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National narrowcaster

RTÉ’s Claire Byrne show sells short epic issues like the merits of veganism

The press has always stimulated demand for its product – what’s the idea of a headline after all? The urgent cry of the newspaper boy summons a new scare or disaster every day. Benedict Anderson said this represented the “obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its publication”, according with W. H. Auden’s sentiments more elegantly expressed in a poem written on the eve of World War II, ‘September 1st, 1939’ where poetry is set in opposition to a degenerate press: ‘All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie’ he cries.

In an earlier poem ‘The Orators’ (1932) Auden vented a scathing satiric attack on the newspaper industry, addressed to “Beethameer, Bethameer, bully of Britain”, a conflation of the names of Lord Beaverbrook and of Lord Rothermere whose newspaper, the Daily Mail, was, at the time, sympathetic to Nazi Germany.

‘In kitchen, in cupboard, in club-room, in mews,
In palace, in privy, your paper we meet
Nagging at our nostrils with its nasty news,
Suckling the silly from a septic treat,
Leading the lost with lies to defend’.

We might conclude that no news reporting is good news reporting, but Auden takes contempt for the medium too far. Journalism rarely achieves the permanence of literature, nonetheless democracy demands a free and lively press.
Since the 1930s news reporting has of course migrated to other mediums, notably television which brought theretofore unplumbed depths of superficiality, but also a unique capacity to touch – and change – an audience with impressions, as well as words.

The power of media demands that ownership, and bias, should be transparent, and that a plurality of voices is represented, although this should not be mistaken for the error that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. A state media too, constitutionally committed to striving for objectivity, at least in terms of reporting major political events, is an important bulwark against the dominance of vested interests.

Public-service broadcasting involves more than simply representing the views of the people as expressed in opinion polls on a particular issue, as popular views are bound to be influenced by dominant media outlets. In order to fulfil adequately its anointed role, a state broadcaster must be courageous, at times running counter to prevailing sentiments.

It is scarcely possible to have a rational debate if attractive individuals are allowed to speak off the top of their heads, as is becoming increasingly prevalent in an era of reality television.

If that’s the theory let’s have a look at the experience! On March 27 I agreed, at short notice, to be a part of the audience for ‘Claire Byrne Live’, as a nominee of one of the speakers on the show, the campaign director of Go Vegan World, Sandra Higgins. We had connected through social media some years ago after my writings on food, sustainability and agriculture came to her attention.

The researcher called on the afternoon beforehand, and questioned me for over half an hour on the environmental impact of livestock agriculture, ethics and nutrition. He explained the show’s format and said I would be called upon to offer an opinion, but that I should raise my hand to make a point as well. I was assured it would be unlike the Jerry Springer Show, and they wouldn’t attempt to generate heated rows. Nonetheless he was keen to pin me down as representing a particular position rather than allowing, as I would have preferred, facts to speak for themselves. I eventually conceded that for the sake of convenience I could be described as a vegan. This I now regret.

I arrived in the soon-to-be-dismembered Montrose campus at 9.30 that night for refreshments in advance of the show. The audience was entirely white, seemingly Irish, and predominantly middle-aged – reflecting RTÉ’s greying viewership I suppose. I encountered a few Vegan activists I know including the sociologist Roger Yates who observed acidly that non-dairy milk wasn’t even being offered with tea, despite Veganism being up for discussion.

I also overheard a young man saying he was a UCD agriculture student who had been approached by Meat Industry Ireland to come on the show after participating in a college debate on whether humans were designed to eat meat. I guess they are always on the lookout for new talent.

The real industry heavies loomed incarnate as two burly men entered the reception area. Standing apart, and clad in black suits, they had the appearance of undertakers, which fits with their arguments I suppose. When the audience was seated I found myself sandwiched between the two of them, their faces reddening appreciably under the heat of the lights, and the rising irritation.

Before going out live we were put through our paces by the floor manager. Unlike on the BBC, most RTÉ shows take their title from the name of the presenter, and the audience is made to feel like extras on a movie set, awaiting the star turn. There is a peculiar submissiveness that obtains under the gaze of the cameras, that produces involuntary clapping on cue. I fought it as long as I could.

The first item concerned the scandal around the input of penalty points by Gardaí, and passed without incident. We then moved into the section on veganism, which was the first time the issue has been debated on Irish television, and so represents a breakthrough. What followed, however, revealed many of the failings that currently bedevil current affairs reporting, and not just in Ireland.

It began with a five-minute interview, recorded in advance, with the Fair City actress Rachel Pilkington on why she embraces a Vegan philosophy. In enlisting a celebrity actress it seems the show was chasing the Instagram generation. In the event Pilkington gave a worthwhile presentation of her ethical motivations.

Nonetheless, calling on an expert, such as for example Professor John Sweeney whose sphere is climate, or at least summarising the environmental data, would have allowed viewers to more easily frame their own ethical choices. Perhaps the seriousness of an environmental focus is anathema to RTÉ. Pilkington, understandably, was ill-equipped to address the complex link between Climate Change and animal agriculture which is an important trigger for many who adopt a Vegan philosophy. The absence of agreed facts generated confusion during the ensuing studio discussion. Facts are not the same as opinions and it is always instructive, whatever about entertaining, to flesh out the factual background.

After the five-minute clip, Claire Byrne began to conduct a debate involving a panel of Sandra Higgins as the Vegan representative and, in an unusual choice, the restaurateur and chef Oliver Dunne who brandished the cudgel on behalf of the conventional point of view.

Oliver Dunne

Higgins offered an impassioned account of the capacity of other animals to feel pleasure and pain like humans, a point that science seems to be increasingly vindicating. Dunne’s argument in response was “the consumption of meat gives an awful lot of pleasure in life”, as if the only life were human, which it factually is not, and as if pleasure self-evidently trumps depredation. We assume the owner of a chain of restaurants, one called ‘Beef and Lobster’, was animated by philosophy, not in any way his vested interest.

Dunne really lost the run of himself when it came to the environmental impact of meat. At points his misuse of language unwittingly contradicted his own arguments. When he said: “these little pleasures in life should be harmless”, it betrayed the wishful thinking of the unconscious mind.

But the real clanger arrived thus: “If I’m not right in saying it’s about 5% of the overall global warming…”. Indeed he was “not right”. Even the Big Ag representatives know to refrain from plucking statistics from the sky.
He then pointed to vegan preferences for soya, whose cultivation has caused such biodiversity loss in South America. Luckily Higgins was able to respond that the overwhelming majority of soya (90%) is actually fed to animals. It seemed like Dunne had Googled “arguments against veganism” on his phone, in the taxi from ‘Beef and Lobster’ to RTÉ.

His closing remark was, “Since humans roamed this earth millions of years ago we’ve been eating meat”; a statement contradicted by the dietary example of some of those in the same room, many thriving on plant-based diets for decades. Humans have been evolving over millions of years and eaten a great variety of foodstuffs along the way, including each other -which we assume he would not justify, no matter how pleasurable.

Dunne had earlier in the day tweeted that he had “never met a vegan who didn’t seem odd”. I wonder, and worry at, how he envisions normal.

Claire Byrne then cast the issue to the audience, directing a question first to one of the Big Ag representatives. Considering the film at the beginning had been from a ‘vegan’ perspective that seemed fair enough. He duly rallied the agricultural industry shibboleths about sustainability and “world class” animal-welfare standards. Does he think they tickle pigs’ tummies before slitting their throats?

I was then given an opportunity to speak, and at least managed to contradict Dunne’s claims regarding the global emissions from livestock agriculture. I said that the lowest estimate for livestock agriculture’s contribution to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emission was 14% of the total (I might have mentioned a study by Goodland and Anhang in 2011 which argues that the correct figure is as high 51%, when historic deforestation is taken into account), and that Irish agriculture contributes 32% of our total emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

As I was making my point Claire Byrne interrupted me, asking in what seemed an accusatory tone: “You are a vegan aren’t you?”. Perhaps she was attempting to show the programmers were being balanced but it also gave the impression that the evidence I was citing was tainted by ideology, even though, in contrast to the representatives of the meat and dairy industry, I receive no remuneration for espousing my views, and would have gladly volunteered my scientific sources.

The debate then descended into an unmediated version of the Joe Duffy Show, with one lady allowed to speak at length about how she had cooked such a delicious chicken dish that a vegan had fallen off the wagon. She seemed to be suggesting that she had supernatural culinary powers and that anecdote has statistical value.

The debate was later skewed in favour of the agricultural representatives both of whom were allowed to contribute on multiple occasions. I attempted to speak up again, but was told that “you have had your say” by an increasingly schoolmarmish Byrne.

Armstrong (left), eventually sidelined

Also, predictably, the issue of vegan or plant-based nutrition was addressed in terms of deficiencies that may occur in that diet as opposed to the health benefits that a whole-food, plant-based approach can bring. One of the Big Ag representatives then pointed to the dangers of a vegan diet where young girls give up milk, a heresy akin to missing Holy Communion it would seem. The Harvard School of Public Health meanwhile say that milk is neither the only nor the best source of calcium, and their researchers found no link between calcium intake and any risk of fracture in large studies.

It would be easy to despair at the ambient ignorance, but I know from my own father’s experience that embracing a well-planned, plant-based diet can bring potentially life-saving benefits. Two years after a triple heart bypass his coronary specialist informed him he didn’t need to make another appointment, and he has managed to get off most of his medication.

The propaganda model of Irish agriculture may actually be lowering life expectancies, and savings to the exchequer could be huge if a radical effort were made to embrace whole-food plant-based nutrition. A series of long-term studies has revealed the connection between animal-protein consumption and a variety of diseases. In particular, the Word Health Organisation’s advice on the probable carcinogenic nature of red and processed meat ought to be internalised.

The debate was over in a flash, before it got going. Surely the public would have been better served by discussing for longer than twenty minutes an issue with serious relevance to the economy, public health and the environment, quite apart from the important ethical dimension in itself. RTÉ seems loath to conduct discussions that might actually resolve important topical issues. This is perhaps an indicator for the obsolescence of television.