A Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed Damien O’Reilly, the presenter of RTE’s Countrywide and occasionally Liveline, received a payment of €1,500 to act as Master of Ceremonies at An Bord Bia-Origin Green trade event in Dubai earlier this year. This casts serious doubt over O’Reilly’s objectivity in regard to that controversial campaign.
Origin Green projects an image of Irish agriculture as sustainable and harmonious with nature, but greenhouse gas emissions from the sector remain at 33% of the national total. The programme includes 90% of all Irish beef produced, and 85% of all dairy farms in the country. A mere 0.5% of applicants have been refused admission.
This has brought accusations of greenwashing. The Irish Wildlife Trust recently called on the Government to scrap the Origin Green certification scheme on the basis that “some of the country’s worst polluters are among those certified.” The IWT’s campaigns officer Padraig Fogarty claimed it was a marketing label promoted by An Bord Bia, which should be “exposed for the sham that it is”, and scrapped. Fogarty’s recent book Whittled Away: Ireland’s Vanishing Nature reveals how an unprecedented range of species native to the island are facing extinction, including the legendary curlew.
A submission by An Taisce to An Bord Bia on Origin Green, from October 2016, stated: “Judging the sustainability of Irish agriculture under the three key environmental headings targeted by Origin Green, namely Climate, Water and Biodiversity reveals that, far from being sustainable, Irish agriculture is actually a major environmental pressure and threat”.
Origin Green has emerged during a period of expansion and intensification in Irish agriculture under Food Harvest 2020 and Foodwise 2025, which are at odds with a carefully cultivated image that has seen celebrities such as Saoirse Ronan feature in its advertising campaign.
The executive summary of the Harvest 2020 document lays bare the strategy: “Green. Capitalising on Ireland’s association with the colour ‘green’ is pivotal to developing the marketing opportunity for Irish agri-food. This will build on our historic association with the colour and highlight the environmental credentials associated with our extensive, low-input, grass-based production systems… consumers in key markets will learn to recognise implicitly that, by buying Irish, they are choosing to value and respect the natural environment”.
However, what is happening across the country is “completely incompatible with the purported aspirations of Origin Green” according to An Taisce. In terms of climate change they dismiss it as “a glossy PR campaign supporting Irish agriculture’s “sustainability illusion.”
The country faces up to €610 million in fines from the European Commission unless emissions targets are met by 2020. Revelation of this cash payment call into question O’Reilly’s capacity to interrogate Origin Green and An Bord Bia meaningfully, as his role on Countrywide reporting on agriculture should entail.
On March 2nd of this year Irish Food UAE (@irishfoodinuae) tweeted a picture of a beaming O’Reilly arm-in-arm with lovely ladies in green dresses. The tweet read: ‘Damien O’Reilly assisting in the promotion of Irish food in the Middle East @RTERadio1 @RTECountryWide @BordBiaMENA.’ Clearly there was no attempt to conceal his involvement, but the payment of €1,500, and the cost of the trip which came to €2,600, apart from calling into question his objectivity, and may be in breach of RTE’s Staff Code of Conduct.
An Bord Bia stated that O’Reilly acted as Master of Ceremonies at the event: ‘which included a panel discussion on Ireland’s sustainability story and Origin Green.’ This coincided with a Ministerial Trade Mission to the Middle East bringing together regional buyers, importers and distributors.
In a statement An Bord Bia sought to distance themselves from involvement claiming the Irish Business Network in Dubai invited O’Reilly, and paid for his flights, and that it was a ‘Taste of Ireland’ event, and that they were only one among a number of sponsors. But why then would An Bord Bia make a payment to O’Reilly and take care of many of his expenses? It should also be noted that An Bord Bia’s response to the Freedom of Information request described it as an ‘Bord Bia Origin Green trade event’, not a ‘Taste of Ireland’ event.
The payment and costs may seem small beer, but RTE’s Code of Conduct for Employees states: ‘Staff are responsible for ensuring that they maintain the highest standards while involved in dealings with outside agencies’; and that ‘staff should never solicit or accept personal advantages or gifts of material value from firms or persons as a result of the staff member’s association with RTE.’ At the very least O’Reilly does not appear to have exhibited the “highest standards” in dealing with An Bord Bia – Origin Green.
When contacted a spokesperson for RTE said: “this was a paid engagement which falls under the Personal and Public Activities Guidance”, and that permission had been sought and granted.
When pressed the spokesperson said the manual containing these guidelines was not a public document. It seems unusual that RTE would have one document open to public scrutiny regarding the relationship of their employees with external businesses, and another entirely for internal consumption.
The spokesperson further rejected the idea that Damien’s journalistic objectivity was either undermined or affected by this engagement
Especially in the wake of Hurricane Ophelia, we should be wary of any greenwashing by the agricultural sector as we confront the unique challenge of Climate Change, and the prospect of hefty fines from the European Commission.
The national broadcaster must engage in a full, frank and transparent assessment of the Origin Green programme. Ultimately this will be to the advantage of farmers who confront adverse weather conditions, especially those seeking alternatives to the dominant use of land for grazing livestock. This makes Ireland’s agriculture sector the least efficient in the EU in terms of revenue per ton of CO2 produced.
When RTE’s leading journalist covering agriculture receives payment, however construed, from an organisation promoting a misleading picture of Irish agriculture’s sustainability, it stretches credulity that an objective analysis of that campaign will be undertaken.
Countrywide has already offered an outlet for outright denial of human responsibility for Climate Change when Michael O’Leary appeared on the show in April. O’Reilly is too polished a performer not to have challenged O’Leary’s barmy assertions, but it is inappropriate that a platform to ventilate these views should have been offered in the first place. Such debates only serve to confound the public, and delay action.
A few months later in July, in another of his moonlighting roles as a columnist in the Irish Farmers Journal, O’Reilly expressed admiration for Ryanair and its managing director saying: ‘It’s become a bit of a national pastime to criticise Michael O’Leary and his airline but I’m a fan of how they do business’.
Naturally, there was no mention of O’Leary’s views on Climate Change which goes some way to explaining why that criticism has become a “national pastime”.
A bizarre coda to this story comes from another debate on the role of agriculture in Climate Change on Countrywide in August in which O’Reilly welcomed John Sweeney as ‘Emirates’ Professor in Maynooth. Could it be that flying to Dubai was still on his mind?