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FactCheck: Is Pat Rabbitte right about RTE's coverage of water charges?

The former Labour TD says RTE has focused almost entirely on protests, and almost never reported on the need to improve our water infrastructure.

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IN THE MINDS of many, the ongoing controversy over water charges and Irish Water has been inextricably linked to a controversy over how the Irish media has covered the saga.

Last week, for example, Sinn Féin revealed that Irish Water had paid the national broadcaster €717,286 for advertising.

And on TV3′s Tonight With Vincent Browne on Wednesday, former Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte doubled down on his long-stated criticism of RTE’s coverage of the controversy.

Among other claims, he stated that up until the general election, RTE’s coverage of water charges focused exclusively on the protests against them, and never addressed the need for investment in our failing water infrastructure.

A fairly extraordinary claim. Does it stack up?

(Remember, if you see a claim you want looked at, email factcheck@thejournal.ie).

Claim: RTE’s coverage of water charges only focused on protests, until after the general election
Verdict: FALSE

What was said:

11/3/2013 Energy Action European Conferences Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

During a lengthy discussion on RTE, host Matt Cooper invited Pat Rabbitte to elaborate on his criticisms of the broadcaster. You can watch the exchange in full here, but we’re focused on this part:

In the 18 months of the controversy, RTE never did a programme explaining why we have a dysfunctional water system, and why it needs enormous investment in the interests of public health and attracting industry here until – after the election – Simon Coveney went on a programme and hinted that he might be backing down.
They then did a programme, the following Thursday night, on why this was a disgrace, and the system was so dysfunctional, somebody had to pay for it and we had to get the investment from somewhere.

Press Ombudsman Peter Feeney then intervened to say that RTE’s Environment correspondent George Lee had done “many reports” underlining the need for investment in water infrastructure.

Rabbitte rejected this and added:

No, he did general and generic reports, Peter, but the water thing was covered purely from the point of view of the protests.
…If RTE had done a programme explaining to the citizens of Ireland why we needed to bring our water service, make it fit for purpose, I think somebody would have brought it to my attention.

The Facts

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

RTE has in fact reported many times on water infrastructure issues, and the need for further investment in Ireland’s water system, including during the period before the general election on 26 February.

This is a (far from exhaustive) list:

  • 9 June 2015. Prime Time segment on lead contamination and the cost of improving water infrastructure. Discussion between Alan Kelly and Willie O’Dea
  • 31 October 2013. Prime Time segment on water shortages, supply and treatment problems, and how water charges could help address those issues. Discussion between then Irish Water Managing Director John Tierney and then Irish Times environment correspondent Frank McDonald.
  • 20 January 2015. One News report by George Lee on the need for significant investment in Ireland’s water infrastructure.
  • 20 January 2015. Today with Seán O’Rourke interview with Irish Water’s Jerry Grant on improvements to water treatment plans being undertaken by the utility.
  • 31 March 2015. Morning Ireland interview with Jerry Grant, reporting that Irish Water had identified 30,000 possible leaks in households.
  • 19 February 2015. One News report on Irish Water’s intention to eliminate boil water notices by 2021.
  • 18 November 2014. Six One News report that Irish Water says it must raise between €6 and €8 billion to invest in water infrastructure.

Rabbitte’s claim that “the water thing was covered purely from the point of view of the protests” is clearly, demonstrably FALSE.

It is true that RTE, like other broadcasters and media outlets, extensively covered the many protests against water charges that have taken place since the Autumn of 2014.

However, some of the broadcaster’s more in-depth reporting and analysis has also pointed out what could be described as “negative” aspects of them.

For example, on 11 December 2014, Prime Time devoted 17 minutes to the protests, and some isolated intimidation surrounding them, and hosted a debate between Fine Gael TD Regina Doherty and AAA-PBP TD Paul Murphy.

And after the incident in Jobstown in November 2014, Prime Time devoted a segment to the question of whether anti-water charges protests had “gone too far”, and featured a discussion between Ruth Coppinger and Leo Varadkar.

There was other similar coverage.

07/03/2015. water protest - RTE . Pictured Water p Anti-water charges demonstrators protesting outside RTE against what they perceived as biased coverage by the broadcaster. Source: RollingNews.ie

A comprehensive review of Prime Time, RTE’s flagship current affairs programme, and Claire Byrne Live, showed that between January 2013 and 25 February 2016:

  • There were 28 segments directly related to water charges and Irish Water
  • 4 of those focused on or analysed water infrastructure, and the need for investment
  • 8 of them focused on or analysed anti-water charges protests (including some, as described above, which covered aspects of the protests which could be perceived as “negative”.
  • The remaining majority (16) focused on neither, and covered issues like Irish Water overstaffing, logistical concerns such as registration and privacy, payment and non-payment rates, general overviews and debates on “latest developments” in the saga.

There have been too many reports on water charges across entire RTE’s radio and TV output to do a comprehensive analysis for this FactCheck.

However, a reasonably thorough search on the RTE website indicated that the pattern found in Prime Time and Claire Byrne Live was largely reflected in the broadcaster’s general coverage.

There was probably more reporting associated with protests (some of it focusing on arrests of protesters, and including criticism of protesters expressed by commentators, especially government politicians).

However, the coverage on water infrastructure problems and the need for investment has been significant, and representatives of both the government and Irish Water itself have appeared frequently on RTE to make that case.

Overall, though, the coverage has been dominated by miscellaneous issues not connected to either protests or infrastructural problems – registration deadlines, political controversy, confusion over billing, changes to the details of the government’s plans, and general overviews and debates on water charges as a whole.

Conclusion

The claim, that RTE’s coverage of water charges was exclusively (or even predominantly) focused on protests, is demonstrably FALSE.

Also FALSE is the claim that RTE did not report on water infrastructure and the need for investment until after the general election.

We asked Pat Rabbitte if he accepted that RTE did, in fact, cover water charges in this way, and he responded:

The public service broadcaster has an obligation not just to report on a major matter of public interest but also to analyse, inform and explain, which in the case of water, it did not do except as an afterthought and inadequately.

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie.

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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