C: D Storan

Is RTÉ’s ridiculous apology to Paschal Donohue a symptom of reliance on State funding? 

Last week, RTÉ apologised to Minister Paschal Donohue because they asked him a slightly difficult question around children’s shoes. The apology, and the speed with which it was delivered, does not bode well for the future of robust journalism in this country – and should give pause to the headlong rush to ensure taxpayer funding for a raft of platforms in addition to RTÉ. 

The state broadcaster enjoys a privileged position: it is lavishly funded by the taxpayer, the number of its competitors are restricted by law, and – as the biggest player in the market as a result of those unique privileges – it has ample opportunity to quiz Cabinet ministers about the validity or otherwise of policies.

Paschal Donohue is one such Minister, and as the Cabinet member responsible for Finance at a time of unprecedented borrowing and public spending. you think he’d be well able to take a few hard questions.

Apparently not.

The restriction on buying children’s shoes in the lockdown became a bigger issue last week when a consultant pediatrician said that children were “suffering” and in “unnecessary pain” because they were wearing ill-fitting shoes as a result of the ongoing closure of shoe shops.

Dr Niamh Lynch said that ordering shoes online could cause serious problems for children’s feet, as shoes for developing feet generally needed to be fitted properly – but shoe shops had not been permitted to open under the Covid restrictions.

In the course of discussing this issue with Minister Donohue on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, presenter Gavin Jennings, said that Fine Gael has a “particular history when it comes to children’s shoes” – a reference to the infamous controversy in 1982 when a Fine Gael-Labour coalition government collapsed after John Bruton sought to put VAT on children’s shoes.

Donohue gave an immediate and tetchy response, saying “your question has in it an implicit suggestion that my party and myself are not aware of the health needs that young children have which I just want to reject in its entirety”.

Jennings actually apologised immediately, but Donohue was clearly stung by the inference that his party was less than considerate when it came to the needs of children’s feet.

Nothing much in the exchange, one would have thought. But Fine Gael thought otherwise.

According to the Independent a meeting of Fine Gael’s parliamentary party later that evening saw junior minister Patrick O’Donovan describe the question put by Jennings as “outrageous”, while ‘Senator Jerry Buttimer described it as ”appalling” and said there should be a formal complaint made by Fine Gael to RTÉ about it.’

What planet are these people living on? Is there some code by which political parties can never be asked – or ribbed – about daft or wildly unpopular decisions they made in the past? Or have Ministers become so accustomed to being treated with kid gloves by the media during this lockdown that they can’t even handle some mild pressure?

RTÉ, or rather, the producer of Morning Ireland, ending up apologising to the Minister’s press adviser. This is all fairly pathetic stuff, but it does speak to a much bigger and more important question.

If the country’s biggest broadcaster can’t ask hard questions of the Finance Minister, then who can? And is it becoming a case of he who pays the piper calls the tune?

In 2020, while hundreds of thousands of people were made unemployed through no fault of their own, and relied on the PUP to put food on the table and try to pay mortgage and bills, RTE, for the first time in years, actually turned a profit.

That ‘Covid bounce’ for the station arose because of a “huge amount of government and HSE advertising” helped to boost its coffers, the Times reported.

In addition to the €189 million or so it received in licence fees then, the state broadcaster also benefited from the lavish advertising campaigns being booked by the government in relation to Covid-19.

It all adds up a relationship where those who should be unafraid to ask tough questions are over-reliant on those who are funding them. And Micheál Martin wants to extend this unhealthy reliance to more media platforms who are finding it difficult to get punters to part with the cost of a subscription.

Only to certain, favoured and approved media platforms, of course. Asking mildly-mean questions about children’s shoes might put you on a naughty list in that regard.


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