The case for public service media’s relevance, legitimacy, and democratic function must be renewed due to changing viewing behaviours and cutbacks, says Mark Cullinane.
In early August, Richard Bruton, the communications minister, followed in the footsteps of his predecessors and announced that significant reform to the licence-fee model that funds Irish public service media was on the way, but not just yet.
Long-standing proposals to sever the outmoded — and increasingly economically unsustainable — link between television ownership and TV licence eligibility in favour of a model reflective of our digital, online and multi-screened era, have now been officially kicked into the long grass of the second half of the next decade.
Previous rounds of austerity at Montrose since the 2008 financial crisis saw the imposition of large spending cuts, staff reductions, efficiency programmes as well as land and other asset sales.
However, despite significant growth since then in the wider economy, conditions at RTÉ have continued to deteriorate.
Then on Wednesday night came the well-trailed news from RTÉ of a fresh raft of cost-saving measures, the latest but most swingeing rounds of cuts to services and personnel that will result in a significantly diminished and more centralised organisation.
In the absence of immediate reform to the broadcaster’s funding model, the Government proposes instead to attempt to tackle what are some of Europe’s highest TV licence-fee evasion rates, which currently stand at more than one in eight of eligible homes.
This is to be accomplished by summarily sacking An Post from its long-standing role as licence-fee collector and tendering for a more “robust”, and presumably more commercially-minded, collection service.
In August, RTÉ criticised the new delay in substantive reform as guaranteeing that the “crisis in the funding of public service media will continue”.
Already, its ability to fulfil its existing remit was “severely compromised” by income reductions.
Three months later and we have this week’s announcement, which raises major questions about the institutional future of public service media in this country.
The unpalatable truth for both parties is that the apparent inability to resolve this funding impasse stems from their own weaknesses.
While the reticence of the Government to act decisively to shore up RTÉ may be seen as a case of malign neglect, the fact is that neither the Government nor RTÉ command enough support to impose what will be seen by many — licence-fee evaders and compliant alike — as a new and unwarranted household charge, whether or not the annual amount payable remains static at €160.
The elephant in the room is the elite fear of an active public rejection of are formed “device independent broadcasting charge”, with politicians and broadcasting executives desperate to avoid the nightmare scenario ofprovoking a non-payment campaign along the lines of that which ultimately sunk consumer water charges just a couple of years ago.
Such a campaign could not only deepen RTÉ’s financial crisis but pose an existential threat to the legitimacy of public-service media in Ireland. All the better, then, to find ways to quietlyimplement funding reform without awakening the slumbering giant of public disaffection.
Television adverts coldly inform viewers that paying your TV licence is simply one of the “terms and conditions of living in Ireland”.
In this age of digital platforms and services, the analogue transmitters may be long retired, but the old paternalism of the public-service ethos, it seems, endures.
Today, the authority of media organisations — public and commercial — to credibly narrate the world around them has come under increasing strain, as journalism’s “cultural crisis” has seen an increasing questioning and challenging of the role of journalism its role in society.
This has included, in our increasingly divided societies, a challenge to the credibility and desirability of its traditional claims to objectivity, truth, and impartiality.
The case for public-service media’s relevance, legitimacy and — crucially — its democratic functions needs to be urgently renewed in light of changing technological, cultural, and political contexts. Whether there is much internal appetite to open up such a discussion with the public, though, is doubtful.
My own research took me into the RTÉ newsroom, in pursuit of a better understanding of how the broadcaster has responded in its journalism to the 2008 crisis, how staff understood their roles and practices as journalists, and how they viewed RTÉ’s relationships with audiences and the public at large.
Journalists, editors, and management I interviewed usually took the view that beyond the practical challenges of covering a complex and fast-moving set of issues, the crisis hadn’t prompted much in the way of enduring change in how they viewed and went about their work.
Despite mounting external challenges to journalism — or perhaps partly because of them — a great many of those I spoke to, particularly those in more senior roles, were keen to reaffirm the autonomy of broadcasting professionals.
They viewed enhanced public participation in RTÉ programming or greater journalistic accountability as at best unnecessary or at worst even threatening the integrity of public-service values, which requires standing beyond the reach of public demand, for the good of all.
My later spell as a member of the statutory RTÉ Audience Council underlined clearly to me that the public was seen as, at best, a resource rather than as a partner to whom they had meaningful answerability.
I recall how determined efforts on the part of some members of the council to engage the broader organisation in discussion on its demonstrably abysmal record of covering climate change were rebuffed on the grounds that RTÉ journalism was simply not accountable to us.
Years later, RTÉ wishes to harness the palpable sense of urgency of Ireland’s youth on what they are only now terming the climate crisis by enlisting them in their recently announced Youth Assembly on Climate.
This will soon see the broadcaster, in association with the Houses of the Oireachtas, help more than 150 young people to take their proposals for climate action into the halls of political power.
This rare piece of outreach is all well and good. But if RTÉ was serious about responding to its own challenges in the face of existential crisis, it would open up a serious, inclusive, and ongoing set of discussions with the public, not least with younger people who RTÉ badly needs to attract in greater numbers to their programming, about the public-service media we want and deserve.
There’s certainly much that many people are likely to have a view on. Questions may be legitimately asked about whether RTÉ’s reliance on commercial as well as public revenue, which is exceptional in Europe, is really necessary or justifiable for a public media organisation; whether its stable of independently-contracted “top talent” are truly worth the asking price; and if the faces and accents of the broadcaster’s staff, on-screen and off, are reflective of the demographic make-up of the modern Ireland it claims to represent and unify.
The case for public-service media in the 21st century needs to be won with the public, in public. RTÉ’s future may depend on its willingness to try.
Mark Cullinane is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Applied Social Studies in University College Cork.A different version of this article first appeared in the Dublin Inquirer.