The ‘NYE Countdown’ apology from RTE is a ‘sham’

According to an RTE puff piece about its adult, animated satire series, Fantasy Ireland, we Irish ‘can laugh at ourselves’ and poke fun at ‘our sacred cows’. ‘No topic is off limits’.  Yeah, right as we are wont to say down in Cork.  The only thing that is the stuff of fantasy here is the jaw dropping delusion and self-congratulation of  RTE  One thing that is not fantasy however is the hard cash that the government expropriates from its citizens for productions like Fantasy Ireland. Its targets are stereotypes from Old Ireland like the grasping, authoritarian priest, Fr Murphy, its main villain and his retinue of ‘Shams’. Now if RTE had run this series back in the day when the Irish Church was in its pomp and in need of a check or two from the pens of satirists, this effort could at least claim to legitimately target ‘sacred cows’.

Today’s ‘sacred cows’ are decidedly secular. Like cows of all breeds, they tend to herd. These days you find them grazing in large, separate bunches on the fat uplands of taxpayers’ largesse. They are known as expert advisory groups, NGOs of every stripe that cross the leftyliberal spectrum. They proliferate, overlapping each other in all kinds of fascinating ways. They get money from central government and local government and money circulates between them as well as they continue to viralise and mutate.  It’s a merry go round of public money to fund, and arguably fabricate, fashionable causes. the perfect stuff of satire one might think. But like the Church in days of old, they are ring-fenced by virtuous mission statements. Real satire is relevant and topical and it requires courage and, in RTE’s case, biting the hand that feeds it.  Much easier to go after safer targets especially when they are decidedly out of favour with Official Ireland.

The latest, tasteless and crass skit on the mystery at the core of Christian belief, the Incarnation, on New Year’s Eve Countdown show, should not become a distraction from the core issues with RTE, notably its systemic ideological buy-in and our obligation to extravagantly fund it.  Frankly, I don’t give a toss who RTE ridicules or what they consider worthy of air time or who they chose to invite onto discussion panels. If there is a market for their brand of comment and entertainment then let their market pay for it. I consider it a fundamental violation of my rights to be forced to stump up for what I consider mediocrity, banality and the sheer brain numbing drivil of much hyped offerings from Fantasy Ireland to Normal People to NYE Countdown. Sure there is some good investigative journalism from time to time like the exposés about abuse in nursing homes and creches.  However, I can access such content on other media outlets as well.  And there is simply not nearly enough good content to justify a 160euro licence for many of us.

I can see the objection coming. We need professional, informed and objective coverage of important national news stories, something only public broadcasting can be trusted to provide.  We may need it indeed but we won’t get it because it does not exist. Bias is in our DNA. We see things according to our experience, our values, our cultural milieu.  We also see things according to whether we accept or reject the prevailing zeitgeist. Commercial considerations, and RTE depends on advertising too, adds its own dollop of bias to the mix.  Very often in history the dissenters were a fringe who would ultimately be absorbed or otherwise quelled by the emerging hegemony of opinion.  That is not how it is now. The divisions convulsing the democratically constituted world today are much more evenly balanced. Those who have managed to take control of the levers of power will be hard put to keep their course when half the ship is mutinous and increasingly militant. The less they accommodate dissenting voices, the fiercer the push back.

There is no point in pretending that the bias gene can be eliminated.  Even in academic research there is a very frank acknowledgement that bias plays a part and that scholarship cannot be neutral, either ideologically or otherwise. One might accept that to be true in the field of social and liberal studies but no less a person than biologist Richard Dawkins assures us that even in the sphere of medical research, ‘the subjective bias of the experimenter’ is a very real factor that needs to be neutralised by ‘perfected safeguards’ and ‘double blind control tests’.

When it comes to selecting news stories, choosing which ones need in-depth discussion, lining up a panel and the questions they will be asked, there are as yet no anti-bias safeguards, perfected or otherwise. If Micheal Martin, who wants to ensure quality journalism is supported in both broadcasting and print media, has any ideas, he has yet to share them.  He says that journalism is under threat from many ‘forces’ but it is clear that it is the dominance of social media and its dissemination of ‘fake news’ that concerns him. Incidentally, it is social media not RTE who is showing the disturbing unrest in Blanchardstown following the killing of a knife wielding assailant by Gardai.  Apparently, there is nothing ‘fake’ about filtering and curating such news stories for Micheál Martin because it protects the government from uncomfortable questions. It does not appear to occur to the Taoiseach that the lack of support for Irish journalism, whether of the print or broadcast variety, has a lot more to do with its perceived agenda pursuing bias and its dismal mediocrity?

I and others on this platform have already listed instance after instance of RTE bias so I will reference only one here because of the cavalier attitude to public money it displays. The story of the sacking of Kevin Myers, a journalist who by anyone’s reckoning is ‘independent’, from the Sunday Times led RTE’s news bulletins for a full 24 hours, giving enough scope to one of their broadcasters to defame the vilified journalist. When RTE recklessly gambled public money defending and losing the ensuing case brought by Myers, the apology which was a condition of the very considerable settlement, was buried inside a single news bulletin at 8.50am on a Friday morning. If Michael Martin doesn’t think that is good journalism and good ethics he has yet to say so. If he thinks it was not what the licence fee was intended for, he has yet to say so. By contrast and significantly, RTE has little or nothing to say about the jailing of young Chinese journalist, Zhang Zhan, for exposing the scale of covid in Wuhan. Who decided this is not a story of interest especially at this time? Cui bono?

Martin’s proposal to share the licence fee with private news platforms might sound reassuring.  I am not okay paying a licence fee that predominantly benefits content I consider ill-informed, poorly researched and biased.  I would prefer to choose my own outlets for news and comment. It would cost me far less. And I don’t want the matter of who gets what decided by a so-called Citizens’ Assembly.  Democracy is imperfect but an elected assembly like Dail Eireann with all it limitations comes closer to the ideal of ‘government of the people, by the people’  than a random assembly who have never stood for any public office and are led by selected experts to largely pre-set conclusions that are then foisted on the rest of us, not as government diktat, needless to say, but as something we actually came up with ourselves.  Infantilizing and marginalizing us under cover of staged, show-cased consultation. And we pay for the ‘sham’ into the bargain.

And the most fantastical thing of all about ‘Fantasy Ireland’ is that the BAI part funds it.  The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland who adjudicate complaints and, on very rare occasions, issue admonishments.   Real Ireland is stranger than any fantasy.

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