FORMER Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte has described RTE as a “recruiting sergeant” for the far left and Sinn Fein following its coverage of the Irish Water controversy.
The Labour Party TD tonight accused the national broadcaster of trying to “strangle Irish Water at birth” by producing “lopsided coverage” of the introduction of water charges.
In an extraordinary attack, Mr Rabbitte claimed in the Dail that RTE relies on a source within the public utility for information leaks which prove damaging for Irish Water.
He highlighted a report on the ‘This Week’ programme last week which detailed an absence of minuted meetings between the then Environment Minister Phil Hogan and Bord Gais chairperson Rose Hynes in 2012.
“If RTE were to broadcast similar exposés on every time a State company Chairperson had an unminuted meeting with a Minister – myself included - over the last thirty years, it would fill out the schedule until the end of the year,” Mr Rabbitte said.
In a statement tonight, RTE said: "RTÉ absolutely refutes the claims of imbalanced and biased coverage of the introduction of water charges."
"This has proved to be a contentious issue and RTÉ analysis, debate and coverage as been proportionate and objective," the statement said.
The Dublin South-West TD accused the station of failing to highlight the challenges facing the country’s water system.
“RTE’s coverage may have entertained but no sensible taxpayer or citizen could argue that it has informed or educated on the water issue,” he said.
"Where over the last 18 months are the programmes explaining why the public water system is on a knife edge; why our rivers are being polluted; why public health is threatened and our capacity to attract industry undermined and the options available to source the enormous investment needed to make it fit for purpose?
“RTE has acted as a recruiting sergeant for those who have taken control of and are manipulating the water protests. There must be people in RTE who know that Ireland alone in the EU doesn’t have a water charge.”
Mr Rabbitte’s Dail speech was made just hours after RTE executives rejected bias in its coverage during a hearing in front of the Oireachtas Communications Committee.
RTE chairperson Moya Doherty said political bias would not be tolerated by either the station's editorial team or the law.
Fine Gael TD for Limerick Patrick O'Donovan said license payers have switched to commercial and local stations because of a lack of regional balance on RTE.
Mr O'Donovan claimed the station would choose to cover "pigs flying up O'Connell Street" over a cultural event in his home city.
But RTE’s Deputy Director General Kevin Bakhurst insisted the station's editorial team is keenly aware of the need to adequately cover events outside of Dublin.
He said issues such as pylons and wind farms are two examples that have been covered extensively.
Separately, RTE's Deputy Director General Kevin Bakhurst said the national broadcaster is operating in a "highly competitive environment" which involves competitors trying to "poach" his presenters.
He said some presenters had been offered "more money" by rival media outlets but decided to remain in contract with RTE.
Mr Bakhurst, who also serves as Managing Director of News and Current Affairs, was also forced to deny that nepotism exists within RTE.
"There is none. We’re very public about the competitions we have. We wouldn’t stand for it, and if I knew of any I would take a very, very dim view of it," Mr Bakhurst told the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications.
"Several people have been offered jobs elsewhere in the last 12 months that I'm aware of. They were offered more money. They have chosen to stay with us because they believe in what we do, and they are well paid by us, but they were offered more money elsewhere," he added.
Labour TD for Cork South West Michael McCarthy took issue with certain well paid presenters being allowed interview people who have suffered pay cuts or been made redundant.
"It is obscene in the extreme. Not least because of the economic torture that has been inflicted on many hard pressed households in recent years," he said.
But Mr Bakhurst rejected suggestions that presenters should be excluded from interviewing individuals who have fallen on hard times.