How can Irish politicians now lecture Russia on media freedom?

It is worth thinking about how the Irish media and establishment might react to the news that a Russian broadcaster who had aired comments questioned the war in Ukraine was being hauled before the Russian Duma to explain their coverage of the conflict.

Certainly, this publication would condemn it. In that, I suspect we would be joined by most other Irish publications. They would say things like “a free press is vital to a free society”, and “political pressure on the media is deeply wrong, and corrosive”, and “the Russian Government is once again showing its disrespect for basic democratic norms”.

In all of that, in those circumstances, they would be correct.

This week, in Ireland, a committee of the national parliament has decided to haul RTÉ executives before it to have a “discussion” about the national broadcaster’s coverage of the Transgender issue on Joe Duffy’s “liveline” show. It’s worth reading the Independent’s original report of the news to get a sense of just how Orwellian this all is:

It is understood that there was “broad support” among politicians in a private meeting of the committee today to invite RTÉ bosses to appear before the committee.

Labour senator Annie Hoey said the State broadcaster had let the trans community down.

RTÉ should have an opportunity to listen to the trans community. They have let the community down,” she said.

“I think RTÉ should be brought in before the committee because I want to hear what they want to say.”

It is understood that RTÉ will be asked to come before the committee on June 22.

Consider the part in bold: RTÉ did, in fact, have an opportunity to “listen to the Trans community”. In fact, there was no law, or RTÉ rule, preventing the trans community from taking part in the Liveline programmes in question, which indeed, they did. Their point of view was heard, and broadcast to the nation.

By “listen to the Trans community”, what the Senator means is “listen to the Trans community when they say that no contrary opinions should be broadcast on RTÉ”. This is not, then, a hearing about improving RTÉ’s coverage by adding a range of perspectives to it: It is the Oireachtas using its influence to encourage RTE to delete perspectives from their coverage. As I say, the analogy to a Russian broadcaster being told not to criticise the war is an apt one.

What’s more sinister, of course, is that RTÉ is unique amongst Irish broadcasters in that it is state funded, through the TV licence. These politicians have power over it in a way that they do not have over, say, Gript, because they do not hold our purse strings. RTÉ cannot afford to make political enemies the way a smaller, independent outlet can. We are often told that public funding for RTÉ is an unalloyed good because it “protects their independence” – but that has always been bullshit. As we see here, it actually compromises their independence. If this committee tried hauling, say, me, in for questioning about something Gript wrote, they would get a short two word reply, perhaps being shown the same number of fingers concurrently.

But RTÉcannot do that. A broadcaster that cannot afford to alienate politicians is effectively worthless to the public. What other stories do they amend, or edit, or just not run at all, in order to avoid a rap on the knuckles like this. Or, perhaps, a more sinister quiet word in private?

RTÉ are not the villain, here, though. For once, they did their job roughly as one might expect them to do it. The villains are those politicians who preach human rights, but have no problem at all tossing basic human rights – like the liberty to speak and broadcast freely – on the bonfire as soon as some state-funded NGOs complain that the wrong people are speaking freely. Speaking of NGOs, by the way, here’s the executive director of, I kid you not, the Irish Council for Civil liberties:

Yes, that’s the Irish Council for Civil Liberties supporting a broadcaster being hauled before parliament for broadcasting the wrong opinions. And you, the taxpayer, fund that organisation handsomely, just like you fund RTÉ, and the politicians questioning them.

You, by the way, are paying over two euros a litre for diesel. All these people you fund are having a conniption fit because somebody said something they don’t like on the radio. It’s some bloody country, at the moment, isn’t it? Madness reigns supreme.

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