Regions alarmed at threat to local RTÉ operations


ANALYSIS:RTÉ offices in Waterford, Athlone, Sligo and Dundalk could be the victims of cuts

RTÉ’S ATTEMPTS to restore its reputation as a trusted broadcaster will be a huge challenge in the wake of the Fr Kevin Reynolds libel debacle – but it is not its biggest challenge.

The publication of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland report into RTÉ’s most catastrophic editorial failing has overshadowed, temporarily, the painful decisions it will have to take to deal with its financial crisis.

The full extent of the broadcaster’s financial woes was revealed by Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte in a Dáil debate last month about the proposed closure of RTÉ’s London office.

Though director general Noel Curran flagged that RTÉ is facing a €20 million deficit this year alone, Mr Rabbitte said the figure was closer to €50 million when redundancy payments were taken into account.

He summed it up in a single word: “unconscionable”. RTÉ would have to do what it had to do to cut costs, including closing the London office with a projected saving of €800,000, he said.

RTÉ has 226 staff working outside Dublin in the Republic, with a further eight in Belfast and five in London.

The biggest operation is in Galway, where there are 102 staff including 63 at Radio na Gaeltachta, and a further 28 in its Baile na hAbhann office.

The total regional spend is about €23 million, and RTÉ management has targeted savings there of between 8 and 9 per cent, pointing out most of the cuts to date have been at its Donnybrook base.

RTÉ finds itself assailed by politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea for its decision to close its London office, but this is far from the only decision it will make which has political ramifications.

Through the process of negotiation over the latest round of cuts, it has emerged that four regional offices, in Waterford, Athlone, Sligo and Dundalk, could face closure.

Reassurances have been sought publicly and privately that these will not close, but none have been given to date.

The number of staff working in the four regional studios under threat is small, amounting to 16 in total, but the political ramifications of such possible closures are much bigger than that.

The Mayor of Waterford, Cllr John Hayes, has left RTÉ management in no doubt as to the depth of feeling in the town about any proposed closure. “The people of Waterford will not accept this. RTÉ has to make up its mind if it is a national broadcaster or not,” he said.

Mayor of Athlone Cllr John Shaw has taken a less high-profile position but is equally emphatic that midlands licence-fee payers are entitled to retain the studio in the town.

Athlone is the original home of what became RTÉ.

There has been an RTÉ presence in Athlone since the first radio broadcast, which coincided with the Eucharistic Congress in 1932, 80 years ago next month.

Mayor of Sligo Cllr Rosaleen O’Grady said the relative isolation of the northwest made it important to retain a presence, especially with Donegal being distant physically. “RTÉ is a very integral part of our community,” she said.

Any prospect this would have been an internal matter for RTÉ alone to resolve was dashed by a letter which appeared in The Irish Times last month.

Signed by Dr Mark Rowe, managing partner of Waterford Health Park; TV Honan, director of the Waterford-based Spraoi festival, and Sean Reidy, chief executive of the JFK Trust, the letter amounted to a pre-emptive warning that any attempt to close the Waterford office would amount to a snub to the whole region.

They said the potential loss of a regional correspondent would leave RTÉ coverage of the area akin to a “visiting fireman” service, which could not convey the “nuance, subtlety and detail of a region’s life”.

In an open letter to the RTÉ director general, Waterford Chamber of Commerce chief executive Michael Garland said without regional representation the reporting of “bad news will become the norm”, adversely affecting fragile confidence in the area.

Sources close to the negotiations say the director general, Mr Curran, has not made up his mind on the closure of any studio and is taking into account submissions from all the regional correspondents, both individually and collectively, who would be affected.

When he made the announcement in March last year, he emphasised savings would be found in fixed costs such as leases and rents.

Mr Curran has to make €25 million in cuts in the next year. It is almost inevitable that such excising of costs, representing between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of total revenues, will involve some high-profile casualties.

Modern technology may help his case. Reporters can shoot, edit and broadcast their own materials now; similarly, broadcast-quality radio material can now be produced through the internet, lessening the need for studios.

“Closure or downgrading are not the only options,” an RTÉ spokesman said. “Changing the way we do things and sustaining services on a more efficient technological basis is the goal.”

Mr Rabbitte said “undoubtedly” there would be political ramifications if RTÉ closed any of its regional studios. “The regions very much value the service provided by RTÉ.

“I think you can rely on it that there will be political reaction,” he said, stressing again RTÉ’s decisions in that regard remain for the management alone.

Judging by the comfort he has given to RTÉ over the closure of its London office, management can rely on his support.

A Government which had to face down local anger over such incendiary issues as the closure of Roscommon Hospital’s accident and emergency unit, Mullingar Barracks and multiple small schools and Garda stations is not going to balk over the closure of some of RTÉ’s regional operations – however strongly people feel about it.