Annie Curran checks out a preview screening of the first episode of RTÉ’s upcoming television docuseries, Power on the Box, which screened at the 2016 Cork Film Festival.
Audience members at the 2016 Cork Film Festival were treated to a preview screening of the first episode of RTÉ’s upcoming television docuseries, Power on the Box. The four-part series, hosted by Irish Times journalist Harry McGee, details the impact of Irish television on politics during the last 50 years.
The documentary balances interviews from politicians and journalists, weighing both the positive and negative effects of television on the bureaucratic landscape. McGee provides the viewers with a variety of differing opinions and does not suggest which side of the argument he falls on, stating only that “there’s no denying the power of the box in the corner.”
The first episode chronicles the creation of the television branch of RTÉ, which officially premiered on December 31, 1961. As Irish historian and longstanding RTÉ broadcaster John Bowman describes, politicians “weren’t ready to be on screen.”
Skeptics of television included Éamon de Valera, who compared it to an atomic bomb and expressed his concern over the harm it could cause. In contrast, Taoiseach Seán Lemass said television could be an “instrument of public policy.” Additionally, former Fianna Fáil Minister Noel Dempsey says that seeing politics on camera is what made him want to pursue his governmental career.
The majority of the episode is devoted to detailing the implications of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Authority Act, which gave the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs the ability to issue a Ministerial order to prevent RTÉ from airing interviews with Sinn Feinn and IRA members. The documentary includes interviews with politicians who think Section 31 was necessary, as well as those who decry the censorship and fault RTÉ broadcasters for cowering to it. The most critical view comes from Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, who tells McGee that Section 31 delayed the peace process.
One of the most fascinating and ultimately humorous moments in the episode stems from the discussion of how RTÉ was able to work around the limitations of Section 31. The network could broadcast footage of Sinn Fein and IRA leaders if actors dubbed over their voices. McGee interviews famed actor Stephen Rea, who provides an entertaining account of the voice-over work he completed for the network. Adams tells McGee that he thinks the actors’ voices were better than his own and that Rea was his favorite version of himself.
McGee also travelled to the U.S. and attended the 2016 Republican Convention. Considering Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the recent election, this footage is even more powerful now, and only further proves the correlation between media attention and political success.
The screening at the Cork Film Festival was followed by a panel discussion hosted by McGee. Compliance Committee Member for the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland Dr. Ciaran Kissane; University College Cork History Department Lecturer Dr. Finola Doyle-O’Neill; and Communications Executive at NUI Galway, Acadamh Dan Dwyer provided fascinating context to information presented in the documentary. For example, Doyle-O’Neill informed the audience that since the Irish were already buying televisions and accessing world news, the state felt it was important to create an Irish network so that citizens would not get all of their information from British or American sources.
The panel also raised the excellent point that scripted television shows and talk shows have perhaps influenced public opinion more than television news shows. The first episode does not address this point, and thus perhaps misses the full implication of the power of television. However, because of the confines of a four-episode format, it is understandable that the producers honed in specifically on televisions news.
Additionally, the episode featured a major lack of women. This is certainly accurate to the disparity of genders in both politics and journalism, however I hope that future episodes feature more female voices.
The first episode of Power on the Box will air on Monday, 28th November at 19:30 on RTÉ1. The rest of the series will delve further into the tensions between journalists and politicians by reliving more consequential moments in the history of Irish television.
Power on the Box screened on 17th November 2016
The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November