Harney was offered to RTE -- if Crown axed
Minister agreed to appear on radio programme -- but only if the critical consultant was removed from show's line-up
Controversy over claims that the Government sought to interfere with RTE in relation to its coverage of the cancer debate and the health service in general took a new twist this weekend.
The Sunday Independent has confirmed that Health Minister Mary Harney had offered to appear on an RTE programme only if hospital consultant John Crown was dropped from the line-up.
While it is Ms Harney's prerogative as to which public forum she appears on, the fact that one of her spokesmen tried to have Professor Crown removed from the RTE radio programme Saturday View last weekend tends to supports claims that the Health Minister sought to interfere with RTE.
The ongoing controversy was further stoked in the Irish Times newspaper yesterday when Noel Whelan, a commentator with a Fianna Fail background, claimed that the issue actually raised questions about newspapers' editorial policy rather than about alleged Government interference.
Yesterday, however, a spokesman for Ms Harney, Mark Costigan, confirmed that he had personally contacted the producer of Saturday View last weekend offering Ms Harney as a Government spokeswoman on the radio show.
The Sunday Independent understands that, at that time, Junior Health Minister Maire Hoctor had already been made available to the programme.
But when it became known to Ms Harney's advisers that Professor Crown was also scheduled to appear on Saturday View, they sought to replace Ms Hoctor with the senior minister, Ms Harney -- but only on condition that Professor Crown be dropped.
Yesterday, Mr Costigan said Ms Harney's position was that she was willing to make herself available, but was not prepared to enter into a debate with Professor Crown.
The producer of Saturday View, Noelle O'Reilly, considered but eventually declined Ms Harney's offer. Ms O'Reilly was unavailable for comment yesterday.
It is understood that Mr Costigan was motivated by Professor Crown's trenchant criticism of the Progressive Democrats on another RTE radio programme, the Pat Kenny Show, the previous Tuesday. During that programme, Professor Crown said: "I detest everything the PDs stand for".
RTE had already insisted there was no political interference in an earlier decision to remove Professor Crown, a leading cancer specialist, from a debate on the health service on the Late Late Show.
The broadcaster said managing director Noel Curran received no contact from any political source before asking that a panel containing Professor Crown be altered.
RTE has insisted the move was done in the interest of balance, but Professor Crown, a longtime critic of Government health policy, has alleged Government interference.
However, a spokesman for Ms Harney, Derek Cunningham, confirmed that he had told the Late Late Show team that the proposed panel was unbalanced. But Mr Cunningham emphasised that no request had been made to remove Professor Crown from the Late Late Show.
Professor Crown did, however, appear on RTE's Saturday View radio programme the following day.
The Pat Kenny Show subsequently invited Ms Harney on air the following Thursday, but her advisers decided against it as "we did not feel Professor Crown's views on the PDs was an appropriate starting point for a debate on the health service."