The Frontline; Gary Glitter…

by John Boland

Alan O’Brien’s tirade from the audience on last Monday’s edition of The Frontline (RTE1) was an outburst waiting to happen, and I’m only surprised such an expression of fury at the salaries of top broadcasters hadn’t occurred sooner – on Pat Kenny’s morning radio programme, say, or the Marian Finucane Show or Joe Duffy’s Liveline: three formats that invite people to speak their minds.

In the event, the Frontline rant, though furiously articulate, was so abusive as to make the presenter seem the undeserving victim of a violent attack, and it must be said that he handled it wisely and well, sitting silently in his chair while O’Brien continued his verbal onslaught (not that he could have stopped it) and thus eliciting the viewer’s sympathy for the dignified stoicism he displayed in enduring such a savage diatribe.

But what if his attacker had been a respectable panellist or a reasonable member of the audience who, unable to endure any longer the pontifications of current affairs broadcasters, felt obliged to express astonishment at RTE presenters solemnising about fat-cat bankers, fulminating about ministerial expenses and fretting about the plight of the undeprivileged while taking home pay cheques amounting to more than the combined salaries of  three world leaders?

That’s the kind of money Pat Kenny was granted by RTE in 2008, while the other main broadcasters who are conducting the national debate on our stricken economy haven’t been doing badly, either – Marian Finucane’s annual take-home pay of €570,000 sufficient to keep 20 families  secure from the bailiffs for a year, Ryan Tubridy’s €533,000 enough to give a respectable €30,000 stipend to 18 young people embarking on a career, and Joe Duffy’s €408,000 and Miriam O’Callaghan’s €301,000 capable of sustaining scores of others who are facing dole queues.

These figures are by now well-known to everyone, which makes it all the more surprising that it wasn’t until this week’s edition of The Frontline that someone felt sufficiently incensed to publicly cry foul. Unlike union chief Jack O’Connor’s below-the-belt remark about “trophy houses” in last week’s programme, Alan O’Brien’s attack may have been wildly over-the-top, but I suspect it may encourage other confrontations with our top broadcasters on how they can reconcile their outlandish pay cheques with their role as shapers of discussion about the state we’re in.

And clearly RTE’s bosses are unhappy about these salaries, announcing last month that in future they’d be insisting on fee levels in line with “public expectation” – and never mind that it was these same bosses who created the problem in the first place by succumbing to the outrageous pay demands of its “star” broadcasters. But they can rectify this simply. My own solution, for what it’s worth, is to offer these stars a very generous €100,000 a year and tell them to either like it or lump it. After all, who in these recessionary times will offer them more?

The Frontline, though, and not just because of recent headline-grabbing outbursts, has developed into an unmissable Monday night programme. The Execution of Garry Glitter, which was Channel 4’s main offering on the same night,  aimed to be unmissable, too, but used highly questionable ways to achieve that.

Purporting to “put capital punishment on trial,” it posited “an imaginary Britain where the death penalty is back” and then invented a scenario where the paedophile former pop singer was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death for crimes against children.

So why choose Glitter as the focus for this “What if…” scenario? Why not just invent a criminal for the exercise? The cynical answer must be that Glitter is not just a figure reviled by all right-thinking people but a celebrity, too, and thus draws in an audience obsessed with fame. But as Glitter has never been convicted in Britain for the crimes set out in the film, the startling possibility that he could sue for defamation suggested itself.

The film was deeply troublesome in other ways, too. The Home Secretary, Valerie Clark, was an invented figure played by an actress, and most of the other main roles were played by actors also, yet Tory MP Ann Widdicombe, right-wing columnist Gary Bushell and Observer journalist Miranda Sawyer kept popping up to offer their comments. Were they role-playing, too, or did they think they were in a documenary?

The film was clearly trying to stir up a debate about capital punishment (which a recent poll reveals that 54 per cent of the population supports), but I thought its tactics deplorable.

I was left uneasy, too, by Cloch le Carn: Nuala O Faolain (RTE1), a half-hour tribute to the late writer in which any real sense of her personality or importance was diminished by the programme’s tone of special pleading and by its obvious intention to smother her in a shroud of sainthood.

“She left an indelible mark on the people and life of Ireland,” the narrator asserted, though the only attempt to back this up came in the form of gushing testimonies from her friends – Hugo Hamilton claiming for her “a revolutionary personality that was absolutely essential to Ireland to bring it from the dark ages” and Colm Toibin declaring that “life lit a fire in her.” Yes, but was she any good, and what’s her enduring legacy?

The Secret Life of the Berlin Wall (BBC2) began slowly and rather portentously but was ultimately absorbing, partly because of fascinating archive footage but mainly because of powerful reminiscences by communist tormenters and some hapless tormented. Even better was Digging up the Dead (BBC4) in which Michael Portillo revisited a Spain that has tried to put Franco’s reign of terror behind it but is now being forced to confront its murderous past. This was an exemplary documentary and Portillo was an exemplary presenter, passionately engaged with the subject but only putting himself to the forefront when the occasion demanded.

Meanwhile, RTE1 continued to waste our money with a mock documentary called Dustin: Twenty Years A-Pluckin’. Incest reigned as Marty Whelan, Ray D’Arcy, Twink, Louis Walsh, Nicky Byrne and other highly resistible showbiz luminaries aimed for comedy by pretending they were engaged in a serious profile. Never mind the subject – the film was a complete turkey.

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