RTE: A Station in the Front Line
Deaglán de Bréadún
RTE is going through its most difficult period in editorial terms since the start of the Troubles. Remember the sacking of the Authority and the jail sentence imposed on Kevin O’Kelly?
At least on this occasion, there is no talk of anybody being put behind bars – well not yet! Personally, I don’t believe in lecturing journalists in other media organisations – or indeed my own – about standards.
But there has been a problem with The Frontline since its inception. One was never comfortable with the audience - a fairly typical example was the recent programe with Minister of State Ciaran Cannon which was the subject of the following blogpost.
I wrote at the time that such was the array of opinion against Cannon that one was reminded of a crowd ganging-up on a youngster in a schoolyard. I hardly know the man and would not necessarily agree with him on any subject whatsoever, but he kept his cool remarkably well.
I also wrote that it was a disturbing sight. Others I meet in and around Leinster House have expressed the view that The Frontline was entering a new zone for Irish television – more akin to the Jerry Springer Show than traditional current affairs television.
Frankly, I have never watched more than a few minutes of Jerry Springer so I am not qualified to comment on the comparison. But the RTE production did seem to be taking a strongly-populist approach where the Government panellists were likely to become very isolated targets.
Good, hard, robust criticism is an essential feature of democracy and when politicians go for election they can’t expect to be treated with kid-gloves. But there also needs to be balance and fairness.
It is at least arguable that Sean Gallagher would be President of Ireland today, were it not for The Frontline. I have it on good authority from inside the Michael D. Higgins campaign that all seemed lost the weekend before the election.
But one Tweet changed everything. Or rather the way the Tweet was received and broadcast, without being verified, and the failure to report the Sinn Fein disavowal of same brought Gallagher down.
Some folk say it was good for the country that Gallagher was undone, by fair means or foul, that there were too many question-marks over him, etc. The problem with this view is that it is a denial of democracy.
Had Gallagher made it to the Park and then turned out to be entirely unsuitable – well, there are ways of dealing with that in the Constitution.
RTE is a major national asset but it has its flaws. There is a coarseness in some of the comedy output that it is at times a cause of dismay. A different version of the same mentality was in evidence in the way Sean Gallagher was treated.
Let’s hope this worthy broadcasting institution can come through this crisis, weather the storm and that normal service can be resumed, with lessons learnt and taken to heart.
Interestingly, this is not the first time a politician was brought down by a Tweet, except that in the case of Willie O’Dea, the message sent out by Dan Boyle was genuine. Twitter rules the political landscape, it would seem.