Monday, May 18, 2015

Bias and the National Broadcaster

At first glance, the front page story in Saturday’s Irish Independent was a delicious revelation that, for all their bien-pensant rhetoric, the Irish Labour Party are just as venal as the next party when it comes to the dirty of game of politics.

The Indo reported that there had been a spat between Fine Gael and Labour over who would represent the Government advocating a Yes vote on the Prime Time debate tomorrow night. RTÉ wanted Leo Varadkar, the first Minister in the history of the state to come out as a gay man, but there was an agreement already in place between Fine Gael and Labour that it would be two Fine Gael, one Labour over the course of three RTÉ debates. Fine Gael had already used up their quota with Frances Fitzgerald and Simon Coveney, so Alex White was going on Prime Time and that was bloody that.

Great story. Not front page news, of course, but front page news hasn’t been what it was in the Indo since Vinnie Doyle retired. And then suddenly you might stop and wonder: what is it to RTÉ who represents any particular side anyway?

The story quotes an RTÉ source as saying "Our job was to get the best people for both sides, and one would have thought that Leo was the best person on the Government side for the last debate.”

But is it really RTÉ’s job to get the best people for both sides?

A referendum debate isn’t like a run-of-the-mill news or current affairs program. The national broadcaster’s job during a referendum or election campaign is to provide a public forum for debate. It is not the national broadcaster’s job to vet the debaters as regards their suitability to speak or represent a point of view. The national broadcaster’s only job is to measure speaking times for fairness and ask as unbalanced a set of questions as can be reasonably expected.

There is no national broadcaster in the USA, but the prospect of a commercial broadcaster stepping in to advise a political party on whom it should or shouldn’t use in a particular TV debate is ludicrous.

If, during the 2008 US Presidential Election, the Republicans wanted Sarah Palin to debate against former President Bill Clinton, can you imagine someone at one of the networks saying “our job was to get the best people for both sides, and one would have thought former Governor of California Arnold Schwartzenegger the best candidate to represent the Republican side?”

It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? That’s not really the way it works.

To bring the story back home, suppose the No side decided on a second-time lucky strategy and put Gaelic footballer Ger Brennan forward as their representative for the Prime Time debate.

Would RTÉ turn to the No side and say, “look, Ger was a very underestimated center-half back in his prime but for a debate like this, you really need to send a heavy hitter like Breda O’Brien, David Quinn or Rónán Mullen to the plate”? Or would RTÉ just say “You’re sending Ger Brennan? Well, alrighty then,” and then text their friends to stock up on popcorn?

It’s not like RTÉ’s record in these debates is particularly strong. That the RTÉ Frontline debate cost Seán Gallagher the Presidency is as sure as little green apples. The only question is if that was due to incompetency or something more sinister.

In a sighting of that rare bird, investigative journalism, Jody Corcoran joined some dots about who’s pals with whom among the players on the night of that Frontline debate three years ago, and drew up a very interesting pattern. That piece was published three years ago, in March of 2012. Nothing changed as result of his investigation, of course. Nothing ever does.