In November 1972 the British Prime Minister, Mr Heath, visited Northern Ireland and made an important policy statement on the possible developments in Northern Ireland. As part of their coverage of this, RTE conducted interviews with leading political figures in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. In addition, as Mr Donal O Morain, chairman of the dismissed RTE Authority, explained:
In the interests of comprehensive reportage it was thought desirable to ascertain whether Mr Heath’s statements had altered the viewpoint of the Provisional IRA in any way. The method decided upon was to interview Mr Sean Mac Stiofain and to report in the ‘This Week’ programme of 19 November the substance of his replies.
The RTE Authority was apparently unhappy about certain editorial decisions in connexion with the programme concerned, and their displeasure was conveyed to the staff involved, although it is still not clear publicly in what respect the programme was seen as having gone too far. It was this programme on 19 November which led to the dismissal of the RTE Authority.
The only coherent explanation given by the Minister for his action was in the lower house of the Irish Parliament, Dail Eireann, on 14 December 1972, when he explained that he had a personal responsibility to ensure that opportunity was not given to people of violence to use RTE as a recruiting platform and thereby to increase the death toll in Ireland. It was never explained in what sense the broadcasting of the Mac Stiofain interview encouraged recruiting for the IRA. There was widespread condemnation of the Government’s action. The Irish Times editorialised:
If the Government felt that the RTE Authority could not be counted upon to run an impartial service within the bounds which the present regulations set, it is as clear to others that the Government cannot be trusted to use wisdom in its handling of public communications.
The high-handed and arbitrary conduct of the Irish Government did not come as a bolt from the blue. For a long time the Irish Government has adopted a curious view of the function of RTE. In October 1966 the then Irish Prime Minister, Mr Sean Lemass, told the Irish Parliament:
Radio Telefis Eireann was set up by legislation as an instrument of public policy and as such is responsible to the Government The Government has overall responsibility for its conduct, and especially the obligation to ensure that its programmes do not offend against the public interest or conflict with national policy as defined in legislation. To this extent the Government reject the view that RTE should be, either generally or in regard to its current affairs and news programmes, completely independent of Government supervision … It has the duty while maintaining impartiality between political parties … to sustain public respect for the institutions of Government and, where appropriate, to assist public understanding of the policies embodied in legislation enacted. The Government will take such action … as may be necessary to ensure that RTE does not deviate from the due performance of this duty.
The significance of this statement is sharpened when it is remembered that it was made in reaction to criticism of unlawful interference by a Minister in the broadcasting of material by RTE after the Broadcasting Authority Act had made it clear that the only permissible method of interfering with programme content was by the issue of a direction in writing to the Authority.
A footnote to the dismissal of the RTE Authority is to be found in the case of Mr Kevin O’Kelly, the RTE reporter who had conducted the controversial interview with Mac Stiofain. At the trial of Mac Stiofain for belonging to an illegal organisation, Mr O’Kelly refused to identify the man in court as the Mac Stiofain who had given him the interview. For his refusal Mr O’Kelly was sentenced to prison for three months for contempt of court. This in turn led to protests, including stoppages of work, by journalists and members of the staff of RTE.
The RTE affair underlines the need for the mass media to be shielded against direct interference by Government, a problem which in formal terms has not been resolved in either Britain or Ireland. The responsibilities that broadcasting incurs to provide a wide coverage of differing opinions on controversial issues raise special problems when dealing with unlawful organisations within the State. The notion that mere representation of the views of such bodies necessarily provides an opportunity for recruiting new supporters shows a curious lack of faith in the democratic process on the part of those purporting to be its defenders. In any case, what the public interest requires should not be confused at any one moment with what the Government currently in power considers to be in its interest.