which he might usefully do so: (1) groupthink, (2) anti-intellectualism and (3) total detachment from the people it's supposed to be serving.

Talk of "groupthink" at Montrose goes back to the Carragher report commissioned by the BAI in the wake of the notorious Father Kevin Reynolds libel four years ago. Groupthink amounts to more than the coincidental occurrence of the same thoughts to an entire cohort or community. It involves the active cultivation of an absolute shared belief that there is but one way of looking at everything, and the certainty that any alternative perspective is ignoble and absurd. Groupthink operates not by formal direction but nods, winks, nudges and occasional hoots of derision. Many of those infected simply want to succeed in their jobs and be admired by their colleagues, so they agree to believe whatever is indicated.

A view is sometimes voiced that RTE consistently discriminates against "conservative" viewpoints, but I don't regard this as a useful way of seeing things. The point is that RTE reduces certain issues to a bogus progressive-liberal dualism, pitches extreme positions from both ends into conflict, and always tries to ensure that the "good guys" win. Nobody ever gets to finish a sentence, but nobody cares because everyone knows what each speaker was going to say.

Sometimes, enduring RTE programmes, you might get to thinking that there are only about 17 people in the whole country - all of them are either politicians or pol corrs who speak with more unanimity than bishops. What really irks Pat Rabbitte is that he was once among the ordained few and now he's just another heretic "right-winger", working for The Man.

The true absurdity of Rabbitte's outburst is that RTE groupthink is ad idem with the Labour Party programme. And this is why RTE people have been so outraged at the attack: that they should be so accused by a fellow traveller with whom they have journeyed so happily for so long.

Sitting alongside Pat Rabbitte on The Week in Politics, the former press ombudsman John Horgan touched on the nature of RTE's anti-intellectualism when he pointed out that most of the speech output in Irish broadcasting consists of people looking for votes shouting at one another.

People sometimes suggest to me that, because I don't appear much on radio or television these days, I must have fallen out with everyone in RTE. It surprises them to hear that I often get calls from RTE researchers who spend an hour or two on the phone achieving multiple orgasms about what I have to say about this or that topic of some upcoming programme. At the end they always go to pains to emphasise that the matter is out of their hands - they'll "get back" to me. Then, mostly by the look of it, they hang up and get back to Eamon O Cuiv.

One thing you should understand if you want to be a regular guest on RTE is never to express a nuanced or subtle argument to a researcher, but be sure to couch your remarks in simplistic, cliched and prosaic terms. At best, advancing an unpopular or counter-intuitive idea will earn you the tokenistic crank's chair in a sham debate, in which it's clear to everyone that you're the sucker at the table. There's no possibility of excitement or surprise, because those who manage the conversation decide everything on the basis of "correct" thinking. Fintan is the God of All Thoughts and Twitter the main guide to public sentiment.

Pat Rabbitte misses the point of RTE's coverage of the water protests. The real story is that RTE missed the boat last November when 200,000 people took to the streets to protest about the drop that broke the camel's back. Since then, Montrose's marvels have been playing catch-up, hanging on every utterance of Paul and Ruth O'Trot. No one at the "national broadcaster" has a clue what anyone thinks beyond the M50, so no one has yet sussed that since the hard Left hijacked the water protests, most mainstream citizens have pulled back. This is why RTE finds itself at the mercy of Pat Rabbitte's offside flag.

The following extract from the transcript of Pat's exchange with Aine Lawlor puts paid to the idea that RTE has any agenda - even a journalistic one - in respect of Irish Water.

Pat is declaiming: "What's being done in the manner in which it is being treated is to drive support for the elements that are manipulating the water campaign, and the unfortunate outcome - I've seen it before - is that citizens are being..."

Here, Aine Lawlor butts in with an RTE-serving question: "Well, how come water protesters were at the gates of RTE at the start of March?" (The answer is that the Trots had by then realised the national broadcaster was a soft touch.)

"Allow me to finish the sentence," Pat sniffs out of him. "Citizens are going to be left with accumulating debt that they need not have incurred. It happened in the case of the bin charges, and then the leaders moved on to a new campaign, and the bin system was privatised. That was the outcome last time, and that's what will happen on this occasion."

Were she a genuine Trot, or even a particularly on-the-ball interrogator, this is Aine's chance, to jump in and demand: "Are you saying there's a similar plan to privatise Irish Water?" Instead, she says: "I'll bring in Professor John Horgan here".

At the end, Aine makes a little speech to Pat, with a view to reconciliation: "We invited you in this Sunday because we do believe on this programme, and I think throughout RTE, that it is important to talk about - when we have big controversies - also the way we are covering them. Because we have to be honest with the audience, and I think that's something we can all agree on." Pat Rabbitte nods vigorously during this peroration. The Montrose world is returning to balance.

Pat looks under the table to see if his sleeping bag is still there. It is.

Sunday Independent

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