In the face of dark, mysterious forces... public service broadcasting is one of our key defences, writes Fergus Finlay
A COUPLE of members of my family work in RTÉ. They are among the more than 1,800 employees whose futures will be threatened if the company’s financial crisis isn’t addressed.
Over the years, I’ve appeared on different RTÉ programmes, and sometimes (not always) been paid for doing so. I even, a few years ago, had a programme of my own. Actually, that’s not quite true. I shared the programme with another host. I ended up losing the programme not too long before my co-presenter, a Mr Dunlop (a well-known person) was sent to jail for corruption. I suppose that fact alone makes him and me two pretty unique RTÉ presenters.
So, that’s my interests declared. Here’s what I believe: If Ireland loses RTÉ, it will be like losing an arm. It is one of the most critically important and strategic assets we have as a country. And its continued existence and good health are fundamental not just to our self-image, but to the core democratic values that matter most to us.
That doesn’t stop us complaining about it. RTÉ seems to be one of those things that we all love to hate. We give out about it the way we give out about politics or the weather. Everywhere I’ve been in the few days since RTÉ announced it was in financial crisis, I have heard the same things: Waste of space; no value in the licence fee; just shut it down, or get rid of bits of it wholesale; and, of course, cut the big salaries, as if that would make more than a tiny hole in the problem.
I think we criticise RTÉ so much precisely because it’s ours. We complain about the bangers of cars we drive, or the house that desperately needs a makeover, because we want to be prouder of them. We moan about the soccer club or the rugby team we follow because we’ve made an emotional investment in them and they never seem to live up to what we expect. But they’re still ours and we’ll defend them to the death if anyone else has a go.
And RTÉ belongs to us. That’s the first thing to remember. We own it, and it exists to serve us. Of course, it’s hard sometimes to measure that service. How do you tot up something like a national broadcaster?
You probably can’t; not properly, anyway. Yes, there are jobs and an economic contribution, and we would all miss the Late Late Show. But there are other things we take for granted. And you can’t measure the stuff you take for granted.
It’s only when water doesn’t come out of the tap — or when you have to boil it to make it safe — that you realise how you depend on it. And it’s exactly the same with the democracy we assume is always going to be safe.
There are forces in the world right now that are both willing and able to interfere in elections and referendums. Any outcome that depends on public mood can be manipulated now. There’s too much evidence all around us for us to deny that central fact. In the face of dark and mysterious forces, which we can’t control — but which would like to control us — public service broadcasting is one of our key defences.
Its purpose is to tell the truth, and to do so whether we like it or not. Maybe it isn’t always as good at that as we’d like it to be, and it has made mistakes over the years. But if you watch or listen to Tony Connelly on RTÉ, you know you’re being told the truth about a complex issue, and it’s in all our vital interests that we understand what’s going on.
Without public service broadcasting, that vital understanding would be diminished when we need it most. Mary Wilson, Miriam O’Callaghan, David McCullough, Sean O’Rourke, and Tommy O’Gorman are all vital national assets in difficult times.
RTÉ is not just a protective mechanism; it’s also an agent of democratic change. Gay Byrne, whose passing we all mourned last week, was a servant of the public. He used the platform RTÉ gave him to entertain us, to provoke us, to prod us, sometimes to exasperate us. But he did it as one of us, and for us.
We all know that Gay had unique talents as a broadcaster, which made him the most trusted figure in our public life for a generation, but he also had the support of a public service utility that might occasionally have been timid, but was always ultimately independent. That was the core difference, and it is the thing that must be protected now.
In the past couple of years, I’ve seen high-quality drama on RTÉ. I’ve seen coverage of sport as good as any in the world, and better than most. I’ve laughed out loud and been entertained. I’ve been drawn in by the writing and acting on Fair City. And I’ve also seen penetrating insights into a range of public policy issues that the powers-that-be would sometimes prefer to go unexplored.
Only last week, I watched a powerful Prime Time piece about Romy Ward, who has quadriplegic cerebral palsy. It was moving and shaming — the very best kind of public service broadcasting, the kind that demands a public policy response.
IT’S what we believe RTÉ should be about. And it’s also the kind of programming that lingers, that provokes conversations the following day, that inspires a minute or two of reflection.
As well as watching television, and all the other things I do, I also stopped in for a glass of wine in our local bar last week, and another day I bought a take-away coffee on the walk back from the DART station.
The two of them cost me €11. I don’t think I gave the money a thought. Everything I saw on RTÉ over the entire week cost me exactly €3.08. And because two of us live in the house, and share the telly, that’s €1.54 each.
It’s extraordinary, isn’t it, that we begrudge that? And yet we do. Since water charges died the death (and wasn’t that a mistake?), nothing seems to inspire so much complaint as the television licence fee.
I haven’t studied RTÉ’s finances, and I’m not sufficiently expert to be able to come up with the restructuring that is no doubt necessary. In the world we live in, RTÉ has to have new vision and imagination, if it is to compete with the extraordinary variety of things that new technology has to offer.
But this much I’m certain of. If we let RTÉ die, or refuse to allow it the space and time to recover its position at the heart of Irish life, we will be much the poorer. We might think we can afford to be without RTÉ.
But, I promise you, we would come to regret it.