An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Wednesday, July 06, 2005  

Haughey programme
Just picking up from the comment thread. I am going to reprint in full an article from today's IT for the benefit of those who didn't see the series. It is rather long but as the IT is subscription some of you might otherwise miss it.

Dice loaded in favour of Haughey

Did Charles Haughey succeed in remotely controlling the television series on his life, asks Muiris Mac Conghail

Four-part series on RTÉ television: The Outsider - Monday June 13th, 9.30pm - 10.30pm; Arise and Follow - Monday June 20th; The Survivor - Monday June 27th and Disclosure - Monday July 4th, 2005. Produced by Mint Productions for RTÉ.

Narrator: Miriam Kelly. Executive producers: Steve Carson and Miriam O'Callaghan. Produced and directed by Niamh Sammon.

Well over half a million people watched The Outsider, the first of the four-part biographical study of Charles Haughey, putting it at the top of that week's viewing figures.

There was a predictable slight drop in the viewing figures over the following two parts, but the series maintained a constant top in ratings. Last Monday's final episode, Disclosure, had a rating of 41.7 per cent of the viewing public - 562,000 viewers - which made it the most watched of the four-part series, and was one of the highest ratings ever achieved by a documentary on RTÉ.

The greatest percentage of viewers has been those in the age bracket of 55-plus years of age, where almost 50 per cent of the audience will have recalled the details of events through which they lived and endured during the reign of Charles Haughey.

Of the four parts in the series I found the final episode to be the most satisfactory.

It gave almost a complete example of the awfulness which so characterised Mr Haughey's regime of the ruthless pursuit of power - the ditching of his friend Brian Lenihan during the presidential election campaign which brought Mary Robinson to office.

With a combination of contemporary and specific actuality footage, it showed the impact of the Lenihan "ditching" on the Lenihan family and on Mary O'Rourke in particular, and it focused effectively on the ruthless and deadly nature of Haughey's desire to rule at any cost.

But the desire to rule was but one of two desires which led Charles Haughey: the other was a desire for money and wealth.

In the case of Brian Lenihan and indeed that of the late Jim Gibbons who was saved from a mob on the night of the McCreevy heave by a friend with a sword in the third episode, we are talking about people and what befell them as a result of the baleful tyranny.

In the case of the money we are talking here about corruption and the mindset which guides it, and this mindset is most difficult to portray on film other than to nod and wink at it or to attempt to portray that nodding and winking.

PJ Mara, the adviser of Charles Haughey, nodded and winked his way and washed his hands throughout the programme. In a remarkable statement over a profiled shot of Mr Haughey in a doorway, Mr Mara said: "They wanted to believe that Haughey was some kind of malign figure locked away in his mansion plotting badness: I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now."

Pádraig Flynn was scary.

The first programme in the series - The Outsider - successfully developed the idea that Charles Haughey was of a poor background, and in his voyage through life was so beset with that background of poverty that he determined never to be poor again.

This, according to the series, set the course for his future life and explains what he did to overcome poverty by defrauding the Exchequer.

It is an explanation which might have sustained all those from the west of Ireland born to poverty, if, instead of working and dying in the embrace of McAlpines and in the dark tunnels of England, Scotland and Wales, they had they chosen to rob banks in Ballyhaunis, Bohola and Barr na Trá.

Editorially, there are two problems which beset the Haughey series. The first is that the subject of the biographical study did not participate in the series; the second is the manner of the interviews with those who did participate.

The absence of Mr Haughey has to be explained and the result of that absence evaluated.

Mr Haughey's availability to the Moriarty tribunal has been curtailed by health reasons, and Mr Haughey has been reported as being unwell. Were Mr Haughey to have given an interview for the series then, I imagine that Judge Kevin Haugh's difficulties in proceeding with the case of the DPP v Mr Haughey on charges of two obstructions to the proceedings in the McCracken tribunal might have been overcome. On appeal to the High Court, which upheld Judge Haugh's ruling, Ms Justice Carroll said that there was a "fade" factor which might allow the DPP to proceed and it would be up to Mr Haughey's lawyers to prove that the climate envisaged by Judge Haugh was still prejudicial.

Mr Haughey and his advisers obviously took the question of his appearance in the series and its likely impact on legal proceedings into account.

Strategically, what had Mr Haughey to gain by appearing on the Haughey series? Nothing to gain and everything to lose. Certainly, with some members of his own family appearing - Eimear Mulhern, Seán Haughey TD, Conor Haughey, and Father Eoghan Haughey - the dice was loaded heavily in his favour; and with additional support from a number of his close friends and colleagues, the result was that the balance of the programme was effectively turned in favour of Mr Haughey, insofar as Mr Haughey could determine.

There is also another factor which generally pertains in broadcasting journalism and that is that where one of the principal protagonists declines to appear, then an almost compensatory over-balancing is effected to offset the possible imbalance. The absentee is effectively manipulating the show in his favour by remote control.

Because of this editorial dilemma, perhaps, the construction of the programme as a whole was weighted as a historical narrative entirely in favour of Fianna Fáil, and excluded, other than the Progressive Democrats and Tony Gregory, any other political party. This effectively distorted the whole narration of the political history of the 1966-1992 period and condensed it into a history of heaves against Haughey.

The second editorial problem relates to the interviewees and their questioning. Those who were assembled for interviews seem all to have been interviewed in drawing rooms or lookalike offices of Dublin hotels or the Masonic Hall in Molesworth Street. The lighting had the effect of giving each of those interviewed a sweaty tan and if my mind wandered, which it often does in such interviews, to their surroundings to garner something of the backdrop by way of further information, this was effectively shielded from the viewer. I noticed very early on that during interviews no questions were to be heard, and as the series went on I concluded that we were in fact not aware of what questions were being asked or answered. In serial answers like those given, we have no impression what - if any - response the anonymous interviewer(s) might have made to statements from persons like Pádraig Flynn or PJ Mara. Surely something might have been said to some of what Pádraig Flynn said, if only in response to his eyebrows!

It is evident that the interviewer(s) were not wearing microphones and that their questions were not recorded for broadcast. All of this raises questions of editorial direction, and my contention is that the series as a whole had little if any editorial direction.

The commentary script was similarly constructed, in the sense in which it referred back to nothing which had been uttered by any of the contributors by way of back reference of surprise, dissent or disgust.

Certainly Mr Flynn and Mr Mara, Dermot Desmond and Ben Dunne all warranted some editorial positioning from the authors of the series. The music, which was not credited, played a significant role at times to set the mood. The solo female voice and the solo piano added a dimension to the editorial content, which was otherwise authorless. The programme series did not have a point of view, any point of view. Everything was without comment, the good and the bad and the ugly. Leave it all up to the viewers to make up their minds with the guidance of PJ Mara.

The basic flaw in this series was the decision to proceed without Mr Haughey. Should they have proceeded at all without him? With its backward look over the shoulder at the Man in Kinsealy, the series was unable to establish an editorial independence.

Muiris Mac Conghail was editor of RTÉ's 7 Days programme 1967-1971, and controller of programmes RTÉ television 1977-1980 and 1983-1986. He was assistant secretary, Department of the Taoiseach and head of government information services 1973-1975. He lectured in the School of Media, Dublin Institute of Technology, 1993 -2004.

posted by Sarah | 16:47 4 comments
Indeed. The fact that we don't know the questions asked of the interviewees creates a "he said, he said" controversy out of how much they were actually told the documentary was about. Newspaper reports from last week implied that a few interviewees felt deceived about the subject of their interviews -- that the documentary was billed as being about FF and events in general, not CJH in particular.
Thanks Sarah, my blood is now very definitely boiling, will we ever have a free press in Ireland? By the way I am afraid my respect for Fintan O Toole dropped dramatically when he did a feature on how it was not possible to expose corruption because of the libel we say in Science publish or be damned!
The music on the film was fairly blatantly inspired by the soundtrack of Errol Morris's' 'The Fog of War'. ( about the life and times of Robert McNamara. Morris's film is about confronting issues. O'Callaghan's documentary seems to be about avoiding them.
I agree Conor (you'll be glad to hear that now you can relax having received the vital another comment on a friends blog imprimatur)

In Russia people went to jail and handed out stacks of mimeographed paper to expose the truth. Here nothing.
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