THE point about the John Crown Affair is not that government ministers and their highly paid bouncers were on the phone to RTE before last weekend's Late Late Show looking for changes to the panel that would discuss the chaos in the health system: it's that they didn't need to be. As we saw on numerous occasions during the general election campaign, the national station is the Frank Dunlop of Irish Broadcasting when it comes to providing digouts to the government. It gives and it gives and, perish the thought, asks for nothing in return, other than the occasional licence fee increase. (Which it then spends on farragos of nonsense like High Society, in which a journalist hardly anybody has heard of makes allegations of cocaine abuse against a government minister nobody has been told about on the basis of a tape recording nobody in RTE has apparently bothered to listen to. ) It was another bad week for the national broadcaster, in a year full of them. To fully understand the decision to axe John Crown from The Late Late Show, you have to go back to the weeks before and during the general election campaign, when RTE went into full cheerleader mode for the Taoiseach. The first sign that the station would not be bothered about its legally mandated obligation to be balanced came during Gerry Stembridge's comedy show, The State of Us.
During that series, the only party leader who was not satirised (whose character did not appear, indeed, except as a voice on the phone) was the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte were lampooned enthusiastically, while Labour was the only party to have its actual policies satirised.
Such a lapse might have been forgiven, even so soon before an election campaign, were it not for the series of favours RTE did for the government at key moments of the campaign. There was the whole Frank Luntz fiasco on The Week In Politics in the months before polling day, 24 May, in which the US pollster, an unashamed supporter of Bertie Ahern, was given three separate editions of the programme to puff up his hero. There were the interviews on This Week on RTE Radio 1 on 20 May in which Enda Kenny was pursued vigorously on Fine Gael policy, while the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was the beneficiary of little more than a cosy chat. There was Ahern's interview on the Six One News a few days later in which he was expertly skewered by Bryan Dobson and shown to be confused about and ignorant of some aspects of his party's manifesto. Many thousands of commuters would have missed the interview as they travelled home from work and would have welcomed the chance to see it again on the Nine O'Clock News. For some reason, however, it never appeared.
Most famous of the list of favours, and the one most relevant to what went on in RTE in the days before the John Crown Affair, was The Late Late Show on 18 May, in which three journalists, Eoghan Harris, John Waters and Eamon Dunphy, engaged in a "debate" about Bertie Ahern. Despite Dunphy's best efforts, the discussion turned into a tribute to the Taoiseach, which Pat Kenny did nothing to prevent. The presence of an odd number of guests on the panel indicated that no effort had been put into achieving balance; the subsequent discussion was a low point in the recent history of RTE. Less than a week before the general election, the flagship show of the national broadcaster was being used as a means of drumming up support for the leader of one particular party.
As the advertising slogan almost says, "RTE: Supporting The Government."
That Late Late Show and the way it was put together carries a huge relevance to the controversy over John Crown's non-appearance, because in the days since the oncologist was axed from the Late Late line-up, various RTE statements and sources have referred to the importance of balance in the making of that decision. When various executives looked at the list of who was to appear, we have been told and are expected to believe, they decided to change things around a bit, lest the debate be skewed too much in one direction. On Saturday afternoon last, for example, RTE issued a statement confirming that a decision had been taken "to reconfigure the panel to represent as broad a spectrum of positions and opinions as possible. As a consequence, one panellist was changed in the line-up."
The first thing to be said about this is that any RTE statement about balance should be greeted with scepticism in the wake of May's Late Late Show, in which no interest at all was shown in representing a broad spectrum of positions and opinions. Even if we take the station's word that balance was behind Crown's removal, contrast last weekend's desire to achieve evenhandedness with the lack of interest in doing the same thing in May. Last weekend, RTE fell over itself to change what it felt was a panel balanced against the government; in May it couldn't be bothered to change a panel that was quite obviously balanced in favour of the government.
Ultimately, the balance argument doesn't hold up. If you were going to remove one member from a panel made up of a businessman with ideas about how to run a health service, two journalists with no hands-on knowledge of that service and an oncologist with years of experience of that service, why would you get rid of the one person who spoke from a position of expertise? The only reason for getting rid of him and not one of the equally critical journalists would be to prevent him from making articulate, knowledgeable and expert criticisms of the health service which would show the coalition in a bad light. The journalists could be written off as mere polemicists, but an articulate, impassioned oncologist is a much more serious opponent for a government. RTE . . . at a high level . . . will not upset that government, the decision to get rid of Crown was therefore inevitable.