Sunday 20 October 2019

RTE debate gave little light and too much heat

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Samuel Johnson assured Boswell that, "a man may write at any time if he will set himself doggedly to it". I wonder.

As I sat down to write this column, I got the grim news that my friend Liam O Muirthile had died in his prime as a man and a poet.

Struggling with sadness may shadow what I have to say about the struggling Repeal campaign, which consists of three points and a prediction.

First, the campaign has not brought out the best in us, in spite of a genuine effort on the part of most Yes and No supporters to keep their voices down.

But the media stars of the No campaign we saw on Claire Byrne Live seem both socially smug as well as intensely ideological.

Second, judging by the polls, Repeal may be either lost or be carried by a margin so narrow that it lacks any political authority to act on abortion.

If so, the Taoiseach and RTE will bear the lion's share of the blame - and if it's passed neither can credibly claim they did their duty.

Leo Varadkar had the backing of his Dail party but gave limp leadership from the start.

Conversely, Micheal Martin, who did not have the backing of the majority of his Dail deputies, still bravely battled for a Yes.

But RTE, under no such political constraints, still failed to provide balanced coverage, particularly in the crucial Claire Byrne special.

This was primarily Claire Byrne's fault, no matter how much her social media fans try to spread the blame to the production team.

Byrne is an experienced presenter and bears responsibility for allowing the green light for a badly flawed programme format.

Because if you pack the studio with more people than can speak you will end with the kind of chaos producers love but that lets in more heat than light.

But if you still decide to risk that crowd chaos you must at least ensure that one camp does not infiltrate the crowd - which is what happened.

Finally, when the show turns into a predictable bear-pit, the presenter must be a barrier between the public and propaganda.

Far from showing any skill at crowd control, Byrne seemed to surf along the crest of chaos.

Above all she didn't seem to see how the 'plot' of the debate was unfolding in an unbalanced way that favoured the No camp.

Surely a live debate has no 'plot'? Yes, it does. But like our own lives we can only see it in retrospect.

Life seems to have no shape while we live it. But looking back in old age we can clearly see an organic structure - and the crucial plot points which decided our destiny for good or bad.

Likewise, a live television debate seems to have no shape while we watch it. But when we play back the recording we can see where it was won and lost.

Some presenters are born with a kind of genius for grasping the plot live on air, for bringing in speakers who are crucial to the balance.

Gay Byrne, Pat Kenny and Miriam O'Callaghan can do that. Claire Byrne still seems to lack that skill.

RTE responded to criticism with a defensive statement saying that equal airtime was given to participants on both sides.

Head-counting of that crude sort has nothing to do with the art of broadcasting balance. As I proved in a polemic I wrote called Television and Terrorism where I sarcastically asked how many Orangemen would it take to balance the Pope in the Republic?

The answer is no amount of Orangemen could balance the Pope in the Republic. Conversely an Orangeman with a stutter would see off the Pope before an Orange audience.

Balance is about fair play not head-counting. But if RTE wants to play that head-counting game I would be happy to take them over the stop-watch track and see if it adds up to fair play.

The best way to judge fair play is to play back a recording, stopping to study key plot points, like Joe Schmidt studies key phases after a game.

Here are two examples where Yes voters may recall feeling short-changed.

First, after another high tackle on Prof Peter Boylan, Byrne should have seen he was being targeted and made sure he could answer.

Instead she got distracted so that Boylan had to fight to get back in - and a person struggling to get in is not as composed as they might like.

Second, Byrne failed to ensure balance by keeping an eye on a fair ratio of Yes to No speakers during 'phases'.

Most of you will recall the moment when Byrne seemed to lose track of the need to follow Yes with No.

At one point she went from a dapper male No to a female Yes and then went back to the dapper No for no apparent reason.

At that point the No side was one ahead. Byrne's automatic next choice should have been a Yes.

Instead she went back to yet another No supporter, Dr Monaghan, a medical heavy hitter.

The final tally for that phase of the discussion was: No, Yes, No, No. Three to one in favour of No.

But while the blame for a flawed show belongs to Byrne, the buck stops with RTE News and Current Affairs chiefs.

Here's another query about the show. Why was a party leader like Micheal Martin not invited to take part alongside Mary Lou McDonald - as he was willing to do?

RTE says they don't discuss these things. Who do they think they are - the gardai?

RTE's shambolic Claire Byrne Live special was in stark contrast to the superb coverage by TV3 shows.

The Tonight Show covered every angle - but then having two presenters helps bring natural balance to divisive discussions.

Thus while Matt Cooper virtue-signals to his pious PC fans, Ivan Yates can mentally plan a feistier query for Middle Ireland.

To my mind, however, the tour de force television debate of the referendum campaign was the simple two-hander between Sarah McInerney and John Waters on the Sunday Show.

Waters was impassioned, sometimes impatient, but he clearly respected McInerney's well-researched arguments and her calm refusal to retreat.

Lastly, the prediction I promised at the start. If we say No, I believe we will wake up the next day with a nasty taste in our mouths.

Abortion means hard choices. It can only become legal by a reflex of decency deep in our DNA, a reflex of rebellion against centuries of clerical attempts to control women's sexuality.

Let's not shoot the albatross. Let's love our women by trusting them.

Liam O Muirthile loved women. He wrote to me movingly about his great-great grandmother, a West Cork Protestant who married a Catholic in 1848 during the Famine, and converted to Catholicism to spare the children of a mixed marriage.

"The work I'm trying to complete is called Ellen Daunt. It's a prose work - I won't call it a novel, yet - and the intention is to honour that Anglican influence on women especially, drawing on the women in my father's family who were mostly indentured servants and later factory workers in Birmingham."

Liam mourned the silent sacrifice of Ellen Daunt in giving up the public profession of her Protestant faith. But he believed her rectitude had been passed on, her stoic spirit not lost.

As Liam's spirit is not lost to all who loved him.

Sunday Independent

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