It didn't seem possible for things to get any worse at RTÉ. Previous episodes in this long-running drama had a disinterested and hostile government essentially telling our national broadcaster to go swivel. The latest offerings in the series have had a comi-tragic quality with elements of farce thrown in.
There was a leaked rescue plan, that once it was leaked was generally dismissed as hardly being worth the paper it was written on. There were disastrous interactions between management and staff, tales of fallings out between senior elements of RTÉ, and a staff not just angry at some of the detail of the rationalisation plan, but completely without hope that those charged with implementation are capable of doing it.
They still speak of the interview done by chairperson of the RTÉ board Moya Doherty with Marian Finucane on Radio One two Saturdays ago. First of all it was the decision to opt for a slot with a woman who earns over €300,000 a year for presenting a weekend radio programme and, rightly or wrongly, is a symbol for many of what is wrong at the station.
Throughout the exchange there was a persistently defensive air from Moya Doherty.
A mixed air of anger and hopelessness now pervades Montrose and a significant number of people describe the atmosphere as toxic. It is the worst of all worlds for RTÉ and those of us who care about public service broadcasting.
Unions are threatening industrial action following the news that cutting 200 of the 1,800 jobs at the broadcaster is a central part of the plan for saving €60m. There is also to be a 15% pay reduction for high-earning presenters.
One high-profile RTÉ person pointed out that Dee Forbes, RTÉ’s director general “is a very nice person, but did not come from any type of public service broadcasting background, but a marketing one. Listening to Bob Collins (former RTÉ director general) speak at Gay Byrne’s funeral was a reminder of someone who could see the big picture and the importance of it.
To be absolutely fair to Dee Forbes, who has significant television experience with some of the biggest names in the TV industry, the overall plotline was written long before she arrived. She’s had it uphill all the way since she took up the job.
A recurring theme speaking to RTÉ people is how pedestrian the management plan turned out to be; that Dee Forbes has been in her job for three years. Some of the “more radical” suggestions put forward by those people include RTÉ 2 going online. “It’s a stupid channel,” said one succinctly.
The same person spoke about some of what they described as ridiculously old-fashioned work practices among production staff involving an attitude of “tea breaks and terms and conditions”.
“There has been a lot of talk about the RTÉ Player being so bad and not working and that is true, but also there is all this energy going into getting stuff on the Player that a handful of people will watch, rather than concentrating on the core product of what we give to viewers and listeners.”
Another said the Player was an embarrassment, and symbolic of so much. It had not been functioning properly for so long, despite management saying it was such an important thing. “How long does this go on for? Fix it or ditch it.” Apparently though a player with all the bells and whistles costs eye watering amounts of money — something RTÉ clearly does not have.
Another high-ranking insider spoke of the two camps within RTÉ at the moment “the old timers who are digging their heels in and want to go back to the Utopia that includes overtime etc, and the other side who actually believe that something far more radical than the plan that was presented is what is needed. We have to prioritise. We can’t have everything.”
This person wondered, for instance, if the imperative is to protect public service broadcasting why 2FM had not been targeted. “2FM is purely commercial, why are we keeping it”? Why, for instance, are we paying to send Frances Brennan on a cruise ship? People think there is a naivete at the top. It feels like someone planning their pension on the basis of winning the Lotto, in terms of looking for a government bailout. A number of us wonder why they didn’t announce a higher number of redundancies?”
The disastrous town hall meeting where Dee Forbes and her executive board stood in front of staff to go through details of the plan, after it had been leaked, will live long in the memory of those who attended it.
A particular low light was when Jon Williams, managing director news and current affairs, said it wasn’t just up to people on the executive board to fix things. This was interpreted as laying all the blame on the staff. Dee Forbes did attempt to fix this cack-handed contribution by adding something along the lines of “what Jon meant to say is we are all in this together”.
Since then a number of smaller meetings, with teams of people, are being held by senior managers. These are apparently to reassure people there actually is a plan.
They have been going into far more detail. According to one person who has attended they were told, for instance, that if enough money is saved there will not have to be pay cuts for staff. But the message has been that if the Government doesn’t provide proper funding there will be one TV station, one radio station and the Player.
“If that’s the situation and the reality, maybe that’s what needs to be done now,” said an individual who attended.
Of course all of this has served to prove to the Government its theory that RTÉ cannot manage its own affairs. One senior Government insider described some of what has gone on with the RTÉ side as “bordering on comical”. But the one bright spot on the horizon is that matters have taken such a nosedive the stark reality of the threat to Irish public service broadcasting has finally hit home with Fine Gael ministers.
There is even some acknowledgment they left things slide for too long, with total over concentration on the TV licence issue and not enough thought on what was actually happening. Not to mention that a five-year timeline for changing the licence fee system was crazy.
There is still the strong feeling that RTÉ also needs to help itself, and that RTÉ employees are no more special a case than, for instance, the employees of Bord na Mona. However the last thing they want is RTÉ workers on the picket line. Currently there is a lot of hard thinking going on among Cabinet members about what can be done to help.
It’s taken enough time. What a pity that our national broadcaster has been so poorly served on all sides.