Debate on media standards urgently needed
Seanad Order of Business, 13th March 2012
This House had a debate on media standards not too long ago. Although the Leader is to be commended on organising it, the debate was not entirely satisfactory because the speaking time allocated to Senators was quite limited. I recall that Senator Norris made an impassioned and eloquent speech during the debate. Others who had prepared comments, thoughts and suggestions to share with the Minister were confined to a minute or so, or were allowed to ask a brief question. I am not finding any fault with that other than to say that the debate needs to recommence.
It needs to be continued in a way that allows the Minister to hear extended contributions from Senators who have been expressing concerns about media standards for a long time. The Minister gave a very eloquent speech, responded to some contributions and answered some questions. We need more, however. That is particularly obvious in the wake of the latest controversy that is swirling around RTE and in light of comments by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, who is the first in a long time to identify with particular clarity a certain bias that exists in our public service broadcaster’s coverage on certain issues from time to time. I think there is a difference in style to be noted between Deputy Varadkar’s very frank assessment of a bias in favour of left wing, or what he calls centre left, viewpoints.
I also notice a tendency in the comments of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, to let RTE off the hook, so to speak. I do not think it was satisfactory that Deputy Rabbitte should go to the other extreme and ridicule the notion that one would have heads on plates so to speak. I do not think the Madame Defarge approach is being advocated by genuine critics of our public service broadcaster. There is a very legitimate concern that people who are in receipt of taxpayers’ money are not doing their utmost to guarantee full fairness, impartiality and balance in their coverage of certain current affairs matters. There is no doubt that the way RTE set up Mr. Gallagher in the context of “The Frontline” programme did indeed change the outcome of the election. I am very surprised to hear people suggesting otherwise, because it is quite clear that the way the matter was handled on “The Frontline” programme set in train a series of events that operated very much to Mr. Gallagher’s disadvantage. That is making no critique of the eventual winner.
This is an extremely serious matter on top of the Fr. Kevin Reynolds affair.
Does the Leader think it is satisfactory that each time something like this happens, we get a vague announcement from RTE that it is having reviews of its editorial processes? I do not think we have heard yet what its editorial processes investigation has found after the Fr. Kevin Reynolds affair. It is important that the processes should be looked at by an outsider. Why is it in the context of the medical and legal professions, there is continuous professional development? There is a proper complaints mechanism for people to make a complaint about their experience of these professionals, which has consequences. When people make a complaint to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, the most the person will get from RTE is a neutral acknowledgement of the complaint. Last night we saw that Pat Kenny himself did not refer to the findings. It was read out in a neutral monotone, which is not good enough, given the public service money involved.
In the light of this and other concerns, does the Leader consent to ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resource, Deputy Rabbitte, to come to the Seanad in order that we can have a more searching and informed debate to build on the debate on media standards that has already taken place? We can then reflect together on what is needed to deal with this very serious problem.