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Of bishops and nighties

Farrel Corcoran

A Post-Nationalist History of Television in Ireland, by Edward Brennan, Palgrave Macmillan, 235 pp, ISBN:

Most of the Irish media allocated generous amounts of time and space to mark the death of broadcaster Gay Byrne in November this year. Former colleagues, editorial writers, public figures, viewers and listeners all gave expression to their reminiscences and appreciations of what the man had contributed to radio and television over a very long career. Much of the public discourse resonated with what had been said in the media twenty years previously at his retirement. Byrne was the “choirmaster of the national conversation”. His funeral was “a national moment”. His long-running Late Late Show was credited with changing decades of Irish thinking, of liberating Irish society from the dark ages of church-led values. Byrne changed the way we saw ourselves, our society and the pillars of authority that had underpinned it all.

If we look closer at the media coverage of Byrne’s funeral as a concentrated “site of memory” for reflecting on the big question of the relationship between television and Irish culture and politics we can discern a dominant narrative that colours much academic and journalistic accounting of the influence of television in society. Television is viewed predominantly as a modernising force for positive change that over time eroded the hegemony of tradition, Catholicism, indigenous capitalism and introverted nationalism. In this narrative, the iconic Late Late Show stands out as a major influence with “a profound effect on Irish social mores” (John Horgan), the “bane of the upholders of traditional values” (Diarmuid Ferriter) since its beginning, giving voice to what “Old Ireland” had silenced. Its achievement is “founded on people’s inarticulacy, embarrassment and silence” (Fintan O’Toole). The Late Late “provoked legislative change and shifted the boundaries of taboos in Irish social discourse on a variety of topics, including unmarried mothers, Traveller rights, infanticide, different kinds of sexuality, marriage and clerical celibacy” (Lance Pettit). If the Late Late Show had not existed, “it is highly possible that many people would have lived their lives in Ireland in the 20th century without ever having heard anyone talking about sex” (Colm Tóibín). The achievement of television is “the empowerment of the individual, the strengthening of rights based on individual choice rather than the old hierarchical society with answers handed down from those already characterised as well-nigh infallible in all matters” (John Bowman). The story of RTÉ is the achievement of broadcasting prising open the nation’s culture of silence and playing a catalytic role in modernisation and cultural liberation.

Few would disagree with any of this. And yet it is worth asking how do we know all this to be true and examining a related question: how do we narrate to ourselves the history of television’s evolution in Ireland? Should we ask if a different, alternative approach to orthodox historiography is possible? A new book by Edward Brennan argues that the dominant narrative of RTÉ leading Irish culture out of the dark of the past into the light of modernisation offers a narrow vision and needs to be deconstructed to reveal its methodological preoccupation with institutions. The book marks out its own space as revisionist. Brennan argues that what he calls the orthodox account of television is engrossed in the role of the national broadcaster operating within the nation state. It tends to play down the role of international influences, mute the voices of viewers and too often present a history of television as simply an account of broadcasting organisations, a record of their interactions with the state and other significant institutions. What is left out of focus in telling the story of “national” media is taking stock of how they are infused with international content and production conventions, and exploring the viewing experience in domestic living spaces where the global mixes with the personal. Orthodox histories are often assembled from a bric-a-brac of memoirs, biographies and anecdotes from journalists and media personalities.

While organisational histories are useful blocks in building a full understanding of television in society, they do little in themselves to explore the role of this medium in everyday life or interrogate broader processes of social change. The power of television, long debated by media scholars and sociologists, is assumed rather than analysed. Institution-based histories are interested in broader social processes only to the extent that they affect the fortunes of the broadcasting institution or the television industry. In the Irish case, the evolution and fate of RTÉ as a public service institution has been used as a proxy for the history of Irish people’s experience of television.

The problem with institutional histories, Brennan argues, is that they exclude groups of people who have had entirely different experiences of television, because of factors bearing on geography, gender, class, race, ethnicity or sexuality. This exclusion is more obvious in the development of American television as it became a nationwide medium in the 1950s. The television networks consistently drew upon the image of a suburban, white, middle class family audience in devising promotional strategies and programming, ignoring other demographic groups: black people, lesbian and gay people, those who were unmarried, the homeless and the elderly. This narrowing of the mode of address spread far beyond the borders of the US as television was launched in other countries.

A key concept in constructing a post-nationalist history of television that is an alternative to the dominant paradigm is Nick Couldry’s idea of the “mediated centre”, a central knot of social networks, technology and institutional power that possesses the capacity to communicate strongly to people that it is at the centre of society. According to Couldry (and Brennan), media institutions, like RTÉ, have an interest in maintaining their position as “central” social infrastructure and thus influence the accounts they give of the difference media make to social life. Furthermore, media studies, in constructing for itself an object of critical analysis, has invested heavily, though perhaps unwittingly, in the myths that encircle its object of analysis, in particular the myth of the mediated centre and its oversimplified formulation of television’s relationship to social space as a whole. Media studies too frequently take media’s claims to be at the centre at face value. Rather than being critical media outsiders, Brennan claims, Irish academics have usually amplified the symbolic power of Ireland’s mediated centre and embraced what are ideological claims of social centrality.

This is a more nuanced argument than the charge of “mediacentrism” traditionally levelled against media studies by sociologists and political scientists, the supposed exaggeration of the significance of media in the contemporary world. Brennan is keen to move beyond this and rethink the “mediated centre” of RTÉ as a node in a global network of political, economic and media power. The key limitation in moving on past the dominant academic and journalistic paradigm of television history is the established reliance on institutional sources in research design. This makes histories unwittingly nationalist, for instance, tending to incorporate a vision of RTÉ as an institution that created a new national cultural space so that the “new Ireland” could breathe: modern, economically liberal and self-determined. But the mythic binary of “old” versus “new” in the dominant narrative fails to dwell on external influences, including the slow impact on society from direct foreign investment by American transnational corporations, or the early influence on parts of Irish society from BBC and UTV before 1961, the year of RTÉ’s birth, as well as the arrival of satellite television, the neoliberal impact on broadcasting of the legislative deregulation of the 1980s, and the heavy reliance of RTÉ on American programming and formats. Between 1962 and 1966, as work by Roddy Flynn shows, imported programmes accounted for just under half of the total of RTÉ’s daily schedule, most heavily concentrated in prime-time slots. America as an aspirational space loomed large in Irish imaginations in those early years.

Brennan argues that despite the dominance of the story of Irish television forging an escape from repression to freedom, from silence to the ability to speak and be heard, many questions about how Irish people’s lives changed are ignored. In this failure to ask certain questions and explore certain facts, the dominant narrative is ideologically conservative. The problem is also a methodological one, where institutional sources are used not as a means of understanding RTÉ, as a political economy approach would, but as a way of divining how Irish people used, understood and acted in relation to television and how public culture changed since the 1960s.

In stepping beyond what he considers a methodologically and ideologically limited academic narrative, Brennan’s project is wholeheartedly revisionist, an attack on the assumption that what RTÉ transmitted can be read as a direct reflection of how Irish people thought about and reacted to television. He also opposes the idea that newspaper coverage of big televised events where opposing opinions clash (like those that punctuate the history of the Late Late Show) can be accepted as a direct reflection of how the public experienced and processed such controversies.

So the question is how to push back against the power of the mediated centre to shape how its own history is written, as well as its strong hand in shaping the background common sense about how Irish television has influenced Irish society. It is too late to study audience reaction to television as a new medium in Ireland (BBC and UTV in the 1950s, available to two in every five people by the end of that decade, then RTÉ in the 1960s). Brennan turns to audience retrospection and television memories. Personal recollection becomes his main source. He uses in-depth life-stories as his method, focused on how people have viewed television at different stages in their lives and the connections between television, everyday habits and personal relationships. Working on memory, in the form of about two dozen life-stories, necessarily presents its own challenges, especially the task of finding social meaning in individual memories. These challenges are given a good shake out in a chapter on “Personal Memory and Social Power”, a lucid exploration of insights from the work of key theorists such as Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Bourdieu (although another good source of insight into social memory, Pierre Nora, is not included).

Particularly interesting is the insight that social class, values and memory are dialectically intertwined, in the sense that the way people make their living, one of the defining aspects of class, shapes their values and worldviews and in the case of television fundamentally shapes viewers’ recollections of their experience of the medium. Country people and city dwellers have quite different ways of understanding television, and gender roles shape how the advent of television was experienced and remembered. Thus we can see in life-stories a diversity of experiences and a variety of mnemonic communities that offer a counterpoint to assumptions in institutional histories that television brings about a uniform and unifying set of experiences within the nation state. Memories captured in life-stories fall into some broad types: wall-paper memories (television as a pleasantly repetitive weekly habit that is part of the background of daily life), flash-bulb memories (sudden dramatic events that are remembered in vivid detail, such as the assassination of JFK, although interestingly, memories of this are far from uniform) and close encounter memories, (actual contacts between the world of television characters and the world of viewers).

The life-story interviews bring into focus the importance of imported programmes and international broadcasts and suggest a range of connections that deserve future scrutiny. The social realist element in British television drama in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, became part of the template for indigenous soap operas, like Tolka Row. The Riordans self-consciously tried to open people’s eyes to some of the taboo aspects of Irish society, though economic issues such as poverty, homelessness and inequality were more often explored in depth in British television plays and made a greater impact on people’s memories of television. British comedy series also offered a more grounded sense of social realism, addressing issues of unemployment and emigration through humour.

One notable absence from Brennan’s work on memory is the use of radio listenership statistics, television ratings and other entertainment industry data to augment recollections of how television took personal time away from radio listening (Basil Chubb, writing in 1987, was able to find empirical evidence for a significant decline in audience size for political magazine radio programmes), the decline in cinema attendance and the demise of variety shows in theatres and cinemas that had been a staple of life before public entertainment was domesticated by television. The lack of empirical data sometimes allows theory to outpace evidence, for instance in Brennan’s discussion of how gender and social stratification fundamentally shaped experiences of family viewing around the household screen. Given the limited nature of the research, we can only hypothesise about any correspondence between types of recollections and class trajectories, but it does seem that families recall and reinforce the traditions of social class groups in which they are embedded, for instance, in accounts of discernment over what kinds of programming the family watched, and when. Making pronouncements on what shows were good and bad was related to levels of education and cultural capital. Social position provided the power to make confident judgements and an ease in displaying knowledge of television. Geography also played a role: people in border counties who received British television thought David Frost gave Gay Byrne a good run for his money in pushing out the boundaries of public debate.

Brennan is of course aware of the limited nature of his memory research and the limited data they yield, though the degree of generalisation he does allow himself to make from his life-stories opens up suggestive paths for other scholars. It is impossible from some recollections to know whether individual memories have any significant social meaning beyond the level of the interesting anecdote: the women who planned to prepare themselves properly for the big occasion of a royal wedding that they planned to watch on a television set in a TV Rental shop window, “all dressed up to the nines in gloves and hats”, or the neighbours who aspired for years to owning a colour set but in the meantime would attach a multi-coloured see-through piece of plastic to their monochrome screen.

Beyond the anecdotal level, however, life-story interviews can uncover some of the diversity of viewer experiences that institutional histories tend to obscure. The famous Late Late Show event, frequently referenced as “The Bishop and the Nightie” in accounts of RTÉ in the 1960s, an iconic event in the binary Old Ireland/New Ireland narrative of modernisation already discussed, was remembered very differently in these life-stories. In February 1966, in a light-hearted quiz for newlyweds, Gay Byrne asked Mrs Fox what colour nightie she wore on her wedding night. She replied “none at all”. The audience laughed and the show moved on. But watching television in Galway, Bishop Ryan of Clonfert was appalled. He denounced the Late Late from the altar on Sunday and instructed his flock not to watch it again. This initiated a moral panic that played out over some weeks in further condemnation by clerics and politicians and widespread moral analysis (plus some lampooning) in national and regional newspapers.

The event has been a perennial footnote in the history of Irish cultural change ever since, an emblematic moment when an entertainment programme broke a Catholic culture of silence and contributed to the rationalisation of the public sphere. However, Brennan argues that it was the press, and not any outraged public, that shaped subsequent accounts of this “watershed moment” in Irish history and that an ideological approach to institutional sources perpetuated its mythic status. From life-history interviews, it seems the event had little presence in the memories of viewers and that Ireland’s so-called culture of silence may have been maintained not so much by ignorance but by the absence of the permission to speak out. In public opinion research, it is true that in an uncertain world, opinions which the media represent as being popular (and which people perceive as being the majority view) can stifle the expression of contrary views because people fear being socially ostracised (as in the Spiral of Silence theory of public opinion championed by German sociologist Elizabeth Noelle-Neuman). In contrast, the perception (whether true or not) that everyone else is discussing a controversial topic aired on television (contraception, homosexuality, abortion, birth outside marriage, the colour of nighties on wedding nights) grants people permission to do the same. If “the whole country” is participating in the Late Late Show’s discussion of social taboos, that becomes the accepted norm.

There is evidence in the life-stories that some people had long been comfortable with controversial issues aired by the BBC and UTV, but there was no national permission because “the nation” was not watching these channels and there was no widespread discussion of BBC or UTV in newspapers to match press analysis of RTÉ. The Spiral of Silence did not operate. For historians looking back, the Bishop and the Nightie episode was seen through press commentary of the time. But what little of it left a trace in people’s memories captured in their life-story interviews seemed to be informed less by contextual information from 1966 and more by subsequent hearing about a light-hearted skirmish between an apoplectic bishop and a straight-faced Gay Byrne, a farce that encapsulated the central official binary narrative that was beginning to emerge in academic and journalistic discourse.

The dominant national narrative is still alive and well in some parts of the media, such as comment on the annual pre-Christmas Late Late Toy Show. Press coverage is now infused with nostalgia for Gay Byrne’s adept role in presenting it for several decades but also admiration for the show’s survival into 2019 as a “national event” with the enduring ability “to bring the nation’s families together” once more around the television set, as it might have done in single-channel areas in the 1960s. There are alternative narratives about television available, of course, including a more radical account of the media in Ireland that explores how culture is ultimately shaped by transformations in the economic base of society. A currently apt example of this is the debate that sparked off among members of the newly appointed RTÉ Authority in 1995 (of which the present writer was a member) on the ethics and economics of facilitating advertisers’ access to child viewers. At what age does the caveat emptor principle kick in, protecting the interests of young consumers? Is it relevant to children at all (what do child psychologists say?) and how would it work in the media-saturated world of late ’90s Ireland, where children have many channel options and where advertising budgets can hop from one media outlet to another at high speed? Was the relentless generation of desire for expensive toys ethically sound and “fair” for all the families of the nation living in a society structured by obvious income disparities?

The idea was floated in RTÉ of imposing a moratorium on advertising to children in the pre-Christmas season (this would include the heavily marketed Late Late Toy Show) so as to reduce “pester power” anxiety in families on tight budgets. Hostility to this way of thinking was immediately voiced by several advertising industry lobbying groups, including the Institute of Advertising Practitioners in Ireland and the British Toy and Hobby Association, warning of a “crisis of confidence” in RTÉ’s future relationship with the advertising industry, were this moratorium to be activated. It also appalled Gay Byrne, steeped in the mindset of a “national event” bringing the families of the nation together to be entertained by the television wizardry of the Toy Show.

Brennan’s heart is with the more radical alternative view of television, even as he admits that his methodology in this book has its limitations. He teases out in the final chapter the work of Desmond Bell and Michel Peillon on the complex interplay between indigenous class interests, politics, broadcasting policy, the influence of multinational corporate capital invested in the economy and the media’s role in legitimising national discourses as they evolved since independence. In a neo-Marxist perspective (developed much more fully in the larger academic world of British media and cultural studies since the 1970s), television is seen to function as an ideological apparatus facilitating different economic interests.

Across the broad range of media research that emerged a century ago, with an emphasis on theorising persuasion and propaganda, in the wake of World War I and the spread of radio, the study of “influence” has generated by far the largest body of empirical and theoretical scholarship. This is in contrast with both literary and cinema studies, where an interest in the texts themselves is far stronger than an interest in anything “social” that follows from a book being read, or a play being staged, or a film being screened. (There are interesting exceptions to this trend, of course.)

Edward Brennan has delivered a valuable intervention in the accepted way we think about the influence of television in Ireland. It is a timely disruption to the taken-for-granted assumption that we can understand questions of influence, and make large claims about the contours of public meaning in society, by studying media institutions alone. After this book, we can’t. But it is not yet clear if ethnography in any form can capture social meanings that held sway in the past. The soft spot in Brennan’s research design is the one he identifies himself: the use of life-stories for the purpose he set up. Some of the most interesting developments in analysing media influence from an ethnographic perspective have come from studies that examine particular public issues, framed tightly within specific temporal and thematic limits. The work of British researchers, including the Glasgow Media Research Group, is instructive here, where the core methodological problem is discerning significant patterns in ethnographic data and being able to generalise from individual memories. The best work done in Britain has involved close attention to viewers’ own accounts as a primary focus in research design, with an emphasis on their interpretation of media texts and the circulation of public knowledge in society via media and other means. But importantly, it has focused on specific social themes (children and television violence, mental illness, the BSE beef crisis, unemployment, women viewing violence, nuclear energy and so on) within very specific time limits. In trying to reconstruct in an ethnographic way how television might have been received in its early years in Ireland, those crucial thematic and temporal limits are difficult to maintain. This makes the extraction of social meaning from ethnographic data difficult to accomplish.


Farrel Corcoran is Professor Emeritus, School of Communication, Dublin City University. He is a former Chairman of RTE.