February 2017        

RTE and alternative facts

Alan Hanlon

Immediately after his inauguration as president of the United States, Donald Trump claimed there were more people at his inauguration than at any previous inauguration. All the evidence contradicted this.
     His spokesperson described this Trumpism as an “alternative fact”; the American media described it as a falsehood.
     An “alternative fact” is a falsehood. Channel 4 simply called it a lie. RTE, however, described it as “economical with the truth.”
     It is understandable that RTE might want to equivocate before describing anything as a lie, lest it be sued. However, RTE has a long record of presenting “alternative facts.”
     It has previously been shown in Socialist Voice that from the beginning of the campaign of opposition to the privatisation of water RTE News went from a position of hardly mentioning the biggest public protests since the 1970s or 80s to understating the numbers. It also regurgitated official statements denigrating the protesters and misrepresenting their motives. In effect it showed itself to be an organ of the state.
     Far from being balanced, RTE in the main has taken on the role of state propaganda machine. The pursuit of a right-wing, neo-liberal agenda, especially by talk-show hosts, is hardly surprising when you consider that some of these people are paid a massive amount of cash by a company that is loss-making and is largely paid for by taxing the public through licence fees.
     Because of this it might be thought that, like other public employees, these RTE “stars” would have a public-service ethos and would be paid public-sector salaries. Far from it!
     What is less well known is that many of the RTE stars have set up companies that then contract their services to RTE. In effect, they are self-employed. At the very least these RTE stars should declare their directorships before pontificating that busmen and other workers are overpaid.
     Marian Finucane is a typical example. She is a director of her own company, which contracts her services to RTE. According to the most recent figures, her company is paid about €295,000 per year for her two shows at the weekend, amounting to four hours’ broadcasting per week.
     Here are some examples of the alternative facts from the panellists on her show. All these claims went unchallenged. They claimed that the public service was responsible for the economic crash, because civil servants were being paid more than the state could afford. This is not true. In fact in 2007 the minister for finance was able to boast that he had a surplus. In 2008 this situation was reversed when the next minister for finance decided to underwrite the private debts of individuals and so in effect socialise the debts of a small but influential clique. The consequences for the rest of us are well known.
     In the wake of the Garda pay settlement the worthy panellists on the Marian Finucane show latched on to the “Rolls-Royce” pensions in the public sector. One came out with this gem: he had worked in the civil service as a consultant, and some of the people he’d worked with were getting more in pension than they were paid when working.
     This is nonsense. Defined-benefit pension schemes work the same way in the private and the public sector. The benefit is defined; therefore if someone has a salary of €50,000 and forty years’ service their pension will be €25,000. For this pension to increase to over €50,000 there would have to be pay increases more than double the basic salary. In fact pay was cut in 2010. Even before that, pay increases would not have come close to achieving a doubling of pension.
     Nevertheless this type of illogical claim about public-sector pensions is accepted and broadcast without demur.
     Donald Trump has been completely underestimated by the media, here and elsewhere. His methodology is fairly straightforward: make a false claim, such as the one about Barack Obama’s birth cert, or the number of people at the inauguration, or the number of people who voted for him. The false claims are sound-bites that attract attention, and he uses them to groom his supporters to accept a lowering of standards.
     As soon as the bogus claims are refuted he drops them and moves on to the next headline-grabber. However, the bogus claims can enable him to push through executive orders on immigration, voting, etc.
     Likewise, in Ireland chat shows on RTE regularly broadcast misinformation about strikers, public servants, or water protesters, using terms such as “militants,” “hard left” and so on to prepare the public for some new erosion of values and services, such as the current drive to privatise public transport.

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