Wexford radio station accuses county council of ‘staggering’ censorship bid

The managing director of a Wexford radio station has described as ‘staggering’ a suggestion by Wexford County Council that it agrees its presenters would not express personal opinions on the airwaves in return for the broadcast by the advertising board on the station.

The suggestion is among a number of proposals made by County Secretary David Minogue in an email to South East Radio chief executive Eamonn Buttle during discussions of a proposed spending of 40,000 to 50 000 € this year by the advertising board with the station.

In January the Public Service Standards Commission (Sipo) published a report in which it criticized Tom Enright, Chief Executive of Wexford County Council, for exerting ‘undue’ pressure on South East Radio during a dispute in 2019 over the station’s coverage of the council. , and in particular by one of its presenters, local businessman Karl Fitzpatrick.

By threatening to pull the advertisement from the station board during the row, Sipo said, Enright had breached provisions of the Local Government Act and failed to meet proper integrity standards.

The public ethics body said Enright had mistakenly confused the issue of his dispute with the station over his coverage of the council with the council’s business position as the station’s primary advertiser.

The Sipo report was discussed at a special council meeting in January, where councilors criticized the public ethics body before voting to take no action based on its report. Councilors then gave the county executive a standing ovation.

In February, the council’s decision not to take any action was raised in the Dáil by Wexford TD Verona Murphy, who said the ‘message is that we will do whatever we want… There has been no impact . [The report] made no difference. He received a standing ovation and a round of applause.

Minogue said the board “does not consider it appropriate for a South East Radio broadcaster to offer personal views and opinions on South East Radio”.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he disagreed and others would take note of Sipo’s findings. The results would have “considerable impacts” on the future behavior of councils.

“There can be no attempt to influence the content of any discussion, debate on local radio or its treatment or coverage of an issue,” he said.

“Even if there are advertisements coming from the council and so on, that’s not right. It can never be used for that purpose by anyone. I’m very clear on that.

fresh row

However, a row centering on exactly the same subject has again developed between Wexford County Council and South East Radio, with the station this time strongly objecting to the ‘criteria’ that County Secretary Minogue has suggested. which the station is expected to accept as part of a deal on a proposed spend of €40,000-50,000 on radio ads this year.

Wexford County Manager David Minogue

In an email sent to Buttle on March 25, Minogue said the board “does not consider it appropriate for a South East Radio broadcaster to offer personal views and opinions on South East Radio.

“I seek assurances that South East Radio will take the necessary steps to ensure that such personal views and opinions are not offered by your broadcasters in the future.”

The board executive also suggested that the station ensure that “raw” material, i.e. recorded material not broadcast by the station, be retained for a period of two years.

“This material may then be made available for review in the event of a dispute between South East Radio and [the council]to determine whether or not it is appropriate for the presenter/broadcaster to omit content from the final broadcast.

A third criterion suggested by Minogue concerned what would happen when the council requested a right of reply in relation to something that had been broadcast by the station.

“The content of your email is totally devoid of any insight or learning from the Sipo survey”

“I ask that the matter end here and that the original theme or issue not be raised again on South East Radio as has happened before.”

In his April 1 response, Buttle called the suggestion “frankly, staggering” and said it was “absolutely necessary” to remind Minogue and the board of some very significant recent events.

“I indeed find it very strange that it is necessary for me to do so, given the gravity of these events. But the content of your email is so devoid of any insight or learning from the Sipo investigation that I feel that I have to state some basic facts.

It was remarkable, he said, that Minogue’s email took the same course that County Executive Enright took in 2019.

Buttle cited comments made in the Dáil by the Taoiseach in February, saying Martin had made his position “ample clear about the kind of influence and abuse of power your March 25 email seeks to wield” .

“Deep criticism”

Despite Sipo’s “deep criticism” of Enright and the fact that a separate board complaint about South East Radio to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland was “entirely dismissed”, the station received no apology from the manager. County. or the board, says Buttle.

“On the contrary, we now face even more serious attempts to control our independence through an express and brazen attempt to use public funds to influence what is said about [Wexford County Council] and those related to its operations on South East Radio. This is surprisingly false.

He said he was forced to conclude that the criteria the board sought to impose was a “form of retaliation and a direct result of” the Sipo complaint that was filed by Fitzpatrick and confirmed in the Sipo report in January.

Buttle said the regulator of radio stations was the Broadcasting Authority and it was not appropriate for the board to seek to set itself up as a quasi-regulator.

“Our presenters will not be censored in the way you seek for the benefit of [Wexford Council Council],” he said.

“I want to make it very clear that South East Radio will not give up its independence and integrity no matter how much publicity Wexford County Council receives”

Minogue and the council seemed to “fundamentally misunderstand the role of a local authority vis-à-vis the local (or even national) media in a democratic society”, Buttle said, before citing Article 40.6 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression. expression.

The council, Buttle said, sought to restrict open debate and public discourse in relation to the activities of the local authority within which South East Radio operates.

“In a democratic society, such behavior cannot and should not be tolerated. South East Radio will certainly not tolerate it.

“While our relationship with [the council]both financially and otherwise, is of crucial importance, I want to make it very clear that South East Radio will not relinquish its independence and integrity no matter how much publicity Wexford County Council receives.

‘Very disappointed’

He said the broadcaster reserved its position with respect to the county secretary’s email.

Minogue told the Irish Times he was “really disappointed” with Buttle’s response. He said he felt it was “not appropriate” given the “reasonable” requests that had been made to the station.

The County Secretary is the council’s ethics registrar for the purposes of complaints made against the council under the Local Government Act. He said he was not aware of any new complaints lodged against the council in relation to South East Radio.

Buttle did not respond to a request for comment. Following the council meeting in January, when councilors voted to take no action on the Sipo report, Enright issued a statement in which he said, “we intend to seek to implement place a service level agreement with South East Radio to facilitate an improved relationship in the future.

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