- 23 May 22
A dispute has been simmering between Wexford County Council and the Wexford-based South East Radio over what has been interpreted as a bid to use advertising spend to influence what the station can or cannot broadcast. To find out more, Jackie Hayden talks to Alan Corcoran, presenter of South East Radio’s Morning Mix and to local Councillor, Jim Moore...
A major row has been ongoing for months now between Wexford County Council and South East Radio, the Wexford-based radio station. But it is one that is clearly of national importance, touching as it does on the core issue of the freedom of journalists and broadcasters, on local radio in particular, to comment on issues of local and national importance.
The row began when Wexford County Manager Tom Enright told South East Radio that he wanted make it a de facto condition of an advertising commitment, being offered to the station by the Council, that criticism of Wexford County Council by the station or its presenters would be limited or curtailed.
The suggestion was met with disbelief within South East Radio, a response which was swiftly followed by indignation. If this was an attempt to muzzle criticism, the station was having any of it.
The issue was brought to the attention of the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO). They ruled that Tom Enright had put “unwarranted pressure” on South East Radio, which amounted to a reprimand of sorts. Normal business then resumed and most observers felt the row had been put to bed.
Not so, it turned out. David Minogue, who is the County Secretary and Communications Officer with Wexford County Council, was involved in negotiating a €50,000 advertising spend with the station. According to emails – the contents of which were published by the Irish Times in April – Minogue simultaneously sought to establish three ‘criteria’ or conditions for the station’s ongoing coverage of Council business.
These included programme presenters not being allowed to express personal views; and a requirement that, once the Council had provided a comment about a particular issue, it should not be spoken of on-air again.
NO FUDGING OR ARGUMENTS
Describing the arrangement as a “service-level agreement”, David Minogue denied that this was an attempt at censorship.
“I emphasise,” he said in a subsequent email, “they are not conditions to continued advertising with or efforts to seek to prejudice the independence of the media, a position which the council fully respects, and they should not be interpreted as such.”
The founder and CEO of South East Radio, Eamon Buttle, was unimpressed. He was in no doubt that the editorial freedom of reporters and presenters was being compromised. His dander was up. He went decisively into battle, insisting in an email to David Minogue that it was “unconscionable” that he would “continue to deem it appropriate to request the imposition of these editorial ‘criteria’.”
Eamon Buttle went on to set out his – and the station’s – position in no uncertain terms.
“In facilitating and engaging in free and open discussion and debate in relation to the activities of Wexford County Council, South East Radio is not, and cannot be, a ‘service provider’ to Wexford Council.
“Nor can South East Radio, or I, engage in any back-channel discussions which have as their aim the impairment of the freedom of the press. Even at this remove, it seems that you have failed to grasp this fundamental issue.”
As it happened, Alan Corcoran, helmsman for the station’s daily Morning Mix programme, was due to speak to the Taoiseach Micheál Martin on-air. He took the opportunity to raise the controversy with the Taoiseach.
“My view is very clear and consistent,” the Taoiseach said on South East Radio. “There can be no attempts to interfere with the editorial freedom of the radio station. Also, in my view there can be no linkage between any advertising that a Council may do, and the editorial output of a radio station, and a news programme in particular. We must have a free, unfettered media with independent voices always there to hold us all to account, and to criticise and so on. It’s a matter now for the Council.”
Alan Corcoran asked if the Taoiseach would agree to a call from independent broadcasters to set up an independent enquiry into the matter.
“They haven’t been in touch with me in relation to this so far,” Micheál Martin responded, “so I’ll have to see what they’re saying and I’ll reflect on their statement when I receive it. But it’s a matter that has to be addressed by the County Council. SIPO has ruled and has come up with findings and it’s the body to investigate issues of this kind.
“Their recommendations should be adhered to and accepted by all concerned,” he added. “I’m quite surprised that there have been further iterations of this after the SIPO report was published. In my view, there can be no fudging or arguments. The principles are clear and it’s important that all State bodies adhere to such principles.”
CRAZY AND IMPRACTICAL
As a Wexford resident for the past 25 years, I find it all particularly baffling. I’m aware of the high regard in which people of all political persuasions around the county hold Tom Enright. More than one local has referred to him as “the best County Manager Wexford has had in decades.”
He’s thought of as forward-thinking, a team player, goal-driven and always approachable. Equally, Wexford County Council has a fine track record of supporting a variety of initiatives around the county, not least in the Arts. The Council provides financial support for, among other institutions and events, the Wexford Arts Centre, the National Opera House, the Write By The Sea literary festival, the Spiegeltent events, Screen Wexford, Culture Night and a Tyrone Guthrie Bursary.
So what is going on? I decided to speak to Alan Corcoran, who spent time with RTE Radio 1 and 2fm, before enlisting with South East Radio, where he presents the Morning Mix show. The programme deftly handles a challenging array of topics, with local, national and international dimensions.
I ask if anything like this has ever happened before, in Alan’s long experience in radio?
“Nothing,” he says. “This is totally beyond anything in my experience in radio, whether at local or national level.”
The controversy would seem to impact on Alan’s programme most, given the breadth of local subjects he covers on a daily basis.
“It does,” he says. “I’m aware that South East Radio is the voice of so many people in County Wexford. My programme – and others – often take up the baton for listeners who need a sympathetic voice in their corner when they’re up against a more powerful foe.
“I think that’s an important part of the role that local radio can perform. So it’s outrageous that anyone should try to stop us defending anybody or seeking clarification about an issue on their behalf.”
There must be a lot of pressure to get things right on the programme.
“That’s very true,” Alan says. “I was lucky at 2fm, in that I had a great producer in Cathal Póirtéir – and the same is true at South-East Radio, where I have Michael Sinnott. I believe in working hard and being fair. That’s what I do and will continue to do. And they both helped and supported me in that regard.”
There is a genuine concern that if the station had agreed to what the Council seemed to be demanding, there would be a potential knock-on effect across the radio industry – and indeed the entire media?
Alan Corcoran agrees.
“Absolutely. I would have to remind myself all through my programme every day that during any discussion of a Council issue, I would be restrained from offering a different view, or seeking one, to add a sense of balance to the discussion. I find that notion despicable.
“This is not North Korea,” he adds. “Had these sort of restrictions been in place before now, South East Radio would not have been able to battle, as we did, to save services in Wexford General Hospital. Without that battle and others, I dread to think what hospital services would be available to Wexford citizens today. “
A concern has also been expressed that other County Councils might be inspired to adopt a similar attitude to their local stations.
“I would hope not,” Alan reflects. “But we’re really in uncharted water here. So we’re grateful that our MD Eamonn Buttle is refusing to surrender our independence and integrity for any amount of advertising from anyone.”
There’s also a privacy issue involved.
“Wexford County Council are looking for access to all raw, un-broadcast material,” Alan states. “I regard that as a violation of the rights of the station, the interviewers and their guests for a whole pile of reasons. For example, it’s not uncommon in a pre-recorded situation, for an interviewee to tell you something private off the record to help explain the background to an issue. This information is not meant to be heard by anyone except the interviewer. The implications are enormous.”
Even a Councillor might be restricted in what he or she might say on-air.
“That’s how crazy and impractical all this is,” Alan says.
TACKLING THE ISSUES
Wexford County Council provides excellent support to local drama groups and theatres. Applying the same logic, any County Council could make it a condition of such support that recipients obey a set of new criteria. As a drama director how would Alan feel about that?
“I’d be horrified,” he says. “But I can’t imagine it would go that far.”
What’s behind the suggestion that once the Council issues a statement on a particular issue you can’t discuss it on-air any further?
“I have absolutely no idea,” Alan says. “It completely baffles me. What’s regrettable is that we have had a very positive relationship with the Council and Councillors from way back. For example, all through the Covid crisis, we gave regular space to the Council over issues of safety, restrictions, masks, dining out and other stuff. We’ve discussed every topic from the housing crisis to inflation to the crime rates, the upgrade of Rosslare Europort, people with special needs, migrants and so on.
“They invariably turn out to be very informative discussions which are a great service to our listeners. Sure, every now and then I ask hard questions. That’s part of the job. But only a few days ago Minister Simon Harris was in Wexford to pay tribute to Michael Collins and his fight for Irish freedom. My own grandfather fought alongside Collins for many freedoms, including the Freedom of The Press. How ironic is all that now?”
So where does it go from here?
“I’m not sure if anybody knows,” Alan reflects. “According to a report by Padraig Byrne in the Wexford People newspaper, there’s a suggestion out there that the Chair of Wexford County Council, Barbara Anne Murphy, might be looking at the possibility of holding a disciplinary investigation into the issue. But our MD Eamonn Buttle has said that a completely independent investigation is what’s required.
“In the meantime, thanks to the brave stand Eamonn has taken, and the many people from the public who have sent us messages of support, I and the rest of the station team are continuing to tackle the issues that are key to Wexford people. We’ll even ask the usual hard questions along the way. No one is going to shut us up.”
A LOCAL COUNCILLOR’S VIEW
Jim Moore is a former Lord Mayor of Wexford and currently serves as a County Councillor. Talking to him, it is obvious that he greatly regrets the contretemps that has come between Wexford County Council and South East Radio.
“I think it is a great pity,” he says. “These developments have cast a shadow over the great work that’s ongoing by the Council, first of all in response to the economic crash of ten years ago, but also the fall-out from Brexit and all the issues thrown up by Covid.
“Throughout Wexford county and the five districts,” he adds, “a lot of work has been undertaken and driven by the CEO Tom Enright, with the positive support of local authority members.”
It is obvious that he’d like the Council to move forward in a similarly positive spirit.
“I believe that in it’s important that we have good relations with all media, print included,” he says, “to make sure that the work undertaken by the Council on behalf of the electorate is fully represented, and is subject – as we all are – to public scrutiny.”
He makes the point that relationships can break down – in which case they need to be repaired.
“I feel,” he offers, “that we have to put in place a robust and mutually-respectful system through which the local authority and elected representatives can engage with the general public, through the media.”
Respect has to be at the heart of the relationship – and that has to include respect for the right of media to hold the authorities to account.
“Maybe there are lessons to be learned from this on both sides,” Jim Moore observes. “Maybe an over-reliance on emails could be replaced by simply sitting down and talking things over. After all, we have more to gain by working together, as has been proven in the past.”
This one still has some distance to run. Hopefully good sense will prevail and more harmonious relations will be re-established. But in the meantime, what we can say for sure is that – in standing up for freedom of the press and the media – Eamon Buttle, Alan Corcoran and South East Radio have done the State some service.
Long may they flourish.