Monday 27 January 2020

Colum Kenny: RTE a runaway winner of the award for public disservice broadcasting

Colum Kenny

Donnybrook's dithering was an appalling response to the terrible Savita tragedy that everyone was talking about.

WHERE were RTE's television programmes when Savita Halappanavar died? For more than two days after news broke of the Galway tragedy, RTE left it up to its news and radio divisions to respond. It should have done better.

Meanwhile, TV3, a station that receives none of the TV licence fee by right, was filling a public service deficit on screen with two editions of Tonight With Vincent Browne. These programmes were devoted to the controversy about which people were talking.

And Nora Owen, the former FG justice minister, upended plans for her Midweek programme on TV3 last Wednesday night by doing what current affairs shows should do.

She delayed the start of a special report on rural unemployment that had been promised, making space first for a report from outside the Dail and then an interview, both addressing what people at home were actually talking about.

In contrast, Primetime steamed ahead on RTE like an ocean liner, unable or unwilling to turn around its planned programme on Thursday night. This was a documentary about children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Already postponed once, it might have waited for another evening.

When RTE television programmes finally dealt with the issue, it was merely by way of a discussion at the end of the The Late Late Show, two full days after Vincent Browne had hosted the first of TV3's two long panel discussions.

Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte recently appeared to rule out the possibility of RTE's share of the licence fee being reduced. He does not want sections of the media starting to 'cannibalise' one another in the current economic crisis.

But he went on to say that RTE should be challenged to do better, that it should "do more with the valuable resources accorded to it, and it should be always held to the highest standards".

RTE television could have been first out of the starting gates last week with a programme of good analysis and debate about the issues surrounding Savita Halappanavar's death. It was not.

It should have challenged viewers to think again about our complacency on the abortion issue. Incredibly, it is 32 years since Marian Finucane and Dick Warner won the National Italian Press Association Prize for Documentaries for her simple but gripping RTE radio programme about an Irish woman who travelled to England for an abortion.

Her Abortion: The Lonely Crisis underlined Irish hypocrisy on this issue, and it sounds as relevant today as it was when first made. Since then, not only politicians but also the media have failed to keep the issue in the public eye.

RTE points out that the story was extensively discussed on radio last week, with Pat Kenny, Joe Duffy and others dealing with it. RTE News also had reports on the planned HSE inquiry and on the political fallout, among other pieces.

But there is nothing like a substantial TV programme to deal with a hot issue. Miriam O'Callagan would have done it well. When people sit down in front of their TV, it is what they expect. And they did not get it from RTE last week.


RTE decided that the only discussion of the case on one of its TV programmes belonged late on Friday night. It came after a pre-recorded interview by Ryan Tubridy with Twink about her book, an interview with a comedian who presents a radio show on RTE radio and a charity fashion parade by members of the Oireachtas that made a jarring prelude to a debate certain to refer to the failure of politicians to pass a law that might have saved Savita Halappanavar's life.

Minister Rabbitte is sympathetic to RTE. So RTE should listen when he urges it to try harder.

He said in Cork that "it is the ultimate paradox of public service broadcasting that, far from keeping everyone happy, RTE is under legislative orders to actively try and not keep everyone happy – to push, to harangue, to test, to ask questions that commercial broadcasters are sometimes unwilling to, and in ways that they are unable to".

Reeling from the Fr Reynolds and the presidential debate tweet debacles in Donnybrook, and from the Jimmy Savile and Lord McAlpine scandals in London, public service broadcasters RTE and the BBC may be tempted to avoid controversy right now.

RTE should have done the opposite last week. It should have embraced the story of Savita and tried to broadcast a searing and special TV programme arising from it.

As the public wondered if a woman could really be let die in an Irish hospital in order to avoid terminating the heartbeat of a doomed foetus, citizens deserved more from the station that is often described as "the national broadcaster".

Sunday Independent

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