Why we should be wary of the ‘Secret RTÉ Producer’

The insider view of RTÉ is irresistible and admirable, but unverified and anonymous

A camera operator in RTÉ in 2015. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

A camera operator in RTÉ in 2015. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

A rebel force embedded deep within an institution of power begins tweeting undercover, pluckily revealing organisational secrets and conspiracies that threaten to shake the establishment to its core, while the authorities race against the clock to shut them down.

This isn’t the plot of the latest must-binge Netflix Originals series, but an increasingly well-worn Twitter trope.

So far this year, we’ve had rogue Twitter accounts by people purporting to be disgruntled staff of the White House, the US National Parks service, Nasa, the US Department of Justice and the US EPA. In the weeks after the US election, more than 50 “rogue” Twitter accounts were set up by current or former employees of federal agencies in the US.

It was high time Ireland got one of its own. Step forward (actually, perhaps best that you do NOT step forward) @rtesecretpro, a Twitter account started on September 7th, by someone describing themselves as a “Secret RTÉ producer” who had “worked in, or in conjunction with a lot of different areas. Primarily TV. Kids, Daytime & Lifestyle, Entertainment, Docs, comedy and a little radio.”

Secret RTÉ Producer’s stated intention was bold, and undoubtedly well-meaning. “All I want to show is the things that need to change to save a broadcaster that is vital for Ireland,” its anonymous owner tweeted.

So far, so noble. It’s worth stating that anybody who is willing to risk their livelihood to make a point in the national interest deserves credit for their chutzpah (that’s presuming that the Secret Producer does actually have a job at RTÉ to lose, more of which later.)

But 12 days into the life of @rtesecretpro – despite its references to hacking, Leveson and private investigators being hired to track him or her down – the things we have learned could hardly be said to have destabilised a pastry stand in the RTÉ canteen, let alone to have shaken the institution to its core.

Some people in RTÉ, we have learned, take a lot of coffee breaks. Some do not always use company taxis according to the rules. They get excited when there are beans and chips on offer in the canteen. They don’t always like each other, or agree with strategic decisions.

Many of them are frustrated at programming decisions; disillusioned about cutbacks; dispirited by the lack of advancement opportunities; and irritated by the high salaries paid to those in middle management.

It offers fewer smoking guns than festering gripes. There were gripes about unnamed genre heads or commissioning editors, the arcane practices of studio crews, unions, overtime, internal politics, and the phenomenon of models-turned-presenters.

These may all be legitimate complaints: in fact, I’m sure I’ve heard them all legitimately complained about in the RTÉ canteen myself. And that’s the point. It is not the stuff of tribunals, so much as the kind of complaining you hear during any tea break in any large organisation in any office building anywhere in the world.

The result is that it all seems a bit navel-gazing – especially compared with other, arguably much more pressing, questions about RTÉ and Irish broadcasting generally that have been in the public domain lately, including questions over gender pay equality, or why men continue to hold such dominance over the national airways during prime time.

But a bigger question is whether, at a time when we see every day the damage that has been done globally by fake news, we should give any credence to unverified and anonymous social-media accounts.

The Secret RTÉ Producer account seems to be legitimate, if only because the complaints are so specific, so “who used my milk” in nature. The fervour with which he or she moans about studio crews and young people’s television suggests someone who has, at least, a passing acquaintance with those areas.

But that still doesn’t mean the tweeter is exactly who they say they are. In fact, it would seem foolhardy if they are exactly who they say they are.

And without knowing who they are or having the verification of a trusted third party (as happens in most media’s use of unnamed contributors), we lack any kind of context within which to frame their comments.

As though to underline this point – but more likely just because they could – a handful of spoof “secret Twitter accounts” (how meta is that?) have sprung up in the past few days, including “Secret RTÉ Presenter (I’m a very unhappy extortionately paid RTÉ presenter)” and “Secret TV3 Producer (I’m a long-serving TV3 producer.)”

The problem with the apparently genuine secret accounts is that when you want something to be true (and, let’s face it, who doesn’t relish the idea of a long-serving RTÉ insider breaking out of the torpor in which, some seem to believe, they perpetually reside, or a frustrated White House insider, going rogue to spew forth decades of angst on Twitter?), or when you want something to be untrue, you enter dangerous territory, the kind of territory where it is tempting to suspend your scepticism in favour of a more appealing narrative. 

We can’t protest about fake news and misinformation unless we’re prepared to follow coherent, consistent standards as to when and why we care about it.

We can’t decide that the unverified source who is tweeting irresistible insider gossip about an organisation we all have an opinion on is fine, while the unverified source sharing bogus information that claims to prove the Antarctic ice shelf is expanding or that Hillary Clinton is running a paedophile ring out of a pizza joint in Washington is not.

We either care about sources, verification and context, or we do not. And if we care about these things, then we should be wary of anonymous Twitter accounts – no matter how many delicious nuggets from the RTÉ canteen they promise to serve up.

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