RTE, the 'Stickie myth' and falling standards

Gerry Gregg, a producer on RTE’s Today Tonight current affairs programme during the turblent years of the early 80s reflects on his own difficult time there. He fields the widely made criticism of RTE at that time that it was dominated by key members of the Workers Party. And he goess on to accuse the national broadcaster of declining standards.

By Gerry Gregg

Joanna Mathers was just 25 years old in the spring of 1981. She was a first class honours graduate from Queen’s University, married to a farmer, when she decided to earn some extra money by collecting census forms in Derry city. One evening, she was helping a family in Anderson’s Crescent with their return when a masked man dashed up to the doorway. He wrenched the clipboard from her hands, put a gun to her head and fired. The young mother died at the scene.

The Provisional IRA at first denied any involvement. Its Derry brigade – led, at that time, by Martin McGuinness – claimed that Joanna’s murder was ‘an attempt to discredit the (electoral) campaign of Bobby Sands’. Sands was bidding to become the Westminster MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, in a by-election that would, in time, radically transform the politics of Ireland. The IRA statement made no mention of ‘securocrats’ – the term had not yet been invented – but otherwise, the strategy of initially disclaiming certain acts of violence has become all too familiar. It emerged later that the weapon used to murder Joanne Mathers could be forensically linked to two punishment shootings that had been acknowledged by the Derry IRA. But that emerged only after Bobby Sands had been elected to Westminster.

Later that year, the story of Joanna Mathers was told on RTE television. Tish Barry and Joe Little filmed a documentary for the current affairs programme Today Tonight, with Joanna’s family and the relatives of other forgotten casualties of terrorism. Not all of these had been killed or maimed by the IRA. In fact, the film was evenly divided between IRA victims and those of loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces. ‘Victims of Violence’ gave parity of esteem to all those who had suffered from terror, and was a landmark in the establishment of Today Tonight as one of RTE’s flagship programmes. It generated a huge public reaction, went on to win a Torc at the Celtic Film Festival and became one of the very few Irish TV programmes ever to be nominated for a prestigious Emmy Award – the TV equivalent of the Oscars.

But not everyone appreciated the value of the programme. The following year, the programme was singled out for a disparaging attack in the pages of this magazine. Vincent Browne, who was then Editor of Magill, claimed that the film had been commissioned by Joe Mulholland, as Editor of Today Tonight, with the specific purpose of working as ‘an antidote to H-Block propaganda’. He argued that, in telling the story of Joanna and her fellow victims, the film had been ‘slanted’ against the Provisional IRA. He proceeded to lay the foundations for a conspiracy theory that has persisted till this day, by claiming that the film was evidence that Today Tonight was being run by members of what was then known as Sinn Fein/the Workers’ Party.

Browne claimed to have examined 55 broadcasts of Today Tonight, which had dealt with Northern Ireland, and to have discovered in them tangible evidence of biased coverage ‘on the national question’. He noted that John Cushnahan, the leader of the Alliance Party – whom he dismissed as an ‘unknown’ – had appeared on nine programmes, and that Harold McCusker, the Deputy Leader of the Unionist Party, had appeared ten times. For Browne, this contrasted suspiciously with the sixteen appearances of the SDLP leaders, John Hume and Seamus Mallon. In fact, all it revealed was Browne’s own bias. Given that the Unionist Party was then the largest political grouping in Northern Ireland, it could be argued that it had actually been under-represented on Today Tonight.

But, for Browne, it seems, any approach to Northern Ireland that did not coincide with his own was evidence of a conspiracy. He described the politics of the Alliance Party, for example, as ‘almost identical’ to those of Sinn Fein/the Workers’ Party. Many Unionists would also have been surprised to learn that, in Browne’s eyes, there was ‘no perceptible difference’ between their party and SFWP. From this perspective, Browne felt justified in publishing the names of six individuals working in Today Tonight, whose views he claimed were ‘very similar’ to those of SFWP.

To the best of my knowledge, none of those named by Browne were members of any political party – though I would have considered at least two of them to be broadly sympathetic to Fine Gael. But, perhaps, Browne believed that the views of Fine Gael were also ‘identical’ to those of SFWP.

In 1982, I was one of those named by Browne. Since then, I have, like the others named, enjoyed a long and relatively successful career, as well as international recognition – including an Emmy – in the world of television. Nonetheless, to some extent, his tainted accusations have coloured much of what we have achieved. Indeed, it has helped to create a myth that has been reproduced and developed in many subsequent analyses of RTE’s current affairs output in the 1980s.
Even Browne has acknowledged that Today Tonight was the most successful and influential current affairs series ever produced by RTE. It did not gain that influence by producing timid and fearful programmes. In fact, the truth was precisely the opposite. The record of the series is a story of bold, committed and pioneering broadcasting. But that is not the story that is being told to students of the period.

The narrative, which informs many contemporary analyses of RTE in the 1980s, is dominated by the issue of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act – which excluded Sinn Fein, and spokespersons for all other paramilitary groups, from access to the airwaves. According to this narrative, Section 31 produced a ‘climate of fear’ in RTE.

Censorship, secrecy and careerism were the order of the day. This abdication of journalistic responsibility and courage, it is alleged, effectively delayed the onset of the ‘peace process’, and undermined the Irish public’s faith in RTE.

I repudiate this false narrative – which, I believe, profoundly distorts the historical record and, in that process, also maligns the reputation of a group of principled and talented programme-makers. Those who sought to scrutinise the war aims of the IRA, during a terrible period in our history, do not need to feel ashamed. We were properly enjoined by our contracts of employment with RTE to promote ethnic tolerance and respect for the different cultural traditions on this island.

We were also compelled not to allow sectarian hatred to go out on air unchallenged. I believe that we fulfilled those fundamental obligations. In so doing, I believe we advanced the cause of peace in Ireland – since we contributed to a growing acceptance in the Republic that Irish unity could only be achieved, if ever, through peaceful consent.

In the early 1980s, there were more than 80 producers and directors on the RTE payroll. There are now less than half of that number, but, back then, almost all TV production was in-house and producers were the pivotal editorial grade. All other editorial and production staff worked under their creative guidance. Their ‘job spec’ described them as the ‘authors’ of all RTE TV programmes. Again, to the best of my knowledge, only two producers were ever members of the Workers Party. Eoghan Harris, and myself even our most trenchant critics could not claim that we tried to conceal our political sympathies.

RTE’s TV producers had been chosen specifically for their leadership capabilities. What is more, virtually all of them had, at some stage, worked in Northern Ireland. The idea that such a large body of highly intelligent and informed individuals could be manipulated for years into following the ‘line’ of a very small political party is quite absurd. The truth is that the vast majority of RTE producers reflected the politics of the country at large. There were some Provo sympathisers, but, in the main, they were opposed to the campaign of sectarian violence waged by the IRA. This led the majority of TV producers, in turn, to support the operation of Section 31.

In this, RTE’s producers were also representative of a broad swathe of political opinion – which included Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour – and, for that matter, the rest of RTE’s 2,000-strong work force. Section 31 was a near-unanimous expression of Ireland’s democratic rejection of those who sought to achieve territorial unity at the point of a gun. Most of those who worked on Today Tonight were part of the consensus on this issue – and on this issue alone. On any other issue – such as economic policy, Ronald Reagan or the European Union – there was no such consensus. There were also many events – such as the Stardust inferno, or the Kerry babies case, or the Buttevant rail disaster – which stretched the broadcasting talents of the production team to the limits. On the occasion of these challenges, there was no place for party politics.

Strange as it may seem to those who saw agents of the Workers Party everywhere in RTE, during the 1980s, the only party in Dail Eireann that was actually committed to rescinding Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act was the Workers’ Party. Both myself and Harris found ourselves at loggerheads with this opportunist stance. However much to our satisfaction, the Party’s Deputies failed repeatedly to gain support from any other TDs. For as long as the Provisional IRA was prepared to slaughter innocent Protestants like Joanna Mathers, I was delighted and relieved that Dail Eireann annually and overwhelmingly renewed the ban on IRA spokespersons.

Recent accounts of the 1980s in RTE have given a deeply misleading interpretation of RTE’s coverage of the IRA’s war in Northern Ireland. Mark O’Brien has claimed that there was an ‘asphyxiation of debate’ in RTE, which rendered the station incapable of explaining the Northern conflict. John Horgan – a former Labour Party member of the Oireachtas – has praised the ‘courage’ of those within RTE who opposed the ban on IRA spokepersons. Judged by the same criteria by which he judges others, Horgan is clearly a coward – since he never found the guts to vote against Section 31, when he was a member of the Labour Parliamentary Party.

Ray MacManus’s biography of President McAleese claims that she believes her time in Today Tonight was ‘the worst period of her life’. Her period on the programme coincided with the H-Block crisis, and it seems clear that she had a rough time with Joe Mulholland. Due to her personal background, she also had an emotional connection with some of those centrally involved in the lethal drama being played out at the Maze. Her first cousin, John Pickering, had been sentenced for the murder of a garage owner, 77-year-old William Creighton. He was the last Provo lingering on hunger strike when Adams and the rest of the IRA Army Council called off the protest – with ten men dead, and the Fermanagh/South Tyrone Westminster seat safely in Sinn Fein hands.

Apparently Joe Mulholland now believes that he underestimated the emotions generated within the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland at the time of the hunger strikes. I don’t buy his retraction – even if it is only partial. I am proud that, under his editorship, Today Tonight resisted the temptation to respond to the Northern crisis in predictably sectarian terms. As Bobby Sands was dying for Ireland, his comrades were killing innocents – like Joanna Mathers – for Ireland too.

Many of the new producers, reporters and researchers were like me: young Arts graduates, recruited by RTE in the late 1970s from UCD. The Belfield campus had been in a state of political ferment during most of that decade. There were active branches of all the main parties – and I was a member of one of them: the Labour Party. But there were also a host of ultra-left and Trotskyite sects – such as the Revolutionary Marxist Group, Revolutionary Struggle and the League for a Workers’ Republic. These and other groupings gave what they termed ‘critical support’ to the murderous activities of the Provisional IRA. I remember in 1976, when ten Protestant workers had been lined up and mown down by the South Armagh Provos, that one student Trotskyite hailed the slaughter as a ‘progressive massacre’. Four years later, that student was working as a radio producer in RTE.

I joined RTE in 1979. I was 22 years old, with a first class honours degree in history and politics, and in the middle of an MA thesis. I had applied to RTE through a public competition, and had survived two harsh and searching interviews by the most senior members of RTE’s Programmes Division. I was about to commence an equally rigorous training course that would last the best part of a year, and which would, in turn, be followed by a year’s probation experience. I state all this in order to counter the impression that my entry to RTE was also part of some conspiracy, and that I ﷓ and sundry others – were smuggled into the station at the dead of night, complete with counterfeit currency and false identity papers.

The RTE that I joined was a powerhouse of creative energy and aesthetic endeavour. The Drama department was a hive of activity, and about to commence the filming of Strumpet City – a series which was eventually sold to more than two dozen other countries. The Features department was producing radical and important documentaries on an eclectic range of subjects. Sean O Mordha was about to win Ireland’s first Emmy for his film on James Joyce. In Entertainment, The Live Mike had just introduced the biting satire of Dermot Morgan to a TV audience. Gay Byrne was at the height of his broadcasting powers, and The Late Late Show was positioned at the cutting-edge of social change in Ireland. There was, however, one critical area of RTE’s output which was languishing in the doldrums.

During my training period, I was briefly assigned to the current affairs programme Frontline. If ever a programme failed to live up to the promise of its title, it was Frontline. What should have been a flagship series was largely ignored by the Government of the day. The reason that the Government felt they could ignore Frontline was because they knew that was precisely what the Irish public was also doing. The lack of connection with its audience rendered the programme impotent.

My other memory of my assignment to Frontline was the bright morning when news broke of the IRA man Gerard Tuite’s jailbreak from an English prison. One producer dashed hotfoot from the canteen with this piece of intelligence and then wondered aloud whether or not ‘we could do anything to help the poor hoor?’

In October 1980, I was transferred from working on a sports programme to the new current affairs series that was intended to replace the failed entity of Frontline. It was to be broadcast four nights a week and was to be called Today Tonight – a title which had been suggested by Tish Barry.

From the beginning, it was a campaigning programme. From the beginning, it set out to ruffle official feathers and subject those with power in Ireland to unprecedented critical scrutiny. Much of its agenda was focused on the most critical social issues of the day. Over a period of several years, Today Tonight systematically questioned the confessional laws operating in this State, which prohibited divorce, contraception and gay sex and which gave the Catholic Church a major role in determining Health and Education services. The series also illuminated the unravelling of the traditional fabric of rural Ireland, and the disintegration of civil society in some of the sink estates of our cities.

The programme remains the best source of insight into the corrupt and paranoid leadership of Charlie Haughey – who loathed Today Tonight, but felt compelled to appear regularly on it. The programme recorded in great detail the pressures that produced the irrevocable split with Des O’Malley, and left Garret FitzGerald as the chief defender of the nation’s welfare at a time of great peril. The programme was exciting to watch and hugely popular because it placed itself at the heart of the nation’s concerns. In one memorable week in 1983, the top five places in RTE’s Top Ten programmes was held by different editions of Today Tonight.

Of course, there had been previous current affairs series – such as 7 Days – which had also been highly successful. What was different about Today Tonight was that its first year of transmission coincided with the H-Block death fasts, and the election of Bobby Sands to Westminster. That, in turn, signalled the rise of Sinn Fein as an effective political front for the criminal conspiracy that is the Provisional IRA. The H-Block crisis prevented Haughey from retaining power in 1981, and led to a period of great political instability with three general elections in just 18 months.

There were around 40 editorial and production staff working on Today Tonight. We all met together every Friday for a meeting with Joe Mulholland. This involved an open pitching session – in which producers and reporters would discuss what stories they thought should feature in the editions of the following week.

These meetings were invariably lengthy. They were often passionate. Very occasionally, they were unpleasant. Ideas were raised, argued over and a final decision was taken by Joe Mulholland – in open view of the entire programme team. That was one of Mulholland’s crucial strengths as an editor: you might not have agreed with his decisions, but you knew why they had been reached. Friday evening usually concluded with most of those who had been at the meeting having a drink (or two) together.

Although he never worked on the programme, John Horgan still states that Today Tonight ‘left little room for those nationalists … who were opposed both to the IRA and to British Government policy’. The facts, however, simply do not bear out this claim. Between 1980 and 1986, RTE broadcast more than 1,000 editions of Today Tonight. An analysis of their content reveals that the Northern politician who most often appeared on the programme was John Hume. In fact, his appearances outnumbered the combined total of all varieties of Unionist spokespersons. The Northern politician who featured most often after Hume was the Deputy Leader of his party, Seamus Mallon.

The SDLP opposed both the IRA and British Government policy, and was, at that time, the first choice of the Catholic electorate in the North. The figures indicate that, if anything, Today Tonight showed a consistent bias in favour of Hume’s party. And even Vincent Browne has never claimed that the SDLP was ‘identical’ to the Workers’ Party.

I suppose that I should not be surprised by the slipshod nature of Horgan’s empirical research. According to Horgan, I was a ‘reporter’ on Today Tonight – who was transferred to the Young People’s Department because a film that I made about Finglas ‘provoked allegations of Workers’ Party influence’. The most basic check would have established that I never worked as a reporter on Today Tonight or anywhere else. The reporter on the Finglas film, which I produced, was Forbes McFaul. He went on to win a Jacob’s Award for his work on that film. It is true, however, that I fell foul of Fianna Fail as a result of another film that I produced. The film in question dealt with the deontas (grant) culture that had developed around Udaras na Gaeltachta, and it greatly displeased a senior Government Minister: one P Flynn. In the light of subsequent events, I find it ironic that a film about political and financial corruption should have aroused his indignation.

None of the recent accounts of Today Tonight convey the editorial meritocracy and robust egalitarianism that were a feature of the early years of the programme. Instead, they fixate upon the mysterious influence which Eoghan Harris is believed to have exerted over its editorial staff. Harris never worked on the programme. So far as I am aware, Eoghan never set foot in its offices. In fact, for most of its early years, he had been commissioned by RTE to write a number of drama scripts, and spent much of his time in West Cork working on these and other projects. In other words, he had his own creative life to lead while we were working flat out to meet our deadlines, night after night.

Horgan and others seem to believe that RTE producers and broadcast journalists could not reach any conclusions on their own – without either a political party or a Svengali-like figure telling them what to think.

In recent months, some former senior IRA men, like Richard O’Rawe, have given accounts of the hunger strikes which confirm the beliefs which some of those working on Today Tonight formed on their own almost 25 years ago. According to O’Rawe, the leadership of the Republican movement gambled with the lives of the hunger strikers. In his book, The Blanketmen, O’Rawe reluctantly concludes that six of the ten men who died need not have done so. He argues that the election of Owen Carron to the Westminster seat that Sands had held, was more important to the IRA leadership than the lives of its starving volunteers. Perhaps Vincent Browne now believes that O’Rawe was a Workers’ Party sleeper all along.

I left RTE in 1986 – after annoying CJ Haughey’s Fianna Fail for a second time. On this occasion, I had produced a film to mark Fianna Fail’s 60th anniversary, and it raised some basic questions about the integrity of the Boss. I had also incurred Fianna Fail’s anger by persuading its former leader, Jack Lynch, to break his silence and give a film interview. It was to be the last TV interview he ever gave, and it did not please the party that he once led. Fianna Fail not only banned me from filming in their Mount Street offices, they also instructed all Party members not to speak to me. Twenty years later, Lynch’s reputation remains intact. Haughey’s has been utterly discredited.

Back in 1986, Haughey had warned RTE that he would shake the station to its foundations if he were re-elected. Once again, I was earmarked for a ‘safe’ programme department. This time, however, I decided to jump ship and set up a production company that would be avowedly Marxist in orientation. I did not know it then, but that move was to begin a journey that would lead me away from many of the political beliefs that I had embraced for most of my adult life. Looking back, I am all too aware of the naivety of some of those beliefs. Part of me wishes that I had broken out of their framework a good deal earlier. But I have never wavered in my view that the IRA constitutes a real and present danger to the welfare of all of us living on this island.

Despite the IRA being implicated in a ceaseless litany of murder, theft, smuggling, racketeering, spying and narcotics franchising, Sinn Fein has managed to outflank the SDLP in Northern Ireland. It is not the first time in European history that a political party has managed to achieve a mandate from a significant proportion of the community, while continuing to engage in simple thuggery. For ten years, Sinn Fein spokespersons have been treated as peace-loving democrats by many journalists within RTE. The Northern Bank raid and the murder of Robert McCartney may give some of them pause for thought. But, by now, a pattern of collusion has already been established. I know that it exists because I have experienced its effects.

In 2001, the company I run with Eoghan Harris produced an ‘authored’ series of political memoirs for RTE with Des O’Malley – a man who had been at the centre of all the major political upheavals of the previous 30 years. RTE insisted on cutting an eight-minute segment from the final episode. It dealt with Sinn Fein’s continuing links with criminality, and questioned the role played by Sinn Fein’s military wing in funding the party from a variety of criminal sources. It is strange, indeed, when a programme that seeks to expose the perpetrators of violence is itself considered by some in RTE to threaten the cause of peace on this island. It might even be described as a text-book example of self-censorship.

The truth is, that despite its daily intimate involvement in many forms of crime, Sinn Fein is no longer considered a pariah party. For the most part, Ireland’s opinion-formers are prepared to accommodate the agents of terror. Innocent victims of IRA violence – such as Joanna Mathers – have been forgotten. After all, Gerry Adams does not lead annual processions to their graves.

George Orwell, writing about the appeasement of Nazi Germany, described the current predicament that all Irish democrats now find themselves in: ‘There has been a raising-up of evil by a lowering of good, a lowering of truth by an ascendancy of lies.’ The ancient Greeks had a chilling word for this state of affairs: anomie. It refers to a condition of lawlessness, in which moral criteria are abandoned and the hierarchy of human values is allowed to disintegrate.

First published in the June/July 2005 issue of Magill magazine.

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