Current affairs as fairy tale seems to be Kenny's line


THERE ARE three things I need from television. I need the news, I need to escape the news and I need someone to explain what it all means. There’s no shortage of news or escapism but there’s a definite crisis in the supply of explanation. It’s a shame, because it was never needed so much.

Complicated times need complex analysis. Presenters and producers try to insure themselves against their own lack of knowledge by creating polarised panels hoping each side will dismantle the other’s spin. Instead we end up with an entirely predictable harangue between vested interests. The search for understanding, untainted by ideology or self-preservation, is getting harder.

This is the reason I’m disappointed with Frontline, RTÉ 1’s new current affairs programme on Monday nights. It’s a pity because it’s obvious Pat Kenny is thoroughly enjoying himself. The show zips along but the structure makes it impossible to fill our need for informed analysis.

Questions and Answershad a big audience for good reason, but everyone agreed a shake-up was required. But instead of getting Q&A Mark 2, we got a sort of televised Liveline. I don’t mean that as pejoratively as it might sound. It’s right that there should be a place for people to tell their stories, to raise issues that might otherwise be ignored and to provide unfiltered public opinion. So we’ll always need a Liveline. But everyone knows how Livelineis structured.

Callers are identified from the top as good or bad. Victims tell their stories accompanied by sympathetic tut-tutting and supportive sighing. Villains are hauled on and attacked. The victims are rarely challenged about their own culpability in whatever misfortune has befallen them and the bad guy is never absolved. There is no analysis, simply a presentation of a script created in the production meeting.

The same demarcation applies on Frontline. The innocents are organised and presented with pre-arranged sympathy while the bad guys are placed in stocks on the stage. In an effort to raise the debate above sequential ranting, experts or commentators are placed in the audience. However, their value is undermined by the fact that they make their points in an almost random manner – little bubbles of logic that pop up and disappear in seconds. There’s also a distracting problem of the camera peering up the skirts of the ladies sitting behind whatever audience member is speaking.

The result is an odd mix of the Livelinewhinge-fest, a prepared defence from the designated bad guys and a sound-bite from the invited commentator. Very little in the way of advancing our knowledge of the issue at hand is achieved.

For example, the first programme crammed sweaty scoundrels Pat Farrell and Tom Parlon into the undersized panel chairs thus increasing their planned discomfort. I ended up sympathising with these two unsympathetic individuals as they absorbed random abuse, and was also frustrated that the inefficiency of the structure meant they could choose to ignore the more challenging allegations. A show on negative equity included a woman who had taken out a

100 per cent 40-year mortgage with the intention of flipping the property at a profit. On a smaller scale she had made the same mistake many developers did, yet she was presented in a totally one-dimensional manner – innocent victim – when she could have been challenged about her bad decision.

Just as the issues are complicated, so is life. At the risk of delving into the choppy waters of moral relativism, it’s fair to say that we are where we are, not because there are angels and devils but because ordinary people did remarkably stupid things. It’s far too simplistic to set up current affairs shows as fairy stories with good children and evil stepmothers. I want experts to explain why certain decisions were made and on what basis we should make new ones.

The second half of Frontlinechanges gear but I’ve started missing it because I switch over to see what my colleague (whom I barely know, by the way) from across the page is up to on TV3.

Tonight with Vincent Brownecan be a haphazard affair due to loose production and the presenter’s eccentricities, but the results are far more satisfying.

Two recent shows, which you can watch again on, were great examples of what’s required. On Thursday, October 16th, the programme featured the best debate I’ve heard (and there have been many) on Nama between three experts who had the time and space to analyse and disagree constructively on the Bill issued that day. On October 19th, Justine McCarthy was interviewed about her book, Deep Deceptions: Ireland’s Swimming Scandals, along with former swimming champion Gary O’Toole and Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop. The discussion was shocking but calm and never descended into the emoting contest that is so tempting for producers.

Worryingly, Browne’s programme is under threat because EU regulations say that news programmes cannot be sponsored. TV3 made some changes so it could retain its sponsor, principally splitting off the news headlines from the top of the show, but as far as I can see, it’s the same programme it was last season. Hopefully the Broadcasting Commission disagrees because otherwise, the show is in danger.

But back to publicly funded RTÉ: to paraphrase Colm McCarthy the night he was set up as the target of the audience’s ire, anger is not analysis. Producers, please – let’s have less of one and more of the other.