RTE and the idea of the Public

Pat Kenny


I left this comment on Richard Pine’s article in today’s Irish Times titled ‘Dispute over Greek broadcaster illustrates how essential public service broadcasting is’.

No doubt public service broadcasting is a different kind of entity. But the existence of a public service broadcaster does not in itself ensure ‘information…is available free of market forces’, as the author writes.

Market forces can greatly influence the quality and range of information transmitted by a public service broadcaster. This is the case with RTE. Much of its programming in news and current affairs accepts the legitimacy of the capitalist market as the decisive force in society. This acceptance shapes perceptions about what is and what ought to be public, and helps set limits on how far the public, as an autonomous body, may go.

Evidence for this can be found in RTE’s reporting and analysis of politics under the bailout. Neither its presenters nor its reports will ever question the legitimacy of rule by Troika; in fact, it presents that rule –and the actions that flow as a consequence, from cuts to education and health to imposition of regressive property taxes and water charges to privatisation of public goods- as self-evidently necessary.

In so doing, it is helping to efface the idea of the public as an autonomous body committed to democratic thought and deliberation, and installing in its place the idea of the public as a passive mass of consumer-voters that needs to be ruled by experts who supply sunshine and rain from above. So, if RTE ever gets shut down to pay off private banking debts, it will be not least because RTE has shaped large parts of public opinion to accept such an event.

This veneration of the capitalist market precedes Troika rule, of course. As UCD academic Julian Mercille has shown, RTE ‘fed the national obsession with property by airing shows like House Hunters in the Sun, Showhouse, About the House and I’m an Adult, Get Me Out of Here.’ What is more, many of its most prominent and wealthy faces have their own private companies, which means they identify with the ideology of the rugged entrepreneur so relentlessly promoted by the channel. They would therefore be glad to help sign the death warrant for real public broadcasting, which RTE does produce in some admirable exceptions, if the money was right.

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