Paul Hosford: Does RTÉ deserve the after-party hangover? 

Is summoning the head of RTÉ to an Oireachtas committee to explain what happened at a farewell gathering really necessary, asks Paul Hosford
Paul Hosford: Does RTÉ deserve the after-party hangover? 

Miriam O'Callaghan, David McCullagh, Bryan Dobson have apologised for their lapse of judgement.

If you've seen or heard a single TV or radio ad this year, you will know that these are strange and unprecedented times.

This "new normal", however has been punctuated by glimpses of the old normal.

Dublin are still cruising through Leinster and causing arguments about funding and population, the week will end with the Toy Show, and there is still anger aimed at politicians and RTÉ stars.

For the doyens of Donnybrook, however, the anger isn't anything to do with salaries or biases, real or perceived. 

Instead, the anger is aimed at those in the station's news division who broke Covid guidelines by posing for photos at what we're told was an impromptu office gathering for a retiring colleague.

The quick comparison when the photos were published by The Sun newspaper was with Golfgate, the controversy and fallout from the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Clifden in August.

But are we really comparing apples to apples? Is there a real need for the head of RTÉ to be summoned to an Oireachtas committee to explain what happened? Do we need to see heads on spikes on Nutley Lane to be satisfied?

As part of the team which broke the Golfgate story in this paper in August, I am often asked why it provoked such anger. 

The truth is that it was for a number of reasons that formed a perfect storm. The nature and size of the event, the fact that it was linked albeit tenuously to the Oireachtas, the fact that restrictions which rolled back the summer's progress had come into effect days beforehand.

But the key reason was the stature of those involved. With a government minister, several senators and an EU commissioner, the long-held belief that people at the top hold themselves to a different standard was confirmed in their own heads.

In Clifden, a group of 81 people — one of whom designed the legal framework for Covid regulations, one of whom signed them off at Cabinet and nine of whom passed them in the Oireachtas, along with an ambassador and other members of the great and the good — decided to get together to hold an event which flew in the face of public health guidance. They did so despite chances to reassess, to walk away. 

In the days following, some gave incomplete apologies or distanced themselves from responsibility for their own actions.

In Donnybrook, a much smaller group stood into photos with no masks or social distancing with a colleague. I do not know those involved personally so cannot say that it was a lapse in normally sound judgement, and not a pattern of behaviour, but in the pantheon of Covid hanging offences, these pictures seem fairly tame. 

The fact that many top broadcasters gave apologies live on the air at the earliest opportunity put the issue to bed for many.

Mistakes happen and a large portion of the country will have done something that breached the guidelines in the last eight months, sometimes by accident or ignorance.

That it happened in a workplace that has been open throughout the pandemic is not surprising. This is not to defend the actions of those involved — many have celebrated birthdays from the end of the garden or over Zoom. 

Others would have loved a communion photo with a grandchild but didn't risk it. Those involved did wrong.

However, the key issues for RTÉ as a broadcaster and an institution are far more pressing than whether or not this was a swift farewell to a colleague or a retirement party with streamers and cake.

Those key issues boil down to the harm the entire affair can do to the broadcaster's journalistic and institutional standing.

In the first instance, the presence of big RTÉ names like David McCullagh and Miriam O'Callaghan at the event makes the job of every journalist in RTÉ and beyond that bit more difficult. 

The next time that someone in a position of power or authority breaches the Covid guidelines — and it will happen — the issue has the potential to be obfuscated by whataboutery: 'If you didn't ask for your colleagues' resignations, how can you ask for mine?'.

The problem with journalistic indignation is that you need to, generally speaking, have two arrows in your quiver. 

One is the fuel for that indignation, which usually comes from the watching public. The other is the moral high ground. 

Rightly or wrongly, the world has evolved, largely due to social media, to a state where people are as au fait with those asking the questions as they are the substance of them. 

This means that asking awkward questions of those in power requires the ability to not be asked the same questions yourself. Which is why broadcasters were made to wear the hairshirt and the company spent a weekend wringing its hands.

Institutionally RTÉ faces another, more wide-ranging issue. 

As an institution, it is a handy punching bag for a lot of people, no less so than politicians. 

At the end of the day, it is a semi-state organisation which takes public money, makes losses and gives politicians across the spectrum a kicking before asking for more funding. A chance to kick back should never be turned down.

That the incident has sparked demands for Garda investigations and forthright answers to an Oireachtas committee gives the incident a sense of drama and theatre that it scarcely deserves. 

But it weakens the reputation of RTÉ as a neutral party and draws a link between the gilded classes of Irish life — a link not altogether non-existent, it must be said.

But at a time when the future of both Irish media and culture are hanging by a thread, is this what we want the Oireachtas committee tasked with overseeing the sector to focus on? An ill-advised set of photos taken by a group of people who have apologised? 

To call in the heads of RTÉ to explain a farewell to a colleague which occurred in their offices would give this matter the kind of standing which it simply does not warrant.

There is no doubt that the gardaí can handle any number of investigations at once as a force, but is anyone really served by gardaí questioning Bryan Dobson about his role in the event?

There is no question that it breached Covid guidance, as there was no question in Clifden. But as Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said, those who make the decisions must be above reproach.

For those in RTÉ, they are learning that includes those in the public eye — but for very different reasons.

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