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Anger with RTé not about bias, it's about winning votes

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Pat Rabbitte

Pat Rabbitte

Maxwell

Pat Rabbitte

When it comes to delivering sound bites, Pat Rabbitte can still produce a sonic boom like few of his contemporaries.

Speaking during a Dáil debate on water charges this week, he claimed that RTÉ have become a "recruiting sergeant" for Sinn Féin and the far left. What may at first seem like hyperbolic sarcasm deserves greater scrutiny, because there are interesting motives lurking behind this tirade.

The former minister's broadside reflects a growing tension between the Government and RTÉ that to date has been confined to a series of discreet direct complaints.

Not for the first time in his life, Pat Rabbitte is saying publically what his political colleagues are thinking privately. As he waits for political retirement, in this row with RTÉ he has little to lose. But what of his comrades in arms?

At the nub of every dysfunctional relationship with a media organisation, there is usually one core problem, a little seed from which all other problems grow. For this Government, it is Irish Water. Since its inception, Irish Water has mastered at least one talent, the strategy of "making it up as you go along".

By repeatedly introducing deadlines as variable as a tidal timetable, Irish Water's credibility has continually come under the spotlight for scrutiny and derision. In attempting to introduce a simple utility charge that should have been modelled on an existing system, they have failed spectacularly.

The Government has allowed a political issue to develop which, with every new disaster, sucks the reputation of Irish Water further down the plughole.

Claims by Pat Rabbitte of "bias" and "lopsided" coverage by RTÉ on the water charges issue may have come like a bolt from the blue to some.

However, for months there have been rumblings of discontent and complaints going back and forth between Irish Water representatives, their political masters and RTÉ.

On the surface, the disagreement between the Government and RTÉ may be about water charges and coverage, but the real issue is more deeply politically rooted.

Labour know that the media traction that protesters and anti-austerity candidates have made is eating into their core vote.

Juxtapose Pat Rabbitte's comments with the complaints of unfair representation of last week's anti-water charge protest march on O'Connell Street.

It is easy to see that neither side is happy with RTÉ because both sides have a vested interest in the Irish Water debacle beyond the actual water charges themselves.

Quite simply, this is a political war for the working class vote.

Bombarding the national broadcaster with complaints has a much longer-term consequence for the Government than it does for the anti-austerity assembly.

With a series of positive economic results and indicators under their belts, the Government are getting ready to bask in the glow of our economic recovery. For coverage, they need the media. RTÉ is still where it is at when it comes to winning and losing votes in a general election.

As the general election draws closer, battles of this nature between the Government and the media are destined to intensify.

By covering the anti-water charge issue and the anti- austerity agenda, RTÉ may indeed be bolstering their support base by default rather than design.

They will say they are obliged to cover news. They are right.

The art of the sound bite is not that it just makes the news; the real skill is to deliver something that becomes the news.

Irish Independent