Fine Gael should put their water treatment by RTÉ on ice for now

Fine Gael seem to be threatening RTÉ with censure if they do not treat them the way they think they should be treated, writes Alison O’Connor.
Fine Gael should put their water treatment by RTÉ on ice for now

It’s the theme tune to the Disney movie Frozen that comes to mind as you listen to Fine Gaelers with their inability to move on from weeping and gnashing their teeth over RTÉ’s coverage of the water charges issue.

Just “Let it Go” you want to tell the Government party as it continues to look somewhere other than its own backyard for it’s hugely disappointing general election performance.

The latest evidence of the wounds that refuse to heal came from Cork South West TD Jim Daly telling C103 last week that RTÉ “really went to town” on the water charge issues not least that they had published lists and times of protests on their website as it they were St Patrick’s Day parades. The remarks were picked up by other media outlets.

The deputy’s remarks were a public sign of the political discontent, while behind closed doors, where the real power lies, there is further evidence of anger with our national broadcaster and an urge to punish. At a recent Cabinet meeting Housing Minister Simon Coveney apparently let loose at what he felt was RTÉ’s unbalanced reporting on the celebrity endorsed Apollo House occupation.

There is little warmth amongst the current Cabinet, well to be specific the Fine Gael side of it, for RTÉ. Finance Minister Michael Noonan is said to think positively poisonously towards the station following a decision that goes back to 2002 when RTÉ aired the documentary No Tears on the hepatitis C scandal. The politically damaging drama was broadcast in the run-up to the general election where the Fine Gael result was so poor Mr Noonan immediately resigned as party leader. Certainly RTÉ had a question to answer on the scheduling, but not even Mr Noonan could argue that the hepatitis C scandal was his finest political hour.

The argy bargy between both sides could be dismissed as just that; something which would in the normal course of events occur between a national broadcaster and the ruling political party where there is bound to be some healthy tension. But there is an extra edge here.

These are very uncertain times for RTÉ and there is a sense that our national broadcaster is in an exceptionally vulnerable position at present– not least after a deficit of around €20 million last year.

Director general Noel Curran stood down last year after many years at the helm. He was well liked and regarded at the station having worked his way up. Others to go were the Managing Director of Television Glen Killane to Eir, and Bill Malone, Channel Controller for RTÉ2 who was poached by TV3. Most recently the Managing Director of News and Current Affairs Kevin Bakhurst returned to London after a number of years. He was replaced only in recent weeks by Jon Williams, who moved from ABC News in New York.

The new director general Dee Forbes arrived to great fanfare last summer, widely seen as being anointed by chairman of the RTÉ Board Moya Doherty. There is great anticipation and no small amount of dread at what will be involved in the director general’s yet to be unveiled grand plan for the station. Indeed at the rate that RTÉ is losing money the fear is mixed between it being a plan that goes too far, or not far enough. However the recent botched announcement on axing children’s television didn’t bolster confidence. It is interesting to wonder who in the chain of command didn’t tip Dee Forbes off about the potential for reaction to the outsourcing proposal, or why she did not herself anticipate it.

The journalistic staff are also at sea as to her general attitude on, for instance, standing up to the Government on issues such as the reporting of water charges. But there is also a realisation that with the current financial mess playing hardball with the paymasters may not be a wisest move.

They are aware their new boss has had a massively successful career in broadcasting abroad, but also point to the fact she lived outside of Ireland for so long. There are also concerns about what Moya Doherty’s feelings are on how the independence of news coverage should be protected.

In terms of funding for RTÉ what we currently have is a hugely ineffective TV licence fee system. Evasion levels for that are epic in EU terms. Under the current system, operated by An Post, there is around €40 million in lost revenue per annum. Communications Minister Denis Naughten, elected as an independent deputy, said early on in his appointment he was abandoning plans for a public service broadcasting charge to replace the current fee because it would have no chance of getting passed in the Dail. Instead he wants to make the licence fee system more efficient.

For most in Government the idea of introducing a new charging system held too many reminders of the water charges. They are aware that whenever the water charges debacle hits the headlines there is a corresponding dip in sales of the €160 TV licence fee.

But other revenue raising plans have been stymied by Fine Gael. Previous communications minister Labour’s Alex White had tried to get Cabinet approval for a proposal where customer databases from SKY and UPC, now Virgin, would be used to track down licence fee evaders. But apparently Fine Gael , with its traditional stance of not wishing to upset big business, and the added charge of giving RTÉ a kicking, ensured this idea was shelved.

Currently Minister Naughten and his Department are attempting to find another way around the difficulty. Other public databases which could be accessed are being considered. The Minister is making noises about the licence fee collection going out for tender.

A further, potentially revenue raising issue, concerns retransmission rights. Legislation is being worked on that would make changes to allow RTÉ the right to at least consider charging Sky, Virgin and Eir to carry its programmes. But will the FG end of the Cabinet support it?

Fine Gael has been whinging about RTÉ for a while now, and when Labour was in Government with them that party also joined in the chorus, especially on water charges. However Labour has always prized the value of public service broadcasting.

Of course RTÉ gets it wrong on occasion, and it has an institutional arrogance which makes it very difficult for it to back itself out of any corners. But largely we are very well served by our national station.

Fine Gael needs to realise that its dreadful performance in the general election last March came about as a result of the dreadful campaign it ran. The Irish Water debacle occurred because Irish people were so weary from austerity and the massive protests, massively newsworthy from a journalistic point of view, were a result of that. In the end the people took to the streets on the issue of water but it was just a convenient enough vehicle for the collective anger.

The Fine Gael/Labour government made an hames themselves of introducing the charges. So when they are looking for someone or something to blame what they need to do is look in the mirror.

RTÉ gets it wrong on occasion, but largely we are very well served by our national station

More in this section