Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Letter sent by young man to RTE Prime Time

Dear Sir/Madam,

This is the first time I have ever felt compelled to register a complaint about the programming on RTÉ. As a young person in my final year of college, the level of national debt in Ireland will affect my life, the lives of my friends and the lives of my generation for many years to come. It is therefore right that RTÉ cover developments at EU level that could potentially alter our debt situation for the better. I do not feel however that your broadcast of Prime Time on January 22nd provided adequate coverage of domestic developments around this issue and I wish to formally register this complaint.

I believe as a public service broadcaster you have done the public a disservice in how this programme's segment presented the EU-level negotiations on banking debt. This disservice arises from the conspicuous absence of a significant and highly relevant legal case that was initiated in the High Court that same day. Businessman David Hall, with former Labour Attorney General John Rogers acting as his senior counsel, have mounted a constitutional challenge against the promissory note payments. The outcome of this case, which proceeds for the remainder of this week, could have profound implications for the government if, say, the court upheld Mr Hall's case. Given the enormous size of the debt incurred from the promissory notes, this legal case could end up being one of the most significant in Irish history.

But there wasn't so much as a passing reference to this case on the programme. I find this very odd. The segment was devoted purely to assessing Ireland's levels of national debt, before proceeding to a debate between Brian Hayes TD and Michael McGrath TD, moderated by Miriam O'Callaghan. No mention at all of the legal challenge launched by David Hall. I believe that by omitting such a reference, this programme did not conform to Section 39 (1) (b) of the Broadcasting Act 2009, in that it was not "fair to all interests concerned".

The segment did not adequately reflect the range of issues at stake nor the range of views available on the promissory note issue. Whilst Deputies Hayes & McGrath both discussed the impact of EU negotiations around the promissory note debt, they only discussed details such as the timeframe and interest rate by which the promissory notes were paid. They did not address the view held by large numbers of the public, as well as many reputable commentators, that the promissory note payments should be cancelled, or at least written down. I share such views and I feel as a stakeholder in this issue, that Prime Time should have made a greater effort to have as broad a range of views reflected as possible.

Having two politicians from two political parties with similar policy positions on this issue, did not provide sufficient scope for an informed and wide-ranging debate on this issue. It should have been possible for Ms O'Callaghan to present them a question relating to the possibility of a write-down to the cost of the promissory notes. What's even more striking by its absence is how O'Callaghan made no reference to the legal challenge against the promissory notes. Surely the potential implications of that development would have been a topical, interesting question for O'Callaghan to ask of these public representatives? Do the public not have a right to be informed of that development when it is so relevant to the issue being discussed? Is a sure-footed challenge to the legal basis of this controversial fiscal policy not central to these developments? Isn't this newsworthy? Or am I missing something?

I am humbly aware of the pressure the production team behind Prime Time must be under. They only have so much time to devote to each segment in a programme. They must find a cogent way to frame their coverage of a news story; this requires precision and sometimes, omission of wider issues. I understand and appreciate this. But given how this segment was based on information they'd only received that day, there would have been sufficient time to also prepare a report on the High Court challenge. Given that representatives of political parties were present it would have been possible and diligent to seek their response to such a challenge.

Are there perhaps regulations that forbid or discourage the discussion of ongoing court cases? If so, I was unaware of this and would appreciate clarity on the matter. But surely it would have been relevant and possible to simply inform viewers that in tandem with these EU-level negotiations, there was also a legal challenge at home? Would that not have been more compelling as well as more informative?

By not reflecting the range of developments (on the very day of broadcast) or viewpoints on this issue, the coverage was not fair to all interests involved. The citizens of this country have been shut out from all these hugely influential financial decisions. Since we are the ones who live with the consequences, are we not at the least entitled to accurate information and probing journalism about how these decisions are made?

Prime Time could rectify this shortcoming in my view by devoting a future episode to the legal challenge. They could also commit to airing a wider range of views on this issue to more adequately reflect public & expert opinion. To represent the case against the promissory notes they could invite onto the air a reputable commentator who believes in this case, or someone involved in the legal challenge, or someone from the campaign group "Anglo: Not Our Debt" who campaign specifically on this issue:

Public service broadcasters have an obligation to foster a well-informed citizenry. The broader and fundamental issues around this central issue in current affairs must be more thoroughly explored in the future.

Jonathan Victory