Unless you’ve been living under a rock, in Ireland, you cannot have missed the story of Boris Johnson’s alleged attendance at a Downing Street Party during the height of the first lockdown. It’s been dubbed the “BYOB party”, because attendees were advised to bring their own beer.
Here’s the RTÉ report on it, which led yesterday’s news bulletins:
A British MP has acknowledged public anger over a Downing Street drinks party allegedly attended by Prime Minister Boris Johnson during strict lockdown measures in May 2020.
Police are in contact with the Cabinet Office over claims a senior aide to Mr Johnson organised a “bring your own booze” party in the garden behind No 10 during England’s first lockdown in May 2020.
Public anger? Well, of course there has been public anger. And the UK media have rightly, as is their job, highlighted the utter hypocrisy of Boris Johnson attending a party in his own office at a time when he was instrumental in shutting down UK society and telling people to stay at home. It’s the perfect example of one rule for them, and another for us.
To be clear, it absolutely is a story. And an important one. These are the kinds of story that tell us a little bit about our politicians, and the laws they make. In this instance, the justification for laws banning gatherings was that we should all be terrified of covid, and that gathering together in large groups clearly endangered the very lives of others around us. When we discover that the politicians responsible for making those laws were not abiding by them in practice, or in spirit, themselves, it tells us that one of two things is true: Either they did not believe covid ever to be that serious, or that they are the kinds of people who don’t mind risking the lives of the people around them. Neither conclusion is comforting.
So, it is a story. But where, then, is the bulletin-leading coverage of this one?
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has said he spent 10 minutes with staff members on the night of the controversial Champagne party which was a breach of Covid-19 restrictions but is adamant he did not attend the event.
Minister Coveney has moved to clarify whether he was present at the Champagne party after remaining silent.
A now-deleted photograph posted on Twitter by his then-secretary general Niall Burgess showed members of Minister Coveney’s staff breaching Covid-19 rules such as social distancing.
The group were unmasked and drinking Moët & Chandon to celebrate Ireland winning a seat on the UN Security Council when Ireland was in strict lockdown rules.
That’s from the Daily Mirror, by the way, not from RTÉ. So far as we can see, RTÉ mentioned the Simon Coveney story just once, in a story on December 29th headlined – I kid you not – “‘Lessons learned’ after Dept gathering during lockdown”.
About Boris, they go full bore, lead the bulletins. About Coveney? Well, read that piece at the link above, and see how many paragraphs it takes before his name is even mentioned. If you don’t have the time to confirm it, let me tell you: It’s 18. 18 paragraphs.
“The advantage of having a brother working in RTÉ”, quipped one colleague, who will remain nameless, while we were discussing this yesterday. Simon Coveney’s brother, Rory Coveney, is strategic advisor to the RTÉ director-general, though there is no evidence that this has any impact on their coverage. Still, it is a statement of fact, because your author is human, that Gript will never be at the forefront of covering my own family negatively, should they ever warrant news coverage.
Regardless of the reason for the contrasting coverage of Boris Johnson and Simon Coveney, the fact of it speaks volumes. Here are two politicians, effectively, charged with the exact same act of hypocrisy. Both are accused, credibly, of – at minimum – knowing about major breaches to the covid regulations in their own workplaces during the height of the first lockdown.
The party in Coveney’s office, in fact, happened around the same time as “Golfgate”. The Golfgate accused are presently on trial. Boris Johnson leads the RTÉ bulletins. Simon Coveney does not get a mention in the headline about a breach in his own department.
There is no obvious or reasonable explanation for RTÉ’s behaviour here other than pure malfeasance and double standards. There is no exonerating alternative.
This is an insult to the people RTÉ are supposed to serve. Think about, what, in effect, they are saying: You deserve to know about the hypocrisy of British politicians, but not about the hypocrisy of your own. A family member of my own mentioned the Boris story to me yesterday – “he’s finished now”, they said. When I mentioned the Coveney story… they had not heard about it.
In general, when writing about Irish society, I try to be moderate in my language. Sometimes that serves well. Sometimes, like now, it does not. It is important to be clear, and call things what they are. This, then, is a form of corruption. It is corruption not in the traditional sense of “who you know” mattering more than what you do, or delivering brown envelopes stuffed with cash, but in the more general sense that the national broadcaster is inherently and irredeemably corrupted from the purpose for which it exists.
RTÉ does not exist to hold British politicians to account. The BBC exists to do that, as does the Guardian, and the Telegraph, and ITV, and Sky News, and all the others. We have RTÉ because, we are told, we need a media outlet dedicated to covering Irish affairs, and standing up for Irish people. In RTÉ, we do not have that. RTÉ is supposed to cover Irish News. Very often, it seems to see its role as covering up Irish News, and keeping people focused on the badness of British Tories, or American Republicans.
This is just one example why, in my own case, I will go to jail before I pay a TV licence. This is a broadcaster – despite some very fine individual journalists – which deserves to go bust. It’s already bankrupt in terms of its own mission. Financial bankruptcy would be well deserved.
Irish people deserve the news. They just do not get it from RTÉ.