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.

It was John Healy in the Sunday Review and later in The Irish Times who abandoned the reverential tones in which parliament had been reported. It was political correspondents such as Michael McInerney and Michael Mills who introduced a new, challenging style of political coverage, questioning policy, disparaging poor performance and spotlighting ministerial sleight-of-hand.

It was journalists such as Michael Viney, Mary Maher and Eileen O’Brien who were the pathfinders in reporting social issues, deprivation and inequality. Their combination of desk research and on-the-ground investigation first shone the light into issues such as homelessness, juvenile delinquency, alcoholism and violence in the home.

Teilifís Éireann dispatched teams overseas when it was allowed. But journalists such as Gageby, Jack White and Cathal O’Shannon were newspaper veterans of foreign assignment long beforehand. And when RTÉ had no staff in Belfast, before the Troubles, The Irish Times had established a full-time presence there with Fergus Pyle.

None of this is to take away from the catalytic role of television. But a catalyst has to combine with other elements for change to take place. It is more accurate and more complete to recognise that television was part of a process, combining with other parts, to create change in a society where values had scarcely altered since the Famine.

Of course, a programme is constrained by limits of time. But in a full two hours of broadcasting there might have been a greater acknowledgment that the story of Ireland, emerging into an era of new values and new challenges, is not simply the story of the national television station.

Has this anything to do with current vicissitudes at RTÉ? Has it any bearing on the Fr Kevin Reynolds debacle or the Seán Gallagher Twitter episode?

Powerful institutions tend to see wider society in terms of their role and remit, rather than the other way around. If this happens in a national broadcasting company it must skew perspective. To paraphrase media theorist Marshall McLuhan, the medium becomes more important than the message.

This was a valuable narrative from which necessary lessons can be taken. We should be grateful that we have a national broadcaster that can assert its vigour, energy and courage. But it is also important to remember that, even if some of the people engaged in television don’t seem to think so, real life is not always bounded or defined by what happens on screen.

CONOR BRADYis a former editor of The Irish Times

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