RTE’s climate coverage – an “old trope” and a boring one at that

Published by Niall Sargent on

May 29th, 2019

The highlight of an otherwise drab European election debate on RTE’s Prime Time earlier this month was the ego-bruising putdown of our latest celeb-come-candidate Peter Casey by the fresh-faced green Saoirse McHugh.

The Achill islander’s stinging rebuttal of Casey’s views on immigration made media waves as she placated his Trumpian sentiment as an “old trope” and a boring one at that.

Casey may have had the last laugh as he is still in the race for a seat in the Midlands-North-West constituency while his eco-friendly alternative was eliminated this morning (but not without first taking home a healthy 51,000 first preference votes).

Despite losing out on a golden ticket to Brussels, McHugh’s performance lit a fire under the Green Party’s final fortnight of campaigning, giving the green light to the green wave that washed over Ireland this weekend.

When the ultra-marathon of counting in the South constituency finally comes to an end over the next 24 hours, there may be two greens on their way to Europe, together with the 49 elected to local authorities out of 82 candidates put forward.

This high return sparked a media flurry (including from yours truly) to see who could include the words ‘Green’ and ‘Wave’ in as many headings as possible, with even RTE – the climate community’s favourite dartboard pin-up – getting in on the act.

On Monday evening, for example, Claire Byrne coo-cooed over the newly minted eco-councillors and gave MEP in the making Ciaran Cuffe a fairly easy ride, despite a bit of back and forth over the size of the herd.

The honeymoon period did not last long, however, with RTE’s climate coverage returning to normal yesterday evening on Prime Time.

In recent times, the show has fallen into the old trap of pitting peat contractors against environmental TV presenters and sceptical scientists from the 3 per cent club against NGO folk.

Now the latest “balance” – which the editorial team seems to have misunderstood as a synonym for stereotype – is pitting a rural TD who may or may not think God controls the weather against a supposed oat latte, elderflower cordial loving green deputy.

Recently, we had the Greens leader Eamon Ryan facing off against the whistling warrior that is Michael Healy-Rae on the very serious issue of the media’s favourite new toy – the carbon tax.

Instead of a serious discussion on policy that will impact us all, the segment starts with clips of the Gilets Jaunes to the jangling tune of the Kaiser Chief’s I Predict a Riot, followed by a rural-urban clash that left more confusion than clarity.

So last night, the first show since the Green Wave flooded through the country, a second chance surely for RTE to change the dynamic and have a nuanced discussion on climate solutions with policymakers, experts and scientists.

Or maybe not, as Prime Time went for a rinse and repeat formula, although this time at least Michael Healy-Rae got a fresh opponent as the Greens deputy leader Catherine Martin stepped in for Ryan.

Still, we were treated to yet another combative rural v urban theme (it must have slipped past the researchers that Martin is actually a rural Monaghan gal herself), full of factual errors on the likes of the battery life of e-vehicles.

The whole thing certainly left many viewers drained – and worse still – uninformed, confused and frustrated by the style of reporting.

To echo Saoirse McHugh’s now famous words: RTE’s coverage of the climate theme remains clichéd, and while boring, the style of coverage is also dangerous.

At a time when the national broadcaster should have a responsibility to calmly and clearly inform the public about the impacts of climate change and how we can work together to quell the defining crisis of our time, the public continually comes away more confused than imbued about climate action.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London