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RTE should get over the liberal agenda – it's why conservatives like me get less airtime


Betty Purcell

Betty Purcell

Betty Purcell

RTE is one of the most powerful institutions in the land. It is our national public broadcaster. Like An Garda Siochana, like the banks, like our political rulers, we place a certain amount of trust in it to do the right thing.

In the case of RTE the right thing is to be fair and impartial, to make good programmes, to not be captured by one point of view, to ensure that a broad range of opinion exists among its staff.

Lately I've been reading Betty Purcell's 'Inside RTE'. Betty Purcell was a powerful figure in the station for many years. She probably reached the peak of her influence when she edited 'Questions and Answers'.

Purcell writes in her memoir that she was recruited by RTE straight out of UCD where she was involved in radical left-wing politics.

She describes how she joined the station "along with other opinionated student activists such as Patrick Farrelly, Ronan O'Donoghue, Julian Vignoles and Ian Wilson".

These were not an isolated handful within the station. Purcell quotes Helena Sheehan who wrote about RTE television in the 1960s.

Sheehan said that amongst those working in RTE: " ... were a significant number of people of progressive and even radical views. Although their work never expressed the full force of their convictions, they nevertheless put up a formidable fight to secularise and liberalise programme output".

That is quite a statement. But Purcell adds: "By the time I was appointed a radio producer in 1979, there were many such figures in the station, most of them commendable ... Broadcasting for me, was a continuation of politics by other means, and was a route to effecting social change and exposing injustice."

In his history of RTE television, 'Window and Mirror', John Bowman, having also used the aforementioned Helena Sheehan quote, says that it is "in the very nature of television that it tended to attract ideologues – and most of them well-intentioned ideologues, it must be allowed – intent on convincing the viewers of the righteousness of their case".

In other words, RTE was (and is) used as an instrument to drive a particular point of view and that point of view was (and is) frequently liberal/left and secular.

Purcell is commendably honest about why she joined RTE. She saw her work as "politics by other means".

In her early days she worked on a show called 'Women Today' which she says "consciously mirrored the subject matter of the very active and vocal women's movement".

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She expresses sympathy for the RTE management "as it tried to tread the path of modernisation, while avoiding alienating the vocal, conservative section of the listenership".

Note that management had no need to worry about alienating the liberal section of the listenership whose point of view RTE were constantly advocating for, and still do.

I appeared on 'Questions and Answers' quite a bit back in Betty Purcell's day and I have to report that she was always very fair to me, and so was John Bowman.

But there is a very revealing section of her book where she criticises the need to provide 'balance' on programmes.

She writes: "A programme that concluded that one party was entirely in the wrong would lay itself open to a charge of bias, however correct the view being defended. The insistence on balancing competing viewpoints, however, encourages the identification of conservatism with truth, the adoption of a safe centre ground being more or less guaranteed from the outset".

In other words, when conservatives like me are on radio or television we are simply obstacles to the public coming around to the 'correct' point of view more quickly. Perhaps this explains why for the last few years I'm only on RTE every six to eight weeks.

This would be neither here nor there in a way except that the same goes for other social conservatives like Breda O'Brien, John Waters or (despite an uptick in appearances due to him running in the European elections) Senator Ronan Mullen.

Perhaps it also explains why RTE and most of the rest of the media entered a kind of collective psychosis when several of us took action against the station resulting in 'Pantigate'.

Notably when Betty Purcell successfully sued the 'Sunday Times' in the mid-1990s over something written about her in that paper, RTE had no strong, principled objection. She was one of their own and therefore was permitted to defend her good name.

Now, try to imagine the furore if a memoir from a former senior staff member at RTE revealed that the station was in the habit of employing people straight out of university who had been involved in student pro-life bodies.

Try to imagine the reaction if that same memoir revealed how RTE programming was used to advance a pro-life or Catholic agenda.

Try to imagine what would happen if John Bowman in his book admitted that television tended to attract social conservatives "intent on convincing the viewers of the righteousness of their case".

I daresay Pat Rabbitte would establish an immediate commission of inquiry.

But RTE's chronic bias on social issues suits Pat Rabbitte, suits much of the rest of the media and browbeats and intimidates almost everyone else.

However, this in no way absolves senior management at RTE of their duty to ensure that programming is far more balanced than it is at present, even if it means allowing us social conservatives more chances to slow down the wheels of 'progress'.