Bruce Arnold

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

Twitter saga shows RTE needs to stop pretending it has no agenda

RTÉ director general Noel Curran's apology to Sean Gallagher for the astonishing 'Frontline' Twitter mistake was half-hearted and feeble.

He attempted to wash his hands of the sorry mess: "We have been found against and we have to learn from that" is not good enough. He and RTE learned the perils of Twitter -- which is nothing more than a gossip mechanism at best -- when Miriam O'Callaghan was slapped on the knuckles for prematurely announcing to the world that Gerry Ryan had died. Subsequently RTE promised guidelines, apparently for Twitter-sending only. By definition, particularly in the 'Frontline' fiasco, these guidelines failed to extend to received Twitter messages in strict enough form to suit the problems.

Mr Curran also raised more questions than he answered in making the claim that there was "no question" of RTE having approached the presidential debate "with agendas"? There were questions and they have increased in number over the weekend.

In a broadcasting organisation that bases much of its programming on having pre-ordained agendas -- as I will show -- the confusion at the time, with no one knowing whether there was an agenda and what it was, led to grave damage being done to Sean Gallagher. The jury in the court of public opinion remains out on this, despite the weak findings of the BAI. And there was, in the mishandling at the time, a degree to which the pseudo-Sinn Fein message suited the station's general preference for the interests of that party. This is one of its major, and most disreputable, of political agendas.

RTE relies on interviewees bringing in their own research package, since the station's view of research is casual. RTE is ignorant of the multiple sides of most serious political issues and examines them without adequate preparation.

A good example of this occurred with Richard Crowley when he was standing in for Pat Kenny. In an interview he said that "no Arab can be a minister in Israel". He was challenged with details of Arabs in cabinet in Israel. They are not barred.

The programme's response was dishonest, acknowledging that "the presenter mistakenly gave the impression that there was a bar". Mr Crowley's statement was not "an impression". It was just wrong. It was not "greater clarity" that was needed. It was the truth. The listener was thanked for his "comments", not his correction.

RTE ran a particularly vicious and virulent agenda against Declan Ganley in 2008-9. Though Mr Ganley declined at the time to pursue action against the station, he has now decided to sue.

As part of its extended attack on Mr Ganley during the first Lisbon Treaty campaign, RTE intruded on his guests at a private reception for the Czech president, then the president of the EU.

At the same time RTE excluded Mr Ganley and his exceptionally shrewd and prophetic message on Europe from coverage and subjected him to a virulent 'Prime Time' documentary on the day he entered the European election campaign during which he got no political coverage.

This represented a wider agenda in RTE also levelled against commentators who questioned or openly opposed the 'Yes' vote. Anthony Coughlan, of the National Platform, brought a successful BAI case against a ludicrous partiality by RTE in favour of Pat Cox's pro-EU stance.

RTE sustained over the past decade an anti-church agenda culminating in the hugely embarrassing settlement with Fr Kevin Reynolds over the 'Prime Time' programme with its inexcusable sequence of broadcasting errors. Together with the likely defeat in court of RTE by Mr Ganley and by Mr Gallagher, these events constitute a form of agenda madness.

The anti-church agenda distorted much RTE coverage of the industrial school investigations. Despite giving the late Mary Raftery the space and support she needed for her work in this area, RTE managed to distort the balance of blame in its more general coverage. True political blame for the sustained, life-wrecking abuse of children throughout the State's history was never laid against Fianna Fail politicians. RTE ignored the despicable role, both current and historical, of the State. The church was not brought to account. RTE remained silent.

Internationally, RTE has generally followed a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel agenda. RTE is and has been, over a number of years, pro-Sinn Fein. The party gets high-profile time for participation, is rarely challenged effectively and all too often gains air-time on demand.

When Fianna Fail was in power, particularly towards the end when the country was bereft of leadership, RTE made the abysmal decision to back Brian Lenihan's poor judgment and doom-laden miss-management of the economy. This was agenda-thinking.

A strange, amorphous and slanted 'canteen culture' prevails in RTE. It shapes programming. One cannot easily identify the culprits. Who, for example, is responsible for the TG4 obsession with IRA themes in its unending series of documentaries? Having worked for 50 years in Irish newspapers writing about politics, I cannot see what the researchers, producers and presenters read each day, but speculation would suggest volumes of Chomsky, Fisk and Pilger. Do they vote Sinn Fein? Should they be called 'Narrow-casters' rather than broadcasters? Should they be state-owned or state-funded at all?

Mr Curran's responses raise the biggest question facing RTE. Why sustain an agenda-based policy against its basic legal and moral obligation to be fair, even-handed and balanced? RTE is none of these. The station is riddled with agenda-thinking and planning. Give RTE a story or a responsibility and it will immediately write the agenda for it, traducing the responsibility and suiting the story to the muddled objectives RTE thinks journalism is about.

The director general has displayed no clear-sighted and unequivocal response about the issues facing him since being appointed last year. These are the need for rigorous levels of integrity and strict balance in all broadcasting. It should exist within the station. It is not there. Nothing that Pat Rabbitte has so far said gives any hope for radical intervention and improvement.

As recently as yesterday, the 'Sunday Independent' story revealing the "programming" of Pat McGuirk's question on 'The Frontline' proved that the gutting of Mr Gallagher was agenda-based. Not only is Mr Curran wrong. He does not know his facts.