Television played a central role in changing the face of politics


AS JOHN Bowman recounts in his recently published history of RTÉ television Window and Mirror,the development of the medium in Ireland has not only been shaped by our changing society but has also played a central part in shaping that change, writes NOEL WHELAN

Sport in today’s Ireland is organised, timetabled and marketed entirely differently because of television. The entertainment industry here has similarly been transformed. I would argue, however, that no area of our national life has been more profoundly affected by television than the political realm.

Before television, large-scale political communications in this country, as elsewhere, was done primarily through four means – monster political rallies, coverage of parliamentary and other political activity in newspapers, occasional set piece radio addresses or interviews, and the printing of political leaflets, tracts, cartoons or posters.

Television changed all that. Almost everything that happens in Irish politics is now shaped and structured in a manner most effective for communication through television. Delegates to party conferences are mere extras in weekend-long television extravaganzas where their ministers or frontbenchers play the leading roles.

Election campaigns are now fought and won, and more likely lost, in television studios. Dáil Éireann now only pierces public consciousness when its proceedings are dramatic enough or significant enough to warrant extensive TV news coverage or live broadcasting. Government announcements or rebuttals to Opposition attacks are timed to coincide with the lead into the Six One News.

The most striking thing about news and current affairs coverage by RTÉ television, and indeed radio, over the last 50 years has been the exponential growth in the volume of such coverage. For its first two decades RTÉ put out only about five hours of televised news and current affairs weekly. The two evening news bulletins were about 10 minutes long and were complemented by two half-hour current affairs programmes a week.

In those days RTÉ television did not begin broadcasting until late afternoon and ended about midnight, but even allowing for the current 24-hour transmission schedule, the amount of time given over to news and current affairs is extraordinary. On each weekday RTÉ now broadcasts at least three hours of such coverage in prime time.

As the extent and volume of television news and current affairs coverage has increased, so too has its impact on how politics operates. That impact has been largely positive. The more assertive interviewing style to which television has given rise means that viewers get more and better information.

The shining of a bigger spotlight is presumed to clarify things. Sometimes, however, political actors have changed their behaviour so as to position themselves best for wherever the spotlight is shone. Increasingly, some politicians feel pressed to give the answers the interviewer or the public wants to hear rather than offering honest, frank views.

The journey to the current situation is marked by a number of milestone decisions made by politicians themselves. These decisions were forced on them by the impact of television and served to further enhance that impact. The two main party leaders first agreed to televised election debates in 1982 – three decades before their British counterparts. These live election debates have since come to dominate and in some instances determine our general elections and indeed our presidential elections. The decision to allow radio, and then television, to broadcast Dáil proceedings has served to make and break national political reputations in the chamber.

In the main RTÉ has done news and current affairs very well over the last 50 years. It has excelled at special news events. From the groundbreaking coverage of John F Kennedy’s visit in 1963 to that of Queen Elizabeth earlier this year, RTÉ’s approach has been excellent.

RTÉ television also deserves recognition for its coverage of election counts. And notwithstanding its recent difficulties, it also has a fine reputation for investigative reporting, first in Seven Days, then in Today Tonightand more recently with Prime Time.

RTÉ television news and current affairs coverage has also generated many significant in-studio exchanges which, of themselves, are iconic moments in the country’s political history. The earlier Late Late Showdebates, various clashes between party spokespersons on Today Tonightor Prime Time, and a whole series of Questions and Answersmoments fall into this category.

However, RTÉ news and current affairs should be acknowledged most for the quality of its regular output. Its television news manages day in and day out to comprehend, report on and contextualise a whole range of complex events and issues.

Decades of coverage of the horrors of the Northern Ireland Troubles and then of the intricacies of the peace process are illustrative of this standard. The manner in which RTÉ’s journalists have covered the recent economic collapse and the resultant political tumult is similarly impressive. This coverage has involved hundreds of judgment calls each week, most of which RTÉ has got right.

Overall, we are better off for the changes that television news and current affairs have brought. With all its weaknesses, robust television coverage of politics is preferable to the sedate atmosphere in which politics was conducted in the pre-television era. It is also preferable to the disorganised, nasty and distorted “news coverage” that unregulated online media might yet lead us to.