THE MEDIA — AT ONCE DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE
Michael Heney, former RTE current affairs reporter/producer
Macbeth said famously of life that it was….
‘….. but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more’.
He said it was
‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.
I’m not sure why this quotation wouldn’t leave my head as I reflected on the role of the media for this event. I retired two years ago after 43 years in journalism – 4 years in the Irish Times, 4 years in radio, and the balance in television; and now I am a bit cynical, to my own utter surprise, as I am not a cynic by nature. I feel, though, I have earned the right to be cynical about journalism. Quite early on, I think I realised that a strong dose of self loathing was a useful antidote to the self importance that permeates journalism.
So what is the media? We know today it houses so many of our modern high priests. Could we say that it is the essential life blood of a democracy? One of the great guarantors of a free society? Many would simply answer yes to both questions.
But isn’t there an Achilles heel to be found here somewhere? Achilles, in Greek mythology, just to remind you, was largely invincible in battle, but had in his heel a fatal area of vulnerability that led ultimately to his downfall. So, in many respects, it is with the media. It exists mainly as a huckster, – it forages in the marketplace, selling its wares to survive. Call it the life blood of a democracy, if you like, but you could also call it a cheap and shoddy piece of goods that must be sold and traded and endlessly dressed up as attractive and interesting, and, if it is to exist at all, made to produce a profit for money men.
It is a stall in the marketplace where shelf space is shared between the worthless and the very precious. The media pretends to itself and its audience that it deals with reality – but this is an utterly distorted reality, seen largely through the prism of news and entertainment. If it were human, the media would be a schizophrenic; it would be at once Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; if it were a god, it would be Janus faced, offering peace (occasionally), and more often war, war of all sorts, divisions, conflict, impending disaster, breakdowns and crises. The media offers us the very cheapest of goods, worthless, throw-away products you wouldn’t spit on, before it hands us invaluable, precious jewels.
As a force in our society, it is embarrassing, cruel, hard hearted, and prostituted, and yet we know it can be brave, and reassuring, and invaluable; very often it is a foul, reptilian creature, oozing soft entreaties and vicious cruelty in alternate breaths. In this guise, it is a creature which diminishes us – it lowers our humanity, and feeds our worst appetites for voyeurism and conflict – and, yet again, it occasionally uplifts, and restores our dwindling faith in our humanity. This miserable, personality-disorientated animal, hydra headed, snake like, gorging on its often absurd self importance, is journalism. Frankly, you let it into the house at your peril.
And if such a beast displays activities such as revealed by the Guardian and the Levenson Inquiry, who can be surprised? It’s like professional sportsmen and women doing what they have to do to win; just expect them to do what they need to – to win. Don’t be naïve about it. Expect media to try and sell their products; expect media to seek out products they can sell. It’s what they do. You can regulate all you like, but the basics remain the basics.
Many years ago I found myself greatly taken with the analysis of television producers, as they were then, John Birt and Peter Jay, who argued that TV news in particular was biased against understanding. It’s a view I have carried with me all my professional life ever since.
Of course, I exclude neither RTE nor myself from all the above; it’s just that I don’t feel able to share my many personal journalistic failures with you, at this time! So I am going to come down from my pulpit and talk a little now about the traumas and ructions that currently afflict the organisation I know best, the aforesaid RTE.
MISSION to PREY documentary and its aftermath
The BAI-commissioned report on the Mission to Prey debacle was a poor document. It was also terribly poorly reported in the media. I have written extensively about this elsewhere. The Carragher Report was really a non-report, in that the key element to be decided i.e. had RTE broken the Broadcasting Act in two specific respects? – had already been decided and conceded by RTE, before the investigating officer even began her work. All the report had to do was fill in the blanks above i.e. why it happened? How could such a programme reach air? This Ms Carragher singularly failed to explain. If I had more time, and if there was not a danger of compounding the damage done to Father Reynolds, I would try and explain it to you here today. The programme was a disaster, Father Reynolds was treated abominably and it is not such a mystery how it got on air.
The key error, strangely enough, was not fundamentally bad journalism, but a case of hubris, which is to say, misguided arrogance and over confidence. In my contention, and contrary to most published comment on this matter, the Carragher report failed to give a fully accurate, or indeed, fully coherent view of how this disaster unfolded. This is a serious matter. Furthermore, if I am right that it misjudged the journalism and criticised it unfairly, then we have another difficulty as we go forward.
Because, in the aftermath of this affair, RTE finds itself at a watershed and, as we speak, is searching for the correct way to get over this car crash of an event. Knowing what exactly happened and why it happened is basic to formulating the next step. I do not believe Ms Carragher and the BAI Compliance Committee have helped greatly. This is not a view I expect you to agree with as you probably haven’t encountered it before unless, of course, you read the Sunday Business Post or pay attention to the outpourings of one Vincent Browne.
What is less debatable is the watershed nature of this moment for RTE news and current affairs. There is an interesting and unfortunate comparison to be made between the situation today and that in 1969, after the tribunal report on the 7 Days programme on illegal money lending. The details, of course, are totally different, but certain factors are similar: there was a flawed programme; it led to outside intervention, which produced stern (and not always accurate) criticism of the programme makers. The upshot back in 1969 – as today – was the removal and dispersal of those programme makers from their posts. All that, on both occasions, had a traumatic impact overall on the psyche of the national broadcaster. 7 Days limped on for another 7 years, until the end of 1976, but did it ever recover its bite?
In the current affairs area generally there is scope for much positive change. What is slightly worrying on the investigative front is that RTE have publicly made two somewhat opposing, almost contradictory, statements. The Director General has said he is committed to strong investigative programming. He has also said that nothing like the Mission to Prey disaster can be allowed to recur. One can certainly understand why he said that. But risk is inherent in investigative programming. There is only one way to ensure things can’t go seriously wrong, and that’s not to do it at all. Make these programmes, and you are at risk. You are especially at risk if you take on a powerful person or group, anyone with a professional reputation. You can start thinking 6 figure settlement sums, and move swiftly on to 7, if you don’t get it right.
As Director General, and as a long standing quality broadcaster and journalist in his own right, the man who set up Prime Time Investigates, Noel Curran is deeply committed to investigative programming; but the bottom line for him, in real politik, is that this CANNOT recur, not any time soon. Anyone can work it out – and you have to worry that we will be on a diet of milk and water on the investigative front. In fairness to the Director General, I suspect he would find this line of reasoning both insulting, and wrong. Time will tell.
There’s another great story – also untold in Ireland’s print media – about RTE. This is the subterranean battle to hold on to prime time scheduling for serious television current affairs. Prime Time at prime time is simply taken for granted in public discussion and yet it is a unique and special characteristic of Irish television. Most television schedules for many years past in other countries have shifted current affairs out of prime time viewing slots. Not RTE.
But there has had to be a constant struggle behind the scenes to maintain this. It’s just a battle you don’t hear about. For years the practical reality within RTE has been that if the ratings for news and current affairs between 9pm and 10 pm were to slip appreciably, then those prized slots would be ceded, to movies or entertainment. Everyone in the organisation was aware of that. The people running current affairs certainly knew that. So far, the battle has been won by current affairs. Otherwise you would not have Prime Time twice a week at 9.30 and the News at 9. That has been a considerable achievement – though at a cost.
A fixation on ratings has a downside. Those who deny that ratings chasing has not impacted on Prime Time are not, in my view, seeing clearly. I do not connect this to the Mission to Prey shambles – that was a serious, well-intentioned, but utterly mishandled affair – but ratings have certainly influenced what Prime Time has been choosing to do, and how it has done it. Again, this is not something I have seen analysed in the print media. And all of this goes back to my initial remarks i.e. journalists as hucksters, selling their wares, and under pressure – even in RTE, which has the partial cushion of the licence fee – to produce an audience for the advertisers.
And there I will stop, with my apologies if I have appeared needlessly provocative and contentious with my half-baked theories and assertions. I have strutted and fretted enough. My tale, as you have seen, had plenty of sound, a little concealed fury, and it signified? Well, perhaps not very much.