December 11, 2023
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Time to end the show trials … free the RTÉ Four!

The great RTÉ Covid apology has made disturbing viewing and listening.

There was, I suppose, a certain satisfaction in seeing the tables turned on our national inquisitors, but I did not like the way they were dragged out to beat their breasts and cry Mea Culpa.

It had a show trial feel about it, vaguely reminiscent of scenes from the old Soviet Union, when dissidents would humbly confess their errors and apologise for their misdeeds before going to their doom.

The comparison doesn’t go deep, of course, since the RTE miscreants are a bunch of highly-paid broadcasters who, at the end of the day, are unlikely to face any sanction at all.

It is valid only insofar as Bryan Dobson, David McCullagh, Eileen Dunne, Miriam O’Callaghan and others were forced to repent; to beg forgiveness  for being photographed, unmasked and not very distant from a colleague who was retiring. They were  made to say ‘sorry’ by RTÉ in the face of a witch-hunt by other stations and national newspapers.

Newstalk gave hours of time to the apologies across all its current affairs programmes and Virgin Media made them the main item on two of its evening news bulletins, bringing in its political correspondent to offer analysis of the momentous happenings.

National newspapers are always inclined to be hostile towards RTE but the fake outrage of columnists and leader writers about this case was nauseating.

There was predictable outrage, too, from politicians, who have often been embarrassed by questioning from these same broadcasters.

Niamh Smyth, the Fianna Fáil TD who chairs  the Oireachtas media and culture committee, had “huge concern” about it all. She wants RTÉ management to come before her committee and explain the sequence of events that led to the infamous photographs. “We want answers,” she said. “We want a full explanation”.

She already has one.

Some people in RTE met to say goodbye to a reception supervisor who was retiring after 40 years. It wasn’t an official RTÉ function. The group say they wore masks and kept a social distance. Maybe they did. But they abandoned both rules when it came to taking farewell pictures  – understandably,  since a picture of masked people standing two metres apart is hardly how you want to remember a colleague.

That’s what everyone who was there says happened. It sounds perfectly plausible and, whether or not that’s the full story, I can’t see Ms Smyth and her committee unearthing any other explanation.

Neither will RTÉ’s Covid-19 committee which is “reviewing all the circumstances that led to the gathering in question”.

Nor will RTÉ’s Health and Safety Manager who is leading a review of “our public health measures … and detailed workplace protocols”.

Nor will the National Union of Journalists whose leader demanded “an urgent review of the incident” fearing there had been “an egregious departure from standards”.

Nor will the Garda, who are investigating to see if a crime has been committed.

What a complete waste of time it all is. Of course no crime was committed. This was a thoughtless action by a group of broadcasters who embarrassed RTÉ and weakened their own positions when it comes to reporting on other breaches of Covid rules.

Despite all the humble apologies, I feel certain none of them are really sorry. They are sorry the pictures were taken but if the pictures hadn’t been made public none of the people in them  would have come forward to confess.

Like the politicians at the Golfgate dinner, and the Sinn Féin members at the Belfast funeral, they didn’t think the rules applied to them. Or in this case, I suspect, they didn’t think at all.

They were the authors of their own misfortune but they have been punished enough. There is no need for an Oireachtas inquiry, much less a Garda investigation. It’s time to end the show trials. Free the Montrose Four!

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