Tuesday 21 May 2019

RTE must report both sides on public sector pay

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Last Tuesday, in Seanad Eireann, I called for a 20 per cent cut in public sector pay -- including the pay of TDs and senators. But the Oireachtas Report team made an inaccurate one-sentence reference to my speech, cut out my actual contribution completely, but gave ample coverage to a robust rebuttal by Senator Jerry Buttimer.

Only two senators crossed swords on the public sector -- myself and Senator Jerry Buttimer. Accordingly, simple fairness dictated that the gist of what both of us said be reported in a balanced fashion. Which was how Jimmy Walsh handled it in his Seanad report in the Irish Times the next day, succinctly summing up what myself and Senator Buttimer had to say as follows: "Mr Harris said the simplest way to achieve the €5bn in savings the Government needed was by a 20 per cent pay cut across the public sector. That sector was objectively and relatively a privileged class now. If he were an active socialist, he would regard these as the only class of fat cats around. It was not their fault: the benchmarking system had not been meant to give them 20 per cent more than what could be earned by those in the private sector.

"'It is wrong that they are paid 20 per cent more. It must be taken back.'

"Jerry Buttimer (FG) said the demonising of public servants, thousands of whom were doing great work, should stop."

Let me now contrast Jimmy Walsh's balanced report with how the Oireachtas Report team dealt with the difference of opinion between myself and Senator Buttimer. The section started with a shot of me making the speech, with no actual sound, while a voiceover inaccurately summarised my speech as follows: "Eoghan Harris said the public sector must be cut back, but Senator Jerry Buttimer (Fine Gael) took issue with his comments."

Let me press pause here to point out that far from wanting anything as woolly as the public sector to be "cut back", I categorically called for a cut in public sector pay.

The reason I specifically singled out public sector pay was because I am sick of RTE reporters playing down the fact that public sector pay is one of the two main drags on the public purse, amounting to €30bn every year.

My speech specifically called for an ideological choice to be made between targeting the voiceless social welfare class and the well-represented public sector class. So I made it quite clear that I was calling for a 20 per cent cut in public sector pay, which would net the State some €5bn without any need to torment single parents or those recently recruited by redundancy into the social welfare class.

But the single-sentence distortion with which the Oireachtas Report team began the report was small beer compared with the coverage that followed. As I had led off with a call for a public sector pay cut, as Senator Buttimer had replied to me, simple fairness and basic balance required that some of my speech and some of Senator Buttimer's reply be shown.

Instead, my speech was cut completely from Oireachtas Report, whereas the bulk of Senator Buttimer's robust rejoinder was shown, the report finishing up with a cutaway shot of me listening to his strictures, thus conveying the impression that I had said nothing of any importance and had been rightly reprimanded by Senator Buttimer.

The Broadcasting Acts require balance in reporting two opposed points of view. So why did the Oireachtas Report not do what Jimmy Walsh did -- carry the core of my speech and follow it with the core of Senator Buttimer's counter-attack? And the answer to that, I believe, goes back to the days when some of the Oireachtas Report staff were in nappies.

In fact, it goes back to 1987, and the row in RTE about Section 31, the broadcasting ban on the Provisional IRA following the Enniskillen bombing. I wrote a document called Television and Terrorism, in which I challenged the dominant delusion of RTE News -- that their reporters would run rings around the Provisional IRA spokespersons if the broadcasting ban were lifted.

The news division did not like that document at all. And it liked it even less when Section 31 was abolished and all my predictions were swiftly proven true.

As a result, after I left RTE in 1989, I was marginalised in some sections of RTE and I have continued to be censored, first as a commentator and now as a member of the Oireachtas.

In the past 20 years, the only time the RTE news division has called on me for comment is when it deems me to be in trouble -- in 1990 after the Twink sketch, during Bertie Ahern's travails, and recently when I defended the poet Cathal O Searcaigh. But anything that might redound to my credit is studiously ignored.

The most recent example was RTE News' failure to report that I had taken a 10 per cent pay cut, something which all the print media reported at the time. But when I raised this with David McCullough, his smart-alec response was, "that's more of it".

Did anyone in RTE do the decent thing and give me an apology? No.

That's because in the peculiar partisan culture of sections of RTE I have become a legitimate target. And it was no help that Cathal Goan, the director general, told an Oireachtas Committee that he was "uneasy" with my appearance in defence of Bertie Ahern on The Late Late Show.

But I am still baffled by the unfair and unprofessional cutting of my contribution on public sector pay -- especially when contrasted with the professional and balanced Irish Times coverage of the same debate.

But the politics of public sector pay may also have played a part. Last weekend, most newspapers -- and Newstalk 106 -- speculated about the implications of Bord Snip Nua's report on public sector pay.

But not so RTE News shows, which carefully avoided the sensitive subject of public sector pay, preferring to bury the issue beneath obfuscations about "public expenditure".

A sceptic might say that RTE has a big dog in the public sector pay fight. Indeed RTE News has sometimes behaved like a press officer for the public sector unions. But precisely because of its vested interest in protecting public sector pay, RTE should avoid any appearance of bias.

Above all, the Oireachtas Report should not take sides. It undermines the work of diligent reporters like Conor Hunt, who in a recent report on Seanad voting records, scrupulously noted that my low voting rate in recent months was related to illness. That's doing the job without jaundice -- the simplest definition of public service broadcasting.

Accordingly, I am asking Cathal Goan, director general, and Tom Savage, chairman of the RTE Authority, to look at last Tuesday's Oireachtas Report.

And respond.

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