Thursday 13 December 2018

RTE's binary bias benefits both Fine Gael and Sinn Fein

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

As we are now perpetually on the eve of a general election, fair play demands that RTE does not favour any party.

But I believe the coverage of some recent major stories shows that RTE TV News and Current Affairs is not keeping the balance.

Recent coverage reveals what amounts to a binary bias which favours Fine Gael and Sinn Fein and will facilitate a post-election pact between them.

Rather than engage in easy rhetorical criticism, I took on the more tedious task of transcribing what I heard and saw and let readers make up their own mind.

Specifically, I showed that Sinn Fein got a soft ride on abstention and on the appointment of Drew Harris.

These two columns should have caused the director general of RTE to ask the relevant editors why Sinn Fein seemed to be protected.

Failure to follow up such specific criticism will only encourage further excesses and will end in a scandal like the Sean Gallagher case.

Meantime, I have to report two further episodes of binary bias in the past week: failure to pursue Fine Gael on the leak of the Scally Report and failure to follow up Sinn Fein on the Mairia Cahill case.

Let's start with the leak of the Scally Report. As Philip Ryan pointed out in the Irish Independent, it was a bit rich of Leo Varadkar to try to blame the media.

That being let, contrast how RTE and Virgin media dealt with the politics of a leak which benefited the Government in general and Fine Gael in particular.

RTE radio did a good job, starting with Gavin Jennings's gentle but sceptical probing of Simon Harris on Morning Ireland.

But it was a different story on RTE TV's Prime Time. As the Scally Report had not yet been published, Prime Time should have focused on the main story of the day - the politics of the leak. It did not do so, of which more anon.

In contrast, The Tonight Show on Virgin Media saw Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates pursue the politics of the leak like two harrier hounds with the Boys of Fair Hill.

Yates said that there were very few with access to the document. The leak was designed to "soften up" public opinion on a commission of inquiry and "put a lid on the controversy". By and large the studio panel supported him.

Dr Nina Byrnes, a GP, mordantly noted, "the words didn't make their way out of the document by accident".

Senator Colm Burke of Fine Gael, to his credit, admitted the leak was "wrong" and "that only a small number of people had access to the report".

Willie O'Dea, for Fianna Fail, drew attention to the fact that the two sections of the report singled out in the leak were of particular benefit to the Government.

So far everyone had agreed the leak was disgraceful and the Government was under a cloud. But then Yates came to Louise O'Reilly of Sinn Fein.

Naturally, I paid close attention to her answer as I believed it might contain a clue to the current cosy relationship between Fine Gael and Sinn Fein which some in RTE are anxious to foster. I was not disappointed.

Normally, Louise O'Reilly is a formidable Sinn Fein attack-dog. But far from putting the Government on the rack, she was muted, somewhat shifty and not quite herself. Just as she had been earlier in the day in an interview with Aine Lawlor.

Ivan: "Louise O'Reilly, why do you think it was leaked?"

O'Reilly: "I honestly don't know [weary sigh]. To me it serves no purpose."

And moving swiftly away from the politics of the leak, she waffled her way down every distractor alley around.

Senator Burke, picking up that O'Reilly was not going to give Fine Gael any grief, appeared to give her supportive body language, too, during her contribution.

It was a robust and revealing programme - especially revealing on the warm relations between Sinn Fein and Fine Gael.

But where Tonight chewed hard on the Scally leak, RTE's Prime Time merely rolled it around its mouth for five minutes before moving on.

Miriam O'Callaghan mentioned the leak in an anodyne fashion as she opened the segment. She spoke about it without any political context.

She went on to interview Priscilla Lynch, clinical editor with the Medical Independent, without asking a single question about the likely source of the leak or its possible motivation.

In sum, Prime Time sucked all the air out of the politics of the leak, just as Louise O'Reilly had done all day on behalf of Sinn Fein.

How much of this was Miriam O'Callaghan's decision is moot. Presenters' questions are the common product of a team of producers and researchers.

Miriam O'Callaghan is one of the stronger presenters so she had some input into her interview with the new Garda Commissioner Drew Harris the previous weekend.

But we can also assume that the seven minutes of negativity in the middle of the interview - incredibly, the Smithwick Tribunal was recycled again - also represented the views of researchers and producers.

Did it ever strike them there's something tribal about dismissing the possibility of Garda collusion while raising alleged RUC collusion?

Last Thursday's TV coverage of the Mairia Cahill case posed no problem for Sinn Fein.

Keelin Shanley in the studio told us with gusto, "the Sinn Fein president has apologised unreservedly [Shanley stressed the word] to Mairia Cahill over the handling of her sexual abuse allegations".

Beyond a brief headline glimpse of Mary Lou McDonald - blink and you missed it - a cloak of invisibility spared the blushes of the Sinn Fein leader. Bias by absence?

Brendan Wright's report featured a lot of Cahill and PSNI shots, but not a single image of any SF boss. No Mary Lou. No Gerry Adams. Nobody to bear blame.

Tommie Gorman was interviewed by Shanley live. His conclusion came close to an apologia for Mary Lou McDonald.

"As party leader she had made her apology and I don't see what more she can do in terms of individuals so it will remain an awkward legacy issue for Sinn Fein."

Looking back over last week's RTE TV news coverage, what it added up to, whether by incompetence or design, was a binary coverage that benefited Fine Gael and Sinn Fein at the expense of Fianna Fail and Labour.

Because to the anodyne coverage of the Scally Report leak and soft ride Sinn Fein got on the Cahill case you can add Claire Byrne's soft interviews with Eoghan Murphy last Monday.

You can also note Keelin Shanley's marshmallow interview with Simon Harris on last Wednesday's Six One.

In contrast, over on Tonight, Matt Cooper told us Simon Harris had received 28 invitations to come on the show since it started - but repeatedly claimed he was busy.

Clearly, to adapt my own phrase for David Trimble, Fine Gael and Sinn Fein find Virgin Media a cold house for coalition partners and prefer the hot water bottles and lullabies of Montrose.

This suits Tonight which is building a bigger political audience. But it doesn't suit Irish democracy if it slides Sinn Fein into power.

Sunday Independent