Wednesday 17 October 2018

Bertie Ahern and the grand tradition of TV walk outs

  • Bertie Ahern (German TV)
Bertie Ahern gets angry at the line of questioning on German broadcaster DE’s Conflict Zone, especially about his finances and the Mahon Tribunal. Full video can be viewed on independent.ie
Bertie Ahern gets angry at the line of questioning on German broadcaster DE’s Conflict Zone, especially about his finances and the Mahon Tribunal. Full video can be viewed on independent.ie
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

With his walk-out on the Tim Sebastian interview for German TV, Bertie Ahern was making his contribution to a grand tradition in television, that cathartic moment when an important person decides they've had enough of this racket, or as Spandau Ballet put it: "I don't need this pressure on."

We don't know if Bertie is a fan of Spandau Ballet (or indeed of the New Romantic movement in general) but he would be a kindred spirit of the last Irish public figure to walk out of a TV studio in high dudgeon, the union leader Jack O'Connor who stormed off the Vincent Browne show - O'Connor is another Dubbalin man, who would be coming from a culture well-known to Bertie too, of meetings where everything is tightly controlled by customs and procedures, "through the chair" and all that.

So when Tim Sebastian wanted to get off the glories of the Good Friday Agreement, and on to the inglorious tale of the Finance Minister Who Had No Bank Account, Bertie invoked the proverbial clause 3, sub-section 12 of the Committee Rules, and disallowed the question in the only way that seemed open to him - he declared the meeting adjourned.

In this he would be defended by Ryan Tubridy, who maintained that Bertie was "probably within his rights on that one". If they said to him, we're going to here, here, and here, that's fine, but if they said, "we're just going here", well then that's not so cool.

And Tubridy is right too, it is no more than a statement of the truth that in general, as he put it, "that's how they roll". Most well-known people who present themselves before us for a TV interview, are doing it on their terms. They are not submitting themselves to a process of investigative journalism, they are engaging in a public relations exercise.

These are the most ancient of all media battles, the ones between journalism and public relations, and some would say that the old PR is winning them all these days. Which ignores the fact that for generations, political journalists in particular, would conspire with the important people they wrote about, to leave out the interesting stuff - the "human" stuff for which they had such disdain, but which, of course, is more informative than all the officially agreed lines.

And, despite all these backroom deals between interviews and interviewees, there is always a margin in which some creativity can prevail. Brendan O'Connor, whose Cutting Edge series ended its current run last week, would have presented many shows in which important people are appearing with the specific aim of merely advertising themselves, but would have an awareness that there are moments in which even a highly-coached celebrity may feel like telling the truth, if it is put to them the right way.

Rather than simply accepting the "rules" which are all made up anyway, a presenter needs to be alert to the possibility of subverting them, since they are largely a formula for boredom - and that is not much good to the control-freak celebrity either, who may find that what he gains in the avoidance of embarrassment, he will lose in the banality of it all.

And if you simply ignore the "rules", what's the worst that can happen? You'll have a walkout, which will give you a much better ending to your programme than you could have envisaged. Though, of course, those who see themselves as "serious" journalists might dismiss this as mere "entertainment".

Fiona Mitchell, RTE's London Correspondent, found herself at one of these great crossroads recently, when she finished a piece on the good weather in London, by holding a 99. One thought of Chekhov, who told aspiring dramatists that if there's a rifle hanging on the wall, at some point it must go off. Likewise, if you are holding a 99 on TV, at some point you're going to have to lick it.

Mitchell may have hung on to her "seriousness" by not licking that 99. But a Brendan O'Connor or a Tim Sebastian would not have hesitated.

* watch back Visit the RTE Player at rte.ie/player

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