Bruce Arnold

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

Director general, please fix our lop-sided and opinionated RTE

Noel Curran has been appointed Director General of RTE to succeed Cathal Goan. He takes up his position in February of next year. It is customary on such occasions to offer encouragement in a difficult job or to make some other positive remarks about how he will manage his new role.

I will content myself with one key suggestion: that he reconsiders, in fundamental terms, his recent past experience as editor of current affairs in the news division and as a member of the senior management team of news and current affairs with responsibility for editorial output and management of resources.

In my judgment there are, and have been for some time, grievous and multiplying faults in these areas. I would go further in saying that I do not believe RTE offers public service broadcasting in any effective or comprehensive way at all. It delivers a broadcast message that is self-opinionated, lop-sided to an embarrassing degree, under-researched and therefore unreliable.

For the past 10 years I have argued this case, arguments I intend briefly to include here. Before that, however, I reinforce my case at a personal level by stating that, as a result of my fundamental criticisms of RTE, I was blacked by the station. This has persisted for at least the past 10 years. Before that I spent the years from 1962 until the late 1990s broadcasting regularly with RTE on politics and the arts. Suddenly, as a result of legitimate criticism, I found myself excluded entirely from the frequent debates and programmes on all subjects because of the blanket blackout. There were a few, infrequent exceptions: Pat Kenny, Andy O'Mahony.

I give two examples of how the ban worked. The first concerns the abuse of children in industrial schools. Since Bertie Ahern's apology I have argued strongly that a major part of the blame for the experiences of children who served time in these child prisons rested with the politicians. The State ignored this huge system, did not regulate it, and did not implement the law against gross criminal acts. Politicians have not been brought to account.

I never once appeared on an RTE programme to debate this, though it regularly used journalists and generally pursued a narrow, 'blame-the-Catholic Church' approach, ameliorated somewhat by in-house Joe Little's balanced reporting.

The second example concerns the Lisbon Treaty debates in which I participated as a journalist writing for this paper, taking an unwavering line in favour of a 'No' vote. Apart from the fact that I viewed RTE's position as firmly biased in favour of the 'Yes' vote, I considered my exclusion an affront to the fundamentals of fairness covered by RTE's charter, to which I will now turn.

The Broadcasting Act 2009 requires that RTE prepare by July 2010 a public service statement. It has not put such a statement on its website where there is still the charter dating from 2004. So far RTE has denied the public the required statutory explanation of "what is expected of RTE in return for the significant public support it receives in the form of the television licence fee". That support is a tax, not a gift. I am not surprised by this slack view of its public duty.

RTE, wrongly, confines this obligation to article 114 of the 2009 act, ignoring the more fundamental terms set out in section 39 of the act, from which I quote:

Every broadcaster shall ensure that: (a) all news broadcast by the broadcaster is reported and presented in an objective and impartial manner and without any expression of the broadcaster's own views; (b) the broadcast treatment of current affairs, including matters which are either of public controversy or the subject of current public debate, is fair to all interests concerned and that the broadcast matter is presented in an objective and impartial manner.

In this light I listened last Sunday to Richard Crowley's interview with Enda Kenny and judged it to be grossly biased against Kenny, with questions delivered with disdain and impudence, calling on him, on air, to do the research work that RTE had not done.

Hearing regularly the comparable interviews with Brian Lenihan, who has got more things wrong as Finance Minister than any predecessor, I have been struck forcibly by the deliberate distortion of the terms RTE alleges to hold dear. And I will be looking to see whether or not Noel Curran makes any impact on what I say, or continues the present policy, of which, ironically, he is one of the architects.

My main case against RTE is that it is focused, almost exclusively, on personalities rather than subject matter. Listeners and viewers have no road-map. They cannot tell the subject in advance and make a choice. They have to listen to a person or to people who make the choices, often eccentric, often biased, often under-researched. The station falls at this first hurdle.

Within this unfulfilled guidance role there is the absence of any justification for giving to RTE state taxes from the licence fee. As in Britain, this fee should be the sole source of income, otherwise it is grossly unfair to competitors.

We are a country without regulation or even a culture of regulation. Hence the biggest crisis in our history over the banks. We have also failed to regulate RTE -- in programming, in the hugely-inflated salaries paid for ill-researched and self-opinionated babble. Left with an array of over-paid personalities, pretending they are giving a public service, we all flounder on together. It is time to think it all out again.