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Bruce Arnold: Pat Rabbitte has the absurd view that Noel Curran is indispensable as RTE director general

In an article published on Monday March 19, almost three months ago, I recommended the removal of the chairman of the RTE Authority Tom Savage and the RTE director general Noel Curran.

They ultimately were the figures responsible for the regulation of RTE in accordance with the law. They were ultimately responsible for governance, including editorial control, and had clearly failed to exercise it in allowing the broadcast of the Fr Kevin Reynolds programme and in the controls over the Sean Gallagher programme, together with other editorial lapses. Eoghan Harris made the same judgment. There were not many commentators who did.

None of this happened. Ed Mulhall took the rap, other staff members were 'moved around' or 'disciplined', and Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte pontificated -- he is still pontificating -- about the public service we are supposed to be getting.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland revealed statutory impotence but managed to raise questions that justified change. The minister was not motivated.

Deeper public inquiry into RTE did emerge from the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, doing far better than either minister or media.

It also exposed, in part, Mr Savage in a self-defence that included an embarrassing plea about his own reasons for sympathising with Fr Reynolds. The committee failed to raise key questions of conflict of interest, subsequently aired by the 'Sunday Independent'.

RTE has been shown to have benefited quite irresponsibly from Ireland having a chronic inability to regulate anything at all. The station has run a coach and horse through all the principles under which a supposed public service broadcaster should govern itself, or be governed by the Dail, the Authority, the BAI, public service and civil service practice and by the rest of the media.

The Dail played a better than expected role. The RTE Authority has been like a limp flannel. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has revealed itself to the Irish people as inadequately empowered, its legislation seriously flawed, the extent of its real authority too limited for the job of regulating programme management.

In the process, RTE, our public service broadcaster, has lost access to such a title. A public service broadcasting station needs a roadmap. The public needs to know much more about programming. This should deliver what it is getting and when. This cannot be represented by day-long wall-to-wall chat shows, often covering the same items repeatedly, showing lack of editorial control. Instead of a map to tell us what territory we will cover, we have a list of highly paid celebrities who decide, with very little editorial planning or research, what they will give us. The approach invades sport and news as well.

The embarrassment of what I regard as broadcasting chaos is greatly emphasised by the fact that we live, geographically, close enough to the best public service broadcaster in the world, the BBC, and have seen it at its best in recent days, during the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizazbeth II. We are privileged to see it in operation all the time, with many people preferring it.

With the best will in the world and a stern dependence on strict professionalism, RTE could make a reasonable fist of its limited finances and talent. It fails despite heavily indulgent and unfair shares of taxpayers' money. RTE fudges the issue. Its access to two forms of governance, advertising revenue combined with state revenue, represents a cosy relationship indeed and one that lacks proper direction and control.

Many of RTE's performances, where there should be a built-in expectation of basic principles of fairness, balance and probity, are spoilt by the opposite. The public service ideology should not be pre-ordained. It should derive from programming that is true to the political events in the country at any time. I find this principle all too often breached. How then have we been led to the absurd view held, it seems, by Mr Rabbitte, that Mr Curran is indispensable as director general and that the same applies to the authority and its chairman Mr Savage? Why should the claim that they did not know what was going on exonerate them from responsibility?

By any set of normal judgments they are the wrong people to try and patch up -- as is the present intention -- a woefully damaged and directionless organisation. The job needs fresh and reliable thinking. It probably needs a great deal more. Thus the ring-fencing of Mr Curran and Mr Savage, who chose Mr Curran as director general, is a mistake. From his statements so far it is also clear that for Mr Rabbitte to make up the troika of reformers and crisis managers is a mistake.

What is also wrong is the continued belief that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has any authority left to help over reform. This authority, like the RTE Authority, does not have powers adequate for the job since its legislative remit is flawed.

Since the BAI report we are still looking the other way in regard to what Anne Carragher, who investigated and reported, says in the foreword: "Broadcasting's powerful place in our society also brings heavy responsibilities and it is right and proper that those who hold others to account are themselves held accountable." Nothing that has happened so far shows this to be so.

The problem is "systemic", an accurate description of the sickness in RTE. It means "of the bodily system as a whole, not confined to a particular part". Senator John Whelan, of the Oireachtas Communications Committee, spelt out the word with reference to "poor morale, low standards and, in certain quarters, group-think culture ... spawned by a cult of the clique and cronyism that is alive and well in Montrose and over which he (Tom Savage) presides".

Not surprisingly Claire Duignan, managing director of radio, took grave personal exception -- the personal note being that she felt "besmirched" and that what he said was "grossly unfair". It was not, and there was no logical or forensic defence from her of RTE.

Helen Shaw, a former head of RTE Radio, seemed to accept the wider criticism as justified when she described the need for RTE to be an "independent, stable public broadcasting station, exactly what is centrally needed in our democracy". That is not the product we have now. Ms Duignan clearly believes it is.

The media is also at fault. Recent RTE payments to media contributors, including potential critics, show significant cash payments to high-profile political and public affairs commentators with significant bias in favour of 'Irish Times' journalists.

A random sampling of payments 'to pundits' from 2009 to 2011 showed that 45.7pc of the €120,187 paid out went to six writers for that paper. Proper critical attack -- like that levelled regularly by John Boland -- is predictably met by RTE's exclusion of him from broadcasting debates. We still have a long way to travel with RTE's shortcomings.

Irish Independent