Though it may seem that a day of reckoning has arrived for RTÉ, that analysis may not stand the test of time.
Unless government does what it should do, or, rather, in this age of ever-more fake news, must do, then the package announced this week, to save €60m over three years, could well turn out to be a cheering apéritif compared to what may lie ahead for our public service broadcaster.
Government after government has been a poor friend to RTÉ.
Government after government has presided over a dysfunctional licence fee system that seems more an admonishment than a support.
The recent announcement from Communications Minister Richard Bruton, deferring any change for at least five years, seems a continuation of that policy.
Without a significant change in the licence fee and how it is collected, this week’s proposals, will, in time, seem almost indulgent-uncle quaint. It might, however, be a misjudgment to suggest that refusal to accede to RTÉ’s long-standing requests for change is nothing more than a check cord to remind the organisation where the real power in the partnership resides.
If government can be accused of being a poor friend to RTÉ, then RTÉ must face that same accusation.
Like many semi-state entities, it seems monolithic, utterly resistant to change, self-indulgent, undemanding of itself, and, most of all, committed to a map that might have been relevant a quarter of a century ago.
It has also squandered considerable credibility and support through its pay scales. In today’s terms, RTÉ is a tiny regional broadcaster, yet its pay rates remain comparable to the world’s great broadcasting corporations. Anyone in Montrose who might wish to challenge this position should take a moment to look at the social media response to the cuts announcement.
They will find very little sympathy, and indifference morphing into anger — an albeit emotional response that must be of concern to everyone and not just to RTÉ.
Most of Europe’s public service broadcasters faced the same challenges, but many moved more quickly than RTÉ. Traditional commercial media has changed in ways unimaginable in Montrose, because they faced a far starker choice — change or die. Many did die; many more may.
There is no evidence that RTÉ has accepted that reality. In 2017, the broadcaster announced a redundancy programme to cut numbers by 300. Though the Department of Expenditure warned the scheme was too generous, only 160 were secured.
This week’s package targets 200 redundancies, but that most of these will be achieved by off-loading orchestras suggests the gloves have yet to come off.
That RTÉ is imposing a pay freeze now, more than a decade after that became a reality in other sectors of media, is another indication that something close enough to wishful-thinking still informs Montrose.
If RTÉ has contributed to its own difficulties, so, too, has our attitude to the €160 licence fee. This token figure works out at less than 44 cents a day. On the day cuts were announced, Ikea reported that we spend €556,000 a day in their stores — or almost 3,500 licence fees. We may be more interested in flat-pack shelving, trendy tea towels, or cheap wine glasses than sustaining public-sector broadcasting.
These details must be resolved, but by far the most important issue is how we will create a robust, independent, challenging public service broadcasting entity fit for the decades ahead.
Measures to support other media are necessary, too.
If we do not all commit to that, financially and culturally, we may get a kind of green Fox News, where reactionary gym bunnies spew the kind of fake news that got Trump elected. Everyone, especially RTÉ and those who say they don’t use their services, has a role to play in this, but the greatest obligation by far falls on government.
A viable, trustworthy public broadcasting service is not an indulgence, but, rather, an essential bulwark in a darkening world.
RTÉ must be saved. To ensure that, it must change.