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Forty years a sowing

30 November, 1999

Fr. Dermot Mc Carthy, RTE’s head of religious programmes, reflects on 40 years of Irish television and the role of religious broadcasting.

Forty years of Irish television has caused an upsurge of nostalgia on RTE since the beginning of this year. Early dramas, news reports, documentaries, and snippets from The Late Late Show dating back to the ’60s, portray a gentler, kinder and more easy-going Ireland. On St. Patrick’s Day 2001, in a programme titled Meet Your Hosts, 200 presenters of television programmes on RTE over those forty years gathered in a studio to renew acquaintances and reminisce about the days when primitive technology meant that programmes often depended as much on a wing and a prayer as on technical skill to actually get on air!

And of course television quite openly included prayer from time to time in the programme schedule. From the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament led by Archbishop McQuaid in Donnybrook studios on that New Year’s Eve 1962, there was a recognition that TV would have to feature religious programming as part of its regular output. During the forty years since then, this religious dimension has taken many forms and appeared at various slots in the weekly schedules. For years, RTE followed the British custom of a ‘God slot’ on a Sunday evening, with Bunny Carr hosting a discussion on religious topics with some ‘bright young things’, as articulate young people were then called. The Second Vatican Council was in full swing in the early to mid-sixties, and there was a vibrancy in the air as the Irish Catholic Church began to feel the breeze of change. New ideas, new theology, new understandings of what is meant to be ‘Church’ were fertile ground for lively discussions on a variety of programmes. Even The Late Late Show became a forum for ecclesiastical debate from time to time, especially when Fr Fergal O’Connor O.P. was a participant.

Meanwhile the pioneering Radharc team, formed by a group of Dublin diocesan priests, led by the late Fr Joe Dunn, were making documentary films on a whole range of religious and socio-religious topics. They proved to be enormously popular with the viewing public and collected a string of awards both nationally and internationally. Radharc was the first independently produced series on RTE television. The Radharc team produced over four hundred documentaries between 1962 and 1996. Some of the earlier programmes are making a reappearance under the title of Radharc in Retrospect as part of the review of forty years of RTE Television. Viewers will once again be able to meet the real Christy Brown, the disabled writer whose life-story inspired the Oscar winning film My Left Foot, chuckle at the little Dublin schoolgirl relating Gospel stories with delightful originality and innocence, and sympathise with the Limerick farmers faced with searching moral questions from interviewer Fr Peter Lemass in Honesty at the Fair!

For the past eleven years, the RTE religious documentary series Would You Believe has been a regular and popular programme in the television schedule. Recognizing, as Christ did, that the most powerful way to get a point across is through story, the Would You Believe team have broadcast hundreds of personal stories – stories of courage, of faith, of doubt, of suffering, of disbelief, of conversion, of spiritual discovery, of perseverance, of hope and of love. As Radharc did before it, Would You Believe has tried to examine the practical implications of living out the Christian Gospel in the maelstrom of everyday society.

What a huge change has come about in the context of religious programmes in those forty years. Both the media and ecclesiastical landscapes have altered completely. We have witnessed he progressive erosion of one before the tidal wave of the other. The last decade of the twentieth century has been particularly difficult for the Churches. The sight of handcuffed priests and religious being led off to jail shocked the nation and dealt a body blow to the morale of all believers, especially to clergy. It opened the floodgates for unrelenting criticism of religious institutions and the devaluation of the teachings promulgated by spiritual leaders. This was, and is, evident in both print and broadcast media and gives rise to a real difficulty for those charged with the task of presenting Gospel values in today’s media forum.

Given the depth of penetration which television enjoys into every home and individual in today’s society, there is no doubt that TV programmes dealing with discussion of our spiritual and human destiny are an essential part of the broadcasting schedule. We are not looking for a special deference for religious programmes, nor do we seek a special place for the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist view of the world. We simply ask that religion and the spiritual dimension be acknowledged as a constituent part of human life and that it be recognised as such by those responsible for allocating resources within broadcasting. In other words, that religion be treated with the same seriousness as politics, sport, education, art, environment issues and so on.

Of course, because our society is increasingly a marketplace of competing interests, one of which is the Church, broadcasters are faced with a dilemma. What can we take for granted? What do viewers expect in relation to religion on television? Do they want it at all? There is no longer a uniform opinion, a common view. So what kind of religious material should we broadcast and how do we resolve the tensions which sometimes arise between those who promote religion, and those programme schedulers who must ensure that the maximum number of viewers will watch their programmes – religious or otherwise?

The Churches and the media by and large inhabit different spaces, are mutually suspicious of each other and have contrasting perceptions of the world around them. They speak different languages. By reason of their structure and values, religious institutions are in a ‘necessary tension’ with contemporary media, according to Avery Dulles, the Jesuit theologian who was made a Cardinal in 2001. He highlights six points where this tension is most evident: the Church’s message is a mystery of faith, whereas the media is investigative and largely iconoclastic; the message of the Church is eternal and seeks to maintain continuity, whereas the media lives off novelty; the Church tries to promote unity whereas the media specialises in conflict; the main work of the Church is spiritual whereas the media concentrates on more tangible phenomena and selectively reports Church teaching as though the Pope and bishops were mainly interested in sex, politics and power; in a democratic society, the media has great difficulty in appreciating a hierarchical structure and has an inbuilt bias in favour of the disobedient priest and the dissenting theologian; Church teaching is often complex and subtle, whereas the media want stories that are simple and striking.

When we come to religious matters covered in television programmes on RTE, there are immediate and special problems. For a start, there is a perceived incompatibility between a thoughtful approach and high viewer ratings. Because of increased commercialization and the serious imbalance between the income from advertising (70%) and the relatively low income (30%) from the license fee, there is added pressure on a public service channel, which gets in the way of in-depth treatment of any serious subject. Prime time television is a difficult place for nuanced treatment of spiritual matters. Also, television is about symbols and television prefers to use symbolic figures as spokespeople. An Archbishop or a charismatic and media-friendly prelate will be asked to appear time and time again. They are considered to speak more in the name of their flock than, for example, are lay people. And yet, the journalists who asked those people to appear are the very same journalists who criticize the Church for not giving more prominence to lay opinion.

But journalists are not totally to blame. One of the problems in Ireland is the scarcity of articulate lay intellectuals. At the time of the Second Vatican Council, people like Seán Mac Reamoinn, Louis McRedmond and the late Kevin O’Kelly were knowledgeable and articulate commentators on the debates in Rome and their implications for Church life at home. I do not see similar people emerging today from our colleges, universities or theological institutes. Reporters and researchers on Would You Believe are regularly hard pressed to find qualified articulate commentators on spiritual, moral and theological issues.

People involved in religious broadcasting are trying to explore what faith is doing in the world and sharing the ambiguities, the certainties and the doubts about values and beliefs. It happens in our worship programmes, our Masses and Services on Sunday mornings, in our documentaries and magazine programmes, and in short programmes of reflection or meditation like An Evening Prayer, as we struggle to interpret the pain and suffering of our society in the light of eternity. It is not our job to preach – that is the task of parish clergy – but it is our role, I believe, to be pre-evangelists, examining changing attitudes, banishing ignorance and prejudice, allowing people to tell their faith stories, sowing seeds, investigating new movements or communities, floating new ideas.

There will always be the ‘necessary tension’ that Avery Dulles speaks of between television executives and those who want ‘religion on the box’. This is a difficult and challenging time to be at the coalface of religious broadcasting, not only because of the culture of criticism of institutional Churches within media organisations but also because the pressure on religious programmes today is, in microcosm, the same pressure that is being brought to bear on public service broadcasting as a whole. The Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht has set up a Forum to examine the place and importance of public service broadcasting in Ireland today. Like programme makers in every other branch of the television service, those of us working in religious broadcasting will await its findings with great interest.

In the meantime it is encouraging to note that the new Broadcasting Act which became law in Ireland last autumn, stipulates that the Broadcasting Authority should provide ‘programmes that entertain, inform and educate, provide coverage of sporting, religious and cultural activities and cater for the expectations of the community generally’.

So, whatever the future holds for religious programmes on RTE, and whatever formats will be employed in their presentation, at least we have statutory assurance that the spiritual dimension of Irish life will continue to be represented in the television schedules of public service broadcasting in Ireland

This article first appeared in The Word (May 2002), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.