LAST Tuesday, as the Taoiseach was about to address both Houses of the British parliament, I walked into a well-known pub in Blackrock, Co Dublin (nameless, to spare the blushes of its nice owners) and asked the barman to turn on the television. He looked around as if to an invisible approving audience, shook his head and told me he had seen enough of Ahern all week.
After some harsh words on my side, he sullenly turned on the television and then sulked at the far end of the bar. On reflection, however, I cannot blame him for striking an anti-Ahern pose given the pressure on him by his invisible masters - most of our media.
For the past three weeks, RTE News - tamely tailed by most of the print media - followed a tedious trail about Ahern's finances, first laid down by Frank Connolly in the Irish Daily Mail, which finally disappeared in the wood of public apathy.
The media cannot argue with public interest. If the story had public importance, it would still be alive today. But the Sunday Independent killed it stone dead last Sunday and so far it has defied all RTE News's attempts at resuscitation.
Any independent media research body would find lack of balance in the coverage of the past three weeks. But the print media at least allowed some leeway. But RTE News was perceived by the public as partisan from the start - a point proved by the volume of complaints to RTE as reported by the Evening Herald.
The editorial edge in RTE News, aimed almost exclusively at Ahern, was most pronounced in the handling of his historic address to Westminster. As I said above, I watched the speech, live, in somewhat strained circumstances. Later, along with RTE News's response, I studied a tape of the speech carefully.
I took the trouble to do so because I have a special interest in both the theory and practice of writing speeches. In theory, because I am an admirer of Aristotle's Rhetoric. In practice, because I was the author of Mary Robinson's 'Hand that Rocked the Cradle' speech, and the main contributor to David Trimble's Nobel Prize address.
In my opinion, the Westminster speech was one of the most splendid orations of my lifetime, not excluding John F Kennedy's speeches in Ireland. I say oration because it was quite properly written not for informal delivery to a small audience but for delivery in a public voice, with full pomp and circumstance, from a public platform.
The reputed authors are Gerry Howlin, an adviser to the Taoiseach, and Michael Collins, a senior civil servant. They deserve the thanks not just of the Taoiseach but of the British and Irish people. In language as lyrical as it was lucid, they put a precise semi-colon at precisely the right place in the complex narrative of British and Irish history, marking both the end of one era and the beginning of another.
Like John Cooney of the Irish Independent and Noel Dempsey of Fianna Fail, I too found tears in my eyes. Thanks to Tommie Gorman, the first reaction of RTE radio news was the right mix of respect and hard reporting. But Tommie's good work went down the drain later in the day when RTE television news downgraded and degraded one of the most moving moments in Irish history.
Far from awarding Ahern's superb speech an honoured place at the head of the news bulletin, RTE television news relegated it to second billing behind a sad regional suicide - a doubly doubtful decision by media bosses who are so critical of tabloid values in their print cousins. That culture of casual begrudgery was pervasive.
Following clips from the speech - which failed to point up Blair's heartfelt tribute to the Taoiseach as TV3 did - Sharon Ni Bheolain put a question to RTE's London editor, Brian O'Connell at Westminster. Such questions are usually prepared for news presenters in advance by the RTE News team.
What she said - more, it seemed, as a statement than a question - was: "A proud day for Bertie Ahern, Brian?"
Now, Brian O'Connell is not a begrudger. And he normally might well have smartly rejoined, "Actually a proud day for Ireland, Sharon."
But as if taken aback by the narrowness of the question, he treated the Ahern address like a personal moment in a political campaign, rather than a piece of history in its own right, and waffled weakly. And so his Montrose masters messed up our spot in the sun.
By contrast, TV3 News had no doubt of the national importance of the address and put it firmly at the front of its bulletin. TV3's follow-up was sharper too. Jerome Hughes asked Enda Kenny how he could follow that, and Kenny's silence said it all.
By any standard, on the night that was in it, TV3 could credibly claim to be the national broadcaster.
And when Bertie Ahern comes back for his third term, he should take steps to force RTE News to obey its obligation to balanced reporting under the Broadcasting Acts. And make sure that TV3 is adequately assisted in offering an alternative voice to RTE's rampant self-regard.
A levy to level the playing field is in order.