The maverick strikes back
'I believe it was a waste of time, because I failed utterly in achieving anything I wanted to achieve," says Bob Quinn of his four years as a member of the RT╔ Authority, a period charted in his new book, Maverick: A Dissident View of Broadcasting Today. "They said Michael D. Higgins would go mad in office, but the only really mad thing he did was appoint me to the authority," he declares, with more than a hint of self-satisfaction.
The book is a typically Quixotic exercise from the veteran independent film-maker and self-proclaimed outsider. Between 1995 and 1999, Quinn made the early-morning trek once a month from his home in his beloved Carraroe, Co Galway, to what he describes as "the Jackeen centre of paralysis", where he would do battle with his fellow authority members over such issues as the targeting of children by advertisers.
Despite the book's flaws (the self-congratulatory tone becomes wearing at times), it's that rare and welcome thing, a lifting of the veil that covers the decision-making process in institutions of the State. "That's why I decided to write it," he says. "There have been so few books about RT╔. I have a lot of perspective now which I felt should be relayed to the people who I was purporting to represent."
The analysis which Quinn brings to the current malaise in RT╔ is not that different from that which led him, along with Lelia Doolan and the late Jack Dowling, to resign as a producer from the broadcaster more than 30 years ago: hemmed in on one side by avaricious commercial interests and on the other by a government which sees it as an instrument of the State, RT╔ has never succeeded in giving Irish people the public broadcasting service they deserve. And things, he believes, are a lot worse now.
There's nothing wrong with good, populist, popular programming, whether it is publicly or privately funded. In fact, the BBC only hit its heyday when ITV came on air and forced it to jettison the cut-glass accents and eveningwear. "Yes," says Quinn. "But there's a big difference between that and Mike Murphy doing a free Lottery show, which is a disgrace."
So what is, or should be, public service broadcasting?
"RT╔ has occasionally done it and still does, with Leargas and Would You Believe," he answers. "Those are the two most satisfactory programmes. But radio, especially at night, is still the main thing that retains dignity for RT╔. Television has nearly been abandoned to making money. It's hobbled by over-subservience to the whims of the State and of commercial interests. So it really hasn't got a chance unless it sticks its neck out.
" I was always urging that we should up the ante. I do know that if you're facing a death sentence, you'll do anything possible to save your life. Our public broadcaster is facing a death sentence, but that desperation isn't showing."
When he joined the RT╔ Authority, he says, he suggested that RT╔ should enlist the support of its audience. "Although it might have been too late anyway. I do believe it's RT╔ Dublin. The hinterland was ignored, which made RT╔ very sterile, and we had abandoned them already outside Dublin, but at least it would be the last throw of the dice. Go on the air three hours a week, with everybody talking about broadcasting. Let the lunatics on the air to say what they think.
"That was shot down - instead we had polite meetings around the country, which were entirely controlled. So, we weren't brave enough to enlist that natural constituency, which you could see was there.
"When Joe Mulholland tried to get rid of the meteorologists, there was outrage. It was incredible. People saw the significance of getting rid of these professional people . . . and they objected to the tendency that represented."
"I'm inclined to be a total pessimist," he says. "I think there are inexorable processes, and what we say or do doesn't make any difference. Technology and money guide our lives, and there are natural rises and falls, like tides. I've gone all ecological in the last few years. I suppose, approaching geriatricity, it's the only thing that makes sense."
Quinn is given to making these sort of oracular pronouncements, usually with a mischievous glint in his eye. So, RT╔ should shut down all its non-profit activities - the symphony orchestra, Raidi≤ na Gaeltachta, TG4 - to really put it up to the Government. So, people who lend their well-known voices to advertisements are prostitutes of the worst kind. So, it would be better for all concerned if Ireland became the 51st state of the US "and abdicate any illusions of sovereignty or independence".
One wonders whether this take-no-prisoners style ended up undermining the causes he was trying to promote. Did he, for example, seek wider support for his stand on the issue which exercised him most strongly, advertising targeted at children?
"I did," he insists. "I wrote to the National Parents' Council, I went to the Social Services Council in Sligo. A lot of parents were fascinated, they were going to form a committee. I waited and waited and there was no word. I found it very difficult. I'm not an organiser but I did for once try to get people interested. I think they were just too busy. Also, parents just do not know what is on children's television or how they're being brainwashed. Everybody senses we're all part of this huge capitalistic market, and they're resigned to it."
But, as he admits with more than a hint of pride in the book, Quinn is not a natural coalition-builder or strategist. His fondness for the apocalyptic soundbite can hardly have made him many allies among his fellow authority members. He allows that a couple of the people who appear in the book may be hurt by what he has to say (although he won't say who those people are). Certainly, the then chairman of the authority, Farrell Corcoran, comes in for some serious criticism.
"I know Farrell Corcoran is a very intelligent and nice man," says Quinn. "He understood the subtleties of everything, but he didn't realise the power he had . . . I did try to be fair to Bob, and on balance it comes across that I approve of him greatly. And I have seen some signs of improvement, although it takes a long time to move."
He agrees that, for himself, RT╔ is really just the most obvious manifestation of a broader malaise. "Yes, the way this whole goddamn country is going. But I'm optimistic now that the dotcom bubble has burst. I think that's the sanest thing that's happened to this country. We've always been a trading-post, but we developed this illusion over the last 100 years that we had some form of independent, homogenous identity. Which was just an invention."
But if that's really the case, why bother with authorities or broadcasters or any of the rest of it? Why didn't he just remain in Connemara and cultivate his garden, as he claims he would have preferred? The reality is that important issues were discussed during Quinn's time on the authority, not least the legal battle which finally led to his resignation. The decision by RT╔, after "informal contacts" with the departments of the Taoiseach and of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, to appeal to the Supreme Court over the case won by Anthony Coughlan, imposing a requirement for equal access to the airwaves during referendum campaigns, was the final straw in his deteriorating relationship with the chairman and the rest of the authority.
"This Coughlan thing was very serious," he says. "And I could only approach it on the basis of the arguments which were being made, some of which were entirely fascistic, including your own newspaper's, which said that: 'The (abortion) referendum went as most people hoped it would.' Most people! How does it know what most people wanted except what they said in the referendum? What was wrong with the principle of equality being applied in referenda?"
The bitter arguments over Quinn's insistence on publicly venting the issues by, among other things, writing a letter to The Irish Times, led inexorably and finally to his resignation in the summer of 1999.
"RT╔ is a little town, a little village, a little country on its own," he says. "It's almost an enclosed order. Most of the people in there are in despair, but there's that thing of 'It's OK for us to say it, but don't you dare attack us'. There's a paranoid sensitivity, which I discovered over my four years in there. It's a siege mentality, which may have to do with being attacked too often. But then again, if you're the most powerful medium in the country, you should be able to take attacks."
Maverick: A Dissident View of Broadcasting Today is published by Brandon, £15.99