Monday 17 December 2018

After the long silence, let our women speak truth to power

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Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be a young woman in the West was very heaven.

The above adaptation of Wordsworth's words of welcome for the French Revolution also applies to the current revolt of women against men in power who abuse their authority.

Looking back over my life, I believe there is no freedom as full of joy as the freedom to speak your mind.

Women have been free to speak in many fields in the past few hundred years - except in that occluded shadowy area where male abuse of power expresses itself as sexual exploitation.

But the current bliss comes subject to two reservations. First, it's mostly only women in the Western world who are able to speak out.

Second, the French Revolution, like all revolutions, went to extremes, even eating its own early instigators.

That is why older women with wise heads worry about words turning into a witch hunt, or injustice done to the innocent.

For example, I'm told most women TDs believe John Halligan is a decent modern man, well disposed towards women.

But they add that no matter how benign Halligan's interior motives might be, it's the exterior effect that matters here.

Halligan is Minister of State for Training and Skills, a job where it is vital to give good example in matters of gender equality.

So I'm not as sure as the Taoiseach about his mistake not being a resigning matter. If he were a UK minister, he would long ago have stepped down without delay.

*****

The Irish revolution in women speaking out began with the Michael Colgan case. Covering the continuing fall-out poses two problems for broadcasters.

First, the danger of indignation fatigue. Emerson's warning that every hero becomes a bore at last applies to even the most worthy causes.

The second problem is how to hold an audience of men, many of whom might reach for the remote control when faced with nothing but repeated reprimands.

Television is mostly where the revolution reaches the masses and gives a real chance to change men's behaviour.

Presenters and producers face the same problem as priests and parsons of the past - how to keep the attention of the audience.

Sarah McInerney came up with an inspired solution to that on The Sunday Show last week in the form of an all-male panel.

But the novelty of that would have soon worn off if the panel had become a male "me too" chorus of consensus opinions.

Thanks to careful research, however, each of the three men had something fresh to say.

Brendan Courtney was as feisty as any feminist in castigating the patriarchy.

Colm Keegan, a poet, was a breath of fresh air as he opened a window into working-class male culture.

Eddie Hobbs, at first sight an eccentric choice, proved to be the pawky star of the show, supporting women who speak out but also grounding the discussion by demanding data.

Sarah McInerney, one of the few presenters who knows the power of balance, kept her feminist instincts firmly under control so as to get beneath the guard of any male dinosaurs watching.

On Wednesday, The Tonight Show on TV3 got equally good results by reversing McInerney's mix and giving us an all-woman panel with Ivan Yates and Matt Cooper.

Former government ministers Yates and Mary O'Rourke agreed that Halligan might have been messily - and wrongly - trying to warn the interviewee about the appalling workload of a private secretary.

Yates also scored a minor scoop, being the first presenter on Irish television to point out that the new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia holds relatively progressive views on the role of women in Saudi society.

*****

Last Tuesday, the Irish Independent reported that Shane Cassells of Fianna Fail had "hit out" at people who "bash RTE". Certainly I agree with Shane about the danger of mindless attacks on RTE as I'm an admirer of its sports and drama output. But I am baffled by his belief that RTE journalism should be "valued" given the poor coverage by RTE News of his own party compared with that given Sinn Fein.

Last September, Fianna Fail was forced to complain about Prime Time as follows: "Tonight is the seventh Prime Time programme in a row where they failed to have representation from the Fianna Fail party."

David Nally, managing editor, TV Current Affairs, who seems devoted to Twitter, responded by tweeting: "Fianna Fail has had significantly more appearances on Prime Time than any other opposition party this year."

Thomas Byrne TD coolly pointed out that this was "maybe because we are double the size of any opposition party".

Two questions arise from Nally's tweet. First, why should a democratic party like Fianna Fail have to struggle for space on RTE with a party still influenced by shadowy figures? Second even on the figures, why does Nally believe that RTE is behaving well in giving Fianna Fail, with 44 seats, more space than Sinn Fein with only 23 seats?

These questions were pointed up by his extraordinary tweets following a column of mine on June 11, 2017, where I complained that RTE News had failed to cover a crucial joint press briefing by Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin.

The same day, Nally tweeted: "Though I hate to give it any oxygen, there is for the record, not one whit of truth in Eoghan Harris's claims re RTE."

Two minutes later, David McCullagh sent his boss a supporting tweet saying: "There's a first."

As I'm not on Twitter, I was not aware of any of this until Tom Carew alerted me to a tweet he had posted asking Nally where exactly RTE News had covered the press briefing.

Rather than reply, Nally removed his original tweet. Carew continued to press for an answer until Nally was forced to admit they had not covered it.

Did he do this decently, admit his mistake and apologise? Judge his reply for yourself.

"Nope. They didn't cover it. Possibly a mistake, we do make them. But it takes some imagination to connect that to Section 31, the 1980s etc."

Nope, he didn't apologise for his mistake. Or for the arrogant tone in speaking dismissively of someone long marginalised by RTE News and Current Affairs.

Since Valerie Cox retired in March 2016, I have only once heard my column mentioned on What It Says on the Papers. I have never been invited on to Sean O'Rourke's show, nor on to Pat Kenny's show before that.

I believe my glaring absence from RTE political programmes argues an abuse of authority - and suits Sinn Fein/IRA as I have the polemical skills to put them on the spot.

But thanks to an epiphany, experienced five years ago while talking to some regular readers in Skibbereen Market, my only interest in my exclusion nowadays is to expose it.

My readers believed I was banned from RTE - but that this was one more reason to read me. They said regulars on RTE cannot be relied on to bite the hand that feeds - but that I was still free to speak my mind.

No greater joy than that.

Sunday Independent

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