Prime Time Investigates; Rugby Lions…

by John Boland

When it’s not shamelessly stealing lifestyle and reality formats from abroad, RTE loves nothing better than to indulge in easy outrage, and usually belated easy outrage at that – lurid retellings of stories that have already been in the headlines, accompanied by oodles of tut-tutting and overheated editorialising.

I’m not really thinking of the long-running series Scannal, though it often fits the bill, despite the fact that many of the stories it rehashes could hardly be described as scandalous. I’m thinking more of such drama-documentaries as those on the Hepatitis C affair and the Michael Neary debacle in Drogheda – heavy-handed attempts at social commentary in which the soap-opera reconstructions sat very uneasily with a morally browbeating tone.

This week’s Prime Time Investigates (RTE1) was a case in point. Detailing the story of Michael Shine, a medical consultant recently struck off the register after sundry allegations of the sexual abuse of young men and boys, reporter John Maguire promised shocking revelations, but as the essential gist of the narrative had already made headlines over the last fifteen years, I wondered why the film was getting into such a lather over his wrongdoings.

Perhaps I’m suffering from sexual abuse fatigue, but I honestly couldn’t fathom why I was being asked, and in such emotive terms, to work myself into a moral frenzy over the activities of one rogue individual in the medical profession. Yes, the evidence against him seemed shocking (though the Circuit Criminal Court acquitted him of wrongdoing), and, yes, the apparent cover-up and closing of ranks by his colleagues appeared to be reprehensible, but as the film came up with little that wasn’t already known, it was hard to see why the story was presented as a major current affairs probe.

Great play was made with the fact that in recent years Shine has visited the Indian city of Kochin (“one of the top ten centres in India for child sex tourism,” Maguire confided) and sponsored some boys in a local orphanage, but despite recourse to hidden cameras in the grilling of the orphanage’s director,  no evidence was unearthed that Shine has ever behaved inappropriately there.

And an end-of-film confrontation with him on a Dublin street yielded nothing, either – beyond affording viewers the titillating chance to gawk at someone whose doings had been portrayed as monstrous for the previous hour.

To wrap up, Maguire informed viewers that the gardai were investigating further allegations about Shine and that the taxpayer was footing the bill for his continuing pension, reckoned to be €100,000 a year. If all that the film said about him was true, that’s a scandal, but I still don’t see why it merited this extended  exercise in current affairs broadcasting.

As it happened, this week’s Scannal – concerning the political uproar that ensued when a young Protestant woman was given the post of Mayo county librarian in the 1920s – was engrossing, providing a glimpse into the bigotry, intolerance and racism that has run through local and public life in this supposedly free state of ours for most of its existence.

Rugby players don’t bother themselves with such inconvenient matters, as was made clear in McBride’s Invincibles: The Rugby Lions of 1974 (RTE1). No one loves the game more than I do (and Brian O’Driscoll has proved this season that he really is God), but the blinkered attitude of its protagonists can be dismaying.

Former Lion John Taylor had already played in the South Africa of apartheid and what he experienced there had shocked him, especially the belief “that the rugby fraternity is greater than any other fraternity.” It was then that Taylor came to realise that “the brotherhood of man is a much bigger thing than the brotherhood of rugby.”

Yet, despite the disapproval of the Irish and British governments concerning a tour that would implicitly endorse an appalling regime, McBride didn’t see it like that, declaring in the film that he had “no hesitation” in going. As McBride saw it, and still sees it, politics didn’t enter the equation – they were just “going to play rugby football.” And Irish scrum half John Moloney cheerfully recalled that “everyone was totally integrated,” by which he meant the Lions players, not the inhabitants of the country they were visiting. Meanwhile, Fergus Slattery grumbled that “sport is used as a political toy from time to time,” though at least he took the trouble to visit the townships while he was there.

Still, if most of the players chose to ignore the politics of the trip, they couldn’t ignore the warfare they encountered on the various pitches. “There were fists flying all over the place,” Roger Uttley recalled and, courtesy of archive footage, we saw a lot of that. Indeed, it was hard to credit the overt thuggery on display – much of it performed by the Lions who, at the first sign of trouble, were under instructions to lay into their nearest opponent, whether he’d done anything or not.

But Mark J Kaplan’s absorbing film left the last word to politician Peter Hain, who had let the anti-tour protests at the time. “They were not doing good,” he said of the Lions. “They were perpetuating bad.”  Willie John McBride still doesn’t see it that way.

All is not well on Harper’s Island (RTE2). Even before the opening credits of this first episode, we’re told that six people were murdered there seven years ago and that these won’t be the last killings. That, alas, doesn’t stop a wedding party setting off for the place, where over thirteen episodes one of them will be slaughtered each week, with the killer revealed in the final episode.

With the likes of Lost providing no cathartic payoff for the viewer, it’s a neatly finite idea for a mystery series, even if shamelessly borrowed from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (which formerly had the now taboo title Ten Little Niggers). There are elements of I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scary Movie, too, and although it already seems preposterous and is saddled with risible dialogue I can see it getting a following. Irish actress Elaine Cassidy is the feisty but troubled heroine. Will she escape unscathed? Your guess is as good as mine.

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