The State broadcaster is in trouble and Government has tuned out

The State broadcaster is in trouble and Government has tuned out
Adrian Lynch, director of audience, channels, and marketing; Dee Forbes, director general; and Jim Jennings, director of content, RTÉ, at the launch of its new season last year. Picture: Andres Poveda

Richard Bruton appeared to be wondering why on earth he should get involved in RTÉ’s survival, writes Alison O'Connor

OUR national broadcaster is on life support, gasping for breath, and the Government’s solution is to move the oxygen tank further away.

But RTÉ is hitting back, taking its fight to the media. It’s a belated move, but so far strategically clever. There have been two leaks: one about the possible winding-up of Lyric FM and the other about the closure of the RTÉ studio in Cork.

You only need to look at Marty Whelan’s Twitter feed to see the outrage caused by the suggestion that the Limerick-based classical music station might be axed. Marty has been retweeting the messages of support and outrage with the hashtag #lyricfmpublicservicebroadcasting. This angry group would not just love culture, but would appreciate what RTÉ does on a wider basis, and would follow political events and, importantly, be likely to vote.

The axe hanging over the southern studios will make the entire region feel that it is not being properly served by what is meant to be a national broadcaster and not just Dublin-centric.

Cork people will confidently tell you that any threat to coverage of the important issues in their city can expect a kickback. This may be an issue in the upcoming byelection in Cork North Central, and wider planned RTÉ cuts may become election issues. I can’t see Fianna Fáil leader and Corkman, Micheál Martin, finding much favour with it.

RTÉ management would be pressing the nuclear button to even whisper the possibility of a threat to something like the Late Late Toy Show, but they’re really being pressed into a corner right now.

In the Dáil on Tuesday, in the first session back after the summer break, Green Party leader and former minister for communications Eamon Ryan spoke about the Government’s “throttling” of RTÉ with the “ongoing decline in its funding model” and the Government’s refusal to properly finance it.

“We now, possibly, face the closure of RTÉ’s studio in Cork, the closure of Lyric FM, or the sale of more RTÉ land, as it continues to sell capital assets, just to cover current expenditure. When will the Government change its position of trying to kill this sector of the media… and, instead, start building it up, which is what we need to do to protect our whole democratic system?” Mr Ryan asked the current communications minister, Richard Bruton.

He raised the issue in the context of the Oireachtas committee on communications, climate action and environment, which, in November, is hosting an international conference here on disinformation and fake news. Democracies are under real threat, he said. “Clearly, one of the responses to this is a strong media, that can tell the difference between what is fake and what is real and tell our people, with real clarity, honesty and independence, what is happening in the world,” said Mr Ryan.

Ryan Tubridy pictured with youth climate activists James Dunne (16), from Dublin, and Saoi O'Connor (16), from Skibbereen, Co Cork. Picture Andres Poveda
Ryan Tubridy pictured with youth climate activists James Dunne (16), from Dublin, and Saoi O'Connor (16), from Skibbereen, Co Cork. Picture Andres Poveda

Mr Bruton gave the stock, quizzical, hands off-answer. He appeared to be wondering why on earth he should get involved in RTÉ’s survival. Earlier in the week, he said RTÉ “has to transform itself”.

The minister is at the top of that queue of people in his party, led in attitude by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who are similarly dismissive of RTÉ.

But where they may well have their coughs softened is when the public gets fed more of the specifics of what might no longer turn up on their screens.

The toy show was the top programme in 2018, according to TAM Ireland/Nielsen ratings. Intriguingly, the Six One News on March 1 was eighth in the top-50 list and the Nine O’Clock News that same day was 10th. That was the day the Beast from the East storm was due. We were all mad to know what to expect weatherwise and how everyone else around the country was faring. It was a perfect example of public service broadcasting done well.

Eleventh on the list was the Eurovision Song Contest and we were actually in it for the first time in five years. The joke used to be that RTÉ was terrified of Ireland winning, because it would have to host the competition the next year.

The truth is that RTÉ can hardly afford to send an Irish act to wherever country the contest is being staged. Other RTÉ coverage that might be in jeopardy includes the St Patrick’s day parades all over the country, election coverage, Tony Connolly’s Brussels-based coverage on Brexit, or the 200 episodes a year of Fair City. Reporter Katie Hannon’s Whistleblowers: The Maurice McCabe story was the highest-watched documentary of last year. That kind of programming may also become a doubt.

The way we all watch TV now has changed, so Nielsen ratings are not as indicative as they used to be, but RTÉ’s most-viewed programmes do give an idea of what is important to us culturally and what is uniquely Irish. The biggest audience challenge for RTÉ is trying to attract young people, a group for whom a TV listing section for each day, or a set time to watch anything, just seems like operating in the dark ages.

Everyone complains about the top earners, Ryan Tubridy, Ray D’Arcy, et al, who, along with eight others, were paid a total of over €3m in 2016, and that needs to be addressed quickly. But this is simply throwing buns at an elephant, given the deep-rooted funding issues.

Eileen O'Higgins, Brian Redmond, Joanne Cantwell, Dermot Bannon, and Eoghan McDermott, with (front) Loraine Barry, Keith Barry, Joe Duffy, and Doireann Garrihy. Picture Andres Poveda
Eileen O'Higgins, Brian Redmond, Joanne Cantwell, Dermot Bannon, and Eoghan McDermott, with (front) Loraine Barry, Keith Barry, Joe Duffy, and Doireann Garrihy. Picture Andres Poveda

MORALE in RTÉ is at an all-time low. Staff are waiting to hear of compulsory redundancies or wage cuts. They’ve been told by director general, Dee Forbes, that cutbacks are imminent at the broadcaster, which is seeking €55m a year in extra funding from the Government.

Major changes are due to be announced, but we’re unlikely to see those until after next month’s budget.

Last week, on the Prime Time current affairs programme, Deputy Noel Rock was the backbencher chosen to explain the Fine Gael position on RTÉ’s future.

Via a live link from the party’s think-in in Garryvoe, in East Cork, he said, managing to keep a straight face: “Make no mistake, this government is fully behind the concept of public service broadcasting.” If ever there was fake news needing to be called out, that’s it.

The last few years, RTÉ management has been like the little boy with his finger in the dike — issuing lots of warnings, but being repeatedly ignored.

The time of reckoning is finally here. Fine Gael may well find voters taking a sudden interest in its commitment in this area.

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