RTÉ needs to challenge the papal bull
Ireland’s relationship with the Catholic Church has come a long way, but the national broadcaster lags behind
Blanket coverage: Bryan Dobson, one of the platoon of journalists RTÉ deployed to the Vatican this week
Near the end of the 1980s I was dispatched as a neophyte reporter, along with a photographer, to Croom, in Co Limerick, to report on the refusal of its parish priest to permit the burial of a local man in a family plot in the picturesque village’s Catholic cemetery.
The priest, who had prevented the burial because the deceased man had left his baptismal faith to become a Jehovah’s Witness, was unavailable at the magnificent parochial house. The locals to whom I spoke, none of whom wished to be quoted, mostly took the view that it was unfortunate the priest had exercised his legitimate right to refuse the burial, as no parishioner would have objected to the interment. The deceased man had been popular with his neighbours, and his treatment in death had engendered muted unhappiness.
On our way home, the photographer and I stopped for refreshments at a hotel near Limerick city, where a waitress greeted our request for tea and ham sandwiches with an unmistakable frisson of unease. Sorry, she said, there was no ham. No problem, the photographer said: beef sandwiches, in that case. Sorry: no beef. Chicken? Sorry.
It was a puzzling turn of events. We had, it seemed, stumbled across perhaps the only hotel in Ireland that stocked neither beast nor fowl. Even if was a cash-laundering Provo front – especially if it was – it could surely stretch to ham sandwiches. “It’s Ash Wednesday,” the waitress explained. After a moment’s incomprehension, I pointed out that we wanted the staff simply to make the sandwiches, not eat them. “Sorry, it’s policy.”
Faced with returning to Limerick city or plodding on to Nenagh, we yielded to the penitential option and ordered egg-salad sandwiches. Then we pondered the strangeness of the place in which we found ourselves. We were two hours from Dublin and had crossed no state border yet were in another country, indifferent to us at best, where Christians refused to bury the dead or provide hospitality to the living.
It is a country that has all but disappeared from view, with days of fasting and abstinence in Ireland now scarcely distinguishable from Latin fiestas of orgiastic indulgence. But the hardy Catholic Ireland of passivity and reflex deference survives, mostly in disguise but unconcealed in a place where the secular values of a modern republic might be expected: RTÉ.
Recent weeks have provided an array of reminders of its anachronism in this regard, from the platoon of journalists deployed to Rome to provide blanket coverage of the papal resignation and succession to an edition of the Radio 1 programme The God Slot that indicated the standards of fairness and balance that apply to RTÉ’s coverage of the Catholic Church.
Much of its coverage of the institution in recent years has been exemplary, particularly Mary Raftery ’s reporting of clerical sexual abuse and Joe Little’s forensic interviewing and analysis. The problems with RTÉ’s coverage of the church relate mainly to its scale and to the way much of it reinforces a particular world view.
The sheer volume of its coverage of the papal succession – a bombardment that suggested events of overwhelming public significance were taking place in the Vatican, not just a personnel change in a powerful private institution that calibrates its movement in decades if not centuries – was in striking contrast to the station’s coverage of more important matters. This is the newsroom, after all, that shrugged its shoulders for days when the EU-ECB-IMF bailout loomed, apparently unable to confirm Reuters and BBC reports, until the governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, Patrick Honohan, put it out of its misery.
More significant, however, is RTÉ’s acquiescence to the terms of public debate the church has defined, ensuring the institution’s core assumptions go unchallenged. The God Slot ’s recent programme about the Magdalene laundries, which broadcast unchallenged the self-serving assertions of two unidentified and entirely unapologetic nuns, their words voiced by an announcer, exemplified this deference.
The orders that ran the Magdalene laundries had, the nuns said, been made scapegoats by wider society. “The media have whipped up an anti-Catholic forum for [Magdalene] women,” said one. It’s somebody else’s responsibility, in other words. In what the presenter called “the interests of fairness and balance”, the editor of the Irish Catholic was interviewed about the nuns’ observations. It was an interpretation of fairness and balance to be found in few places other than RTÉ.
The station’s passivity in relation to the church both reflects and reinforces a wider cultural enervation. Whereas church and state are firmly separated in other Catholic-dominated countries, such as France, here they have, even as the political rhetoric has grown hostile, remained entwined in an embrace that discourages people from taking responsibility as individuals and as members of a society.
It’s the Irish disease, its symptoms visible across the social spectrum, from fare-dodgers to tycoon tax exiles, from a potentially dissident artist class willingly bought off with tax exemptions to Luke “Ming” Flanagan blaming public officials for his decision to accept the quashing of penalty points. Whatever you do, devolve responsibility. Don’t speak up about the parish priest. Eat the egg-salad sandwiches.