Sunday 22 April 2018

Review: Window and Mirror: RTE Television 1961-2011 by John Bowman

Collins Press, Cork, €25

AT HOME: John Bowman's
account is too cosy in parts
AT HOME: John Bowman's account is too cosy in parts
Colum Kenny

Colum Kenny

To judge from this book, RTE made Dermot Morgan. The caption under a picture of him dressed as a priest notes how his career began on RTE.

There is no hint of his anguish at the way that he felt the station treated comedians in general, or himself in particular. Morgan shared with me his concerns, just a couple of days before he left for Britain to find a home as Fr Ted.

And is it really the case that RTE television "cumulatively brought the scale of [sexual] abuse to such public attention that it could no longer be ignored by the political establishment"? The author omits to mention a crucial UTV documentary on Fr Brendan Smyth, or other programmes on TV3 and BBC2 that are discussed in a recent account of the role of TV journalism in that scandal (published in Irish Communications Review but overlooked here).

John Bowman, one of RTE's finest presenters, has written an interesting but sometimes too cosy account of the station for which he has long worked. He does not claim that his book is comprehensive, and it is not.

Window and Mirror is spiced with entertaining anecdotes, though it is quite difficult to picture Tom Hardiman, as RTE's director-general, grabbing "by the lapels" one Charles Haughey and telling him to back off, or indeed Jack Lynch saying "f**k them" when asked to respond to critics who accused his government of restrictions on freedom of speech. It would be fascinating to get either politician's viewpoint on the incidents, sadly both are dead.

In a glowing review in the Irish Times, UCD academic and RTE presenter Diarmaid Ferriter described Window and Mirror as "a wonderful monument to public-service broadcasters". But monuments are erected to commemorate, not to question, and this one is no exception. There is little here to disturb any but the most paranoid RTE executive.

RTE has made some challenging programmes. Bowman seems to think that this was so despite Taoiseach Sean Lemass stating that the new station should "not offend the public interest or conflict with national policy". The present reviewer is inclined to believe that Lemass knew well what the modernising impact of television might be, even if he needed to let his more conservative colleagues hear him tut-tutting when it stepped on powerful toes.

Those who worked for RTE, such as Gay Byrne, were pushing an open door. They shared and helped to shape a newer Ireland, even as the creative vanity of some of the station's employees led them to believe that they were doing much more than Irish society in general would permit.

One faction of the Workers Party in RTE went too far. While its policies in practice were often indistinguishable from those of conservative parties, its efforts to promote its interests on air exacerbated the occasional antipathy of mainstream politicians towards the station.

When Bowman refers to this matter, he mentions Eoghan Harris. But Harris never made a secret of his views and later left the station, while others quietly accommodated their principles to their careers. The problem was not one of individuals holding strong opinions but of a group mistaking political objectives for objectivity.

A casual reader of this book might, -- both from a photograph of a belated RTE picket and from what certain RTE personnel such as Joe Mulholland are quoted as saying quite late in the day -- form the mistaken impression that RTE robustly resisted the broadcasting ban that distorted coverage of Northern Ireland by keeping key players off the airwaves.

Bowman fails to refer his readers to a collection of published essays offering a variety of perspectives about that ban (Section 31), edited by NUI Maynooth's Mary Corcoran and DCU's Mark O'Brien.

He also omits any reference to the only book on RTE and television that has been written by a former RTE chairman (Farrel Corcoran), and overlooks another by a member of the RTE Authority (Bob Quinn).

RTE says that Bowman's book was deliverable under his contract with that station, although he retained editorial control. His account of the foundation of the second Irish television channel reads like a rationalisation of RTE's control of it, while the struggles to ensure that independent producers could contribute meaningfully to RTE and the fact that they came to contribute so much are all but invisible.

He refers to a documentary about the Irish Hospitals Sweepstake that RTE produced at considerable expense in Europe and North America and then suppressed. The "legal threats" that he mentions were part of a fuller story.

He gives considerable space to early complaints about RTE's attitude towards the Irish language, perhaps exaggerating their actual significance, yet fails to interrogate the impact or purpose of TG4. It now devours one quarter of all public revenues spent on broadcasting, despite its small audience share.

Bowman relies in part on earlier studies by Gorham, Savage, Horgan and Sheehan, although Helena Sheehan might challenge far more sharply than he does the drama output of RTE in recent years. The late development of domestic competition in Irish broadcasting is sidestepped in this account of a station that could do as it did because its priesthood was officially sanctioned as a monopoly and then as a dominant force on the airwaves.

During the Nineties RTE failed to be fair to its competitors in programmes about broadcasting issues and, in the face of criticism, asked this reviewer to make its first independently produced live current affairs programmes so as to be seen to be balanced. That controversy receives no mention.

Bowman's account is somewhat disjointed but well illustrated. He is harsh on a deceased director of music, Tibor Paul, but generous to other executives. He makes too little of the astute Brian Farrell, and he gives due credit to Sean O Mordha for a documentary on James Joyce, but maintains discreet silence about that award-winning producer's earlier neglect by the station and later departure from it.

Bowman's book is a useful addition to the limited literature on Irish media. It serves as a challenge to others to do better. RTE deserves credit for its achievements, and this book is an engaging celebration of it by one of its best broadcasters.

Dr Colum Kenny is professor of communications at Dublin City University

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