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“The Frontline’s speakers often had knowledge of specific cutbacks that prompted blank expressions, never mind any justification, from ministerial faces. The audience, regularly comprising the many victims of austerity, would be hard-pressed to come away from the RTÉ studio feeling in any way satisfied with the empty promises and emergency damage-limitation words they heard back from officialdom.” – Laura Slattery ‘The Frontline’ is dead, long live a revamped ‘Prime Time’, Irish Times Thursday, January 31, 2013 (

Laura is getting close to the problem with the mass communication of political debate but she remains within the tent that is journalism.

Journalism has a political perspective. It is conservative, it poses no challenge but it manages to appear anti-establishment, pro-“people” and remain within the strictures of balance and fairness.

What it amounts to is this. There is, it is said, a “political class”. From this point on journalists are on safe ground. There’s now not the slightest chance of an accusation of bias or lack of balance because politics as a clash of parties, ideologies or major political perspectives – like liberalism or socialism – has been excluded.

There is of course a range of views which sees this as a managerial or a technocratic or a post-political approach. There’s quite a lot of sense here but it’s a whole lot worse because the participative citizen developed over centuries is about to be demoted to peasant!

Back to journalists. The “political class” controls the state, taxes and spending. People participate by putting pressure on the “political class” (Sometimes referred to as the “establishment” so as to secure an anti-establishment image for the commentator.) through pressure groups led by “activists” who share the journalists’ disdain for politics. An effective group wins a concession from the “political class” usually at the expense of a poorer and/or less well organised pressure group. Journalists function by siding with, reporting on and sorting out which pressure groups are most powerful, and then helping the “political class” decide which concessions must be made so as to maintain the system.

Yep, it’s really a great distance from citizens talking about great public controversies. It’s more like supplicants or peasants appealing to the ruler for preferential treatment and threatening unrest if that doesn’t work.
Laura Slattery came close when she observed the conservative futility of having “victims of austerity” state their cases for preferment. She then opted for the attractive diversion that is talk about broadcast programme formats. The problem is the abandonment of politics. The citizens need to talk about public priorities – setting a hierarchy of public spending – for in here lie real political differences over freedom and economic inequality.


The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) has found that an RTE * programme in the series Prime Time Investigates, “Mission to Prey”, was not fair in that it broadcast serious, damaging and untrue allegations about Fr. Kevin Reynolds.** The reality is more serious. A good man was cruelly injured. He was trampled in a bovine lust for a story.

Once the truth emerged, the response of the media industry generally – in failing to call a spade a spade – has been ridiculous. Leaving aside management structures, guidelines, “group think”, standards in journalism, “best practice”, legal advice etc., something quite brutal needs to be said: On the verge of publishing an allegation of paternity, it requires an enormous level of stupidity to refuse to defer publication when the man concerned is offering to take a paternity test. While there can be many determinants of stupidity, the word still needs to be said without professional prevarication.

Incidentally, we all do stupid things from time to time. We learn from them. The costs of stupidity can be viewed as an investment in the avoidance of similar mistakes. It is therefore silly to get rid of an employee whose stupid error has cost the organisation a great deal. Look at it this way: It can be said with enormous confidence that such a person will be very careful in future. Their replacement comes with no such guarantee and the person in whom so much has been “invested” goes off to work – carefully – for someone else. In short, the stupidity has been compounded for the sake of creating a tough image.

Publication of the BAI report prompted the familiar balm: comments by industry worthies processed in ritual seriousness. However, the BAI investigation and report turns out to be a veritable rescue package for standards of operation that any thinking person would regard as ordinary – indeed, as minimal. Absence of records and notes, and failure to perform checks do not constitute a problem specific to journalism; this would be maladministration in any industry or organisation. It is a description of inefficient, wasteful chaos.

It is impossible to believe that such chaos existed in one isolated area and that word of its existence never reached the outside world. It is more likely that it was learned and accepted in RTE, in the media industry and very probably in industry generally.

A long time before “managerialism”, management was in trouble. It was fluttering from fad to fad, guided by well-meaning people who thought they had found a career in promoting some fundamental truth. Routine, well-tested, ordinary – even boring – management was interrupted by or abandoned in favour of a series of fashions. Let’s put it this way: The study of management in order to make it better is desirable and necessary but like life in general, there is no blinding liberating truth and proposals for change have to be plausible. Moreover and much more importantly, there are basics which if removed, draw the enterprise into inflicting and incurring damage. The chaos that was Prime Time and which the BAI reveals is all too familiar: The triumph of a slipshod, bogus iconoclasm over planning, minutes, research, questioning etc. – all very likely dismissed as “bureaucracy”.

* I worked in RTE for more than three happy decades. I seldom criticise the organisation now for a few reasons. Firstly, there are fond ties of loyalty. Secondly, if tempted, it would be wrong to use insider information in argument. Thirdly, while RTE is subject to all of the fads which pass through industry generally and while RTE journalists are too like journalists generally, it remains an exceptionally good organisation which deserves to be spared overly harsh criticism.