Monday, May 22, 2017


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I remember Bob Quinn from the time himself and Jack Dowling and Lelia Doolan fell out with RTÉ, or vice versa. They published a book called Sit Down and be Counted in 1969 which tore strips off the national broadcaster.

Jack, Lelia and Bob

Among other things it criticised RTÉ for selling its, and the nation's, soul to greedy parasitic multinationals by becoming dependent on advertising revenue from this source. Not that there weren't greedy national advertisers also.

At another level is was arguing for a broadcaster that would reflect and preserve the soul of the nation, that would take risks, and would both respond to regional and local needs and empower local communities.

Bob went west to Connemara and spent much time studying the origins of the "celts" and their cultural heritage. He continued to produce work for RTÉ from the outside because he was good at what he did. Then in the late 1990s he was asked to go on the RTÉ Authority and Maverick is the story of how this worked out, or didn't, as it happened.

RTÉ's original logo, saved from the props room

It is a fascinating read, and his almost lone struggles to reclaim and preserve the national broadcaster's soul tell us a lot about that organisation. Like Betty Purcell's book it is spiced with comments on some of the big names of broadasting, and I was heartened to find, just as I did with Betty's book, that I was in complete agreement with most of his evaluations. But more of that later.

I feel an affinity with Bob since I (recently) found out he had been raised in Orwell Gardens where I spent a bit of my own youth.

In the course of checking him out on the internet I came across Maverick and his comment that, despite Sit Down and be Counted he had continued to have work shown on RTÉ but since Maverick this had completely dried up.

So I got a copy of Maverick through my local library and have just finished reading it. Incidentally, I have just now received a copy of Sit Down and be Counted from the same source and am very much looking forward to reading it.

The Hasbro Dinosaur

When Bob took up his position on the Authority, he hoped to make a difference. He was advised not to spread himself too thinly and to pick an area and pursue that. He opted to concentrate on advertising directed at children, particularly during children's programmes. This was a worthy cause and it was situated at the margins of the bigger problem: the subjection of RTÉ content to the interests of the commercial sector. To cut a long story short, he did not have any success. RTÉ was too honest; it was bought; and it stayed bought.

Now this was partly RTÉ's own fault but, in a spirit of slight mitigation, we shouldn't forget that it was operating under a political system which included some relevant gombeen politicians who were likewise bought (to put it politely) on a permanent basis.

I'm not going to deal here with the many revelations about the actual status and policies of RTÉ, about its effective subservience to (international) business, or about the irrelevance of the Authority itself in the policymaking and running of the station. Ye can all just go and read the book.

I'm just going to look at a few of the other things that struck me, mainly Bob's take on some of the personalities he encountered along the way. Most of these really resonated with me and, in at least one case, reminded me of my own frustrating dealings with the station (TV).

Gay Byrne

So maybe I should start there. I have told elsewhere of my dealings with Gay Byrne's Late Late Show and the late Dr. Peter Bander. In essence, how I was frozen out of a programme, by Gay Byrne, having been given tickets on the basis that I would take an active part in the discussion.

Bob makes an interesting point, on the pervasiveness of filtering the airwaves, when reporting on the new Director General, Bob Collins, taking calls on Joe Duffy's Liveline.
Collins' was a carefully controlled interview, meaning that all the looney callers were filtered out so that the interview could be constructive. This is normal practice on "public access" programmes.
I know how some of them must have felt.

If you checked out my link above you will have realised that, had this looney been allowed to intervene, I would have been pitting myself against two serious establishment professions: the Roman Catholic Church and the Psychologists.

Speaking of the latter breed and analogous professions, Bob has a go at them in relation to their endorsement or facilitation of advertising directed at children.
Such developments could not happen without the cosmetic imprimatur of tame academic specialists in child psychology and psychiatry. The complicity on the part of these professionals in the enormous advertising and marketing onslaught on children has reached epidemic proportions in the US and must constitute the largest single psychological project ever undertaken.
On the broader question of advertising and commercialisation, Bob has a go at
RTÉ's pathetic adoption of a crude money spinner, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire", and the disinterment of an ageing ex-star to present the programme. This makes a lot of money for Tyrone Productions, Gay Byrne, RTÉ, the National Lottery and, above all, Eircom.

Eoghan Harris
In September of that year [1987] an RTÉ training and refresher course for reporters and researchers was conducted by a staff TV programme editor with aspirations to be a media guru. He pontificated to them that "television is not about thought. Television is about emotion."
Bob draws particular attention to the guru's
effort to try to convince journalists that their professional mantra - "Comment is free; facts are sacred" - was not only obsolete but ignorant. The lecturer urged the abandonment of any aspiration to objectivity or professionalism in reportage and essentially the taking of one side in a propaganda battle over the northern war.

... The aspiring media guru was Eoghan Harris whose influence on RTÉ up to then should never be underestimated and who appears never to have forgiven the organisation for not carrying out his varying instructions to the letter.

Betty Purcell

Betty was Bob's most consistent supporter on the Authority though they did not always agree on everything. I have mentioned Betty's own book earlier and I am glad to see them both acting in concert. They were the only broadcasters on the Authority at the time and are both people I admire.

Ray Burke

Bob describes the fate of the national broadcaster, and broadcasting in general, falling into "the lily-white hands of Fianna Fáil's Ray Burke, who since 1974 had been secretly distinguishing himself in private enterprise, especially that which required land rezoning in north and south Dublin."

He goes on to describe, in some detail, how Burke spanceled the national broadcaster to the benefit of commercial interests.

George Morrison

George Morrison is one of my heroes from way back. His patient dedication over decades in choreographing the making of Mise Éire is a truly inspiring story and the product is a real jewel in the crown. I had the pleasure of meeting George a few years ago when Midas Productions made a film about the making of Mise Éire. A real gentleman and I treasure the meeting. I have written about it on Blackwatertown's blog.

Bob has a great story about George. Bob was up in court for "illegally" showing a film in his house in Connemara. In the event, the only legal grounds for charging him was an old statute about nitrate films. Nitrate was the, highly combustible, base for old film stock, no longer in use in modern times. The case was dismissed, much to the annoyance of George Morrison who had brought along some old nitrate stock which he intended igniting in court and stinking the place out of it.

Pat Kenny

Bob, while praising much of RTÉ's public affairs broadcasting, sees the broadcaster undermining its capacity in this area by the blatantly commercial approach it adopts in its overall profile. This only strengthens the hands of rival commercial broadcasters with their greedy eyes on a slice of RTÉ's public funding.
These interests are inadvertently aided and abetted by the RTÉ "stars" such as Pat Kenny, who proudly proclaim that the public does not pay their fees, that they are paid from the commercial income they attract. With such spades do myopic "stars" dig their own public broadcasting graves.
Bob quotes Ellen Kelleher from McConnell's advertising agency as saying "the Mammy is the engine that drives most fast moving consumer goods markets". And the TV personality with the most "mammy" appeal? Pat Kenny, she said.

Well, as far as I'm concerned, the mammies can have him.

Mary O'Rourke

Speaking of mammies.

In contemplating the cultural mid-Atlantic limbo into which commercial forces have landed us, in particular through the targeting of women shoppers, Bob wonders:
When will the empowerment of women result in a rage at the exploitation of their hitherto harmless pleasure in shopping? Never, if one can judge by the effusion of another powerful female, our enterprising Minister Mary O'Rourke, who uses the word "deregulation" as if it were "abracadabra", a magic panacea for all our ills. If she were a gardener, she would know that a deregulated garden, left to itself, will encourage only weeds to flourish.

Many years ago the singer Bono got his secretary to ask me to meet him after my Atlantean films showed the connection between Ireland and North Africa. My children heard me mentioning the name and went into hysterics. This was odd because I had hardly heard of the performer and was certainly not familiar with his work. I went out and bought a cassette but could make neither head nor tail of the lyrics. All I could hear was a disco beat. It transpired that Bono thought my theories might explain his own extraordinary vocal talents and had even passed the word on to Bob Dylan - with whose music at least I was familiar. That is the gist of what I learned during a long monologue from the young man in the Great Southern Hotel in Galway. His young wife was very nice. I learned that her name was Ali, and she later did good work with the Chernobyl children, as did her husband. I have still not taken to his music, but at least my children got his autograph.

I think I'll leave it there. I've gone on long enough. Read the book, it's a revelation and still relevant some sixteen years after its publication.

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