Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Having the last word

In last Saturday's Irish Times, Hugh Linehan’s opinion piece on Michael McDowell’s recent UCD lecture - in which he assertively questioned the role and behaviour of some public service broadcasters - began in a reasonably balanced fashion but ended with Linehan exercising that enduring prerogative of the journalist, the last word. And there he fails to resist a cheap parting shot.

Most of his analysis is focused on Minister McDowell’s heavy-handed reaction to a Prime Time exposé on the new prison site at Thornton Hall. Mr. Linehan suggests that the appropriate ministerial response would have been to make a complaint to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. This, in due course, might have led to a brief recital of the BCC’s findings by RTE, by way of retraction.

However, the reality is that the reputational damage would have been done, as any BCC finding in the Minister’s favour, several weeks later, would have received nothing like the coverage of the original “revelations”. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Linehan fails to suggest that the national broadcaster might have offered “the defendant” an opportunity to rebut the allegations as part of the original broadcast, thus allowing the viewer to decide the case.

His defence of RTE is weakened by the fact that Prime Time is the only current affairs programme he chooses to cite. Prime Time has produced a number of excellent investigative pieces over the past year but, with only 1.5 hours of output per week, much of it devoted to routine day-to-day politics etc, rather than grand exposés, Prime Time constitutes only a small fraction of RTE’s radio & tv current affairs output.

RTE Radio 1 alone can have up to 8.75 hours per day! (see below)

In the wake of the Hutton Inquiry, the BBC’s Andrew Neill said, on an ITV politics programme hosted byJonathan Dimbleby, that the role of the BBC was “to hold the Government to account”. There seems to be little doubt that this attitude is common to many RTE broadcasters. That, of course, is supposed to be the role of the elected parliamentary opposition.

Minister McDowell is also right to identify the existence of a “self-perpetuating commentariat”. There are journalists and commentators who appear several times a week, on a variety of programmes on different stations. This is a tidy little earner in appearance fees and, coupled with the public recognition and credibility it gives the contributor, there is little risk that these talking heads will seriously question their own role or that of the media. Hugh Linehan is one of these "talking heads". For example, he's the "holiday cover" host for Sam Smith's "Sunday Supplement" show on TodayFM.

Now it seems that RTE believes that its role also extends to holding the judiciary to account. Two recent high-profile cases illustrate the point. The morning after Tim Allen was sentenced for possessing child pornography, Marian Finucane held a phone-in poll on whether he should have received a custodial sentence. Most recently, the Wayne O’Donoghue case has effectively been re-tried on several RTE programmes, over an extended period. Pat Kenny has re-hashed the case on both his radio and tv programmes.

Doubtless the DPP’s decision to appeal the sentence will mean a further RTE re-trial process.

I am certainly no apologist for this arrogant administration, but neither am I enamoured of the smug cynicism and self-satisfaction that permeates so much of RTE’s so-called current affairs output.

RTE Radio “current affairs” output.
Some of these programmes may well be categorised differently by RTE but, depending on the topic under discussion, it often become de facto “current affairs”.

Morning Ireland - 2 hours
Today with Pat Kenny - 2 hours
News at One - 45 minutes
Liveline - 1 hour
5-7 Live - 2 hours
Tonight with Vincent Browne - 1 hour

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