Denis Naughten should be alarmed by Ivan Yates’s RTÉ sources

Is the strange approach to filling key posts in RTÉ’s orchestras a ploy to tear them down?

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten should be alarmed by recent comments by a member of the RTÉ Authority to Ivan Yates. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten should be alarmed by recent comments by a member of the RTÉ Authority to Ivan Yates. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

RTÉ has now formally announced the “review of its provision of orchestral services” that I wrote about in this column last week.

The tone of the announcement is in stark contrast to communications between some of RTÉ’s executives and the station’s orchestral players, the gloomiest of which project a loss of more than 30 orchestral posts by next June as well as the contraction of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and RTÉ Concert Orchestra into a single body.

The press release states that, beyond RTÉ’s statutory obligations – the relevant ones being “to establish and maintain orchestras, choirs and other cultural performing groups” – the two orchestras are “integral” to the national broadcaster’s arts and cultural programming strategy. That’s a strategy through which “RTÉ wishes to extend the reach of its orchestral music, by performing to a wider range of audiences, right across the country, and enhancing broadcast opportunities”. 

That, of course, has been RTÉ’s policy since year zero for the NSO. Back in 1989, when RTÉ announced the expansion of the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra that would create the NSO, the then director of radio programming, Kevin Healy, talked of increasing the size of the orchestra “from its present numbers of 71 players up to full international strength of 93 players”, and said that “in so doing, it will be possible for the orchestra to fulfil a more visible and accessible public function”.

He called the new development “a substantial indication of RTÉ’s determination to fulfil its public service obligations not only over the airwaves but also in the concert hall and the community”. The increased touring activity he was promising would never fully materialise.

Danish model

Fergus Sheil, in his 2010 Arts Council report Missing a Beat, pointed out that the Royal Scottish National Orchestra tours “almost every concert to a number of venues in Scotland”, and Denmark’s South Jutland Symphony Orchestra “exists in a town the size of Navan, but it performs regularly in 14 other venues, including across the border in Germany”. 

The NSO’s out-of-Dublin exposure in 2017 will amount to five concerts, one less than the RTÉ SO gave in 1989. It’s highly instructive to compare the high ideals of 1989 with the reality of today. Neither RTÉ orchestra has a principal conductor. The NSO has been without one since May of last year, the RTÉ CO without one since John Wilson departed abruptly the following month. When Nathalie Stutzmann became principal conductor of the NSO in September she was taking up a post that had been left vacant since 2010.

The management situation is equally patchy. After last year’s sidelining of John O’Kane, the executive director of RTÉ Orchestras, Quartet and Choirs, he was replaced by a man who already had a full-time job. His successor, Aodán Ó Dubhghaill, is not described as an executive director, but is officially “Head of RTÉ’s Orchestras, Lyric FM, Quartet and Choirs”. 

The long-term challenge of finding a permanent general manager for the NSO after the departure of Christine Lee in 2012 was only resolved this year when Anthony Long was moved sideways from the RTÉ CO over to the NSO. The RTÉ CO has been left without a permanent general manager. I wonder why.

Ivan Yates, presenter of Newstalk’s The Hard Shoulder, may well have the answer. He had a rant about the orchestras last week when, whipping himself into a frenzy, he said: “You know what I’d say to Siptu and the Musicians Union of Ireland? I’ll tell you what, you can have your P45s on the way out.”

He went on, “It’s only for snobs anyway, this classical music . . . This is a national outrage and I was shocked to find, speaking to a member of the RTÉ Authority [a defunct name for the RTÉ Board], who said: ‘Do you know how much it’s costing to keep the orchestras going? €12 million a year.’ ” It has to be a matter of serious concern to the Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, who appoints that board, that one of its members would choose to wind up a shock jock in that way. 

Cockeyed approach

The cockeyed approach to filling the most important musical and music-management posts in RTÉ reminds me of nothing more than the approach of a developer buying a property and removing roof slates and breaking windows so that, by making it derelict, it will be easier to justify tearing it down. 

But RTÉ actually has even more direct methods than that. Since 2003 its annual reports provide a breakdown of how the licence money it receives is spent. In 2003 it received licence fee income of €312.7 million, from which it attributed €13.4 million to its music groups.

RTÉ’s latest accounts, for 2016, show a rise in licence fee income of €21.5 million over the intervening years. That’s an increase of 13.6 per cent. But the same period has seen a drop of 5.6 per cent in the level of support to the music groups. 

RTÉ’s board and executive will probably have been listening carefully to Monday’s meeting of the Public Accounts Committee. The committee’s chair, Seán Fleming, put Mark Griffin, secretary general of the Department of Communications, in the hot seat, when Griffin was unable to confirm there was a service-level agreement between RTÉ and the department in relation to the licence fee. 

RTÉ is the publicly funded custodian of the country’s only full-time orchestras, a role that it has rarely seemed to relish, and a role in which, given the absence of competition, it has never had to excel.

The ultimate question is not really what the latest RTÉ review will say. That review has been commissioned by a cash-strapped organisation and seems likely to be about saving money rather than anything else.

The big question is how public policy, as implemented by Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, Minister for Culture Heather Humphreys and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, will respond to any major threat to two orchestras in a country that’s already among the most institutionally impoverished in Europe when it comes to musical provision.

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