One of these fine days, RTE news is going to come a cropper with its liberal use of the word “murder”. Remember the tragic death of journalist, Eugen Maloney on Camden Street in Dublin in June 2012 when RTE reported the death as murder? Four months on, and there is a trial where the accused faces the charge of manslaughter. Where would RTE be if the accused’s lawyer claimed his client couldn’t get a fair trial because the national broadcaster had described the death as “murder”? RTE is not alone in this practice, and the print media also reported the death as “murder” but somehow, our publicly funded broadcaster should be held to a higher standard. It is one of the very few faults in RTE news, and it almost comes as a surprise to conclude on here that RTE is actually quite good, with generally clear and reliable reporting of the events of the day. Yes, there have been a few blips like showing the “Georgia” that was invaded by Russian/southern Ossetia in 2008 as Georgia USA on a map, but speaking as a consumer of RTE news, overall it is quite good.
The same can’t be said about RTE’s current affairs and it won’t have escaped your notice that TV current affairs is being revamped under the tutelage of Kevin Bakhurst, the BBC man who came on board at RTE in September 2012 in the wake of the clearout and fallout from the Fr Kevin Reynolds scandal. The Week in Politics, which is the by far the best current affairs offering on RTE in my view, will in future be broadcast at lunchtime on Sundays with an evening repeat. Whether this allows the flaghship politics programme, fronted by Sean O’Rourke, to adequately assimilate the contents of the Sunday press remains to be seen, but there is no reason why the programme shouldn’t continue to provide first-rate reporting and analysis of the political scene – a “scene” that is all important in Ireland with the State owning banks and most media organisations, or at least the debts therein.
There are changes afoot also at the Frontline and Prime Time strands at RTE. And about time too. They stand out as godawful programming, oftentimes with the production standards you would associate with a community college media project. Characterised by lack of research with little fact checking, unchallenged claims from participants, poor topic selection, programming which at times seem to break RTE’s own producer guidelines, incoherent with a failure to deliver a story to its audience, hectoring interviews which glean nothing for the audience all thrown together with expensive graphics and sound which at times veer from MTV video to horror movie soundtrack, but add little to the understanding of the topic at hand.
Although both strands have generated programming of note and of value, both are generally awful and so it came as no surprise that these two strands were facing revamps also. To date, little has changed – someone seems to have stuck a 5v electrode in Miriam O’Callaghan’s bra and she now seems to jerk her upper body every few seconds, perhaps to confer the impression of life to proceedings. Pat Kenny has been recruited to Prime Time where his hectoring has so far extracted little in the way of hard information from interviewees. George Lee is a welcome addition to the strands for his economic gravitas. Clare Byrne has been drafted into Prime Time as a presenter, and the jury is out on her performance, but in truth, it will be the quality of the research that provides the foundation that will make or break both strands in future. Like good barristers, TV presenters should know the answers to their questions beforehand and should try to lead proceedings in such a way as to present a coherent story to their audiences. That doesn’t mean new information is discarded or ignored because it doesn’t fit, but it does mean that the needs of the audience should be paramount.
Prime Time Investigates, which was suspended in 2011 after the Fr Reynolds affair, has yet to return to our screens but there is a sore need in Ireland for such an investigative strand. We wait to see how Kevin Bakhurst will develop what is generally regarded as very difficult programming – investigative journalism – which is expensive and time-consuming, legally problematic and can ultimately result in abandoned projects.
So far, and with just eight weeks under his belt, there doesn’t appear to be any great change at Prime Time or Frontline, but it is early days yet and the man from the BBC is contending with entrenched ways of doing things, not to mention a maze of relationships, some of which are poisonous to the overall prospects of current affairs. It will be a subject worth re-examining in a few months.