The Ups and Downs of RTE’S First Fifty Years

by John Boland

Irish Independent, October 22, 2011

Government relations with RTE have always been fraught with deep suspicion and never more so than in 1967 when long-time RTE career man TP Hardiman became the station’s third director-general. Erskine Childers had recently been appointed Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, a brief that included responsibility for broadcasting, and during a dinner with the new RTE boss he handed him a list of subversives and dangerous fellow-travellers employed by the organisation.

The intention was that Hardiman should act on the damaging information he provided (probably via the special Branch), but Todd Andrews, who was then chairman of the RTE Authority, responded by a writing an angry letter to his former political colleague, protesting at this blatant attempt at interference and intimidation.

Childers, though, wasn’t the only minister with an antipathy to RTE. Indeed, within days of taking up his post Hardiman also received a phone call informing him that finance minister Charles J Haughey wished to meet him. When he asked the reason, he was told by a department lackey that “if the boss wanted to see him, one didn’t ask why.”

Hardiman declined the offer, though a few days later at a reception in Dublin Castle he encountered Haughey who, after congratulating him on his new job, told him that what people wanted from RTE was merely entertainment “and not this current affairs stuff.” Anyway, he added, the station’s current affairs broadcasters “didn’t know what they were talking about.”

This was too much for Hardiman, who in front of an astonished gathering grabbed Haughey by the lapels of his jacket and said: “Now listen to me, I’m a Christian Brothers boy like yourself and there’s a Broadcasting Act, and an Authority, and as far as I’m concerned, I’ve a job to do and I will do it under the Act and the Authority.” Almost immediately he apologised for his “discourtesy”, but his outburst had obviously impressed Haughey, who mused to a companion “I didn’t know that guy was such a mensch” – Yiddish slang for someone of integrity.

These two incidents are recounted in John Bowman’s just-published Window and Mirror, a scholarly and fascinating history of RTE television’s first fifty years, which has already made headlines for its passage on Pat Kenny’s request in the early 1990s to be paid the equivalent of what Gay Byrne was getting.

According to minutes taken at the time, and quoted by Bowman, this was because Kenny “does not like being number two and in many ways he believes he is better than Gay Byrne” – though Kenny was quoted this week as having “no recollection” of making such comments, while Byrne dismissed any suggestion of long-standing rivalry between himself and Kenny as “total bloody rubbish.”

(Incidentally, John Sorahan, who was Authority chairman at the time, thought that the levels of remuneration given to the top RTE presenters were “quite astronomical” and he observed that no rival employers would be willing to match such fees. Twenty years later, current RTE boss Noel Curran is trying to get the same message across).

The book, though, is at its most interesting when dealing with less immediately newsworthy conflicts and clashes, of which there are many – hardly surprising in an organisation that, according to the Western People in the 1960s, accommodated “the most prickly and difficult people it would be possible to collect together in any one place.” Indeed, it was the outwardly genteel Childers who described RTE as “an entertainment organisation seething with gossip and rumours.”

It was seething with political faction-fighting, too, especially in the 1970s when, according to Bowman, the Workers Party “set up a secret branch in RTE, its “main inspirational figure” being “charmismatic” producer Eoghan Harris, who was “manifestly breaking the rules about engaging in party politics and inflicting damage on his current affairs colleagues by lending plausibility to the charges from the Dail parties – and Fianna Fail in particular – that RTE broadcasters were biased.”

Meanwhile, from a different political standpoint, young Northern-born reporter/presenter Mary McAleese was claiming that there was “a definite and tangible anti-nationalist, anti- Catholic and anti-intellectual atmosphere” in RTE when she joined the station in 1979.

But acrimony had always been inevitable in an institution that attracted as many dissenters as wannabe stars and where those with a radical bent felt inclined to test how far they could go in alienating the political and/or broadcasting authorities. Some of these attempts ended in failure – a planned current affairs visit to war-torn Vietnam was vetoed in the 1960s, as was a trip to the breakaway republic of Biafra in the same decade, while a 1978 probe into illegalities in the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes was shelved indefinitely.

In the same year, a drama series of serious social intent but wretched artistic merit called The Spike was, well, spiked after an episode featuring a nude model so outraged the founder of the League of Decency that his family claimed he suffered a heart attack from watching it. Muiris MacConghail, who was controller of programmes at the time, reflected later that RTE made two mistakes in relation to The Spike: the first was putting it on and the second was taking it off.

RTE, of course, has always excited extremes of love and hate, whether from viewers and listeners or mavericks from within. When Hilton Edwards was appointed head of drama for the fledgling Telefis Eireann in 1961, author and friend Brian O’Nolan congratulated him, pointing out that such desirable jobs usually went to “some dreadful gobshite whose uncle is an FF TD.” However, his enthusiasm over Edwards’s good fortune didn’t stop O’Nolan from declaring soon afterwards that Telefis was “the most contemptible television station in Europe.”

But this most hybrid of mediums inevitably invites such schizoid reactions. After all, as Bowman notes, some didn’t see it as a viable communications medium at all, legendary Manchester Guardian editor CP Scott noting the best part of a century ago that the very word “television” was “half-Latin and half-Greek – no good can come of it.”

WINDOW AND MIRROR: RTE Television 1961-2011 by John Bowman is published by the Collins Press at €25

Priests needed “for the regular hearing of nuns’ confessions”

Word was “half-Latin and half-Greek. No good can come of it”

Hilton Edwards not “some dreadful gobshite whose uncle is an FF TD”

“Quite astronomical pay”

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