Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the tag “RTE”

Irish Water – Answers seem to be the hardest thing

Irish Water is in a mess. We all know that. The Government is struggling to deal with the crisis and the fact that they cannot seem to get everyone into a room and come to a decision is not helping. There is to be a decision this week, then its next week, the amounts vary, the idea of a referendum continues to be talked about. Understandably the government want to get it right, but the fact is that they will eventually have to take a bit of a hit and hope approach anyway and the public are less likely to agree with it each day that passes.
The longer it goes on, the more people talk. Public representatives are no different. Last week on the ‘Late Debate’ on RTE radio, Senator John Whelan made a stunning accusation. He suggested that the Government had been misled by Bord Gais about Irish Water. The suggestion was that TDs had voted for it but had been ‘sold a pup’. This accusation has pretty serious implications. Understandably RTE distanced itself from the comments.
In the aftermath a few questions arise. Public representatives may say things under pressure but what if this is a commonly held belief in the corridors of power? That would cause a major issue. If people in the government parties believe they were outwitted by Bord Gais then how could the ordinary person be expected to trust the new Irish Water body?

There is of course a simple possible explanation: that Senator Whelan spoke out of turn with no evidence whatsoever to back him up and is a lone voice in his belief or wildly mistaken. If this is the case then the government could be expected to deal with it by giving him a ticking off and immediately expressing their trust in Bord Gais in all their dealings with the government.
I asked this of the Labour party twitter account but got no response. Joanna Tuffy is a TD who bravely engages and discusses issues and she should be noted and respected for that. I asked her if she felt the government was misled and would she express full confidence in Bord Gais and all its dealings with government. She did not feel she had enough information to answer the question however and ‘I don’t know’ was as far as we could get.

I emailed the Government Press Office last Thursday asking them to clarify the matter and whether they agreed the government was misled or whether they would express full confidence in all Bord Gais dealings with the government. I received no reply. I emailed them again last Friday and they have still failed to respond.

I emailed Minister Alan Kelly’s press officer asking if he would distance himself from the accusation that the government was misled and if he would express confidence in Bord Gais dealings with government. He too failed to respond. Later that evening in an interview the Minister said that he would not ‘necessarily go down the line of saying that anyone was misled, because I wouldn’t think that’s appropriate.’ That is hardly the ringing endorsement that one might expect. Surely a minister should be saying that the Government was not misled in any way shape or form? The language hinted at some kind of doubt and that the wording of the accusation was just inappropriate rather than plainly wrong.
I emailed Minister Alan Kelly’s press officer putting this to him and again asking him to say categorically that the Government was not misled and that they had full confidence in Bord Gais and all their dealings. Still I was met with silence. How hard can it be to say you trust the people you are working with on the biggest project the government has before it?

I also contacted Senator John Whelan and asked him if he would wish to retract the comment or say he stands over it. Unsurprisingly after two emails I still got no response there either. After a while if you keep ignoring something then perhaps it will go away and people will doubt it ever happened. If no one asks the question then you don’t have to answer and once it’s not asked ‘live on air’ we will be fine.
So I experienced what it is like to become the invisible man. There are no answers. I wouldn’t mind but all I wanted them to do was fully back their own project and team in simple terms. Makes you wonder….

Update: After I posted this blog earlier a twitter friend Anne-Marie (@thecailinrua) asked Senator When for his thoughts on the blog. He responded with the following ‘I think Delores O’Riordain was recruited by Govt to get #water off front pages and @jonnyfallon should write a blog about that.’

We both asked him for a straight answer to which he responded ‘last week alone I was on midlands 103, RTE news and Late debate and answered all questions put to me as I always do’

I responded by reminding him that the questions in my email remained unanswered and asked ‘Do you stand over the allegation that Bord Gais misled the govt? yes or No?’

As things stand I have not got a response

Update 21/11/2014:As the government announced its revised Water Charges scheme Government TD’s and Senators hit Social Media in an effort to sell it. This prompted another opportunity to ask John Whelan about this. I asked him ‘Yes or No did Bord Gais mislead the government on Irish Water?’ He replied “Yes – I said we were sold a pup and today it is being put right by @AlanKellyLabour as any reasonable person would agree”

So it is now quite clear that John Whelan stands over his assertion. Despite repeated attempts and opportunities the Minister and the Government press office have still not replies to questions and this can only be taken at this stage as an acknowledgement that Whelan has a point or at least some support in his view. No Government source has been willing to express complete confidence in Bord Gais and their dealings with the Government on this issue.

I contacted Bord Gais (Ervia) about this and asked them for their view. Their response focussed mostly on the work they were attempting to do and how they hoped to gain the trust of the public. The first paragraph vageuly alluded to the question of who misled who. I include their response in full below. However, the Irish people are left in a most unsatisfactory position. Clearly some issue has arisen between Bord Gais and The government at a senior level. Some breach of trust must have happened as no side seem to be in a position to deny this. It is startling that an organisation that is now so dependent on gaining trust starts its life with doubt hanging over the very agreement it was based upon.

Bord Gais Statement:
Bord Gais put in a proposal to government in late 2011/early 2012. Detailed project plans and budget were agreed with the government subsequently and since then, the company has worked closely with the Government to meet milestones and deliver to a challenging timeline.

Obviously we cannot speak on behalf of the government. For our part, we welcome yesterday’s government announcement, which provides greater clarity and certainly to the public. The challenge that Irish Water faces in transforming water services in this country is considerable. In addition, the timeline set for the utility’s establishment was very challenging, and Ervia CEO Michael McNicholas has acknowledged this in interviews since yesterday’s announcement. He acknowledged that Irish Water had not yet won public trust and confidence, and apologised for that. We have made considerable progress in many areas since our establishment. For example by next summer, boil water notices will be down from over 20,000 to just 5,000; 12,000 people in Roscommon will soon have clean drinking water; and major waste water treatment projects are now in construction in locations including Youghal, Carrigtwohill, Clifden, Bunclody, Killybegs, Clonakilty and Waterford. We acknowledge we have not achieved all we need to achieve, and we are fully focused on winning the confidence of the public and making vital improvements to our water infrastructure.


The BAI, Media and Fairness

Over the last few days there has been a lot of reaction to a recent BAI decision. The BAI upheld a complaint against ‘The Mooney show’ as it found that it had not provided balance in relation to an item on Same Sex Marriage considering that we are due to have a referendum on the issue.

Let me start out by making a couple of points. Personally, I support the idea of Same Sex marriage. I also support the finding of the BAI in relation to this matter. When we are supportive of a measure or point of view we can become blind to the fact that there is an opposing argument. We have a tendency to become dismissive of it. However if the shoe was on the other foot we would be scandalised. Some of the people criticising the BAI decision would be apoplectic if a show on RTE had three people saying the opposite with no balance and a referendum coming down the road.

Any person in the media must be conscious of balance. As a broadcaster or a reporter that is where you earn your money, or at least it should be. An ability to observe and appreciate arguments, even if we do not personally agree, is an essential ingredient. I am often asked to take part in panel discussions. When it comes to politics I see it as part of my role to criticise where its deserved and then to also give credit when it is deserved. To put aside my own personal view and try to give a fair and balanced opinion taking into account the arguments in front of me. My own background in Fianna Fail is widely known and written about. There are often occasions where shows struggle to get guests at short notice and I have found myself on a panel with just an FF TD. Immediately this sets off alarm bells for me. I know that the TD is duty bound to be scathing about the government. In that situation even if I am critical of a government policy I will try to allude to their case or to point out difficulties they face. I do this because I immediately feel my role on the panel has shifted from a personal view to a more balanced observer.

In broadcasting it is not difficult, when holding a discussion, to point out that there are opposing viewpoints. It should always be mentioned that another side is not there to defend themselves. When interviewing or asking questions I believe it is my role to always take an opposing view to the person I am talking to. This is simple and doesn’t need to be aggressive, you just simply make the point and ask the person about it. Every so often when I interview a politician for a piece they question me afterwards ‘Surely, you of all people know that argument is rubbish?’ Sometimes I do know I am pushing a line I don’t believe myself but that’s my job when asking questions. It is up to them to point out that the argument is weak or to dismiss it. It’s my job to ensure the point is made and put to them.

Anyone involved in journalism or broadcasting at any level should be careful about leading opinion. We all have opinions of our own and things we like to see happen. There is a time and place to make that argument. If we are not mindful of that then we abuse our position. There is a responsibility. There are many Lawyers and solicitors who have taken cases they might not necessarily agree with but a part of their training is that everyone is entitled to fair representation. The media world is no different. You don’t have to agree with a point in order to make it. You simply need to believe in fairness and ask yourself if the tables were turned what you would like to see. You need to trust the public to be able to decipher arguments without your help and you need to trust an interviewee to be able to make their case without any aid from you. Seeing both sides of an argument is an essential skill for any writer or broadcaster and they should be well able to make arguments on both sides on any given subject. It is a skill that should be practised. If you are paid for your views it’s one thing, if you are paid to extract the views of others it’s another matter entirely.

Fiscal Compact Treaty debate far from enlightening

Today in the Irish Independent Online I take a look at the debate of the referendum on RTE’s ‘Frontline’ programme. Sad to say but for me the debate was very much a disappointment……….

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