Love him or loathe, Vincent Browne is a heavyweight. When RTE dropped his radio programme Tonight with Vincent Browne, TV3 snapped him up and said thank you. He may not always be the most gracious of hosts, but the convening power of his address book is evident in some of the hottest debates on Irish television. Now, that alternative view on Irish politics could be lost not to mention RTE’s flagship, the Late Late Show, also put at risk by a long standing EU directive which clearly states that “News and current affairs programmes may not be sponsored”. Colum Kenny reports the telling detail, and comes to an interesting conclusion:
Last week, TV3 was trumpeting how its flagship show, renamed Tonight With Vincent Browne, would “build upon his reputation for tackling the country’s toughest questions head on”, and debate “both the main issues of the day and the more reflective dilemmas of modern Ireland”.
But sponsorship of television current affairs flies in the face of EU law. It also breaks Irish regulations banning the sponsorship of news and current affairs on television. So, the BCI contacted TV3. It told me that, “TV3 has given commitments to change the focus of the programme in this slot from news and current affairs to entertainment/lifestyle.”
That does not sound like Vincent Browne.
A definition of current affairs published by the BCI leaves little room for doubt that RTE’s Late, Late and Vincent Browne’s existing show on TV3 fit that bill. The BCI’s Research Officer has defined current affairs programmes as those dealing with issues of referenda, elections, religious issues, political, economic or industrial controversies.
But the BCI muddied the waters on sponsorship of current affairs when, in 2007, it changed existing practice to allow radio programmes dealing with current affairs to be sponsored. This now makes for some uneasy listening. The relaxation of sponsorship rules, sought by some local radio stations in particular, was part of the light-touch approach to social regulation generally that spread across Europe from the late 1990s
The BCI is demanding weekly lists of items covered in Tonight With Vincent Browne, which starts broadcasting next month. The BCI told me if it was of the view that the new show is “largely a news/current affairs programme”, it reserved the right to withdraw its approval for sponsorship.
That word “largely” provides no comfort, as neither EC law nor BCI rules allow for sponsorship of television current affairs, notwithstanding The Late Late Show. TV3 may have to fund extra new shows to meet its contractual commitments to current affairs if Browne goes light.
Finally, Kenny notes ‘a race to the bottom’ in US broadcast media since the FCC dumped the fairness doctrine on the basis that its enforcement by government “restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters … [and] actually inhibits the presentation of controversial issues of public importance to the detriment of the public and the degradation of the editorial prerogative of broadcast journalists”.
In the United States, since they abandoned the “fairness doctrine” in broadcasting, the public sphere has become dominated by personalised rants on channels such as Fox. Commentators have taken to categorising Barack Obama as Nazi-like. Critics say the destruction of standards in public discourse presents a greater threat to freedom of speech as a meaningful concept.
Irish media have played a strong role in exposing behaviour that helped to create our current national crisis. Citizens benefit from media codes that maintain high standards. The new deal between TV3 and Bank of Scotland (Ireland) raises questions about the wisdom of the BCI in changing sponsorship rules, and about its appetite for enforcing the rules that remain.
The problem with being a small independent producer in a small independent country is that production money is not easy to come by. The irony here is that in the name of making things square with what looks like a reasonable law, we’re likely to lose the exact kind of diversity that one public corporation (TV3 is the only terrestrial channel not substantially funded by government) simply cannot provide.