| 17.4°C Dublin

Eilis O'Hanlon: Humility is unheard of at spoilt and smug RTE

LIKE all great Shakespearean heroes, Coriolanus is brought down by his own flaws. In his case, hubris.

The Roman general knows he should take heed of the little people whose support he needs to rise to power in a democracy, but he just can't bring himself to do it. He's too entranced by his own greatness to even make the token effort of pretending to care what they think.

There's a touch of what ailed Coriolanus in RTE too.

Right now, with the publication of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland's (BAI) report into the defamation of Fr Kevin Reynolds imminent, the wisest course was to sit tight, wait to hear the verdict, then act accordingly -- making whatever changes were necessary to restore public trust damaged both by the naming of an innocent man as having had sex with a minor and by the later outrageous treatment of presidential candidate Sean Gallagher on The Frontline.

Instead, RTE jumped the gun.

Prime Time Investigates, the programme under whose otherwise reliable banner Fr Reynolds was defamed: axed.

Ed Mulhall, RTE's head of news for the last 14 years: feeling he had to opt for early retirement.

Current affairs editor Ken O'Shea: resignation (accepted, with the man himself reassigned to the broadcaster's lifestyle and entertainment section).

In addition, new editorial guidelines have been introduced and all staff are to be retrained.

As an institution, RTE barely stopped short last week of standing on O'Connell Street in sackcloth and ashes and begging forgiveness for its sins. It no doubt expects to bask in the resulting outpouring of sympathy as the fairminded Irish public decide that the broadcaster has been punished enough, whilst being subtly misdirected into not noticing that no one has actually been fired. It's the public sector way.

While the iconography of these gestures was all about humility, in reality they smacked of the same unmistakeable arrogance which brought RTE low in the first place. It was akin to a proud man in defeat taking a bitter pill of his own choosing, rather than being made to swallow a cyanide pill later at the behest of victorious enemies.

For Coriolanus, letting the hoi polloi have the final say over the mighty was no better than allowing "crows to peck eagles". He'd rather die than submit. On the evidence of last week, RTE's self-styled eagles have the same aversion to being harried by lesser beaks.

Naturally, director general Noel Curran denies that these moves were about pre-empting the BAI report, but what else are people supposed to think when there is no other logic to this timing, given that the BAI will make its own recommendations public soon, possibly necessitating further changes anyway?

It's all depressingly redolent of that hoary Hollywood cliche where the hero declares: "You can't fire me, I quit!" If any minister behaved like this in advance of the findings of a public inquiry, RTE's whited sepulchres would be the first to accuse him of presumption and diagnose something sick in the corporate culture which made it seem as if this was a smart move.

It's also the sort of behaviour which could only come from a group of people who have been granted a virtual monopoly and then delude themselves that the monopoly has been earned by right.

By taking such unilateral action, in fact, RTE is behaving as if it is indeed still the only game in town. Thankfully, those days are long gone.

If the nation is a house, the people who live in it have increasingly come to see RTE as a picture hanging on the wall, rather than the trusted pillar which holds up the roof.

They look at it now and again, but are just as likely to go days on end without giving it a second glance. Punters no longer think of it as the last word in authoritative commentary any more than they consider the Irish Times to be the newspaper of record or Fianna Fail the natural party of government.

The difference is they can choose whether to buy the Irish Times and choose whether to switch on Newstalk or TV3. With RTE, there is no such luxury. Whether the consumer likes the product or not, he is still legally obliged to pay for it anyway.

Even if he never watches or listens to a single thing which the organisation produces from one year to the next, he still has to fork out a sum almost double that of the current household charge for no other reason than that he lives in a country where to own a TV set at all is to be compelled to pay tax to an organisation with whom he may have fundamental disagreements or whose output he regards with undisguised contempt.

All monopolies become bloated and prone to corruption, just as being separated from the discipline of the market invariably pushes accountability to the back of the queue when sorting out priorities.

For the long-suffering citizens of Rome, the only solution in the end was to banish Coriolanus entirely, but that's not an option with RTE.

Instead, we must hope that the organisation really is capable of reforming itself, because the chances of this timidly tiptoeing Government imposing a muscular new broadcasting remit -- one which opens up the airwaves to healthy competition, instead of entangling it in its current smug, incestuous web -- are practically non-existent.

Sunday Independent