Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Mick Hilliard, with chairman of the RTE Authority, broadcaster Eamonn Andrews.

Meath Minister Michael Hilliard had to defend RTE’s independence

The minister responsible for the establishment of RTE, whicl launched 60 years ago, was the then Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Meath TD Michael Hilliard, from Navan, who was the equivalent to today’s Minister for Communications. Mr Hilliard was the minister who steered the legislation to set up the national broadcasting service through Dail Eireann. The Taoiseach was Sean Lemass, who was greatly involved in the project. Mick Hilliard had to push very much for RTE’s independence from government or political pressure, as Lemass was very much in favour of keeping a tighter rein on the broadcaster.

Dr Leon O Broin, secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs from 1946-1967, recalled on RTE’s 25th anniversary that The Broadcasting Authority Act enjoins on the Authority the duty of ensuring impartiality when dealing with controversial issues and, also, reserves to the minister power to direct the authority to broadcast or refrain from broadcasting any specific manner.

He continued: “Michael Hilliard, who was my minister for a number of years, piloted the broadcasting legislation through the Oireachtas and set a good example by never interfering in the day-to-day business of broadcasting, though he may have found it difficult to maintain this position with his colleagues. Sean Lemass had reservations about the surrender of control, and as Taoiseach, was to assert that RTE was going too far in pursuing the idea of being free and independent. The Government, he emphasised, had not set up the television service for the purpose of publicising criticisms of national policy or arousing opposition to it and it would have to be understood that national policy was what the government of the day decided it to be. RTE would have to accept that view and support it, otherwise he would change the legislation or the composition of the Authority.” The ominous threat passed, O Broin wrote.

In his book, ‘Window and Mirror, RTE television 1961-2011’, John Bowman says that Lemass was somewhat wary of the medium of television, following what he thought was a deeply unsatisfactory experience with an American CBS documentary team.

Lemass had specific expectations from this new service and he prepared a script for Minister Hilliard to be addressed to the inaugural meeting of the television authority, Bowman writes. “He forwarded it to the minister, asking that any proposed changes - he would have had department secretary Leon O Broin in mind as the likely culprit - should be referred back to him for approval.”

Bowman writes that a year after RTE’s establishment, Lemass made no secret to civil servants and government colleagues of his unhappiness with the independent voice with which the new station was speaking. O’Broin noted that Hilliard ‘seemed frightened whenever the Taoiseach called him on the phone. He has left Hilliard ‘without words’ when complaining that the Authority’s notion of its independence ‘was being pushed to an intolerable extent.’.

In 1966, there was a major stand-off between RTE and the cabinet over the National Farmers Association’s famous march to Dublin to seek a meeting with Minister for Agriculture, Charles Haughey, after Haughey complained when a statement from farmers’ leader Rickard Deasy was broadcast. Haughey disliked being questioned on anything other than his own terms and Michael Hilliard commented to the RTE director general, Kevin McCourt, that Haughey was “one of those ministers who would never be satisfied”.