Above: Some sort of grotesque sick nightmare that crawled out of the mind of Darragh Lynch. Shudder.
Has anyone else noticed RTE’s attempt to kickstart a national conversation on class for the Autumn? Mark Cullinane sticks on his waders and takes a look in the ideological sewers of the national broadcaster and finds a few funny smells in its recent day to day and documentary programming.
“Are there distinct classes to which we all belong? Are they demarcated by an income bracket or a mindset? Are our futures dictated by where we’re born? Is there a new aristocracy in Ireland?”
Not my questions but those posed on the website of RTÉ’s external programme commissioning unit, who on first glance appear to have chanced upon a copy of the Communist Manifesto somewhere in Carrigstown and decided to pack in the day job of policing the airwaves for the regime.
Turns out it’s all in aid of RTÉ One’s effort to “kickstart a national conversation on class” in the Autumn, if you can wait that long. They’ve a call out for programme ideas that get to the heart of the issue, with the not-so-small provisions that they (a) come from industry professionals with the backing of megabucks production houses, (b) abide by the “no dry histories” rule and (c) can put enough bums on seats at 9.35pm on a Monday night to satisfy the advertisers.
A documentary or three later and Marx will be reinterred in his grave, after which RTÉ can go back to pretending class doesn’t exist and enjoin us to focus on what really matters: disciplining our bodies for a new round of Operation Transformation.
As easy as it is to bash the numbing complacency and creeping commercialism of the national broadcaster, it is worth acknowledging that the odd decent doc does make it past the gimlet eye of the schedulers and onto the public airwaves.
Take Generation F’d, a three-part TV docu-series broadcast early this year. Offering up a sensitive and sympathetic series of stories on the deepening struggles of young people looking for work, dignity and a roof over our heads in this benighted country.
Beyond the personal stories, the contributors spoke with confidence and passion on how the futures of a generation have been stolen from beneath our noses, with none of the usual chancers popping up to tell us that we’ve never had it so good.
Was this what RTÉ’s commissioning website meant by its advice to would-be programme-makers targeting RTÉ2 that they “need to reflect the preoccupations and obsessions of 18-35 year olds”. Looking at it this way, a show telling us that our futures have been sold down the river to vulture funds may ultimately be a pretty cynical form of demographic appeasement for RTÉ’s yoof channel. Sometimes being #woke is just good business.
Speaking of the vultures, over on RTÉ One The Great Irish Sell-Off was one of those glitzy, well-publicised documentaries on the aftermath of the economic crash that seem to go out about once a year. Its journey through the bleak economic landscape picked clean by the tax-dodging corporate vultures that Michael Noonan uncaged was grim viewing.
As with many of these kinds of glossy documentaries, their well-after-the-fact revelations conjure up a metaphor involving a horse and stable door, and you get the impression that an organisational desire to garner some street cred and to pre-empt the next accusation of group-think have something to do with it too.
No, the acid test of whether these kinds of one-off programmes signal some kind of progressive shift in the national broadcaster lies in whether a little of their vitality and urgency can penetrate the innermost sanctum of the ideological state apparatus: the Dáily grind of political programming.
But from Morning Ireland to Marian Finucane and Six-One News to Claire Byrne Live, it seems that the more the world changes outside, the more things stay the same inside. These are the arenas of news and current affairs, where the same old voices have claimed squatter’s rights over the public airwaves for decades at a time.
Where everything is technically up for debate but where the critically deadening politics of journalistic balance and objectivity narrow the parameters of discussion as effectively as any externally-imposed censorship.
Where right-wing provocateurs are courted to bump ratings while progressive radicalism is subject to a mundane Dáily no-platforming.
Where even the most probing questioning or most damaging exposé, the powerful can count on being saved by the bell because nothing is ever too important to discuss beyond their few allotted minutes on the schedule.
Worst of all though, it is where a studious omerta is maintained on the real lines of division in our country and our world, for fear that the centre may no longer hold if we were to collectively acknowledge them. But rather than engage with, for example, the dire structural implications of Ireland Inc’s carefully-maintained place in the global economy as a haven for transnational capital, programmes splinter the interconnected whole of social, political and economic life into tiny fragments, generating reportage and discussion on a thousand controversies and scandals but connecting the dots between them is bad etiquette.
A refreshing aspect of both recent documentaries was their recurrent undertones of editorial support for the possibilities and even necessity of organised resistance to gross injustice, glimpsed in accounts of agitation by the former Clery’s workers and the anti-eviction PAH movement in Spain.
But nothing quickens pulses and reddens faces in Montrose faster or more reliably than contentious political collective action from below. From striking workers to masses of feet on the street, the bigger the threat posed to the status quo, the more determined and disciplined the closing of ranks becomes.
The recent Apollo House occupation provided another example of the perils of putting your head above the parapet ‘round these parts.
With the tightly-run operation at Home Sweet Home giving few crumbs to tabloid journos nosing around outside for a reason to expose the commie conspiracy behind it all, outlets had to get creative with their smears.
How telling that one of the most desperate efforts came from RTÉ News itself, which had a mean-spirited and error-strewn crack at trade unionism, Home Sweet Home and Right2Water in one go. They tried to make out that the Unite union- a prominent backer of both campaigns- were guilty of a double hypocrisy by supporting the Apollo House occupation while leaving a solitary building of theirs idle in the city centre and trying to wriggle out of having to hand over part of it for social housing.
A mockery was made of this new-found concern for shared responsibility in social housing provision just weeks later when news broke that the broadcaster was moving to sell large, lucrative chunks of land on its Donnybrook campus- but for sale to the highest bidder and with RTÉ pocketing the cash, defying a Dublin City Council resolution calling for at least some of the land to be put to use for social housing.