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18 May 2006 Edition

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Media View - BY JOHN O'BRIEN

RTÉ's prejudice distorts the news ... and the newsmakers

The SDLP is a Very Important Political Party (VIPP), and RTÉ understands that! The Stoops are the fourth largest party in the Six Counties, the second largest nationalist party there, and possibly the seventh largest party in the whole country. No wonder that RTÉ hangs on their every word.

In fact, of course, all parties, no matter what size, should have their opinions and proposals publicised by the public media; but have you ever wondered why RTÉ always leads with the SDLP view on anything connected with the North?

Even the David Ervine conversion to Official Unionism produced an SDLPer for RTÉ's Nine O'Clock News, even though the SDLP is the least directly affected of all the parties involved. The DUP were making the complaints, the UUP were reaping the benefits, Sinn Féin were potential losers - but it was to the SDLP that RTÉ went for an authoritative opinion.

RTÉ, like all media outlets, will have regular editorial meetings, at which the reporters, correspondents, editors and so on learn at their master's feet what is wanted and what is not. The higher up you are, the less dependent you are, but to get high up you must have the master's support.

So, despite its statutory requirement to be objective and politically neutral, these factors don't count where Sinn Féin is concerned. And RTÉ's news division continues to wage a rearguard action to promote the illusion that the SDLP is still the major force.

This is damaging in two ways. First of all, RTÉ's ability to assess accurately the newsworthiness of any item is weakened by its blatant and naked prejudice. This means that in practice it gives its viewers and listeners only half the picture, and a distorted one at that.

But secondly, it is also damaging to the SDLP. The Stoops generally believe that they were born to rule in their nationalist patch, and they have found it very difficult to come to terms with their present, secondary status. What they should do, of course, is develop new ideas and contribute constructively their individual input to the political mix.

Instead, they are encouraged to wallow in the illusion that they are really the major party if only the ignorant voters would accept their betters' advice. So, instead of reaching out for a new positive role, the SDLP generally prefer to play the anti-republican games of the Southern media, who in turn spend their time assuaging the Stoops' amour proper, or sense of wounded pride.

The worst is RTE don't really give a hoot for the SDLP either. The dominant voices in RTÉ's newsroom, in Fine Gael and in the Labour Party (and even in Fianna Fáil) don't really share the SDLP's concerns for nationalists in the North. The SDLP has one value, and one value only - it isn't Sinn Féin, and the more anti-Sinn Féin it is the more the Southern media love it.

It's a pity that it's an embrace of death!

Oh, where would we be without the gutter press? I was reminded of this by recent tabloid discussions of drunkenness among politicians. The most famous, of course, was the British Labour Party's George Brown, who, as foreign secretary, was generally flutered by noon.

Tottering along to one evening function, Brown unfortunately slipped and fell in the gutter where he was snapped by an eager photographer. The picture was duly published in the ultra respectable Times.

This caused outrage in the more down-market, but rightwing Labour oriented Daily Mirror. The imperial Times rejected this outrage and queried whether the Mirror thought it had a monopoly of the gutter!

This came to mind when I read the recent correspondence in the Irish Times between former minister Jim McDaid and "Irish" Daily Star editor, Ger Colleran.

The Star jumped on the anti-prostitution bandwagon following RTÉ's Prime Time programme despite the fact that the Star carries regular adverts for massage parlours and so forth. McDaid rightly pointed out that this was hypocrisy and despicable.

An outraged - that word again - Colleran ranted back that McDaid's well publicised bouts of public drunkenness were the really despicable events.

McDaid, of course, has admitted his faults, and has made no attempt to excuse his problems with alcohol. But the bould Colleran admits nothing, despite the weight of evidence against him.

Now who is really the more despicable of the two?

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