John Bowman presented an interesting programme last night – or half-programme, as the other half is due for screening tonight. It’s about the history of RTÉ and its impact on the development of modern-day Ireland. By the time he was done I was shouting at the box.
Firstly it followed the common RTÉ practice of ignoring the north except where same was impossible. In the hour-long programme, the north featured once – no, twice. The first was a lightning-quick glimpse of October 5, 1968 in Derry, with the senior policeman pursuing young Martin Cowley, baton flailing and cap falling off. That lasted about three seconds. The second was a clip from the Contraceptive Train, where women from the south went north, bought contraceptives and insisted on bringing them back home. Yes, yes, I know, we don’t pay the RTÉ licence fee and all of that, but I still think it’s scandalous that a programme dealing with the national station should so shamelessly ignore the north. Of course, tonight’s second half could be packed with northern content so I’ll have to eat my words. But something tells me word-eating won’t be called for.
The second thing that struck me was the uncritical view of RTÉ that was presented by Bowman. Certainly we got lots about the infighting that went on for control of the station, plenty about Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin and Dev and RTÉ people like Lelia Doolin. But the battle was pitched as conservatism vs modernism, with the former the bad guys and the latter the good guys. Much was made of Gay Byrne’s Late, Late Show and how it had opened up for discussion matters hitherto swept into the corner – notably sex and religion. McQuaid was presented as a control freak, meddling where he had no business, and Dev was shown as a lugubrious old stick, mouthing on his fears about this new medium of TV. There was virtually no mention made of the fact that Dev or even McQuaid might have had a case or that the creation of modern Ireland was anything other than totally good. That’s the modern Ireland where the bone-headed accumulation of wealth has resulted in total disaster. Nor, as I say, was there any consideration given to the role of RTÉ in the north’s affairs.
Because there was much about Ireland of the 1950s that was poverty-stricken and grimy, there’s a tendency to hail anything and anyone who helped sweep all that away. Big mistake. One example and then I’ll shut up.
Gay Byrne in Bowman’s programme was presented as the key knight-on-a-white-charger, tackling thorny topics and bringing into the light the controversial, while the Catholic Church fumed. Fair enough, although I’m not sure a woman talking about not wearing a nightie on her honeymoon represents major political thinking. But anyone who’s listened to Byrne when he talked about the north over the years, or dealt with political people from the north over the years, can hardly have failed to see that the man was incorrigibly anti-nationalist/republican and that he invariably presented the north’s Troubles in a narrow and misleading way to his listeners/viewers. It’a the old story, really: people can sound impressive in their thinking until you hear them talk about something you know a little of yourself. At that point, gaping ignorance on the part of the guru iends to be exposed and a nagging question tends to raise itself in your head: if this guy was so wrong in this thing I know a little about, how wrong was he in all those other things that I know virtually nothing about, but assumed he did?
As I say, an interesting programme. You should catch the second half tonight. Assuming you get RTÉ.