Noble cause that needs our support - Public service broadcasting

The flag-waving and cheers of recent days provoked all the usual debates about 1916, confirming once again, as if it needed to be, that we all cling to our particular beliefs certain in the knowledge that our view is the correct one and that any other need not be countenanced.

Noble cause that needs our support - Public service broadcasting

It may almost be treasonable to use a phrase that was so helpful in breaking great historical deadlocks to broker the relative peace we enjoy today but we all, to a greater or a lesser degree, use convenient fictions to shape our view of that transformative event. Therefore, it is unlikely that a consensus will ever be achieved on 1916. So be it. But one truth underlined again by the period of national commemoration is that our national broadcaster, RTÉ is by far the dominant voice at the point where our politics, culture, and history come together — and that is just as it should be.

Because of this, and because of the relentless evolution in communications technology and increasingly concentrated media ownership, quickly changing consumption habits, and the huge challenges around the sustainability of public service broadcasting, the appointment of a new director general of RTÉ is a pretty significant event in Irish life.

When she takes up her position in a few months time, Dee Forbes will be the first woman in the role and the first external appointment to the position in over half a century. Kevin McCourt was the last in 1963. Her appointment — yet to be ratified by government, but that is a formality — was not on the Montrose radar but it celebrates an open-door principle many hoped might have been used when a successor to Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan was sought during the term of the outgoing government. It is an infusion of new blood, new ideas, and a set of very different experiences that should help our national broadcaster navigate tricky waters ahead.

Ms Forbes moves to Dublin from London, where she runs Discovery Networks, which incorporates 27 television brands in 18 markets reaching more than 270m households. She does this as RTÉ, under her predecessor Noel Curran, struggles with evolving challenges and diminishing resources is reaching a point approaching stability. This achievement is considerable, as RTÉ has not had a licence fee increase in eight years and, like all media dependent on advertising, its revenues collapsed during the recession. Hardly a feathered bed, but not a sinking ship either.

Funding needs may provoke unpopular resolutions and indicates why the last two ministers — Pat Rabbitte and Alex White — gave the barge-pole treatment to the public service broadcasting charge. This idea seemed a plausible one but, battered by water and property charges rows, Cabinet did not have had the stomach for another universal levy. Just as third-level college funding issues are evaded, so too the financing of public service broadcasting. Despite this, public service broadcasting is a great and empowering tradition of liberal democracies and should be supported through thick and thin. Ms Forbes, who, as an eight-year-old, began to learn her business skills in her family’s bar in West Cork, will hopefully make a valuable contribution to that noble cause.

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