Window and mirror. RTÉ television: 1961–2011

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2(March/April 2012), Reviews, Volume 20

Window and mirror.RTÉ television: 1961–2011 John Bowman (Collins Press, €25) ISBN 9781848891357

Window and mirror.
RTÉ television: 1961–2011
John Bowman
(Collins Press, €25)
ISBN 9781848891357

Just a little over 50 years ago Telefís Éireann made its debut, helping to erode a sense of isolation that characterised Ireland in the post-war period. John Bowman’s book Window and mirror. RTÉ television: 1961–2011 addresses the personalities, programmes and controversies that helped shape Irish television over the past five decades. As the title suggests, he is interested in addressing how television opened wide a window on the world while also offering a mirror to Irish society, enabling audiences to see themselves ‘warts and all’. On New Year’s Eve 1961 the Irish Republic became one of the last European nations to gain its own television service. After a decade of debate and a degree of controversy, an independent public authority was established by the 1960 Broadcasting Act to oversee both radio and television. Television was organised as a hybrid entity, a public service designed to inform, educate and entertain audiences but one that would earn its keep through licence fees and advertising. The medium came to Ireland at a critical time in the state’s history, while Seán Lemass was taoiseach. The new television service contributed to the gradual economic, social and cultural transformation that was taking place throughout the 1960s by challenging a number of powerful and highly conservative political, religious and cultural institutions. Stark and simplistic comparisons are often made between the stagnation that characterised ‘de Valera’s Ireland’ and the more dynamic and modern Lemass era, but Seán Lemass, Ireland’s ‘great moderniser’, shared many of the concerns of his mentor, Eamon de Valera. Both men shared an innate social conservatism and an unyielding conviction that Fianna Fáil was the only party fit for government. Lemass had little patience with the political opposition that confronted Fianna Fáil, and this attitude manifested itself in his relationship with the new television service. Throughout his career Lemass regarded criticism by broadcasters as proof that those operating Irish television were political opponents intent on undermining him and his government. He became a vociferous critic of Irish television, lashing out both publicly and privately at perceived slights from the station. This attitude did not dissipate when Lemass left office in 1966 but continued in different forms well into the new century. The party’s hostility towards RTÉ, and in particular towards aggressive current affairs broadcasting, remained remarkably consistent. As minister for justice in 1963 a young Charles Haughey complained vociferously about Telefís Éireann’s audacity in editing a press release from his department. His relationship with RTÉ started off poorly and rapidly deteriorated. With the support of Fine Gael, Lemass’s successor, Jack Lynch, endorsed the establishment of a vindictive tribunal meant to chastise and humiliate the nation’s public service broadcaster when it had the audacity to suggest that the state was not doing enough to curtail illegal money-lending in disadvantaged parts of the capital in 1969. After a series of awkward interventions, the government found that it could act to silence the national broadcasting service only as a last resort and in the most extraordinary circumstances. Such silencing occurred in 1972, when the Lynch government summarily dismissed the Radio Telefís Éireann Authority for broadcasting material it considered seditious. Bowman is insightful in linking these early difficulties to events that transpired in the late 1980s and early 1990s, pointing out that when he became taoiseach Haughey gained his revenge. His minister for communications, Ray Burke, became the station’s nemesis, following up on his threat to ‘screw RTÉ’ by encouraging the establishment of a commercial broadcasting service that would challenge Ireland’s public service provider. Many critics of the government argued that by capping advertising, and thereby limiting its income, Haughey and Burke were getting even with RTÉ, avenging criticism that had been levelled at Fianna Fáil politicians by current affairs programming over a 30-year period. The Fianna Fáil attack on the nation’s public service broadcaster was done in the name of providing competition and greater choice for audiences.The scepticism and outright hostility displayed by Lemass, Lynch and Haughey was not unique. Initially many political, religious and cultural élites struggled to adapt to changing circumstances brought on by the arrival of indigenous television. Many of these power-brokers operated under a sense of entitlement and were simply not used to being challenged by this new form of media. Politicians, clerics and cultural leaders were especially upset with what they viewed as the medium’s pronounced lack of deference. The Catholic hierarchy had grave concerns about the advent of television, and this was articulated quite forcefully on a number of occasions in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s by the formidable archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. His efforts to interfere in broadcasting in its formative years were relentless and ultimately unsuccessful. McQuaid demanded that broadcasting officials hire one of his priests as religious adviser, expecting that he would report directly to him while working within the new television service. Telefís Éireann cleverly out-manoeuvred the archbishop and what emerged instead was Radharc, one of the most progressive and popular documentary series of its time. Led by Fr Joe Dunn, its priests gained a reputation for broadcasting innovative programmes that addressed issues of social justice both at home and abroad. By the time Radharc decided to cease production in 1996 it had broadcast hundreds of documentaries addressing topics that included alcoholism, homelessness and the plight of emigrants abroad, as well as features exploring the role of the church in societies experiencing revolution and political violence in Latin America, Africa and the Pacific. The Gaelic League and supporters of the Irish language also emerged as angry critics of the service, letting loose a relentless critique that castigated the new service for betraying the nation by failing to support Ireland’s official language. The language lobby grew increasingly frustrated with the television service, lambasting it for failing to produce quality Irish-language programming. Supporters of the language had been hopeful that the 1960 Broadcasting Act would require television and radio to make a concerted effort to feature a significant amount of material in Irish. Officials in government and broadcasting were convinced that many of the demands of the language lobby were simply unreasonable and therefore not acceptable. Supporters of Irish were dismayed by this attitude and by the paltry amount of Irish-language broadcasting that made its way into RTÉ broadcasts, especially television. By the 1970s, however, many innovative Irish-language programmes were making their way onto RTÉ. Within the station Seán Mac Réamoinn, Aindrias Ó Gallchóir, Breandán Ó hÉithir and Eoghan Harris emerged as creative producers in both radio and television determined to use the medium innovatively. Programmes such as Féach addressed the challenges of urban life for working-class viewers and were often critical of Fianna Fáil economic and social policy. In spite of these successes, supporters of the language continued to voice their concerns until the government relented and set up an Irish-language television service in the west of Ireland in 1996. In the early 1960s there was also widespread criticism from the public that continued past the turn of the century. When the service was starting up, many viewers grew weary of the monotonous diet of ‘canned’ American material, including westerns, crime dramas and comedies. After the first director-general, Edward Roth, left on the expiration of his two-year contract, he told the press that television criticism had replaced hurling as the national game. Slowly Telefís Éireann developed a number of impressive and very popular serials and produced current affairs programming that found a wide audience. Bowman offers insight into the impact that many of these programmes had, pointing out that programmes such as The Riordans, Glenroe, Fair City and Ros na Rún became important and popular and found extensive and engaged audiences. The author also chronicles how RTÉ came under increasing pressure from market forces with the advent of satellite television and as the Dublin government introduced greater competition by licensing TV3. He addresses how these pressures challenged broadcasting officials, producers and those who worked at Montrose through the first decade of the 21st century. What is most striking in Bowman’s history is his ability to address the evolution of the television service as an informed ‘insider’ offering valuable insight into the workings of television. Bowman is recognised as one of the most important journalists of his generation, and the fact that he was part of the history that he is telling contributes much to this book. As a journalist who spent a long and distinguished career hosting a range of current affairs programmes, he came to know many of the personalities who worked at Montrose as producers, reporters, technicians and administrators. As the host of Today Tonight in the 1980s and Questions and Answers from 1988 to 2009 and as the iconic presenter of many important elections he was a critical part of an evolving political culture. Through extensive interviews of a wide range of political actors he helped to mediate the presentation of critical events in contemporary Irish history.Window and mirror. RTÉ television: 1961–2011 succeeds in building upon the work of a number of scholars who have written extensively about the first decades of Irish television, especially John Horgan, whose pioneering study of broadcasting and public life was published in 2004. Bowman’s book makes an important contribution to Irish media history and is most impressive in sustaining its narrative over the past 30 years, when access to important archival material is limited. Although this book enhances our understanding of Irish media history, there remains much more work to be taken up by scholars. Areas within Irish television history that require research include the role of women in shaping television as well as their representation in the programmes broadcast. Education, drama, music, health, sport, labour relations, children’s programming, audience and advertising also require more scholarly investigation. With more archival material coming into the public domain in Ireland, there is tremendous potential to address this void and to enhance our understanding of the recent past. For those interested in contemporary Irish history and the evolution of Irish media Bowman’s book will be an invaluable resource.  HI
Rob Savage is a professor of history at Boston College.

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