Sunday 19 January 2020

Gene Kerrigan: Rant at RTE but for the right reasons

The station made mistakes but that is not what troubles Gene Kerrigan's sense of democracy

You have to admit, we get great value from the TV licence, don't we? Not the programmes, good God, no. There's more bloody rubbish on the box these days than ever there was. However, paying my ¿160 a year gives me unconditional freedom to complain about any programme and every presenter. And to do so loudly, endlessly and with a pompous sense of self-righteousness.

For my 44 cents a day, I get the right to walk up to any RTE employee, poke him or her in the shoulder and say, "Oi, you -- I pay your wages, mate, did you know that, mate, did you?"

And, in fact, there's hardly a week goes by that I don't do precisely that to Mr Ryan Tubridy. Oh, he tries to evade me, waiting until the wee hours of Saturday morning to leave the Late Late studio, scurrying across the RTE car park, a hoodie pulled down around his face. "Oi, you," I shout, galloping after him. "I pay your wages, mate. Bloody awful show tonight, bloody waste of licence-payers' bloody money."

And, when something like the Sean Gallagher Tweetgate Scandal comes along -- ah, my cup of bile runneth over.

The Fr Kevin Reynolds case involved serious libel on the issue of child abuse. Very serious errors were made in the original programme, and they were compounded by the way RTE handled the apology and the explanation.

We all got to kick RTE, repeatedly, and deservedly. But it was serious stuff. No fun to be had.

On the other hand, the Sean Gallagher Tweetgate Scandal is pure fun, all the way.

And we need a bit of fun. We're haemorrhaging billions for no reason anyone can see, except to demonstrate our prowess as a doormat. The young people are leaving and even if it breaks our hearts, we can't look them in the eye and say it's not in their best interests to go. And the Government -- well, maybe another four years of undermining the domestic economy through mindless austerity will do the trick.

Yep, we could do with a bit of light entertainment. Which is why it's great to see Sean Gallagher back in the arena.

I'd forgotten just what a self-important chap Sean is. Last week, in a letter to Pat Rabbitte, he was laying down the law about democracy. "Trust in our national broadcaster is at the core of our democracy. That trust has now been brought into serious question."

Ah, now, Sean, democracy, is it? You'll pardon me if I question whether you've got the credentials to lecture anyone on the core of our democracy.

No doubt, RTE made mistakes. Martin McGuinness alleged on the Frontline debate that Mr Gallagher collected money for Fianna Fail. Gallagher said, "That is not true". A bogus tweet claimed Sinn Fein would next day produce the donor who allegedly gave Gallagher a cheque for ¿5,000 for Fianna Fail. Pat Kenny read that out. Gallagher imploded.

No question -- RTE should not have broadcast an unverified tweet. But that's a problem the whole broadcasting business has. Nervous about the future, overeager to embrace the social media, they forget that Twitter contains far more lies, libels, banality and insanity than even the worst tabloid newspaper. Twitter also has information, speed and wit -- but it's woefully unreliable.

Sad people like me sit in front of our TV screens, muttering abuse at news and current affairs shows. Twitter puts that abusive muttering online. That's all it is. Some of the muttering is intelligent, some is twisted. Any allegation needs verifying before broadcasting.

RTE was quickly told by Sinn Fein that the tweet was fake, but didn't broadcast that information. It should have done, immediately.

RTE producers have also been accused of preparing questions for audience members. Of course they do -- otherwise audience participation programmes would be an incoherent shambles. If you're going to do such shows, you need to prepare people to ask questions. You need to weed out silly questions, muddled questions, abusive questions and potential slander.

Working with the public on such a programme is difficult. You can't just fill an audience with random people and expect them to perform. You either prepare the public performers, or leave them out. Nothing I've seen or heard about that debate suggests anything was done outside the normal preparation for the format.

During last year's presidential campaign, I thought Mr Gallagher behaved with admirable fairness towards the other candidates. The "Hey, elect me, I'm an entrepreneur" gimmick seemed a bit beside the point, though. What turned me right off (I was a Norris voter) was Mr Gallagher's emphasis on his status as an independent.

The Frontline debate didn't break the story of Gallagher raising funds for Fianna Fail. That was done by Fionnan Sheahan, in the Irish Independent, four days earlier. Now, if we're going to get into things like the "core of our democracy", let's say this. Openness is crucial to democracy. Throughout the campaign, Gallagher played down his Fianna Fail past. It was almost an accidental thing, being on the party's national executive, or managing an election campaign. Like it was something he did in passing, while trying to do good in the world.

On the Monday of the Frontline debate, Michael Brennan published in the Irish Independent extracts from a letter Gallagher wrote in 2009.

"I have a long record of involvement and commitment to Fianna Fail over the past 30 years . . . I first served on the National Executive with Charlie Haughey . . . I was head of Ogra Fianna Fail nationally . . . I later worked full time for the party in Fianna Fail headquarters . . . raising much needed funds for the work of the party."

An essential element of democracy is knowing who you're voting for.

When informed, inaccurately, that the donor of a five grand cheque was to appear next day at a press conference, Mr Gallagher instantly adjusted his line. He went from, "That is not true", to: "I have no recollection of getting a cheque". Having instinctively reverted to the language of his Fianna Fail roots, he continued: "If he gave me an envelope . . ."

What amused us was seeing an unmistakable shape appear through the fog surrounding Gallagher.

Now, Mr. Gallagher was as entitled to be in Fianna Fail as anybody else. The law says he can collect cheques for them, and arrange for donors to pose for snaps with party chieftans. He was entitled to be on the national executive, a director of elections and to consider running for the Dail on the FF ticket. What he wasn't entitled to do -- as the Fianna Fail brand became toxic -- was hold himself out as an independent, with a distant connection to the party.

A long time ago, I made a reasonable living reviewing television, and slagging RTE was a professional duty. Today, I'm entitled to rant at the station's deference towards the Government. And, for my 44 cents a day I'm entitled to chase Ryan Tubridy around the RTE car park, reminding him I pay his wages. But I resent it when a political hack kicks the station in its essentials, allegedly to protect the "core of our democracy".

It's Mr Gallagher and the party he served so ably, not RTE, who trouble my concept of democracy.

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