SELECTIVE: In his book, John Bowman fails to deal with the ultra nationalist tradition in RTE News. Photo: David Conachy
JOHN Bowman's coffee table history of RTE, Window and Mirror, got a rave notice from Diarmaid Ferriter. But a more nuanced review by Colum Kenny in this paper provoked Bowman to complain in a letter to the editor last week.
Clearly Bowman is more sensitive to criticism than one might expect from a broadcaster. Yet he feels free to single out and corrosively criticise Eoghan Harris for political activism -- as if Harris was the only political animal in RTE.
Bowman's extended treatment of Harris lacks all balance and is the major blot on this book. He signals his view with crude anti-Harris cartoons and makes no attempt to show how Harris's politics were a rational reaction to RTE's distorted relationship with Irish nationalism.
Harris joined RTE in 1966, at a time when the late Pearse Kelly, a former member of the IRA army council, was head of News. Kelly was followed by another former senior IRA figure, the late Jim McGuinness. Frank Dunlop confirms in his memoir, Yes Taoiseach, that this Haugheyite news room element lasted well into the Eighties.
Bowman does not deal with this ultra nationalist tradition in RTE News.
And Bowman should admit that a revisionist anti-Haugheyite like Harris had every reason to resist that Haugheyite culture.
Neither does Bowman deal with the way RTE provided an ideologically congenial bolthole for various Trotskyist groups like the League for a Workers' Republic and the Revolutionary Marxist Group in the Seventies, a theme sketched by Patrick Smyth in his Irish Times column last April. Both groups gave 'critical support' to the IRA and once in RTE they recruited rapidly. By 1987 they had marginalised producers such as Harris and Gerry Gregg who supported Section 31.
Bowman is silent about the ideological influence of these leftists. He does not deal with the major row that followed their failure to condemn the Enniskillen bombing at a trade union meeting in 1987. Harris resigned from his union in protest and published Television and Terrorism -- still a landmark critical analysis of how PIRA spokespersons manipulate the media.
Bowman is mute on this and on Harris's pioneering call for pluralistic programming to conciliate Ulster Protestants.
While lavish in praise of minor talents, Bowman also fails to given Harris proper credit for Féach, which broke new ground in Irish language current affairs.
And he adds distortion to begrudgery by querying Harris's contribution to the Robinson presidential victory in 1990 -- following which he was pressurised out of RTE.
Bowman gives us the official RTE side of this -- but then tries to deprive Harris of any credit for the creative Robinson campaign.
He cites a John Waters article in 1990 which sketched Harris's key role, but wonders whether Robinson really took his advice. Emily O'Reilly's book Candidate showed Harris's central involvement in Robinson's campaign, a book Bowman does not cite.
Bowman's failure to be fair to Harris is compounded by the impression that the book reflects RTE management bias. In his letter, he said his book is independent of RTE. But he would hardly accept this claim at face value if made by another author who was at the same time presenting a weekly programme on RTE.
Bowman's semi-detached relationship with RTE may account for his cosy acceptance of received RTE wisdoms.
Unlike Robert Savage, Bowman tells us little or nothing of their far more numerous -- and covert -- political enemies in RTE ranging from Trotskyist PIRA supporters to the clandestine Opus Dei and the Knights of Columbanus.
Finally, Bowman does not deal adequately with one of the most crucial events in RTE current affairs -- the enforced transfer of 7 Days from Programmes to McGuinness's News paddock in 1969.
This blunted the pioneering programme run by Lelia Doolan and her two lieutenants, Harris and Dick Hill.
That transfer continues to reverberate. Current affairs in RTE is still muffled by the norms of RTE News.
The recent Fr Reynolds debacle is another reason to believe that RTE News needs auditing by a cold external eye.
Bowman's book is not such an eye. His window lets in no real light. His mirror shows a smug and self-satisfied face. Instead of analysis, we are burdened by archival trivia like what happened when Ray Burke tried to force RTE to seat 1,300 dinner guests instead of 600
If you want a book that challenges the feel-good RTE managerial narrative, you should look to Lelia Doolan's Sit Down and Be Counted, Robert Savage's Loss of Innocence, Helena Sheehan's Irish Television Drama -- and above all, Liam Mac an Iomaire's biography of Breandan O hEithir, Iomramh Aonair.
This probes the ideological polarisation within Seventies RTE and reveals the militant Catholic nationalist atmosphere that squandered the talents of Harris, Niall Toibin, Dermot Morgan and Sean O Mordha.
Toibin's own fine memoir Smile and Be a Villain departs jarringly from Bowman's morality tale.
You would never know from Bowman's book how thuggishly RTE treated Toibin. As well as cancelling his series under pressure from fundamentalist Catholics, RTE wiped every tape of If the Cap Fits.
Posterity was denied important political satires on PIRA and the Catholic Church penned by Toibin's friend -- who else -- Eoghan Harris.
The real history of Montrose, warts and all, remains to be written.
JP McCarthy writes for Beo.ie