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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 12, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

    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.

    • Keith says:

      Was it the tweet that undid him, or would the questioning from McGuinness and Glenna Lynch (and perhaps McGuirk, whether he was happy with his question or not) have been enough on their own? I feel the latter is the case.

    • steve white says:

      willie o’dea’s own actions brought him down, the green party voted for him in the dail where it mattered

    • Peter Mooney says:

      The obsession of RTE programme makers and managers with audience figures has undoubtably had an impact on standards and led to the dumbing down of programmes. So perhaps the Seán Gallagher ‘tweet’ affair might be a good opportunity to reflect on what is going on in RTE. However let’s not get carried away by the impact of the tweet. Seán Gallagher was already struggling on the programme before the tweet was read out. He was being challenged on his FF connections and his business affairs and appeared to obfuscating and unwilling to give straight answers. He compounded this the next day on the Pat Kenny programme when he attacked the credibility of the woman who had challenged him about his business affairs on the Frontline. Remember all the tweet said was that SF was going to produce the guy at a press conference the next day. The big damage that was done to Gallagher was by his own use of the words ‘brown envelope’. Probably the two most toxic words in Irish politics. Gallagher hoisted himself on his own petard and he is now attacking the broadcaster for providing us with the opportunity to see and hear his own gaffes.

    • rpe mccarthy says:

      Deaglán, there was also Simon Coveney’s tweet following Brian Cowen’s infamous Morning Ireland interview. I was just discussing this yesterday with colleagues and was saying that I was amazed that nobody I had listened to had mentioned the sensationalism at the very epicentre of the “Frontline” programme.

      Nothing is too great or too complex an issue to be reduced to an idiotic expression of extremes: public vs. private sectors, urban vs. rural living, unemployed vs. private enterprise. All this is clearly in name of ratings – not in the name of news. This cheapens the current affairs brand in RTE. I have not checked the ratings for a while but I know a number of people that used to watch (the worthy but dull) Q&A cannot watch the crass and inane substitute. It ill serves the public in a time of crisis.

      I can quite easily see a situation where editorially there was a determination to ensure a rather timid series of debates had a denouement “worthy” of the state broadcaster. They obviously don’t like the fact that the best debates these days seem to be on TG4. In the last British election, Adam Boulton, who works for a crass, vulgar news engine without RTE’s other redeeming qualities and whose wife was a Labour party aparatchik, broke the debate rules to challenge Nick Clegg directly on a news article in the second debate. Nick Clegg had won the 1st debate by a clear margin.

      Polymaths of significant substance like some high profile British current affairs broadcasters (or our own John Bowman) are so well educated they can mix it across a vast range of subjects on both the macro and the micro level. As a result, they do not need to descend to the lowest common denominator in order to cut through spin and lies. The clipboard journalists that proliferate in the 24 hour news cycle, propped up by the obligatory “expert”, ask stupid, open questions and rarely achieve any depth in their interviews. It was a strength of Eamon Dunphy’s radio programmes that he was able to get down into detail on a wide range of issues whether I agreed with him or not.

      What I think is interesting here is that the whole debate has moved on to the process of producing the Frontline rather than the substance of the allegation. When you start looking at processes and decision making (the same thing being reviewed in the outrageous Kevin Reynolds injustice) you start at the start of the process and then work your way through the various decision points that can happen right up to the end of the programme. From shaping questions with audience members straight through to posing questions without due validation, it would appear a priori that something is very definitely rotten in the state of Denmark and it does not take somebody with a masters in journalism to figure out that the risk appetite for normal journalistic controls around accuracy of content and the pushing of an agenda have altered from those one would typically expect from Morning Ireland, the 6-1 news or the Prime Time team.

      RTE will obviously survive this but I don’t think that this is going away any time soon and I also think that the credibility of the presenter and the editorial team will come into question. Nobody is going to have a flak jacket big enough for this one.

    • Tony says:

      Given that the current government parties enjoyed ‘free rein’ (as you mention in your blog on the Frontline) while in opposition why do they deserve the kid gloves now? Sinn Fein is just the new Labour and is playing it no different to how the Labour Party played it – and why should it? The media was very happy to give succour to the ‘Gilmore Gale’ and allowed the Labour Party to promise us the world during the election. Now that it has failed to deliver, I expect the media to take a hard line.

    • Ted Canty says:

      The author of the article compares the program to the Jerry Springer show. I,too, had similar thoughts when I saw the extract shown by Ivan Yates on TV 3 last week. Pat Kenny seemed to be pumped up haranguing Mr. Gallagher about the infamous tweet. He had behind him a baying crowd who catcalled and jeered everything that the unfortunate Mr. Gallagher said or attempted to say. It reminded me, not of Jerry Springer, but of the U.S senate investigations of the early fifties when decent people like the Hollywood thirteen were victimised. Remember the questions “are you now or have you ever been etc.”

    • Dindo Ballebar says:

      I don’t think it’s the question of rte going through this crisis. Rather, it’s a question of whether rte is made accountable for its abuse of its position. If rte is found guilty of bias against anybody then rte should pay the price.

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      Why is there any surprise that Frontline plants questions? That’s standard practice the world over for this type of programme be it Q&A or Question Time in the UK. I was in the audience on a FG ticket in 1990 when Lenihan Snr was asked about calling the Aras. That was a ‘planted’ question from a FG activists who’s now an adviser to a cabinet minister and there was no shock over it.

      In true Irish style we are shooting the messenger.

      Mr Gallagher was a bagman for Fianna Fáil and his business ‘success’ wasn’t quite the success he made it out to be and I’d be more interested in why so many people were so ready to accept he was a bagman and unfit in political terms to be President than to believe his version of events.

      With all these tweets or planted questions etc the same old adage applies: if you haven’t done anything then you’ve nothing to worry about. The only different is the tweet is modern, in a few years there’ll be something else. It’s no better or worse than a good journalist asking the right question at the wrong time – as in when Frost caught Nixon off guard (Frost/Nixon was on BBC the other evening).

      I was watching the very good HBO mini series on John Adams that was on SKY over the last few weeks and even then he spent the years after leaving office trying to refute ‘planted’ stories from Alexander Hamilton (who caused Adams to lose his reelection bid). More recently of course Lyndon Johnson felt it worthwhile to spread ‘planted’ stories on the basis of the very fact opponents were spending time denying the claims was time they couldn’t spend attacking Johnson.

      I’m not sure why you feel so aggrieved Deaglan about poor Mr Cannon or others as I would venture that the country is in a mess precisely because for decades the media were so compromised by their links to politics they were incapable of holding anyone to account and as a result those who should have been held to account were given free rein to run the country into the ground.

      A bit more aggressive interviewing wouldn’t be such a bad thing but how can a journalist who roams the corridors of Leinster house and trades information with the people they are meant to hold to account ever be impartial? Where is the separation between the 4th estate and others when you have lunch in the same canteen?

      Gallagher admitted on Frontline that he collected donations on behalf of FF. It is totally unacceptable that anyone in any party or none hands over cheques in a casual way that do not go through an official paper trail. Gallagher even mentioned that the collections he made were in white envelopes!

      So I’m sorry if my cup of sympathy for Gallagher isn’t exactly overflowing and Gallagher is in danger of turning into a whinging Bertie Ahern type character blaming everyone else except himself.

    • JOD says:

      “Interestingly, this is not the first time a politician was brought down by a Tweet,” – but the President’s supposed to be above politics shurely Deaglán?

    • Gene Carr says:

      Could this be the time to call into question the entire concept of ‘public service broadcasting’, which is used to justify coercing the citizens to purchase the service. I regard the idea as a statist ideological racket. Even if I thought RTE was a station worth watching, I think it should be my sovereign decision whether I wish to subscribe to it or not. I resent the idea that any third party should decide that for me. Let there be a free market in ideas and broadcasting.

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