Should RTÉ become a video news agency?
Rivalry between newspapers and public service broadcasters has changed over the decades and could change again
During President Michael D Higgins’s visit to Britain earlier this month, RTÉ combined its resources with those of the BBC, Sky and ITV to provide live pool coverage of the speech-laden highlights. Photograph: Johnny Bambury/Fennell Photography
In the early days of the BBC, radio news bulletins only went out after 7pm. “I do not think there is much demand for an earlier bulletin,” said John Reith, the architect of public service broadcasting in Britain. Let’s just pause to mourn the careers of breakfast presenters that might never have blossomed had this statement proved correct.
But even at the time, it was not quite the reason for the absence of daytime bulletins on the airwaves. The BBC had struck a deal with press and news agencies, agreeing to broadcast news only in the evenings to avoid hurting sales of newspapers.
Ninety years later, the balance of power between public service broadcasters and newspapers has shifted, well, just a little.
The National Newspapers of Ireland group would say it has shifted too much. Paraphrasing a notorious anti-BBC speech by News Corp’s James Murdoch, the NNI’s submission to last year’s Government’s broadcasting review accused RTÉ of digital “land-grabbing”. Calling for a ban on advertising on the RTÉ website, the NNI observed that newspapers “now compete head-on” with RTÉ, which “can avail of publicly funded content” whereas other news publishers must pony up for what they put out.
This lobbying position, as well as the current vogue for politicians to snipe about the precise details of how RTÉ allocates its resources, makes initiatives such as pooled coverage of big news events part of RTÉ’s case for the defence.
During President Michael D Higgins’s visit to Britain earlier this month, RTÉ combined its resources with those of the BBC, Sky and ITV to provide live pool coverage of the speech-laden highlights. This footage was shared with other Irish broadcasters “free of charge”, while the RTÉ News online feed was made available to a bunch of newspapers, Newstalk and, after it asked for it, TheJournal.ie.
“We thought it was right to offer it on this significant occasion to Irish media at no cost,” RTÉ’s news boss Kevin Bakhurst replied to a tweeter who wondered why it was not charging its rivals – perish the thought.
Clearly, there were particular access restrictions at Windsor Castle and other official venues that meant pooled video footage was the only kind that would have been available to the wider media sector.
But might there be other significant occasions in the future when RTÉ could offer video and audio coverage to its competitors? Could its news department even become obliged, as a quid pro quo for public funding, to act like a broadcast news agency? News websites are certainly hungry for video and audio material, though RTÉ’s previous offers of video branded with the RTÉ logo had a mixed reception from the industry.
Independent.ie has been the most enthusiastic about hosting such video, agreeing a content-sharing deal with the broadcaster in January 2013. However, the RTÉ-branded content on its site is balanced with video from numerous other sources – this week, for example, it featured the same ITN report on the visit of William and Kate to Australia as could be found on (supposedly Republican) TheGuardian.com.
Not being overly dependent on one agency source, and not carrying too much externally produced content overall, is as important for video as it is for text. No coverage can exist in a vacuum. From shot selection to choice of interviewees to style of editing, a video package will always carry the imprimatur of the institution responsible. Other news groups might crave its public funding, but it seems strange that they would also be prepared to dilute their identities just to collect clicks from RTÉ content.
It was in the messy dial-up days of the internet that newspapers and RTÉ began competing in the same format: written text. The main difference is that RTÉ is restricted from making obvious veers into the realm of opinion and comment. Better broadband, meanwhile, has since allowed newspapers to advance, tentatively, into broadcasters’ territory.
Formal, regular access to RTÉ video content could be a way, albeit flawed, to mitigate the public service broadcaster’s advantage in this converged market (if that’s what the Government wanted to do). Restrictions on advertising are, of course, another. There is another possible avenue of appeasement. RTÉ’s newly upgraded News Now app has the capacity to integrate individual video reports in a way that its predecessor did not. It is not yet apparent if this will result in an RTÉ retreat from the written word. But the rivalry with newspaper groups would be less “head-on” if it did.