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Tag Archives: editorial policy

For too long now I’ve been arguing for the need radically to change the regulations covering broadcast politics. I really should get on with writing about it. I do, at least, have a starting point: re-cast the rules to serve the audience, the receiving citizen, rather than staff and contributors. This would of course impact upon the current complaints procedures. With that in mind and for now, I want to talk about a recent encounter I had with RTE’s complaints/compliance dept.

Now, no one could say that I’m other than an advocate for public service broadcasting or that I’m unsympathetic to RTE. I have argued that RTE is compliant and operates to the requirements of the law and the guidelines derived from it. It follows from this that I regard moaning about RTE’s performance as missing the point; RTE is acting in accordance with regulation, i.e. is compliant. Change, reform or improvement, requires regulatory change.

Nevertheless, I’ve been struck by the number of people on-line who think that there’s no point in complaining to the national broadcaster and particularly by those among them that I know to be thoughtful and reasonable.

Some time ago I was exercised by a programme which uncritically featured an alternative remedy. I reckoned that this was a matter of public controversy and that the broadcaster was obliged to treat it as such. I wrote and asked for their thoughts on this. Then began a series of what I interpreted as high-handed, antagonistic e-mails. A choice was put to me: I could submit a comment which would be placed in a complaints log distributed to senior editorial staff or I could submit a formal complaint citing the guideline which I was alleging had been breached. There apparently was no chance that I could have an ordinary, considered response to my point.

Now, I would be at pains to defend both the complaints log and the formal complaints procedure but clearly they are far too limiting and indeed forbidding to be of much use to the engaged citizen, i.e. the kind of citizen who might want to question, discuss and contribute to improving broadcast debate. Engagement of this kind is not the same as that of an aggrieved person – particularly a contributor or someone who thinks that they should be a contributor.

Some time later I was struck by a news bulletin which near its start covered developments in the Birmingham bombing inquest and later carried an interview with a SF spokesperson on a different matter. The interviewer made no reference to Birmingham. The usual defence offered by journalists is that in news about SF they cannot keep looking back to “The Troubles”.* However, in this instance Birmingham featured in the same news bulletin. Moreover, the interviewer did indeed look to something unrelated that was in the news not the same day but a few days previously, the selection of a SF candidate to contest the presidency. This looked to me like an editorial decision to avoid the particular, newsworthy controversy that was the bombing of Birmingham pubs and SF’s support for the Provisional IRA.

I decided to take up the matter and explored what might be the appropriate guideline-breach on which to base a complaint. This kind of research requires time and a little expertise. So, I took up an offer made during the previous correspondence: the Head of Compliance saw helping a citizen with the formulation of complaints to be part of the department’s function. I detailed what had happened and my concerns, and asked him under what rule I might submit a complaint. It took three e-mails and the best part of a month to get a response. Now, a new Head of Compliance had just been appointed but again when the response came, it struck me as defensive and antagonistic. He wasn’t trying to look after me, the citizen, but was resolutely defending his colleagues on the assumption – which I find bizarre – that I was attacking them. I should add that I had more than once explicitly made my commitment to PSB and my support for RTE clear.

The lessons I’ve taken from this? There is still the need for legislative reform which would focus the very purpose of broadcast politics on the specific needs of the participative citizen but now it’s also clear that every effort must be made to make new rules, let’s say, more user friendly. Moreover, the Compliance Department’s fundamental loyalty must migrate to this citizen; an element of this will have to be awareness that citizens cannot be expected to have expert knowledge of the rules and will need help to make their cases effectively. The experience around the second incident – the treatment of SF – has brought a new realisation: that editorial policy is a political and therefore a public matter. Its formulation and justification must be openly discussed and decisions must be open to question.

Well, I’ve made a start …

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* I discussed it here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/02/24/journalism-and-the-struggle-to-decide-what-is-normal-the-case-of-sfs-desire-to-celebrate-the-prov-ira/

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On June 5th there was a mysterious gun attack on Bray Boxing Club. The journalist covering it for RTE included in his report the views of local TD, John Brady. This inclusion prompts two questions.

Firstly, what is the purpose of broadcasting the views of a member of parliament in news reports of this kind? They seldom add significant information and they never offer a unique perspective. On some occasions similar comments are sought from a local priest. If local comment is a feature of journalism, any number of bystanders or neighbours is available. It would seem that the choice has nothing whatsoever to do with the news report or recognising local interest or effect and a great deal to do with pointing out who is recognised as important – even a leader – in a community.

When a priest is selected, atheists and non-catholics might find it anything from extremely odd, through partisan, and all the way to downright antagonistic. When a TD (MP in other countries) is selected, it might be argued that democracy is advanced, that a person elected by citizens and frequently referred to as a public representative, should be recognised as their spokesperson. It might also be argued that encouraging representation of this kind is intensely anti-democratic, that citizens in a republic do not vote to elect community leaders and certainly not to appoint those who will provide soothing – almost ceremonial – utterances for news reports of murder.

The second question is the selection of the particular politician for inclusion. Perhaps selection is not the best term. Perhaps some public representatives with an eye to publicity and re-election chase around in the knowledge that journalists consider a politician’s comment to be a standard component of their news product. This of course would constitute manipulation of journalism.

Whatever the reason, a Sinn Féin TD appeared in the RTE report of a savage gun crime. Five TDs are elected for Wicklow and eight councillors for the Bray area. Two are members of Sinn Féin. Now, there there may be editorial policy that selecting SF speakers somehow serves the peace process, that having them talk on all manner of occasions stitches them into constitutionalism. That just might be worth addressing but the immediate reaction on this occasion must be: This was a gun attack. There’s a citizen dead and two wounded. Bringing in a SF rep to comment is downright perverse. It mocks the nation.

The notion that media can serve the republic, its constitution and peace by having SF speak on all manner of issues is utterly wrong. It does precisely the opposite. It serves to normalise them and their values. It says that these are ordinary public representatives with views that are within the limits of democracy. That’s not the case. In our republic the normalisation – constitutionalisation, if you like – of ceremonies and celebrations of war crimes (bombing etc. of civilians) and those who hold those odious views has to be resisted.* Journalism generally evades responsibility by talking in terms of mere reportage, coverage, impartiality and news.** Perhaps the only resistance now will come from ordinary citizens – maybe just a handful – who are prepared to say to a member of SF, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself”. ***

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* This was manifest when SF’s relatively late opposition to the 8th Amendment (The constitutional ban on legislation to permit abortion) was hidden, while RTE presented their president as a leader of the move to repeal:

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/05/31/the-media-preference-for-mary-lou-mcdonald-during-the-referendum-campaign-showed-partiality-in-coverage-of-a-different-and-fraught-public-controversy/ 

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/02/24/journalism-and-the-struggle-to-decide-what-is-normal-the-case-of-sfs-desire-to-celebrate-the-prov-ira/

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/the-division-between-supporters-of-sf-and-other-irish-people-is-and-ought-to-be-fundamental/

Miriam O’Callaghan’s radio programme this morning (Sunday, 2nd March 2014) had three interviews*. One with Jimmy Guerin, the brother of murdered journalist, Veronica Guerin, whose acknowledged killer, John Gilligan, was injured last night when attackers attempted to murder him**. The second interview was with Jerry Hall, the model and actor. The third interview was with Tommy McKearney, convicted murderer, IRA member and hunger striker.

The Jerry Hall interview served as something of an insulator between two poles of editorial policy. The man suspected of the murder of Veronica Guerin, received no sympathy. There was absolutely no doubt that the editorial approach was condemnation; there was no desire to understand or to find redeeming features in John Gilligan or his actions. However, from the introduction when Tommy McKearney was described as “on active service” with the IRA, the third interview was not about murder but about exploring how this “gentle man” had come to murder/kill postman, Stanley Adams, his subsequent participation in a hunger strike and his thoughts on Northern Ireland.

At the close of the programme Miriam read out texts from listeners who thought that the Tommy McKearney interview lacked balance; they wondered why a family member of his victim or someone opposed to the IRA had not been interviewed. No text appeared asking why a family member of John Gilligan had not been interviewed. Here’s the thing: Balance is a fine convention in the coverage of a public controversy; it applies to two sides of a story, to contending political arguments. Paradoxically, however, when one decides that balance is applicable to an issue, one has taken sides in a most basic debate. That is the debate about what is a matter of public controversy and what is not, i.e. what is political and what is not. There is no way out of making an editorial decision so basic.

In the case of Miriam’s programme the editorial decision was that Veronica Guerin’s killing was not a matter of public controversy – was not political – but that the killing of Stanley Adams (Postman and a member of the UDR) was a matter of public controversy, was political. From the moment that balance is thought to apply there is no way back; the realm of politics has been entered – a realm of acceptable discussion – and in this instance the killing of a postman was brought within the consensus of what is acceptable as a matter for discussion.

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* http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A10256460%3A15946%3A02%2D03%2D2014%3A
** http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/02/veronica-guerin-suspect-shot