Reaction to Cowen satire wide of mark

 

Breathless coverage of the caricature saga generated considerably more heat than light, writes NOEL WHELAN

THIS WEEK saw another outbreak of the hypersensitivity and hyperbole we have come to expect from many elements of the Irish media when it comes to dealing with an issue touching on how they do their job.

RTÉ erred last Monday in broadcasting a news report about the hanging of caricatures of the Taoiseach in the National and RHA galleries. The report, as executed, was in RTÉ’s own words “inappropriate and in bad taste”. The broadcaster confirms that senior news management realised having seen the report that it should not have went out and deserve credit for recognising the mistake, withdrawing the item and issuing an apology.

Unfortunately, in the intervening 24 hours, many mainstream media at home and abroad viewed RTÉ’s coverage as elevating the event to a significant occurrence, with some among the international press referring to the fact that the “State-owned broadcaster” reported it.

It was unfortunate too that RTÉ’s error and apology coincided with stories about Government press secretary Eoghan Ó Neachtain complaining to RTÉ about the piece as well as over the top comments by Fianna Fáil backbencher Michael Kennedy. It was also unfortunate that it coincided with developments in an investigation into the hanging of the pictures in the National Gallery which led a garda to call to Today FM.

There followed a media storm about media freedom with an inevitable line-up of Fine Gael politicians rallying to the media’s defence in search of coverage. For 48 hours the impression was generated that the Government, and the Taoiseach in particular, had instigated a Garda inquiry and a clampdown on RTÉ.

The hyperbole reached a crescendo on Wednesday afternoon with a statement issued by Fine Gael frontbencher Charlie Flanagan and a Today FM interview with the producer of their own Ray D’Arcy Show.

Flanagan’s statement criticised the Garda decision to investigate the gallery hanging, describing it as a practical joke and a scandalous waste of resources.

He claimed the Government had “brow beaten” RTÉ into an apology and implied they had put Today FM under pressure, all in a manner he claimed was redolent of 1930s Russia. The tenor of Flanagan’s statement suggested all this occurred because the Taoiseach’s ego had been bruised.

Unfortunately, the facts do not stand up Flanagan’s allegations. Chronology is important in considering the facts. An RTÉ statement quoted in this newspaper on Thursday confirmed that after the news broadcast RTÉ decided the report was inappropriate and in bad taste. They also confirmed that the Government press secretary’s call was received subsequently. Flanagan’s suggestion that an upset Taoiseach was lashing out was further undermined when it emerged the Taoiseach had not asked his press secretary to raise the matter.

The insinuation that the Government directed a Garda inquiry is also absurd.

It seems that, unlike Flanagan, the National Gallery did not regard the portrait hanging as a mere practical joke and reported the incident to their local Garda station at Pearse Street perhaps to avoid copycat jokers – whether politically motivated or not – defacing or adding to other exhibitions.

Gardaí at Pearse Street felt obliged to investigate the gallery’s complaint, at least to the extent of establishing who hung the pictures.

The artist was an obvious suspect and since Ray D’Arcy told the nation that his production team had an e-mail from the artist a stroll across town to talk to Today FM was an obvious investigative step.

The visit by a single plainclothes garda to the D’Arcy Show offices hardly constituted a raid, as some would suggest.

Listening to a very excited D’Arcy Show producer, Will Hanafin, with an equally excited Matt Cooper on Wednesday evening one would think that Today FM itself was being investigated.

Hanafin seemed particularly exercised that his chat with the garda was “a formal interview” because “badges were shown and all that”.

One wonders how many badges one garda had to show and whether Hanafin’s complaint would be different if a plainclothes garda questioned him without identifying himself as such.

Hanafin appeared proud of the fact that he refused to provide the garda with a copy of the artist’s e-mail in a tone which implied this arose from some journalistic motive to protect a source. I am a fan of the Ray D’Arcy Show and while it occasionally fronts public campaigns on important issues, it is essentially a light entertainment programme; cutting edge investigative journalism it ain’t. No issue of protection of sources arises.

The artist’s actions were juvenile and self-serving. The RTÉ report was ill-judged. The response of the Government press secretary was unsophisticated to say the least.

Fine Gael’s role was opportunistic. The Today FM reaction was particularly precious.

All in all, a sorry saga.