The news silly season is upon us.
If last summer on RTÉ Radio 1 showed us the shape of things to come – in the form of Ryan Tubridy's feather-light morning hours – there have perhaps been further clues in recent weeks on the station about the direction of news and current affairs there. (And I write this in the full knowledge that many insiders insist the words "direction" and "RTÉ" cannot abide sensibly in the same sentence.)
Mary Wilson, one of RTÉ's most solid journalists, has not yet taken over the presenter's chair on the soon-to-be-vaguely-revamped evening drivetime programme. But it seems to me that Five Seven Live and other shows have already started to move in the direction signalled by the appointment of a legal-affairs correspondent (or court reporter to you and me) to this plum position.
Notwithstanding a brief outbreak of "political" news in the last few days – ie inside tales of back-stabbing and recrimination in the government parties – the trend is toward more, and more fevered, coverage of crime and court stories in particular. The show is set to be "the Evening Herald of the airwaves", as a friend of mine put it.
With all due respect to the Herald, this direction, with more sport and less room for foreign coverage and serious analysis of news, represents a clear dumbing-down of the public service broadcaster.
One amusing aspect of the encroaching silly season is that as the daily traffic gets lighter (with schools closing for the summer), the traffic reports seem to get longer. The AA Roadwatch reports on Radio 1 have long been a disgraceful capitulation to a commercial vested interest, which gets a massive name-recognition boast and association with what's left of a public-service ethos in return for a shabby series of unhelpful soundbites about conditions on the State's major routes.
The idea that a road network as large and diverse as Ireland's can be described fruitfully in 30 seconds is dubious, to say the least. AA Roadwatch has, over the years, scarcely had to try to do it properly: most of us have had the experience of sitting in a traffic jam that never gets a mention in the Roadwatch bulletin, or gets reported after it's already cleared.
Interestingly, Roadwatch has been forced to up its game lately, including more detailed information about tailback times etc, because the competition in Dublin has improved and got more popular. The rush-hour Live Drive programmes on community "special-interest" station Anna Livia (103.2fm) are devoted to traffic (and a few tunes) and deliver real-time information based on 120 traffic cameras.
Of course the cameras belong to Dublin City Council and Live Drive is a partnership between city government and non-commercial radio. So, according to the ideology that governs most of our media discourse, it should be failing dismally to match the dynamism of a company like the AA. Luckily, reality isn't governed by ideology, and Live Drive shows AA Roadwatch up for the sham it has always been.
Athlone at last
Still, you can be sure that the ideology of the superiority of private enterprise lives on. Business "news" on RTÉ continues to be the place to hear the ideology delivered with bells on.
Morning Ireland's business bulletins have been doing an unintentionally hilarious tour of the country, pausing to admire unbridled development and "job creation" in all corners of Ireland. A section of last week's visit to the centre of the island, laughably described as usual as "the main business news", heard our intrepid reporter, John Murray, gazing out over Athlone from on high with property developer John O'Sullivan.
O'Sullivan told the typically – albeit quietly – lovestruck Murray ("this will go how high?") that his eight-acre development on the site of an old hotel would not "interfere with the fabric of the town". Having noted Murray's astonishing lack of incredulity, the developer decided to repeat the meaningless phrase and juice it up: Athlone, O'Sullivan said, is being "doubled in size without interfering with the fabric and character of the town". So a million-square-foot development, 1,400 car-park spaces, 250,000 square feet of retail and "an international four-star hotel" (what does "international" mean?) reaching 14 stories high will just blend right in, then?
Murray's voice found a note of scepticism, a note that is the sound of real journalism, only when he turned from O'Sullivan to the government's views on regional development. Private good, government bad: all the business news you need to know as far as RTÉ is concerned.