Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

The Future of Our National Broadcaster

John Boland, our television critic for the last decade, has set me brooding again about RTE. He wrote in his end-of-year column: ‘I can't think of a twelve-month period in which RTE made fewer programmes of substance or quality, but, hey, who needs programmes at all when you can marvel at Montrose's mission to turn every nonentity on its payroll into a celebrity?’ I thought this went to the heart of the matter.

In a New Year piece he deplored RTE efforts at ‘self-styled comedy shows’. He named two such shows through which he had sat in stony silence. These were attempts by RTE to make ‘comedic silk purses out of cows' ears’. Suddenly, a whole new disaster area was opened up to me.

For years I have been critical. I despise RTE’s soupy version of the Angelus, twice a day, camouflaged with daft reflective pauses in the daily lives of citizens that stretch to breaking point our belief in faith and raise, almost with the regularity of a heartbeat, the deliberate if unconscious fact of RTE’s sectarianism.

This combines, unexpectedly, with a lurching radicalism. RTE has an urge to study its own navel, searching for the meaning of Ireland and her nationalism, perhaps believing that Ireland is full of those whose social and cultural taste is solely based on playing Irish jigs and singing nasal laments.

My criticisms are more political than John Boland’s, raising the central question, that RTE is simply not a public service broadcaster. Such claims are too compromised by dependence on advertising. This encourages a sloppy, largely unregulated and populist culture the purpose of which is to boost radio and television audiences.

RTE could never be called a public service where this conflict was not managed. Relying on wall-to-wall chat-show programmes for which there is no road-map is no answer. It is no service if the public cannot know what content to look for or where to find it. They have to listen before they know. Whose public service does that help? It is based on the accidental viewer?

Lyric is open to the same criticism: that without ever changing or improving its delivery of classical music, the station is an uncoordinated medley of bits and piece from classical music works, with the stultifying repetition of old musical chestnuts in programme after programme after programme.

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – rarely if every played complete – has been played thousands of time. So has Nessum Dorma, Pachelbel, the more popular bits out of Beethoven and Mozart that everyone loves to death. And I mean death. This drivel approach flows over us, not through any musical fault, but simply because the fragments we get are incomplete and therefore too short, and are generally interspersed with the most ridiculous commentaries. Bearing with the music, one is endlessly fearful of the sugary commentary. Unscripted, with little research, this approach tries to encompass listeners in pointless, friendly babble. It is the words that go wrong, spoiling the music.

My criticisms, over the years, have been ignored. But they have earned for me an exclusion order almost, but not quite, comprehensive. Don’t do anything about the Angelus, but ignore the critic and cut him out. Andy O’Mahony, from time to time, has asked me to appear about books. Pat Kenny has done the same, in recognition that I have written about the arts, theatre and politics, in this country, for more than forty years and deserve to be heard.

The fact is, I have not commented on politics for roughly ten years, have not ever appeared on arts programmes, discussed painting exhibitions, theatre performances, sculpture, writing or dance. Nor is my writing ever reported on in ‘What the Papers Say’. I hasten to say I don’t suffer over this. It is a clear-cut situation and a clean one, like something fatty and unhealthy left out of one’s diet.

But the public service argument legally requires RTE to be balanced. During the Lisbon Treaty Referendum campaign I was consistently in favour of a No Vote, and often as a solitary voice. It was my right so to be. Did Swift ever write a piece in favour of Wood’s Ha’pence?

However, since my articles appear regularly in the biggest national daily newspaper, like John Boland’s television criticisms which are brave and forthright, RTE must report on them, engaging with their authors. That is their public service duty as a major cultural, social and political contributor to Irish life. They clearly do not believe in this, but in a one-sided, self-indulgent and ill-conceived hacking function.

It could be argued, I had my say, which I did; more enjoyable, perhaps, than the turgid, hectoring, ill-tempered and ill-informed interviewing by RTE on current affairs which seems all too often motivated by prejudice and lack of balance.

Out of this examination, necessarily personal, there came a conclusion that would force on RTE the need to reform itself, strip away the surplus fat and untalented dross – I am back on diet again – and refocus its energies on what is left that is good, leading to a creative rebirth.

This is the solution: to sell RTE. It is a State asset that has value. Pared down and controlled, its access to advertising and its nation-wide remit, could, in the right hands, be made profitable and the station – still regulated – would serve us better.

The State and the RTE Authority, seem unable to exercise or inspire good standards and proper professional entertainment suited to the twenty-first century. They cannot make RTE conform with the Belfast Agreement on the Angelus. I do not defer for one moment to those who revere this prayer. The Angelus should be respected as an important Catholic Church prayer. Those who wish for it may hear it in the countryside, or in the towns. But twice a day on the national channels is too much.

It happens nowhere else. In Italy the State broadcaster does not broadcast it. Vatican television broadcasts it on Sundays and feast days. Poland, deeply Catholic, has no Angelus on its three state-owned television stations. One Polish Catholic television broadcaster, 'Puls', which has religious programmes, does not broadcast the Angelus. In Portugal, the Angelus is broadcast once each day on Radio Renascenca, a Catholic funded broadcaster. The State broadcasters in Spain and Portugal do not broadcast the Angelus.

The Framework Convention for the Protection of Minority Rights, to which the Irish Republic is a signatory, says that a pluralist and genuinely democratic society should respect ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity and create appropriate conditions enabling them to express, preserve and develop this identity. RTE is defective, which is where I began.

Let the State sell it. I hope they can find a buyer – perhaps the Roman Catholic Church – though it is not where I would want to put my money.