Pat Kenny’s ‘Prime Time’ item on Travellers was controversialist, leading, partial, negative and offensive, and could be perceived to have racist undertones – Martin Collins
RTÉ’s ‘Prime Time’ programme on 5th March 2013 was very much a programme of two halves. The first part of the show was an illuminating piece on the surrogacy issue. It was called ‘Born Identity’ and looked at many of the aspects involved. The panel of two were invited on as experts and the viewers had the chance to listen to their expertise. The second part of the show was in stark contrast to this.
At the beginning of the ‘Prime Time’ programme, Pat Kenny framed this second part, which was on Travellers, in a very particular way by stating that Travellers face many problems, before asking the viewers “…but to what extent do Travellers bring it on themselves?”. If the programme was dealing with inequality experienced by women or gay people would he ever ask “to what extent do they bring it on themselves?”.
Pat Kenny introduced the second part with what I consider was a dreadfully simplified synopsis of the root causes of prejudice. A Traveller is then quoted saying “Travellers are creating problems for themselves… But that’s not all Travellers” implying that it may, nevertheless, be nearly all. He then moved to a video piece on recent events, entitled “Fear and Loathing”.
This set the tone for the rest of the programme and included the gratuitous airing of multiple prejudiced views, often with the anti-Traveller sentiment denied by the very person articulating it.
Pat Kenny wondered whether the anti-Traveller racism portrayed and the anti-social Traveller activity portrayed were “two sides of the one coin”. In general he tended to lapse into generalisations – which it is elementary should be avoided – failing acutely to sideline the offensive over-generalisations of others, including sometimes those who were set up to be ‘neutrals’ or even on the ‘Travellers’ “side”’. Kenny clearly felt it was appropriate to attribute prejudice to people, as if it was just normal. He assumed, for example, that to the Gardaí, “Travellers mean sulkies going down dual carriageways… people breaking the law all the time”. Not just some of the time, mind.
We as a community were being problematised. This issue seemed to run through the whole item. Pat Kenny stated that it was not just a “few bad apples, it’s more than a few bad apples, isn’t it?”, with the question insidiously suggesting a personal view. The programme was not objective or impartial in its content or the facilitation of the discussion. RTÉ, in my opinion, were in breach of the Broadcasting Act 2009 with particular reference to section 39 (1):
“Every broadcaster shall ensure that…(b) the broadcast treatment of current affairs, including matters which are either of public controversy or the subject of current public debate, is fair to all interests concerned and that the broadcast matter is presented in an objective and impartial manner and without any expression of his or her own views”.
Pat Kenny, on several occasions, employed what he conceded were negative “caricatures”, imputed negative views as justifiable or re-phrased comments made by speakers as negative statements about Travellers. I felt his questions were frequently quite leading rather than open-ended. The general approach to the programme seemed to be to emphasise the controversial and the emotive. This did not help to illuminate the issues. At times I felt I was on the Jerry Springer show.
There should have been plenty of scope to examine the root causes of the issues and how different ethnic groups can co-exist and feel valued and respected. Instead the topic of cultural diversity and Traveller ethnicity was largely overlooked. The programme, in general, assumed a social delinquency on the part of the Traveller community.
According to the MacPherson report into the Stephen Lawrence murder inquiry in Britain, which was in the news again last year, racism can be understood as “conduct or words or practices which disadvantage or advantage people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. In its more subtle form it is as damaging as in its overt form”. This reflects the definition in the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. With this in mind, I believe some of Pat Kenny’s words could be perceived as having racist undertones, though that is not to say they are unusual in this society.
Issues affecting Travellers are complex and cannot be dealt with by sound-bites. What we need on programmes like this is calm, rational and intelligent discussion. This, unfortunately, was absent.
I felt that I and the other Traveller representatives in the audience did not get a fair hearing. Pat Kenny regularly interrupted those who spoke for Travellers’ rights. Three non-Traveller people in the audience spoke without interruption. Only one Traveller, Brigid Quilligan of the Irish Traveller Movement, was given an opportunity to speak for a minute before being interrupted.
There are lessons in this for Traveller organisations. We have been too keen to accommodate and facilitate requests from different sections of the media and quite often do so without discussing, much less agreeing, the terms of engagement. The media are very important in getting our message across but we need to reflect and be a bit more strategic about when and how we engage with the media. Sometimes that means saying no to requests.
In the meantime we need to hold ‘Prime Time’ and RTÉ management to account for what was to me the insensitive and disrespectful portrayal of Travellers. Racism towards Travellers is increasingly becoming normalised in public discourse including on mainstream media and we must not allow this to go unchallenged.
Martin Collins is Co-Director of Pavee Point Travellers’ Centre.