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RTE's selective silence.
arts and media |
Thursday December 08, 2005 16:54 by Davros - Daleks Against Dobson The Planet Skaro
From the Emergency to the emergency landing...
RTE’s bizarre editorial decision to ignore the emergency landing of a military aircraft containing ‘hazardous’ materials and the subsequent evacuation of Shannon airport and the surrounding areas on December 1st , reveals that RTE has not lost its censorial ways. This way of functioning has been inherent in the station since its inception. A military memorandum from 1925 outlined a scheme by which news media could be censored in the event of undefined hostilities attests to the fact that control of the media was a concern of the Irish state since the end of the civil war. An agreement of the cabinet of the Irish free-state to create a committee to preside over such censorship, made in 1930, began to take on some relevance at the outbreak of World War Two when combined with the Emergency Powers Act of 1939. The aim of the committee was to safeguard against the publication of strategic information and statements being made via the Irish media that would lead either side in the war to conclude that Ireland had abandoned its neutrality. In fact, the neutrality of the Irish state was a purely aspirational declaration that was not being practised in reality, with Ireland providing intelligence to the allied forces. However, the general perception of the Irish public was that the war, or ‘Emergency’, had little to do with the national interest and that Ireland was entirely uninvolved.
In January 1941 complaints were made when it was noted that the German bombing of Ireland that had taken place that day, causing the deaths of three women in Carlow and damaging two houses in Dublin, received more coverage from BBC radio in the early morning than there was in the midday broadcast from Athlone. It is worth bearing in mind the attitude of the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs at the time, Patrick Little, who once commented that ‘It is sometimes very much wiser for a small neutral country to keep silent’.
In the years that passed between the end of World War Two and the beginning of the Troubles the tradition of silencing the media in general and the state broadcaster in particular continued. With the Broadcasting Authority Act of 1960, the Fianna Fail government appointed an authority of nine individuals whose responsibility it was to preside over broadcasting in Ireland. Although no one sitting in the house of the Oireachtas, nor any individual standing for election, was permitted to be part of the authority, in order to prevent potential clashes of interest, it was noted that of the original nine authority appointees six had been members of, or active workers for, Fianna. In later years some incidents of note were to occur, such as Charles Haughey’s 1966 protestations to RTE, which caused an item on cattle sales to be dropped from news bulletins and a minor controversy in 1966 when some considered that Haughey had ensured that Fianna Fail presidential candidate DeValera’s campaign received favourable coverage to that of the O Higgins opposition. In March 1968 the Director General and his deputy also dropped an item planned for The Late Late Show that covered a new biography on De Valera on the grounds that it was ‘Inappropriate’ and could become ‘personal and embarrassing’. The item was ‘deleted’. The late sixties also saw coverage of the Vietnam War and Biafra being dropped by RTE, it was suspected by some of those working on the Biafra project that its cancellation was due to an anticipation of it provoking scepticism in relation to the government’s foreign policy.
RTE’s current affairs flagship programme 7 Days was transferred from the station’s current affairs division to the news division in February 1968. The news division was less facilitative of analysis than that of current affairs, and by the 10th of May of that year a special audience research report expressed a regret, on behalf of the programme’s viewers, at a ‘softening’ in the programmes thinking.
A conflict between the government, the Broadcasting Authority and RTE came in 1972 in response to RTE broadcasting an interview by journalist Kevin O’Kelly with provisional IRA Chief of Staff Seán Mac Stiofáin on the 19th of November. This conflict resulted in the dismissal of all nine members of the Broadcasting Authority on the 24th of November and a new authority was appointed. On the night of the Authority’s dismissal Jack Lynch, in a conversation with writer Ulick O’Conner, said, ‘I have just sacked the RTE Authority who supported Kevin O’Kelly. I suppose you don’t think much of that.’ O’Conner replied that the action taken didn’t say much for Lynch’s ‘views on freedom of speech’, and that the Taoiseach would regret the decision. ‘Fuck them’, is stated to be Lynch’s reply, who is then said to have grinned and walked off.
Another minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Conor Cruise O’Brien, later deemed that the public needed to be protected not only from biased reporting but also from a ‘kind of neutral professionalism, indifferent to social consequences’. It was for that reason that in 1976 the Cruiser made the guidelines pertaining to media coverage of the Troubles more stringent by rewording Section 31 to ban the appearance or reporting of named paramilitary groups or anyone advocating support of them. O’Brien stated that the emotional appeal of Republicanism made it difficult to refute ‘by rational argument alone’. The Cruiser is celebrated for his unique take on rationality.
What followed was an era in which a nervous national broadcaster wilfully practised self-censorship, sometimes even seeking to have the restrictions of Section 31 extended. A High Court declaration on the 31st of July 1992 stated that there was no need for the broadcaster to suppress interviews made in 1990 with the chairman of the Gateaux strike committee, Larry O’Toole, who was also a member of Sinn Féin. The reasoning behind the decision was that O’Toole was speaking on behalf of the union and not Sinn Féin. RTE appealed this decision in the Supreme Court in an attempt to overturn the relaxing of censorship over the station in this instance. A similar scenario occurred later that year in connection with the broadcaster’s refusal to carry radio advertisements for Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams’ short story collection The Street and Other Stories. The book’s publishers, Brandon Books, contested the decision, arguing that the book was not political but lightly humorous and sentimental in nature. RTE’s counter argument was that the book ‘must be reasonably regarded as either likely to promote or to incite crime’.
The restrictions enforced by the rewording of Section 31 were lifted in 1994 but self-censorship lives on in the national broadcaster. The reasons for the censorship of the past could be seen as an attempt to stabilise a new nation, or fight criminality, or bind debate in order for established elites to maintain influence. Whatever the motivation, the policy of selective silence lives on. The entire RTE Authority can no longer be sacked by one side of the Oireachtas (the same Oireachtas that also didn't make much fuss over the emergency landing by the way) and we now have a broadcaster that is seemingly more independent than at any other time in its history. Yet RTE still manages to keep the public uninformed about the military realities of this nation. RTE are not alone in this of course as the privately owned media too are complicit in their silence. However, unlike the private media, RTE belongs to the public and it is its job to serve the public’s interest. Otherwise there is no point having the broadcaster.
And one other thing, for another disturbing example of media silence in the face of the real nature of our national sovereignty it is worth checking out Eamonn McCann’s article that appeared in Hot Press on 05/06/03. This more or less ignored story reveals this country to be dependent upon M.I.5 operatives, dubious F.B.I. informants, and juryless courts (bit like the ones in Guantanamo, only with less of the torture) to fight our own War on Terror TM.