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Monday 18 November 2019

John Downing: 'Horses for courses - RTÉ no stranger to spats with the State'

  

Reflective: RTÉ director general Dee Forbes (centre) at the funeral of Gay Byrne. PHOTO: DAVID CONACHY
Reflective: RTÉ director general Dee Forbes (centre) at the funeral of Gay Byrne. PHOTO: DAVID CONACHY
John Downing

John Downing

Speaking on the night he formally opened RTÉ's forerunner on New Year's Eve, 1961, President Éamon de Valera admitted that the immense power and reach of television made him "somewhat afraid".

Mr de Valera was not the only public figure who had misgivings for a variety of reasons. From its inception, Ireland's public service broadcaster was destined to have a push-pull relationship with the authorities.

This pulling and dragging often enough erupted into visceral public spats.

Speaking in the Dáil in October 1966, de Valera's successor, Seán Lemass, outlined how he saw the television services role as an integral part of government and administration.

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"Raidió Teilifís Éireann was set up by legislation as an instrument of public policy and as such is responsible to the Government... the Government rejects the view that RTÉ should be, either generally or in regard to its current affairs and news programmes, completely independent of Government supervision."

The underlying government attitude was very clear. But the language was carefully modulated, and the use of the term "completely independent" was notable for what was still a very authoritarian era where journalists tended to defer to the Catholic Church and the political elite.

Still, the ensuing decades brought an abundance of clashes between RTÉ and the authorities. And such clashes are unlikely to leave the Irish political landscape any time soon.

A flavour of the times was how Lemass, as Taoiseach, felt he was the "meat in the sandwich" in an early gut struggle between the notorious Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, and the station. The Catholic bishops felt they should have a major say in shaping the television output, though they were not all as strident as the Dublin archbishop as to the extent of their input.

Eventually, it boiled down to a simple issue: the station was prepared to hire a priest to advise it - but not prepared to allow Dr McQuaid to choose that priest. The bishops took their case to the corridors of power in an approach to President de Valera who relayed their views to his former party colleague and successor.

The Taoiseach told the authority chairman, Eamonn Andrews, to get the bishops "off my back".

There followed a byzantine series of politicking and conspiring which saw the station pick its own religious adviser.

The broadcaster and historian John Bowman later wrote that the "shadow of 'John C' had retreated", in a rare reverse for the bishops in those days. Thereafter the Catholic hierarchy would continue hefty criticism of the television station - but from the outside in an Ireland that was slowly but very surely changing.

Other RTÉ spats with officialdom did not end so well. In 1969, a forerunner of the current 'Prime Time' called '7 Days' did a major investigation into how the poorest of the poor in Dublin were being ripped off by moneylenders. To many people's astonishment the authorities' reaction was not to move against the moneylenders, but instead investigate the programme makers.

Lemass's successor, Taoiseach Jack Lynch, said the programme "exaggerated the situation out of all proportion". A tribunal sat for 51 days, at a cost of IR£250,000, and concluded that the programme's findings were "exaggerated".

The investigation did conclude that the journalists had not, as alleged, bribe some of the participants with alcohol to get their testimony. But the politicians had clearly gained a lot of ground and for some considerable time thereafter the television journalists were far less assertive.

Still, politicians of all parties and none have a healthy fear of the power of television as there are many examples of political careers badly maimed by misadventures on the small screen.

But politicians' interest in television is not confined to news and politics.

In 1973, newly elected Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave argued for horse racing, suggesting it was losing out to other sports.

Delighted RTÉ bosses were able to say there was far more racing broadcast than any other sport.

Irish Independent

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