Broadcasters a prime target for McDowell's ire

Sat, Feb 18, 2006, 00:00

In a week when three nights of RTÉ programming on the Stardust disaster brought a half-forgotten tragedy back into the public consciousness with the force of a punch to the stomach, it's timely to consider the power and responsibility of the media, and in particular television.

The two-part drama-documentary, and the Prime Time special which followed, succeeded in bringing an issue on which relatives and survivors have campaigned fruitlessly for years right on to the contemporary agenda.

Three days before the first, heartbreaking programme went out, Michael McDowell spoke in UCD on the subject of the relationship between broadcasting and society. In a wide-ranging lecture, Mr McDowell drew extensively on the writings of veteran British journalist John Lloyd, who has argued persuasively that, in the UK, the media have arrogated to themselves the role of the "real opposition". In the process, Lloyd says, they have downgraded the importance of parliamentary politics and encouraged public contempt for elected politicians.

Mr McDowell also made some disparaging (but accurate) comments about the self-perpetuating "commentariat" which exists within the Irish media, and on journalists' failure to interrogate and examine the structures and motivations underpinning their own industry. All very well and good; his most fervent critics would have to agree that the Minister for Justice is a rare bird among politicians in his willingness to engage in robust debate on a wide range of issues. Would that there were more so inclined.

But the main focus of last week's lecture was on public service broadcasting and how it best serves the common good. And Mr McDowell's chief concern was with what he described as "agenda-setting, campaigning journalism and investigative reporting" in current affairs.

Echoing Lloyd, he asked whether a tendency has emerged, in the presence of a politically fragmented parliament, for some in the Irish media to leap into the gap and take on the role of the formal opposition to the elected government. "I fear that in the area of democratic dialogue, free speech, and the education of public opinion, public service journalism is losing its way," he told his listeners. "There are signs that a minority of journalists and programme-makers have decided they want to be political players - that their legal obligations of impartiality and objectivity are boring, outdated, style-cramping counsels of perfection.

"There are signs that some of them want to be agenda-setters. There are signs that some feel that they are better at choosing the battlefields for elected politicians than are those politicians themselves."

Where are these signs? Who are these programme makers? Perhaps we should think back to October of last year. A Prime Time programme on the purchase of lands for a new prison at Thornton Hall in north Dublin aroused the Minister's ire to such an extent that he told the Dáil: "I just know what I saw was grossly lacking in impartiality and objectivity and grossly misleading to the Irish people as to the transactions that were being described."

He went on to state that his Cabinet colleagues were backing his decision to ask the RTÉ Authority to address the issue "in a way which upholds statutory obligations". The authority had a specific onus under the Broadcasting Act, he said, "to ensure compliance with that duty so it is up to them to decide how they propose to redress the wrong".

Mr McDowell made very serious allegations under privilege against Prime Time over its Thornton Hall programme. But, like any citizen, he has the right to seek redress in such cases from the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Instead he chose to write individually to the members of the RTÉ Authority, with, as he told the Dáil, the public support of the entire Cabinet (which, of course, had been responsible for appointing those members, and will, at some point in the future, decide on RTÉ's next application for a licence fee increase).

At best, this was a heavy-handed demonstration of Government power. At worst, it was a flagrant attempt to influence editorial decision-making in RTÉ's current affairs department. According to Mr McDowell, he wrote to the RTÉ Authority "to ask them to take action to ensure that it never happens again". Note that he did not appear to request public redress, clarification or right of reply.

Let us assume for a moment that Mr McDowell's complaints were fully justified. If that were so, and he had sent his complaint to the complaints commission, that body would have adjudicated on the matter and would have ordered RTÉ to broadcast its findings. The very serious accusations of a failure to meet statutory obligations would have been well ventilated and proven to be true. The Minister would have been vindicated. So why did he choose instead just to tell the authority to get its house in order to his satisfaction?

His description in his lecture of a public service broadcaster currently "losing its way" is surprising. Prime Time has been responsible for breaking some of the most important public-interest stories of the last few years. This resurgence comes after a decade of drift and stagnation, the causes of which can be traced to the politically motivated vendetta by Ray Burke against RTÉ during Charles Haughey's last years as taoiseach.

Given what we now know about low standards in high places at that time, it's a shame that Prime Time wasn't doing the work then that it is now, but RTÉ had been effectively brought to its financial knees by the advertising cap and licence fee freeze imposed by Mr Burke, and morale was at rock-bottom. By comparison with that time, it's rather extraordinary to claim that RTÉ current affairs programmes are now losing their way. At no point in his lecture did Mr McDowell refer to that sorry era and its consequences. We can only assume he is not unduly troubled by one of the key issues in public service broadcasting - the necessity for an arm's-length relationship between broadcaster and government. His behaviour over the Prime Time programme certainly suggests as much.

It is far from unusual - in fact, it's probably universal - in countries with state-funded public service broadcasters that there is some ongoing friction between the two sides. Something would be wrong if that were not the case. And it is understandable that those elected to high office chafe at the prospect of being held to account by unelected programme-makers whom they may suspect of harbouring ideological grudges, especially if those programme makers are employed by what Seán Lemass memorably described as "organs of government".

In his lecture, Mr McDowell differentiated between the constitutional right of "liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy" and the constitutional obligation not "to undermine the authority of the State".

Whether that latter provision has ever been adequately defined is a moot point. But, from his behaviour over the Thornton Hall programme and his views on public service broadcasting, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that, for this particular Minister, l'état, c'est moi.