Rip Off Ireland

Two Cheers for Rip Off Republic – Senator John Minihan

Last Wednesday the front page of the Irish Examiner carried a lead story which left the impression that the Progressive Democrats were on the warpath in pursuit of Eddie Hobbs. ” PD’s Launch Attack on Hobbs Hit TV Show.”

It might more accurately have announced ” Tim O Malley’s thoughts on Eddie Hobbs TV Show.” Just as this article could be called ” John Minihan’s Thoughts on Tim’s Thoughts on Eddie’s Show”

Already you will have gathered that I do not agree with most of what Tim O Malley’s had to say- but I do agree with some of it. This is not to break a party line- the PD’s have no party position on Eddie Hobbs, although from what I gather, like myself, most of our members enjoy Eddie’s entertaining programme greatly.

Actually I have no choice. The Progressive Democrats, a political party that has always been hot in pursuit of consumer rights and campaigned against closed shops, I would have to support the idea of a show like Rip Off Republic, even if Eddie Hobbs sometimes said things with which I could not wholeheartedly agree.

Apart from anything else RTE. as a national broadcaster has a responsibility to air public interest programmes that are in the ‘national interest’ (as Des O’ Malley would say). However, in doing so they also have a responsibility to ensure that such programmes are balanced and present both sides of the argument to the public, who can then decide on the merits or demerits of the case presented.

In this regard I do have some issues with some of the presentation and content of Rip Off Republic. Personally, the stand-up style of presentation does nothing for me- I look for comedy elsewhere and find the presentation quite irritating, but that is a personal choice. As Frank Carson would say “it’s the way I tell ’em”. And maybe Eddie, it’s just the way you tell it.

It also bothers me when topics, examples and statistics are ‘cherry picked’ to suit a pre-set agenda. Consumers have a right to know what is going on the market is predicated on access to information after all but all the relevant information should be presented- and above all, like must be compared with like.

The show, as currently presented, sometimes gives the the impression that we, as consumers, are gormless sleepwalkers, brainlessly walking from one rip-off to the next. But in fact Irish consumers have proven themselves to be more sophisticated and reactive than this show suggests.

Speaking for myself , I have a fair idea where in my local area I can expect to pay ‘over the odds’ for a meal, for petrol, for groceries etc. If I want to pay 50 for a meal for two, or 200 for a meal for two, I know where I can get both. As much as there is a market for consumer action programmes, there is a market for a variety of outlets.

Notwithstanding the above, I still enjoy Eddie’s programme whose main merit is to make us more aware, and as Mary Harney advised, reminds us to shop around. It may be that the entertainment neeeds of the programme conflicts with the statistical need for absolute accuracy, in which case, rather than remove Rip Off Republic I would like to see it supplemented by more public service programming- which I also suspect the public might find a tiny bit boring !

In sum, if politicians have a problem with the content, yes by all means they should challenge it, but not by shooting the messenger. Eddie Hobbs is satisfying demand in the market for consumer programmes, and as a PD I am glad he does. I am glad that he makes the same points that we do. I am glad that he points out rip-offs, shows up the negative workings of vested interests and promotes competition.

But I am also glad I can disagree with Tim O Malley while retaining the highest respect for him as a politician and junior minister. The PD’s do not force its members to sing the same mindless song from the same party hymnsheet. We have different points of view on television programmes as on political programmes and all views can be aired.

The problem, as programmes like Eddie Hobbs’ demonstrate, is where you have parties that form a cohesive block that fail to deal with vested interests, or prevent others from doing so. The Progressive Democrats are associated with challenging vested interests where their actions are contrary to the interests of consumers, be it the taxi industry, insurance providers or the health sector. The same can’t be said for other political parties which are supported or controlled by vested interests- the most notorious being the violent vested interests of the IRA and its front groups.

Since the PD’s took part in this government in 1997, the Competition Authority has concentrated particular effort on closed shops of all types- concentrating on anti-cartel activities, studies of the professions, banking and insurance sectors and the advocacy of competition. We have presented legislation to increase the penalties for breaches of seven core pieces of consumer legislation. We decided to establish a new statutory National Consumer Agency to promote and protect consumer interests.

Against that background I welcome shows such as RTE’s Rip Off Republic – although I do wish they would every now and again present the positive side, and show what some of us are doing to promote consumer rights and competition. So two cheers but not three for Rip Off Republic. Because while I congratulate my fellow Corkman on his Keano-like tackling in the cause of consumer rights, I hope Eddie will make sure his research is always solid enough to save him from a red card.