The managing director of a Wexford radio station has described as "staggering" a suggestion by Wexford County Council that it agree its presenters would not express personal opinions on air in return for the council taking out advertising on the station.
The suggestion is one of a number made by the county secretary, David Minogue, in an email to the managing director of South East Radio, Eamonn Buttle, during discussions over a proposed €40,000-€50,000 spend this year by the council on advertising with the station.
In January the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) issued a report in which it criticised Tom Enright, chief executive of Wexford County Council, for putting "unwarranted" pressure on South East Radio during a 2019 row about coverage of the council by the station, and in particular by one of its presenters, local businessman Karl Fitzpatrick.
By threatening to withdraw council advertising from the station during the row, Sipo said, Enright had breached the provisions of the Local Government Act and failed to maintain proper standards of integrity.
The public ethics body said Enright had wrongly conflated the issue of his dispute with the station over its coverage of the council, and the council’s commercial position as the station’s primary advertiser.
The Sipo report was discussed by a special meeting of the council in January, during which councillors criticised the public ethics body before voting to take no action on foot of its report. The councillors then gave the county manager a standing ovation.
In February the council's decision to take no action was raised in the Dáil by Wexford TD Verona Murphy, who said the "message is that we will all do what we like ... There was no impact. [The report] made no difference. He got a standing ovation and a round of applause."
Minogue said the council "does not consider it appropriate that a South East Radio broadcaster offers personal viewpoints and opinions on South East Radio"
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he did not agree, and that others would take note of Sipo’s findings. The findings would have “far-reaching impacts” on the future behaviour of councils.
“There cannot be any attempts to influence the content of any local radio discussion, debate or its treatment or coverage of any issue,” he said.
“Even if there are advertisements that emanate from the council and so on, that is not correct. It can never be used for that purpose by anybody. I am very clear about that.”
However, a row centred on exactly the same topic has again developed between Wexford County Council and South East Radio, with the station this time objecting strongly to “criteria” that the county secretary, Minogue, suggested should be agreed by the station as part of a deal over a proposed spend of €40,000-€50,000 on radio advertisements this year.
In an email sent to Buttle on March 25th, Minogue said the council “does not consider it appropriate that a South East Radio broadcaster offers personal viewpoints and opinions on South East Radio.
“I ask for assurances that South East Radio will take the steps necessary to ensure such personal views and opinions are not offered by your broadcasters in the future.”
The council executive also suggested that the station ensure that “raw” material, meaning recorded material not broadcast by the station, be kept for a period of two years.
“Such material can then be made available for review in the event of a dispute between South East Radio and [the council], so as to determine the appropriateness or otherwise of the presenter/broadcaster omitting content from the final broadcast output.”
A third criterion suggested by Minogue concerned what would happen when the council sought a right of reply in relation to something that had been broadcast by the station.
"The content of your email is so utterly devoid of any insight or learning from the Sipo investigation"
“I ask that the matter end there, and that the original theme or issue is not raised again on South East Radio, as has happened previously.”
In his response on April 1st, Buttle described what was being suggested as “frankly speaking, staggering” and said it was “absolutely necessary” to remind Minogue, and the council, of some very important recent events.
“I find it very strange indeed that it is necessary for me to do so, given the gravity of those events. But the content of your email is so utterly devoid of any insight or learning from the Sipo investigation that I feel I must spell out some fundamental facts.”
It was remarkable, he said, that Minogue’s email set out to follow the same course as that followed by county manager Enright in 2019.
Buttle quoted the comments made in the Dáil by the Taoiseach in February, saying Martin had made his position “abundantly clear in relation to the kind of influence and misuse of power which your email of March 25th seeks to exert”.
Despite the "profound criticism" that Sipo had made of Enright, and the fact that a separate complaint by the council about South East Radio to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland had been "rejected entirely", the station had received no apology from the county manager or the council, Buttle said.
“To the contrary, we are now presented with even more serious attempts aimed at controlling our independence through an express and unashamed attempt to use public funds to influence what is said about [Wexford County Council] and those connected with its operations on South East Radio. This is stunningly wrong.”
He said he was forced to the conclusion that the criteria the council were seeking to impose were a “form of retaliation for, and a direct result of” the Sipo complaint that had been submitted by Fitzpatrick, and upheld in the Sipo report in January.
Buttle said the regulator for radio stations was the Broadcasting Authority, and it was not appropriate for the council to seek to set itself up as a quasi-regulator.
“Our presenters will not be censored in the manner that you seek for the benefit of [Wexford Council Council],” he said.
"I wish to make it abundantly clear that South East Radio will not be surrendering its independence and integrity, for any amount of advertising from Wexford County Council"
Minogue and the council appeared to “fundamentally misunderstand the role of a local authority vis a vis local (or indeed national) media in a democratic society”, Buttle said, before quoting from article 40.6 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression.
The council, Buttle said, was seeking to restrict open debate and public discourse in relation to the activities of the local authority within which South East Radio operates.
“In a democratic society, such behaviour cannot and must not be tolerated. South East Radio certainly will not stand for it.”
“Whilst our relationship with [the council], both financial and otherwise, is critically important, I wish to make it abundantly clear that South East Radio will not be surrendering its independence and integrity, for any amount of advertising from Wexford County Council.”
He said the broadcaster was reserving its position in relation to the county secretary’s email.
Minogue told The Irish Times that he was “really disappointed” by Buttle’s response. He said he felt it was “not appropriate” given the “reasonable” requests that had been made to the station.
The county secretary is the council’s Ethics Registrar for the purpose of complaints made about the council under the Local Government Act. He said he was not aware of any fresh complaints having been made against the council in relation to South East Radio.
Buttle did not respond to a request for a comment. Following the council meeting in January, when councillors voted to take no action on foot of the Sipo report, Enright issued a statement in which he said “we intend to look to put a service level agreement in place with South East Radio to facilitate an improved relationship in the future.”