Closure of London bureau betrays RTÉ's public duty
OPINION:JUST INSIDE the entrance to RTÉ’s bureau in Westminster is a large sign listing the national broadcaster’s vision, mission and values.
Its first line states that the company’s vision is to grow the trust of the people of Ireland as it informs, inspires, reflects and enriches their lives. Last week, in an effort to cut costs, RTÉ closed the bureau and I resigned after more than 20 years as London editor. RTÉ no longer has any editorial staff based in Britain, which will now be covered from Dublin, Belfast or Brussels.
Shortly after RTÉ’s director general, Noel Curran, announced the planned closure last March, the then acting director of news and current affairs, Cillian de Paor, sought to explain the decision in a radio interview.
He referred to the summer 2011 riots in Britain. I had been on holiday at the time and RTÉ had dispatched a reporter from Dublin who covered the unrest comprehensively for a week. Cillian de Paor told RTÉ radio’s The Media Show: “That is, in fact, the model, almost, for how I would like to cover a breaking news story.” What he did not reveal was that the reporter who had been sent from Dublin had the RTÉ London bureau’s technical infrastructure at his disposal, including a radio and television studio, editing facilities and RTÉ’s permanent video link to Dublin. Since the closure of the London bureau those RTÉ facilities are no longer available to visiting reporters.
There is no doubt that changing technology allows for less reliance on such infrastructure and greater mobility when covering stories abroad. In fact, most of RTÉ’s London savings will be infrastructural costs. That is why, when the closure was announced, I argued for the retention of an RTÉ presence in Britain without a bureau. I wanted RTÉ to follow the example of other national broadcasters – particularly those from small countries – that maintain correspondents in London working from home and hiring facilities only when required.
Cillian de Paor admitted in his radio interview that there was “still value in having people on the ground”, but RTÉ has decided not to retain a staff correspondent in London working from home. The broadcaster correctly points to its financial obligation to break even. But RTÉ’s evisceration of its London operation and its removal of any presence “on the ground” betrays its basic public service responsibility to cover the affairs of its closest neighbour and its implications for Ireland. This lack of any nuanced approach to cost-cutting in London has been central in my decision to leave the broadcaster.
RTÉ has many talented and experienced journalists in Dublin, Belfast and Brussels and they will do an excellent job covering planned and diary events in Britain, for example a visit by a president or taoiseach.
However, as any journalism student knows, the job is not simply about what has happened but why it has happened. Much of a correspondent’s job is explaining the unforeseen and the unfamiliar to viewers, listeners and readers back home. The ability to do that comes from living in a country, building contacts and forming impressions.
There have been instances over the past two decades covering Westminster when small (and usually unreported) turns of phrase or actions by one government have delighted or infuriated the other side, leading to unforeseen changes in attitude. It is the kind of journalism I recently described to a class of students as “being there”. The need to “be there” is why news organisations still employ resident correspondents and the Ryanair journalism now proposed by RTÉ is no substitute.