Credibility gaps

 

IT'S the extent of the gap that disturbs. Between the accounts of life in Goldenbridge orphanage, as told by Dear Daughter and Prime Time, there is a chasm which has not been bridged. Of course, there would always be a gap - subjectivity, memory, anger, fear, the differences in tone between the accuser and the accused - all of these we can take, into account. We hear them in trials and arguments all the time.

But, even allowing that there are (at least) two sides to every story, the gap between Louis Lentin's documentary and Ursula Halligan's interview with Sr Xaviera is disturbing. It's just too great. Either Christine Buckley is hysterical or Sister of Mercy, Sr Xaviera, is, to be merciful, in denial. Television has now presented both sides of a horror story and the result is deeply unsatisfactory.

Ms Halligan's interview with Sr Xaviera lasted just 17 minutes. Old, and thereby partly protected by the appearance of vulnerability, the nun presented an image which visually contradicted the charges about to be made against her. This was not a wimpled dominatrix in her prime. It was a grey-haired, elderly woman expressing measured sorrow and taking refuge - validly or conveniently, depending on your perspective - in foregrounding the context of the period: the Ireland of the 1950s.

So, we now have a story with typical 1990s disingenuity - everybody is a victim. But we know that life is more complex and subtle than that. Certainly, we know that there is the question of degree of victimhood. After death, of course, it is traditional in this society to allow all but the most maligned in life, the benefit of the doubt. On the grounds that the story is, in some way, closed, life's raging bastards become "poor `oul divils" in the coffin. The theory is civilising but the reality is often not quite so neat.

Damage limitation PR plays on such sentiments. It is not comfortable to think of a 78-year-old woman as a tyrant or even as a retired tyrant. Faced with such an image on screen, viewers naturally recoil from distaste at the feeling that the bully in themselves is about to be aroused. The impulse is to disengage from the story rather than risk feeling like a persecutor.

You could hear the terrible conflict in Ursula Halligan's voice. She had hard questions to ask - which, creditably, she did - but her tone was the tone of the therapist. As a reporter, she wanted the story; as a young woman, aware of (perhaps, inculcated with) the respect traditionally accorded to nuns and the vulnerable old, she could not be confrontational. This gap between content and tone resulted in a sort of "soft toughness", a paradox which, in substantially negating itself, made discerning responses very difficult for viewers.

Such a scrambling of the story was in the interests of Sr Xaviera, her order and her supporters. It was, by extension, in the interests of the traditional power structures in this country. In principle, the right of reply was fair and just. But, unchallenged by her accusers, Sr Xaviera (and her advisers) were afforded a suspiciously PR-ish defence.

It is true that a TV confrontation between Ms Buckley and Sr Xaviera would risk becoming an emotional circus, eliciting base voyeurism among viewers. But Louis Lentin might have been included to defend his documentary, because, as the issue stands now, it is desperately unsatisfactory. RTE has screened programmes in which the gap is just too great. Savage beatings, a scalding, institutional terror and other horrors denied, either took place or did not take place.

Such extremes are not, in essence, a matter of perspective. Motive, result, memory, context of the times and all the rest cannot be discounted. But neither can these be proffered as adequate explanations for the gap. We know the 1950s were cruel that the State failed unfortunate children. But this 1990s TV tale which just does not add up is equally disturbing. We don't need witchhunts, but the truth, unsullied by PR, would be good. The media - RTE in particular - has a duty to bridge the gap.

TO be fair to RTE, it's not the only TV channel screening PR as documentary these days. Britain's ITV brought us Edward on Edward, a superficially slick slice of propaganda designed to rebut last year's revelations that England's Edward VIII was a Nazi sympathiser. The previous night, Sky News led its bulletins with a vile stunt by the putative queen of heart surgery, Diana Spencer.

Rigged out in operating theatre, gear smock, wrap, mask - Ms Spencer's meticulously mascara-ed eyes peered down on the suffering of a child and Sky News turned it all into a perverted, mass-entertainment medical circus. Then they called it news. Even in a hospital, such sickness is extreme. But of course, caring Diana Spencer is a victim too -just like the little boy undergoing a heart operation. Whatever happened to the arrogant, paternalistic old surgeons who would hunt a clown like that out of an operating theatre? Knight hoods, I suppose.

Anyway, With Di's gig punctuating a week of British royal PR for the Queen of England's 70th birthday, watching TV was like taking your stomach on a rough sea-crossing. ITV's cringing Happy Birthday Ma'am recounted how the tirelessly dutiful, brilliantly witty, animal-loving Elizabeth Windsor united with her family to win WW2 for Britain.

"Her Majesty the Queen carries the history of this country on her shoulders," said simpering Trevor McDonald. All the war dead, all the workers, all the home-makers, all the artists, all the democrats, all the taxpayers and all the unemployed... basically, all the people, counted for nothing. It was shameful stuff in 1996. Maggie Thatcher made a contribution about the Duke of York going to the Falklands. It made you wish that the zapper fired Exocets.

Still, birthdays, like wakes, are distortingly kind to the recipient. Edward on Edward did not have even that sort of excuse for the propaganda it launched. Presented by Edward Windsor, the tone was that of the investigative reporter. It did not bother to acknowledge that, being the great-nephew of its subject, Ted Windsor didn't have to do a Woodward and Bernstein to get at the Windsor Castle archive.

Predictably, Ted was going "to discover the real facts behind that fateful moment in history". The real facts, just in case you're in doubt, are that the king who abdicated was a victim - always a victim. Even though he was a bit of a lad, he only ever had the good of Britain at heart. A Sir Dudley Forwood, former equerry to the patriotic lad, was asked about public attitudes to Wallis Simpson in 1930s England.

"Intense loathing, sir, loathing such that I very much feared she could have been murdered." And there you have it. Investigative reporters are seldom called "sir", but then Ted Windsor is an artist who used to be known as Prince... and will be again as soon as he sets the record straight on his great-uncle, the Victim King. Production-wise, this was a very slick documentary and the presenter - now that he's decided there's no class system in Britain - was almost royally punterish enough to carry it off. It was his royally cliched script which did the damage.

HE genesis, collapse and prospects for resumption of the IRA ceasefire were investigated by Dispatches. It was standard investigative journalism which interviewed opposing sides and gained access to letters sent between Albert Reynolds and John Major. But, really, there was little new in Eamonn Mallie's report. He supplied some detail to strengthen a story already known to most concerned observers. But crucial questions remain unanswered.

John Major and Patrick Mayhew, the programme concluded, have never really been interested in the peace process. Fair enough, but that's hardly a revelation. Driven by a rare unity within nationalist Ireland at least until John Bruton became Taoiseach - the process was not British-instigated. Suspicion and animosity, or at least disinterest on the British side, could not be totally unexpected.

But, yet again, a gap exists between these less than noble, if predictable, positions and the reality of the obstacle-building which characterised the 17-month cease-fire. Slowness in accepting a process not of their own design is one thing. But the tenacity shown in trying to disrupt that process went way beyond resentful aloofness or even patronising scorn. There was clearly a competing agenda on the British side, sufficiently robust to risk a breakdown of the ceasefire.

But that agenda has never been fully clear. Dependence on unionist votes, wise soft-pedalling and a compelling desire to be seen to be in control, offer only a partial answer. Dispatches could not supply a definitive explanation although Martin Mansergh's suggestion that British resentment at not being able to defeat the IRA militarily" was at the nub of the matter, was, probably, as perceptive a comment as we are likely to get.

FINALLY, a couple of plot-lines which feel like they've been simmering since before the Troubles came to a head in RTE's soaps this week. Glenroe staged a rape trial while Pair City screened marital infidelity. Such scenes are, like anything to do with sex, soap staples at this stage. But the duration of the foreplay leading up to these seasonal climaxes, while providing approximate real-time continuity, is riskily undramatic. Keeping viewers appropriately aroused is a delicate matter.

Anyway, Froggy, denied support by the aptly-named, rugger-bugger Dick, changed his plea to guilty. His victim, Bernadette (rape does have real victims) has been vindicated, but the healing will still be uneasy. Soap's case-studies of such problems risk denying the humanity of characters by the pressure to have them unfold in a stereotyped manner. Bernadette has to be all raped women while remaining Mynah's daughter. Impossible, surely.

Fair Citys Paul got caught very nearly with his trousers literally down, by his yuppie wife, Nicola. In London with his former love, Helen, they are surprised when Nicola arrives unexpectedly. In a soap which, really, should be renamed Affair City (pensioners, gays, teenagers, singles, separated couples, bits-on-the-sides, all go at it like rabbits) Paul's come-uppance was ouchily dramatic.

Good. It's just that with such overstretched plot-lines, the length of time between initiation and resolution is too long. Again, it's the extent of the gap that disturbs.