Appalling vistas and creeping censorship

On the 19/20th March last, the most disgraceful and alarming event in recent Irish history occurred when Grainne Carruth gave evidence before the Mahon Tribunal.

Carruth’s evidence to the Mahon Tribunal has raised the appalling vista that the current Taoiseach of Ireland, Bertie Ahern, may have lied under oath.

To my knowledge, only one media outlet, The Irish Independent, made any direct reference to this event.

“It has been apparent a number of times before in evidence that the Taoiseach of the country has been lying under his own sworn oath.” (Senan Molony, March 21st 2008).

To my knowledge, there has been absolutely no in-depth reporting or analysis of this event by any Irish media outlet and, in particular, by the national broadcaster, RTE.

I have no idea why RTE, and in particular, the station’s flagship news and current affairs programme, Prime Time, have decided to completely ignore this extremely important story.

Is it out of fear of the station’s political masters? Is it because the decision makers in RTE are incapable of facing the appalling vista that a sitting Taoiseach may have committed perjury?

Whatever the reason, the fact that RTE has ignored this important story is a scandal in itself.

On Thursday 20th March, when the full implications of Grainne Carruth’s evidence were clear, Prime Time remained silent on the matter.

The programme reported about standards in cosmetic clinics and the bulk of the show was given over to the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Do the Prime Time producers really believe that there was even a tiny minority of Irish citizens glued to their television sets as, once again, RTE analysed to death every detail of the Good Friday Agreement?

Did it ever occur to the decision makers within RTE that the majority of Irish citizens were expecting in-depth reporting and analysis of the dramatic and shocking revelations at Dublin Castle?

Are the decisions makers within RTE aware that they have an obligation both as national broadcaster and as media/news professionals to report on the most important and immediate events particularly when those events are likely to have profound implications for the Irish people and a serious impact on the quality of Irish democracy?

I watched this Prime Time programme with a mixture of amused derision and growing anger that RTE cannot or will not accept the possibility that a sitting Taoiseach may have perjured himself.

As this massive elephant rampaged around the room, Prime Time and every other RTE news programme on radio and television studiously ignored the reality of what had happened.

On Tuesday 25th March Prime Time covered primary school education and yet another story on Northern Ireland – the Omagh bombing.

On Thursday 27 March the programme reported on the increasing pressure on Ahern to clarify his evidence to the Mahon Tribunal but the real story of possible perjury wasn’t mentioned.

Anyone with even the slightest interest in what was revealed at Dublin Castle would want to hear discussion of the possible implications if Ahern is ultimately found to have perjured himself. What is perjury, has anyone else committed perjury in a tribunal, how is the crime dealt with in other jurisdictions – Silence from RTE.

In the meantime, Bertie Ahern announced his resignation. Again, RTE and the media in general have practically ignored the obvious reason for his resignation – the smoking gun produced by Carruth’s evidence; the evidence that has possibly exposed the Taoiseach as a perjurer.

The matter has now been practically forgotten about as the media concentrate on Cowen’s succession.

This scandalous failure to meet its obligations has also raised another disturbing development regarding RTE. It now seems that politicians are free to dictate the conditions under which they will deign to be interviewed.

RTEs This Week programme had a prior arrangement with Bertie Ahern (before his resignation announcement) to discuss the Good Friday Agreement. He only agreed to go ahead with the interview on condition that the theme remained substantially the same.

Listening to the interview, it was obvious why Ahern insisted that RTE comply with his demands. We were subjected to a self congratulatory account of how Ahern, single-handedly brought peace to Northern Ireland

It is now common to hear RTE broadcasters inform viewers that Government ministers or spokespersons are ‘not available’ to answer questions and then turn to a reporter for a cosy chat on crucial issues that have consequences for every citizen in this state.

Neither is it unusual to be told that a politician or official will only participate on condition that they are not challenged by any other interested party or they will only answer specific pre arranged questions.

Apparently, the national broadcaster has no problem with what is, in effect, creeping censorship and manipulation of information.

Copy to:
Prime Time
All other RTE News and Current Affairs programmes

Greens: How high do you want us to jump Bertie?

It really is incredible that RTE has yet to realise the gravity of what happened at the Mahon Tribunal last week. The station seems to be completely oblivious to the fact that a sitting Taoiseach has apparently lied.

Even if we allow that the station is ultra conservative; that it is cautious to the point of panic in case it offends its political masters, it still doesn’t explain why the most important and serious political event in decades is being effectively ignored by the broadcaster.

There has, of course, been plenty of peripheral discussion surrounding the fact that the Taoiseach apparently lied under oath but no mention of perjury, alleged perjury or possible perjury, not even an explanation of what perjury is – Nothing.

Saturday View serves as a good example of how frightened RTE is of facing the reality of the situation (My comments are in brackets).

Politicians on the panel were Fianna Fail TD, oops; I mean Green Party TD, Mary White and Fine Gael TD Leo Varadkar.

The RTE presenter, Rodney Rice started off by moaning,

“Once again we cannot avoid examining the Taoiseach’s travails.”

His first couple of questions left listeners in no doubt that RTEs policy of studiously ignoring the reality of the situation was going to continue.

White was asked the totally irrelevant question – Were the Greens forced into making comment on Ahern? This was followed up by an even less relevant question to Varadkar – why haven’t we heard from your leader (Enda Kenny)?

Varadkar – to his credit, wasn’t going to be sidetracked.

“It’s not good enough (for the Taoiseach) to give clarification, the Taoiseach swore an oath in the tribunal that the monies lodged in his building society account were salary cheques and swore on oath that he never dealt in sterling.”

Rice quickly jumped to the Taoiseach’s defence.

“But the one place he can do that again is back in the tribunal and he will do that presumably.

(The obvious question here is; how many times does the Taoiseach have to apparently lie before RTE accepts the reality?)

Varadkar – “What he can do, perhaps for the first time, is come in and tell people the truth… The fact is he swore under oath at the tribunal that the money was salary cheques and he didn’t deal in sterling so he has to come into the Dail now and admit that he perjured himself in the tribunal.”

(No doubt in Varadkar’s mind as to what has occurred).

“If he does not do that then anything he says in the Dail has to be unacceptable and I want to know from the Greens…if what he says in the Dail contradicts what he said under sworn oath in the tribunal will that be acceptable to the Green Party?”

White – “Mahon was set up by all parties and we shouldn’t prejudge it and while revelations coming out are certainly getting up people’s noses around the countryside we will await the outcome of the Mahon Tribunal.”

(Pure Fianna Fail speak).

Varadkar – If it’s still your view that we have to wait until the tribunal makes its report what is the purpose of asking the Taoiseach to make a statement?

White – “Well, I think when Ms. Carruth appeared at the tribunal I think the level was lifted up about public interest in the tribunal…and a little bit of clarification would be no harm at this stage…in any coalition it’s good now and again to clear the air and that was the reason for the intervention.”

(So for the Greens this has nothing to do with a Taoiseach lying, nothing to do with ethics in public office, nothing to do with the truth. It’s all about ‘a bit of clarification’, to placate those pesky citizens who are jumping up and down, demanding accountability).

Varadkar – “It’s becoming increasingly clear that what the Taoiseach has said in the tribunal and what he said in the Dail and what he said to the public hasn’t been true.” “There are things that we can be certain of that are separate from the tribunal. We can be certain that the Taoiseach is a liar.”

Rice – (Intervention). “Well, now that’s un-parliamentary language. You would be asked to withdraw that in the Dail so why don’t you withdraw it here and be polite.”

(Clearly, RTE has adopted the truth avoiding strategy so successfully employed in our National Parliament – You can say what you like but straight talking is forbidden).

Varadkar – “I won’t because it’s the truth.”

Rice – “Why won’t you be polite?”

(About the serious matter of a Taoiseach lying under oath).

Varadkar – “Because it’s the truth.”

Rice – “He (Ahern) has said some things that you regard as contradictory and which may or may not be irreconcilable.”

(The evidence is incontrovertible – Ahern’s words are on record under oath, Carruth’s words are on record under oath and the tribunal has produced signed bank receipts that confirms both of them are liars).

Varadkar – “He said he never dealt in sterling, he said he didn’t have any bank accounts, he said that he consulted the tax authorities on his affairs. None of these things are true. If you want me to rephrase I’ll rephrase in parliamentary language; peddling untruths. He’s been peddling untruths; he’s a fraud, he hasn’t paid his taxes and he’s a thief.”

(Again, no ambiguity here).

Rice – “So you want him to go.”

Varadkar – “Of course, if those things are not red lines, what are red lines?”

Rice asks White – “What do you need?”(From Ahern).

White – “We’re not going to grandstand and jump up and down and wave green flags and we’re not going to prejudge what the Taoiseach of our country is going to say on Wednesday. We will listen.”

(Yes, Mary, and when you’re done listening, Ahern will instruct you and your party to jump and the only question remaining will be – How high Bertie, how high do you want us to jump?)

Copy to:

Mary White
Leo Varadkar
Green Party
Fianna Fail
RTE (Saturday View)

Editor's choice (2)

The RTE News Editor was in a quandary. Two stories, but which one to broadcast as a lead on the flagship News at One programme.

The first story concerned dramatic revelations at the Mahon Tribunal that could have far reaching consequences for our country and could even bring down the Government.

The second story concerned a minor development in a bank robbery that occurred nearly four years ago in another country.

The editor opted for the second story.

(See here for previous editor’s choice.)

Copy to:

News at One

Hutch and Haughey – Two of a kind

Gerard ‘The Monk’ Hutch hasn’t been convicted of any crime for the last 25 years but anyone listening to Prime Time last night would find that fact difficult to believe as RTE Crime Correspondent Paul Reynolds accused him of being involved in at least one armed robbery.

“Why do you say you didn’t do the robbery when you know you did and everybody else knows you did?”

So much for the principle of being innocent until proven guilty.

It’s interesting to observe how RTE treats people like Hutch in comparison to more ‘respectable’ criminals. For example, Miriam O’Callaghan introduced the piece by telling us that people are often outraged at how some individuals seem to be almost immune from prosecution.

For years I’ve been outraged at how politicians and white collar criminals seem to be immune from prosecution and yet I’ve never witnessed any of them get the grilling that Hutch received.

It’s also interesting to observe the parallels between Hutch and the most corrupt politician of all, Charles Haughey, a criminal who was always treated with the highest respect by RTE.

Hutch claims he made his money from shrewd investments in the property market. How many times did we hear Haughey supporters make the same claim – and expect us to believe it?

Hutch denied any knowledge about the source of dodgy money in his bank account. Haughey was just as barefaced in relation to dodgy money in his accounts.

Hutch was asked:

“The money that you made, the figures just don’t add up, the compensation doesn’t really wash, the evidence is there in the figures that don’t add up because one minute you’re a guy who has no money, you get a compensation claim and now you’re a multi-millionaire. – Do you really expect people to believe that?”

Haughey was a guy who initially had no money and then suddenly he was a multi-millionaire. His figures never added up but somehow he was never asked the hard questions.

Hutch said he didn’t care what people believed. Haughey adopted the same attitude.

Hutch claims that he was ignorant of tax laws but when he realised the error of his ways he was more than happy to settle with Revenue. Haughey also claimed ignorance of his tax obligations and also made a deal with Revenue.

But by far the most interesting comment was made by Detective Superintendent John O’Mahoney of the Criminal Assets Bureau.

“There are people out there who would have you believe that a certificate of tax clearance meant that people were innocent of criminality. A certificate of tax clearance is just that, it is not a certificate of innocence.”

Couldn’t agree with you more Superintendent.

Copy to:
Prime Time

Sean O'Rourke – Great radio

I’ve always felt that RTEs Sean O’Rourke doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.

He’s always well briefed on his subject and has a uniquely forceful and penetrating technique of interviewing.

He’s also always scrupulously balanced as evidenced by his excellent interview with Fine Gael’s Fergus O’Dowd on yesterday’s News at One (2nd item).

He put O’Dowd through the wringer over the allegations concerning Ahern’s tax affairs. Great radio.

Nothing to do with me!!

Let’s cut through all the waffle surrounding the removal of John Crown from last Friday’s Late Late Show. (All emphasis mine)

It was censorship, at least by proxy.

The censorship originated from a Government source and was successful because, generally speaking, RTE does not have the courage to stand up to politicians.

State censorship of free speech is a serious threat to democracy so all those connected to this event will strongly deny any involvement, blame somebody else or put themselves in a neutral position.

Pat Kenny said.

“The decision was made at a higher level than the team of the Late Late Show production.”

So, Pat can say: Nothing to do with me.

Bertie Ahern said; “No phone calls were made to my knowledge

So, Ahern can say: Nothing to do with me.

Mary Harney said she personally had no knowledge that Prof. Crown was to appear on the programme.

So, Harney can say: Nothing to do with me.

The Director General (Sub. Req’d) of RTE has emphatically denied that the panel change was made after a phone call to him by Ms Harney.

So, the DG can say: Nothing to do with me.

The Managing Director of RTÉ Television, Noel Curran said there was absolutely no political interference in the decision to change the panel of guests.

Mr. Curran said he made the decision to change the panel to achieve a more balanced range of views and said no-one had contacted him prior to his action.

So, we know who made the decision and most importantly, we know he made the decision on his own without contact with anyone.

Finally, the most unaccountable, the most important and certainly the most useful player in the whole episode – An anonymous Government spokesman – This is what he said;

He did tell the programme team that he was of the view that the proposed panel was unbalanced

(An anonymous, unaccountable civil servant can phone the national broadcaster and express his, apparently, personal views about who should or should not partake in a crucial television debate – and he’s taken seriously?).

He did not request that Prof. Crown be removed. (Why would he need to be so crude, the contact was the message not what was said)

So, while the anonymous and unaccountable Government spokesman, operating at a safe distance from Harney and Ahern, was telling the show’s production team that he thought the panel was unbalanced, the Director General of RTE was, coincidently and without contact with anybody, coming to the exact same conclusion.

Oh, by the way, politicians will be deciding today whether to approve an RTE application for a €2 licence fee increase.

What?

Bertie Ahern on RTEs News at One today (First item)

“Sometimes I feel I have some power, most of the time I feel that I have limited power but I can tell you one thing that I’ve never had is the ability to direct anything in RTE. I’ve never had that in 30 years, if I had things would be very different but I can assure I don’t have it.”

If he had the power to direct things in RTE – “Things would be very different????”

What does that mean?

Well, of course, we belive you, Pat

Pat Kenny made a robust defence of his boss Cathal Goan, Director General of RTE, over the controversy surrounding the axing of Prof John Crown from last Friday’s Late Late Show. (Pat’s emphasis)

“The Director General Cathal Goan did not get any calls from the minister or the minister’s representatives or PR companies or anything.

I have known Cathal Goan for more years than the two of us care to remember, I worked with him originally on Today at Five, he was one of the creators of that programme and worked with him many times over the years and I know him to be a man of the highest integrity.

I cannot stress that more, he’s a man of the highest integrity and if such a phone call had been made to him, which it wasn’t, he would have no hesitation in telling that caller, politely generally or otherwise if necessary where to get off, that’s the kind of man you’re dealing with.”

Well, of course, we believe you, Pat. However, your finishing comments didn’t do much for your credibility.

“The rest of this matter is obviously internal RTE business and it will be dissected and parsed and hopefully will not embarrass us again in any manner as we’ve seen over the last couple of days.”

Avoid embarrassment? Was that not the very reason the Government allegedly acted to have Prof. Crown silenced?

Brute censorship

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.