Friday 18 January 2019

Virgin Media must not play a 'me too' role with RTE

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

President-elect Higgins would be wise to cut up his credit cards for the next seven years.

From now on he will live under the iron law I call 'clawback', a term I coined as a warning to Mary Robinson during the ecstatic media celebrations after her election in 1990.

Clawback says that whatever good things the media say about you will eventually be taken back - with compound interest.

Some media pundits feel that Michael D Higgins was a bit too cute during this campaign, and feel conned.

Whether this is fair is not the point. He should brace himself for a rough ride.

But the political pundits, who correctly complained about a poor presidential election campaign, stayed silent about the biggest failure of coverage.

I refer to the failure of RTE to ask Liadh Ni Riada even one question about Mairia Cahill during the Prime Time debate, or probe her on her previous refusals to describe IRA murders of members of the gardai and army as terrorism.

David McCullagh rightly raised with each candidate the issues in their past careers they most did not want to be asked about. But, in my view, he did not ask the right question of Ni Riada.

Instead, she was lobbed what, in my view, was a light vaccine question that let her deploy her children in defence.

Did RTE current affairs television let Ni Riada off the hook on the IRA? It has all the appearances of it.

Did RTE make a major policy decision?

If so, was it agreed to in advance, and is RTE ruling Sinn Fein's IRA links off limits during the next general election?

If RTE did not agree to it, then it should explain the egregious failure to put a Sinn Fein candidate under the same pressure Miriam O'Callaghan put on Martin McGuinness?

Why was Miriam O'Callaghan not in the chair? Was it because she had been too tough on Martin McGuinness?

Miriam's moral rigour was exactly what we needed - and I am certain she would have raised the case of Mairia Cahill.

Last weekend, Mairia Cahill made a powerful and moving personal appeal to Liadh Ni Riada in this newspaper.

She asked Liadh Ni Riada to admit it was wrong for Sinn Fein to bring in the IRA to adjudicate on her rape charge.

She said: "I want an admittance, not an apology."

She added: "If Liadh really cares enough about this rape victim, she can pick up the phone and provide her with closure."

The RTE "debate" was the nadir of public service broadcasting as we knew it. There was no attempt to enlighten the viewer.

Instead we got a bizarre version of a Maoist Red Guards re-education session with mutual humiliation as the driving force of this degrading freak show.

Paul Cunningham, on the following day's Morning Ireland, referred to "contestants" which revealed the game-show approach adopted by RTE News.

But the 'digging for dirt' editorial line stopped short of digging into Sinn Fein's dark past.

Instead it confined itself to phoney issues like whether Ni Riada took the industrial wage rather than the major moral and political issue of how could she function as commander in chief and not condemn the murder of gardai, soldiers and prison officers?

Treating democracy as a circus, where RTE entertains rather than explores, is a dangerous game.

Does RTE now mean to treat the next general election as an exercise in denigration rather than revelation?

Does RTE think glib gibes are a substitute for public service broadcasting?

Does RTE think smart-alec sallies are a substitute for putting serious matters like the IRA's political murders on the menu?

Does RTE think the past of every other party is fair game but the bloody past of Sinn Fein must be sanitised and stuffed out of sight?

Luckily for Irish democracy we have an alternative in Virgin Media's Tonight Show - or do we?

The reason I ask that is because during the Tonight presidential debate, just as Ivan Yates was getting into his stride, asking Liadh Ni Riada all the hard questions about Mairia Cahill she had not been asked in the RTE debate, something strange happened to suddenly stop him in mid-flow.

Right in the middle of a well-informed run of questions his head suddenly snapped round as if someone had said something in his ear and he looked at Matt Cooper as if asking him to continue.

Austin Stack complained on Twitter about Yates's failure to continue in hot pursuit. But was it Yates's decision or that of the production team?

There are three reasons why I find it hard to believe the Tonight team would try to put the muzzle on Yates.

First, it would damage Virgin Media's unique selling point - that it is an alternative to RTE.

Second, it would mean that RTE's political culture had also infected its rival - which would mean we are in a monopoly situation.

Finally, it makes no sense that Virgin Media, owned by a shrewd businessman like John Malone, would want to make life easy for a party which is no friend of entrepreneurs - as Liadh Ni Riada's digs at Sean Gallagher confirmed.

But while there is every editorial and commercial reason for Virgin to take a robust line with Sinn Fein, there have been some ominous signs.

Recently I chronicled and complained about what I saw as Virgin Media News' soft coverage of a Sinn Fein conference.

If Virgin continues to copy RTE's lazy-arse coverage of Sinn Fein it can expect the same criticism.

In that case let's hope Virgin doesn't treat my legitimate criticism as RTE does - by brazenly keeping me off the air.

RTE's editor-in-chief Dee Forbes, who so far has turned a blind eye to that ban, should realise that RTE demeans itself by these Putin-like tactics.

To adapt the poet, Patrick Kavanagh's lines from The Prelude, RTE is behaving like those who:

Cry 'Eccentric' if they hear

A voice that seems at all sincere.

The same Paddy Kavanagh drew a full house at Buswell's Hotel last Tuesday. Reamonn O'Donnchadha read and reflected on his poems, proving his thesis that reading Kavanagh aloud allows us to find parts of ourselves we had lost.

As his supporting act, I talked briefly about Kavanagh's robust rejection of Irish nationalism as an arid ideology.

To round off a perfect evening, Peter McDonnell gave us a hilarious and moving account of Patrick Kavanagh's magical few days at a writers' conference in Rome in October 1965.

As he was wined and dined and respected by Sartre, De Beauvoir, Spender and virtually every major European poet, his crankiness dissolved and he became socially relaxed.

The Italian press loved taking pictures of his lanky frame. As the days went by he mellowed in the sunshine of his fellow writers' regard, and showed what a sweet and sociable man he could be away from the spite of Dublin.

Finally treated as the great poet he knew himself to be, Kavanagh grew gentle. But the spite still followed him. During the week he was an honoured guest at dinners in all the major embassies. Except ours.

Sunday Independent

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