This article/letter/editorial? (The online version of the Irish Independent is a disaster) in Sunday’s Irish Independent sums up well the controversy surrounding the banning of Prof. John Crown from last Friday’s Late Late Show.
It was a case of brute censorship only possible in a democracy that has become so weak that it barely warrants the name.
Sunday November 11 2007
Censorship comes in many forms, some subtle and some blunt. RTE’s decision to ban John Crown, a hospital consultant, from last Friday night’s Late Late Show was censorship of the bluntest kind. Crown, like many of his colleagues, has strong views on the health service and on the performance of Health Minister Mary Harney.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Crown is willing to engage in public debate. RTE, however, decided that his views could not be accommodated on the Late Late Show. According to a statement from the national broadcaster, a “decision was taken to reconfigure (the) panel to represent as broad a spectrum of positions and opinions as possible”, and so Crown was dropped.
Instead of a debate that might have shed some light on the problems afflicting the health service, RTE served up a bland and discordant concoction that was neither informative nor entertaining.
What was RTE afraid of? That the views of one panellist among four would so distort the national debate on health care that some unknown peril would unfold? That Pat Kenny, the station’s most experienced and highly-paid broadcaster, would not be able to do his job when faced with the might of Dr Crown?
In its statement, RTE also said that it “would like to strongly state that this decision was taken internally within RTE”. That, we assume, is meant to be reassuring: the state broadcaster feels it necessary to tell the people that it did not take instructions from the Government before taking a decision that, quite possibly, spared the Government embarrassment.
We do not need to be reminded that RTE belongs to the people and not to the Government of the day, but clearly RTE needs to remind itself from time to time. By stating “strongly” that this decision was taken internally, RTE leaves open the question of what other editorial decisions have not been taken internally.
The broadcaster has a duty to the public to provide high quality news and entertainment and in return it receives a substantial hand-out from the people — €182.8m last year, collected as a tax on anyone who owns a television. It has a duty to provide balance, but not to the point that it denudes debate. It should also trust the editorial judgment and broadcast skill of Pat Kenny and his team.
The decision to exclude Crown cannot be justified on editorial grounds, and to argue that balance must be introduced into every debate is deeply flawed. If balance requires that both sides be represented, then it only requires one side to refuse to participate for debate to be silenced.
On Friday night, both the minister and the Health Service Executive refused to participate on the show. That is their choice to make, but it must not mean that the views of a respected and vocal consultant cannot be heard because of their refusal. Should all debate on politics cease if the Government decides to boycott the airwaves? Does RTE feel the need to balance a comedian with a straight man? It is an arid argument, and it is one that puts RTE in a very poor light.
RTE’s must never be allowed to forget that its duty is to the people of this Republic. It has no remit to protect the interests of Government or to spare the blushes of a minister. The Late Late Show has a venerable place in Irish television history and is renowned for its controversy as much as it is for its blandness. It can be awful and it can be very, very good, but it must not be censored on spurious grounds of political balance.
The RTE statement claimed that it wanted as broad a spectrum as possible, and yet it does not believe that John Crown has a valid voice on that spectrum. Its decision to exclude him was wrong and smacks of panic.
The result is censorship, applied on the broadcaster by the broadcaster. Cathal Goan, the director general of RTE, should apologise publicly and to John Crown personally.