Bruce Arnold

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

Necks on the line after RTE 'Tweetgate' fiasco

Action at the top of RTE cannot wait for a public inquiry, nor a Dail investigation nor a reconsideration of the complaints about the 'Frontline' programme and 'Pat Kenny Live' which followed it the next morning.

In the light of yesterday's revelations in the 'Sunday Independent', the prevarication over what happened requires the resignation or removal of the chairman of the RTE Authority, the director-general Noel Curran and Pat Kenny.

Mr Curran's general hands-off approach within RTE, acknowledged personally to me and evident in the memorandum circulated to staff last week, is editorially inexcusable. As a result of the 'Sunday Independent' revelations, his basic role as editor-in-chief of RTE is destroyed.

RTE is still maintaining that an internal editorial review is sufficient.

This is now unacceptable. From the first indications of malfunctioning within the 'Frontline' programme, the RTE Authority and its chairman Tom Savage sided with the station and failed to insist on any hard decisions.

The future of the present authority is now in doubt. As to the role of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, as well as the capacity of the 2009 Act to deal with what has happened, these are matters for early and well-focused political debate. In my own judgment all of them are found wanting in face of the evidence to date.

In an essay he published after he had left politics, Conor Cruise O'Brien, who has been consistently vilified as the enemy of press freedom, particularly in respect of RTE as the responsible minister for its administration in the 1970s, said that the functions of the press were usually seen as threefold: "to inform, to instruct and to entertain." But he added another that underpinned the first three: the need to please. He applied this to the press including broadcasting and said it was inseparable from the market approach that sells the product.

RTE may not be an arm of the 'market press' since it does not earn its keep nor pay its way. We do that. However, O'Brien was right and for a long time time now RTE has failed lamentably to follow the formula of his three-plus-one objectives. RTE no longer pleases. And in the light of the revelations yesterday it displeases us all a great deal more, to the point where drastic action must follow. What has come out confirms massively the culture in RTE that I described last week. And it does so in specific detail.

There could be no better example of this than the sorry story of tweets involving RTE station staff and members of the public.

The faults in the station have much more to do with the State than we think, and involve politicians, legislation, and regulators. Judging from the results, none have done their job. Though this does not excuse in any way the failures within RTE, it does reflect on the feeble and cowardly treatment of RTE in law and practice.

The complaint I make is of inadequate legislation, defective state administration and weak political will. It has encouraged the self-serving and uncontrolled performance of RTE. It must lead to an entirely new and stern look at the regulatory body, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), and the responsible minister, Mr Rabbitte.

Their standards fall way behind the requirements indicated in recent findings, not just of the 'Frontline' fiasco but of the Fr Reynolds 'Prime Time' programme.

The central problem is deep-rooted: it is that the authority operates publicly on the primary basis of responding to complaints. Responses can take months to emerge. They are circumscribed by the nature and wording of the complaint.

They avoid deeper analysis and judgment.

Within this strictly limited framework the BAI found "no evidence" that RTE concealed information about the offending and false tweets used in the programme and "no evidence for questioning their bona fides".

Does it know what it is talking about? Did it look seriously for the evidence? Does it know what tweets are and how they can be highly manipulative? Is it in the real world it deals with at all?

Constricted within the terms of Sean Gallagher's allegations, the authority was able to turn aside from all of this, ignore the even larger questions about agenda-thinking within RTE, and hope its very limited response would not be challenged.

It has now been challenged. A new order is required, one that meets the section in the 2009 Act where the authority is charged with ensuring programme presentation "in an objective and impartial manner without any expression of the broadcaster's own views and . . . fair to all interests".

The authority is hampered by the legislation rather than empowered by it. Apart from making a 'broadcasting code', responding to appeals for redress, and 'investigating' complaints, it is without power.

The act is lugubrious and cumbersome. Over the past decade, the BAI and its predecessor, the Complaints Commission, failed to arrest RTE's declining standards or regulate the station.

The BAI operates through an arms-length policy of financial and contract sanctions that are demonstrably without effect.

Mr Rabbitte has stepped behind the legislation, avoiding responsibility. He has relied on a naive expectation that RTE will examine itself and rectify its own warped editorial standards to public satisfaction.

He either does not want to regulate RTE or is frightened to do so. He is shy of tightening up the loose and vapid 2009 Act.

I HOPE this does not reflect the Government's view. No one, either now or over the past decade, is on top of the often complex relationship of RTE with Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein.

Three main actors need investigating: RTE, Mr Rabbitte and the BAI.

They must not be permitted to slip out of the net of public unease and outrage.

One can say of Mr Rabbitte that he would have been more focused and on-target were he not in power and a backer of Michael D Higgins for President.