The battle for political supremacy in the newsroom
Irish media mythology paints the programme Today Tonightas the key front in an internal and vicious tussle for power at RTÉ by the Worker’s Party – but has the role of the so-called ‘Stickies’ been exaggerated?
IN OCTOBER 1980, a new show called Today Tonight, was aired on RTÉ One. The aim of the programme was to shake up the station’s current affairs coverage, deemed moribund for several years.
While Today Tonightcovered the political dogfights, economic malaise and personal tragedies that dominated life in the Republic during the 1980s, the programme was, according to Irish media mythology, the key front in an internal, and often extraordinarily vicious, tussle for ideological mastery of RTÉ by members of the Workers’ Party or, to use the slang of the time, “the Stickies”.
Against the bloody backdrop of the Troubles, a secret branch of the party, the Ned Stapleton Cumann, was supposed to wield huge influence in Montrose, shaping editorial policy, ensuring compliance with Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act – which excluded Sinn Féin and the IRA from the airwaves – and sidelining those who disagreed with them. It remains one of the most contentious chapters in RTÉ’s history. These days, many of those involved feel that the legend has outgrown the reality.
“I’m not saying it was all mythology,” says Joe Mulholland, former editor of Today Tonight. “I think there was some truth in it, but it was far exaggerated.”
All involved, however, concede that it was a time of high stakes and heightened emotions. “There would be something strange if at the time of an armed conflict, the national broadcaster wasn’t the cockpit of ideological struggle,” says writer and former RTÉ producer Eoghan Harris, the leading figure in the station’s Workers’ Party caucus in the 1970s and 1980s, “and Section 31 was the flashpoint.”
The Workers’ Party’s roots lay in the split between the Provisional and Official Sinn Féin in 1970 (following a similar division in the IRA), with the latter party taking a Marxist approach and eventually opposing Republican violence.
By the late 1970s Harris, one of RTÉ’s most dynamic producers, was also a major intellectual voice in the party: he says he kept his membership secret in order to avoid being suspended by management. “You couldn’t have a political life in RTÉ,” he says. “The Workers’ Party’s reputation for secrecy was exaggerated. It was just about keeping your job.”
There were few paid-up members of the party – only four, according to Harris – but, says Mulholland, “there were others who liked to be part of the Harris clique – he had huge sway.” Mulholland says his own political evolution, from having republican sympathies to being “implacably opposed” to the IRA, was down to the influence of Harris.
What impact all this activity had is still debated. Vincent Browne, in a 1982 series about the Workers’ Party, wrote that Today Tonight,under the aegis of party members, covered the North in a biased manner.
Harris dismisses the idea that his party had any direct editorial pull: “There’s a big difference between having a paper branch and manipulating programme making.”
But while Mulholland says “there were people who because of their political leanings were, to say the least, tolerant of the terrorist campaign conducted in the North,” RTÉ executive Betty Purcell, then a radio producer, says “there were many of us who were driven by a journalistic agenda that RTÉ needed to cover all sides.”
Purcell says those who opposed the Workers’ Party line got “name-called and pilloried”, leading to an air of intimidation and self-censorship: Mary McAleese, then a reporter with Today Tonight,later claimed that RTÉ had an anti-nationalist and anti-Catholic atmosphere at the time.
By the late 1980s, whatever hold the Workers’ Party had was waning. Section 31 was eventually repealed by minister for arts, culture and the gaeltacht Michael D Higgins in 1994. “The Workers’ Party lost the ideological battle in RTÉ and I resigned from the union [Workers Union of Ireland],” says Harris, who still feels his stance was correct. “I felt that if RTÉ lifted Section 31, Sinn Féin would run rings around our reporters. When it was abolished, Sinn Féin made hay.”
As to Workers’ Party influence in Montrose, opinions unsurprisingly vary. Harris says that “Trotskyists”, united on the issue of Section 31, had more power than his smaller, if more organised caucus, though he feels that the most pervasive ethos of the day was that of Fianna Fáil.
Purcell, in contrast, thinks the Workers’ Party had “a disproportionate influence, because they were so articulate and organised, while the rest of us were individuals making it up as we went along.”