22Aug Ireland needs competent tv presenters, not celebrities

While those in communication –­ print, electronic or whatever – often have a
high regard for their calling, the bottom line is that newspapers,
television channels, radio stations, etc are really about making money. And,
apart from a few gallant exceptions who defer (or are forced to defer)
towards some kind of public service broadcasting requirement, most media
outlets make no secret of their commercial focus. In fact some of the
tabloid media no longer even pretend that there are any standards involved –
apart from what they can get away with.
Readers and listeners (and the money that follows) are all that matter. And
anything that will bring more of them on board is grist to their mill.
So presenters are no longer just presenters, and reporters are no longer
reporters. They strive to be  ‘personalities’ or ‘celebrities’, popular not
because of their expertise or ability but because they succeed in carving
out reputations for themselves and end up being regarded by the great
unwashed as ‘movers and shakers’ in the media world.
Like Vincent Browne. Browne is now ‘Challenging God’ is a series of late
night programmes on TV 3. Browne makes no secret of his disdain for those
who seek to defend religion or even to try to explain what faith means. Yet
now with his new series, Browne argues, that religion informs so much of our
culture that an examination of it is very important. And Challenging God, he
tells us, is in the service of that examination.
It is, of course, nothing of the sort. This is no more and no less than
convenient justification. Challenging God is no more than a vehicle for
Vincent Browne to do what he does best – coax a series of likely suspects
(theologians, biblical scholars, clergy) into a studio and attack them for
their beliefs. Or go on an unintelligible rant and air a series of
predictable prejudices. All of this in the hope that people will watch this
form of modern blood-sport and that advertisements will sell.
There are a few problems with this programme. One is that even though Browne
imagines that he has a fascination with religion almost every time he opens
his mouth he demonstrates how little he knows about it. Another is that
while attacking politicians on his late night political show makes for
interesting viewing for those who enjoy the equivalent of watching cars
crash, Browne’s abrasive disrespect for his guests and his penchant for
insulting them in passing is grotesquely embarrassing.
In the first programme Browne accused Professor James Mackey, one of our
foremost theologians, of being ‘a condescending twit’. (You really couldn’t
make this up, if you tried.) Mackey has studied religion all his life; he
knows the ends and outs of his subject; he has written and lectured widely;
he is abreast of the latest developments in a range of associated
disciplines; and he has something to say.
While Mackey patiently explained a point, Browne went on a predictable
solo-run into the Book of Deuteronomy – with which he seems inordinately
obsessed – ranting about all the damage God was responsible for. It was
clear that he wasn’t listening to or possibly didn’t understand what Mackey
was saying. It was the equivalent of a janitor in Beaumont Hospital
explaining to a panel of brain surgeons that they were off the mark because
of something someone told him once about the legendary Finn McCool. It was
that surreal.
But of course Browne and TV 3 are not interested in a ‘considered’ treatment
of key issues in Irish culture. Anyone who gave them the benefit of the
doubt was soon disabused of that notion. What they are doing is giving
Browne a platform where Browne will be Browne and sufficient ‘car-crash’
afficionados will watch to make it a commercial success.
There’s a place for a programme examining issues of theology and faith but
it’s part of a public service remit. A presenter who knew his or her subject
and who could respectfully moderate a discussion between alternate
viewpoints would facilitate a civilised discussion, even though it might
attract a much smaller but more in-tune audience.
A presenter like Pat Kenny, for example, who would brief himself on the
issues, who would prepare assiduously for the discussion and who would know
enough to realise how little he knew about it. But the problem with the Pat
Kennys is that they don’t want a public service remit, where they facilitate
intelligent discussions for reasonable salaries. They want more money. So
they become ‘celebrities’ and ‘personalities’ presenting The Late Late Show
and the Eurovision Song Contest and earning multiples of what public service
broadcasting can afford – even multiples of what Taoiseach Enda Kenny earns.
A few years ago, Pat Kenny was earning nearly a €1million a year in RTE. It
was a crazy and unjustifiable figure, regardless of how good he was or how
hard he worked or how widely he spread his talents. RTE effectively made him
indispensable and then when he didn’t get his own way, he felt disrespected
by his bosses! He had become a ‘celebrity’.
RTE needs to stop creating celebrities. What we need are not ‘stars’ but
competent presenters. For example, at present Miriam O’Callaghan is
practically on every programme on RTE. And no doubt extracting from the
public broadcaster suitably appropriate fees.
When will RTE start developing a stable of presenters who can do a competent
job and pay them an appropriate salary? And start justifying their position
as a public broadcaster?
Then instead of paying their elite broadcasters elite salaries at the
expense of their public service broadcasting responsibilities, they can
begin to live in the real world. There are hundreds of good presenters out
there who would give their right arms if they could get a reasonable salary.
There’s no mystique about presenting programmes. If most of the programmes
are distributed between a few ‘stars,’ RTE (or rather the licence-payer)
ends up paying for a mystique they have themselves created. Another version
of shooting themselves in the foot.
The Minister for Communications has some interesting proposals in the
pipeline, like where the money from the new broadcasting charge will go. The
Vincent Brownes and Pat Kennys of the media world should not be allowed to
get their hands on it.

3 Responses

  1. mjt

    Just to focus on V.B. who may be being used here as the whipping boy for a tribe of offenders, why couldn`t his learned guests prepare themselves as well as he does? They will know of V.B. and his techniques as he has been at work on national radio for decades now, so instead of naively expecting deference from him, why can`t they anticipate his hostility to the church and its teaching?
    It may not be a comfortable experience for such a guest who will be more accustomed to the comfort of dealing with the unchallenging assent of believers, but that may be a tonic for them too. If they are not fitted to take on V. B. in public discourse then maybe they shouldn’t enter the field in the first place. If they don’t, however, what does that say about the intellectual quality of the luminaries of the Irish Church? Maybe it was to this willingness to participate in mature debate, of the kind he said was commonly experienced in other countries, that Archbishop D. Martin was referring to recently in his talk Catholic Ireland: Past Present and Future. Or was he complaining only about the lack of an exclusively deferential and friendly forum from which to broadcast the position and teaching of the church, where its teaching was not to be challenged?
    We are discussing here a very important interface with the secular world, and so far the church has been lamentably weak in exploiting the opportunities it presents, and instead weakly falls back on complaining about the rough treatment of its spokespersons. If the guests on V. B. are not able to counter his arguments maybe he is doing us a service after all in exposing them.
    I`m not justifying or defending occasional boorishness in manner, but that surely could be sorted out with the producer/director of the series.

  2. Nuala O'Driscoll

    Having been raised on a media diet of the Irish/Sunday Press, The Irish Catholic and An Poblacht and Raidio Eireann, I think it is refreshing to listen to open debate. As MJT @1 points out the Church has had ample opportunity, 2,000 years in fact, to interact and engage with the modern world of which the media plays an important role. While I have’t seen his programme, I actually think that Vincent Browne, underneath all his abruptness is looking for answers himself. Isn’t this a golden opportunity for the Church to engage in the debate about God, and maybe through debate and dialogue the Church may discover it does not have all the answers, or is this what it is afraid of? In fact when it comes to it, when looking for answers about God, all we have are questions.

  3. Elizabeth

    I agree with mjt and would like to add that the Catholic Church has spent far too much making money and building up an empire in the past few hundred years rather than doing Good. Profit seems to be the driving motive for the Church as well as others but others are not working for God. More is expected of the Church.