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Emer O'Kelly : RTE has neither a clear vision nor a philosophy

LANGUAGE is always subjective. You can say that RTE has an agenda, for instance. Or you can say that RTE operates within a national consensus.

They mean the same thing in practice, but one sounds pretty damn reasonable. The other sounds pretty damn suspicious.

Or you can say that RTE has a left-wing liberal bias, as Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar said. Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party would probably reply "if only" to that. Because left-wing is also a subjective term. So is liberal; and left-wing and liberal are most definitely not synonymous.

Speaking as one who worked there for 18 years, I do think that RTE has an agenda, in that it is hidebound, and refuses to think outside the "national consensus". That consensus is nationalistic, Roman Catholic, and, to an extent, heterosexual. It is most certainly not liberal. RTE's version of liberalism is a certain bolshie-ness. But the dissidence is carefully controlled: you have to fit into the station's definition of acceptable boat-rocking. And that means never, ever, questioning the "national consensus".

There are RTE commandments. Unionists shouldn't have any rights. All American democrats are liberal saints (Leo Varadkar was right about that), particularly Bill Clinton. All American Republicans are devils, despite George

W Bush being publicly on the side of religion, and being against abortion, which the majority of people in Ireland also claim to be fiercely against. You should always appear to be secretly sneering at the British Royal Family. English Conservatives are all posh crooks underneath.

People may point to the defamation of Fr Kevin Reynolds, and ridicule the notion that RTE has a Roman Catholic consensus. But Roman Catholicism in Ireland has always included a level of anti-clericalism. But RTE has a very long road to travel before it can be accused of/credited with secularism. And the old chestnut that "nobody objects" to the Angelus bell on RTE proves it; the RTE authorities find it impossible to believe that Catholicism, in tenet or practice, could ever be profoundly offensive to anybody.

Accusations of left-wing subversion have always been thrown at the station, right from the days of the old Workers' Party when a number of the reporters and producers in current affairs were members of that party. One of them was Eoghan Harris of this parish; but he went on to be a Bertie Ahern nominee to Seanad Eireann. It was Eoghan Harris who, while still a producer in RTE, pointed out a simple fact about definitions of right and left wing: "The majority of trade unionists aren't left-wing," he said to me once. "They're working-class Tories." And, of course, voted Tory, ie Fianna Fail. It was one of his better definitions.

The problem is that so many people confuse the terms left-wing and liberal. Sinn Fein, for instance, may call itself left-wing: effectively it is as fascist, ie illiberal, as any party of the far right. Far left and far right have everything in common. And yes, there are a fair few Shinners in RTE, as there are a lot of FF-ers and FG-ers and Labourites, all of them partisan, and damn few of them liberal when it comes to other people's rights.

People are able to pursue personal agendas in RTE simply because it operates such a narrow "national consensus". No profound questions are asked, because nobody questions that nationalism and religion are sound fundamentals for a society. If they did, RTE would have to develop a vision and a philosophy, both of which are spectacularly absent, the void being filled by various forms of personal ambition among the staff and a dedication to power at all costs.

If personal ambition were combined with altruism and high intellect we might get somewhere. But Walter Cronkite, the veteran and hugely powerful American news anchor, wrote in his autobiography that the best person for TV journalism was rather right-wing, not very well-educated, not an intellectual, and from a blue collar (ie lower middle-class) background. That he was describing himself doesn't matter: he was right. In the Western world that has been the pattern; and it doesn't make for profundity.

Indeed, it seemed to me when I worked there that RTE's only bible was not to rock the boat. But even within that, it rather depended on who you were, because the place was (and I'm told still is) full of little personal empires.

If you were in, you could do pretty well what you liked. Out, and they didn't even lurk in the long grass: they were slithering up your leg at every turn.

I was still working in RTE when I became drama critic for this newspaper. I was given permission, somewhat reluctantly. But World War Three broke out when I referred in a review to an IRA atrocity (I forget which one) as "murder". I was carpeted, it was claimed that it was never expected that drama criticism would be controversial and involve opinions. (In RTE at the time, when the IRA butchered people, they were "killings". And the IRA were republicans, not terrorists.)

On another occasion, a senior news executive asked me to be interviewed about a mayoral election in Dublin, the interview being carried out by a junior newspaper trainee. There was blue bloody murder when it appeared because as a newscaster I had expressed a "political opinion" which was forbidden. The senior executive who had asked me to do it, of course, emerged unscathed from the fray.

On another occasion, after a radio programme which was edited so that my views were totally misrepresented, I sent a protesting email. The producer replied that she would call me. She did, explaining that she didn't want it on record in an email that the reason my views had been distorted was that the subject of them was "touchy and awkward", and they didn't want any trouble. My integrity mattered not at all.

The difficulty is that RTE gets away with it because of its near monopoly of broadcasting, and the fact that many people are dazzled by the prospect of even a few minutes of "fame".

In addition, RTE builds its stars until, like Lehman's they're "too big to fail". It's a dangerous position for any broadcaster who should never forget that he or she is first and foremost a reporter.

Sunday Independent