RTÉ's history of television screened out bigger picture
OPINION:The broadcaster’s documentary about the history of RTÉ television overlooked other forces that shaped modern Ireland
IF ONE were 20, 30 or even 40, what would one have learned from John Bowman’s two-part television documentary, Battle Station, broadcast last Monday and Tuesday on RTÉ One?
Younger viewers would have been taken aback at the brutal political interference in the State’s fledgling television service. We saw the old men of de Valera’s Fianna Fáil, red in tooth and claw, clamping down, for instance, on a programming proposal to dispatch a film crew to report on the Vietnam conflict. They were to be at least matched, of course, in the 1970s, by Labour’s Conor Cruise O’Brien and one or two others in the Fine Gael-Labour administration of 1973-1977.
The picture that one might take from the two-part documentary is of a country ground down under the heels of clerical power and political authoritarianism. It is a grim, retributive society. But there is a shaft of light, a beacon of hope. In Montrose, courageous producers and determined news executives are pushing against the dark forces that would keep the people in ignorance and subjection.
The powers-that-be strike back at these subversions, unconscionable within a State-controlled corporation. Activists are sidelined into light entertainment or sport. Careers are blighted. The broadcasting authority is itself sacked. The struggle forms and re-forms with a new cast of characters as governments and broadcasters come and go. In the end, as with all good screen drama, one is left with a sense of the story continuing, of issues unresolved, of other battles ahead.
This was excellent television, seeking to tell an important story. And, as with anything that Bowman puts his hand to, doing it well. But when television starts televising television it can result in an inward-looking narrative that may not fully recognise a broader context. Battle Station told part of the story of the contest of ideas which more or less shaped modern Ireland. But a viewer of these programmes might be led to think that the contest can be defined simply as a struggle between television and government. It was, of course, much more than that.
“We were questioning government policy, which had never been done before,” veteran presenter John O’Donoghue said in the second part of the documentary, referring to the early 7 Days programmes that so disturbed ministers and the political establishment in general.
I think we know what he meant. And he may have said a bit more that was edited out. But it was not as simple as that. The struggle between those who wanted to silence dissent and criticism and those who believed ideas should be free and should be debated took place on a much wider stage than television alone. The danger of describing the struggle solely in terms of television is to relegate the other forces for change that became active in Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s.
There was a vibrant, challenging journalism in the Dublin newspapers, led by editors such as Douglas Gageby, Louis McRedmond and Tim Pat Coogan. There were courageous, outspoken theologians and priests such as James Mackey and James Good. Clear- minded analysts such as Basil Chubb, David Thornley and Brian Farrell sought to bring “political science” to bear on issues that had been smothered in rhetoric. Liberalising judges such as Brian Walsh and Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh promulgated a fresh, contemporary interpretation of the Constitution.