Saturday 18 January 2020

Eoghan Harris: Why RTE and Fine Gael both need a reality check

BIG life must not dominate small life. Denis O'Brien and RTE demand my attention. But so do Posy and Dolly, my two terriers. Recently their right to run on Seapoint's long rocky strand in winter was being threatened by beach bullies.

Dun Laoghaire Council bans dogs from the bathing coves of Seapoint and Sandycove in summer. That's fine. But a few months ago it proposed to ban dogs off the leash from the long strands of Seapoint and Killiney in the equally long winter months.

Thanks to Liz Neligan's Dogs Unleashed campaign, the council is now offering further consultation. So I will put the pike back in the thatch. Let me now turn to Fine Gael and RTE's fraught relationship with the people of Ireland.

* * *

Last week Fine Gael delegates at the ard fheis, vox-popped by RTE News, all agreed they wanted Denis O'Brien back in the fold. One delegate demanded Sean Quinn be brought back as well. So much for the promised clean break with the cute hoor politics of Fianna Fail.

A tree rots from the top. The delegates were following the confused counsels of Enda Kenny, Dr James Reilly and Michael Noonan. These three variously claim they (a) cannot see why some of us are making a fuss about Denis O'Brien, (b) can't stop him turning up at conferences, (c) dismiss the issue as an internal boardroom battle in Independent News & Media (INM). Let's take these refusals of reality in turn.

First, the fuss is about Denis O'Brien getting the Esat licence, worth €317m, in dodgy circumstances. The fuss is about Fine Gael's hypocrisy in beating up on Bertie Ahern about getting €215,000 from private donors while not being bothered about Denis O'Brien getting €317m from public donors, the taxpayers of the Irish Republic.

Second, it is true the Taoiseach can't stop O'Brien following him around. But he could stop throwing bones behind him. One such bone was his cheesy soundbite about Bertie Ahern and Croke Park. All Kenny had to say was: I don't want Denis O'Brien's dog on my beach.

Finally, the fiction that DOB was an internal INM problem fell apart last week. Global Integrity, a standards watch-dog based in Washington, worried about the confusing message sent out by the Irish Government keeping dodgy company: "An example is the continued association with the businessman at the heart of the Moriarty tribunal, after its report was published."

The longer Enda Kenny delays distancing Denis O'Brien, the more likely a lazy media will wake up and take a longer look. They will find that Denis O'Brien is a deep scratch in the Fine Gael DVD, with its rosy film of decades in government.

But the future of Fine Gael may not bother Kenny too much. He is showing signs of Blairism. Less a party than a presidential leader. Having made his mark on history he can leave politics with a handsome pension after the next General Election, and look forward to many lucrative roles. But that is not the rosy future which faces the FG TDs who must go over the top in 2016. Or even before that if Labour bolts. Let me give these currently happy campers a hard reality check.

At the last General Election, in the middle of a major recession, and with Fianna Fail in meltdown, Fine Gael still only got 36.1 per cent first preferences. Liam Cosgrave got only 1 per cent less in 1973. For all the media spinning, it was not a famous victory.

The next General Election will be different. After five years of recession the electorate is likely to look for revenge. Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein will find many of their sins forgiven. Fine Gael feathers could be flying.

That leaves Labour. If it wants to save its skin it will soon have to take up the cudgels for the coping class. Joan Burton sees that clearly. That is why Labour's lazier tom-cats, licking cream from the bowl of public perks, don't like her. She represents reality.

By contrast, Fianna Fail has forgotten how to fight. Michael McGrath's passive performance with Paschal Donohoe on Prime Time followed by Niall Collins's weak showing on the RTE shuffle, showed that Fianna Fail's main policy is to be nice. Backed by a currently comatose media no wonder Fine Gael delegates saw a future where seldom was heard a discouraging word.

But the future is never fixed. Cosy up too long on Croke Park, lose contact with the coping class, believe the media's love affair with Enda will last forever, or dally too long with Denis O'Brien. And suddenly the sun is gone from the sky.

* * *

RTE is also in retreat from reality. Like the Roman Catholic Church, like Fine Gael, its first instinct under pressure is to close ranks and come up with cosmetic procedures to persuade the intruders to go away. But shifting staff around will not remove the real reasons for the Fr Reynolds debacle.

Any good current affairs programme, like any good newspaper, will make mistakes. But recent major mistakes arose not from flawed human nature but from a flawed ideology: the mix of mindless peace

processing and smug political correctness that forms the canteen culture of Montrose.

The problem was not merely that the Prime Time Investigates team got its facts wrong. The problem was that even when it became obvious the facts were wrong, they continued to insist they were right. The received wisdom of RTE current affairs sees the world in binary terms, divided between right-on RTE reporters and people who read the Sunday Independent.

But the million people who read our paper do so for a reason. They want an alternative to RTE's right-on canteen culture. They know RTE News and Current Affairs does not represent the real mind of middle Ireland. Let me count the ways it does not.

It tends to be softer on Sinn Fein spokespersons than middle Ireland. It tends to take its foreign policy from Jon Snow and Robert Fisk. It tends to double standards: if what was done to Sean Gallagher was done to Michael D Higgins, RTE reporters would have reared up in a righteous rage.

Because of this gap, RTE News and Current Affairs regularly tries to marginalise major stories which the Sunday Independent has placed on the news agenda. Let me prove that. In the past 12 months the Sunday Independent persisted with three big stories which RTE News did its best to belittle, dismiss and ignore for as long as possible.

The first was our campaign to ask Martin McGuinness about the murder of gardai. The second was our campaign to flush out Frontline's handling of the fake tweet which destroyed Sean Gallagher. The third was Fine Gael's failure to distance Denis O'Brien.

RTE News evaded each and every one of these stories at the start. It was frequently supported by a supine press pack, fearful of losing the patronage of programmes like Frontline. But in the end they were all forced to ask the same awkward questions the Sunday Independent had asked from the start. And it will be the same with the Denis O'Brien story.

Sunday Independent

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