Expect more passions to be provoked by the hovering axe at RTÉ

How long can the Government distance itself from the broadcaster’s woes?

These are fraught times in RTÉ, where morale, if not quite in the toilet, is certainly heading in the direction of the bowl. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

These are fraught times in RTÉ, where morale, if not quite in the toilet, is certainly heading in the direction of the bowl. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Could RTÉ’s Lyric FM go off air? Is the Cork studio destined to be mothballed or sold off? Will the end credits roll for [insert service or programme here]? This season on RTÉ, some miserable kites will be flown, and maybe there can be some upside to their flying.

Even the tentative suggestion that enemy-less Lyric FM could be shut down has triggered an outpouring of public support for the station and outrage at the thought its future could be in doubt. Perhaps if similar axes were to hover over other facets of RTÉ’s public service output, then politicians and audiences alike might be reminded of the value of them.

These are fraught times out at Montrose, where morale, if not quite in the toilet, is certainly heading in the direction of the bowl. “It is no longer possible to continue as we are,” director-general Dee Forbes warned employees recently in one of those special emails that start out saying nice things but end up reading like an existential threat.

The outcome of its new review of services presumably won’t be finalised until RTÉ knows what the Government plans to do, or not do, for it in the budget on October 8th.

In the meantime, it is implied by Government representatives that RTÉ’s likely cutbacks, when settled upon, will have little if anything to do with Government policy on public service broadcasting, which is to sit back and watch it dwindle.

Never mind the impression that RTÉ has to consult the Department of Communications every time it sneezes. The message is that any diminishment of Irish culture will really be the product of RTÉ decisions, RTÉ choices. Or, as Minister for Communications Richard Bruton put it last month, “the issue of RTÉ’s design of a future vision for itself is not one that I am the author of”.

The particular element of the vision that Mr Bruton was not an author of on that occasion was job losses at RTÉ, which it was suggested to the Minister would go hand-in-hand with its vague proposal for the further top-slicing of those licence fee receipts that An Post does manage to collect.

Publisher-broadcaster

Deeper top-slicing, or the diversion of more public funds to the independent production sector, is apparently set to be explored by the Government. Its merits include employment creation among independent producers. But eventually, if you keep on top-slicing, you end up with a different model of organisation. You end up with a publisher-broadcaster, like TG4 or Channel 4, where RTÉ doesn’t make programmes itself, but instead commissions almost everything from the outside.

A lot of people like the idea of a publisher-broadcaster. But given one of its main selling points is that it would make RTÉ cheaper to run, it would be disingenuous to say the shift wouldn’t involve mass redundancies.

RTÉ is preparing for another bout of redundancies in any case. As of the end of 2018, it employed 1,822 people, 250 of them part-time. Over 2017 and 2018, some 160 people left the organisation under a voluntary exit scheme, but this fell short of the original target of 200-300 departures. The tough talk has now moved on to compulsory redundancies, but politicians don’t want to hear much about this one either.

“Speaking for myself, that’s something we do not want to see in RTÉ right now,” Fine Gael TD Noel Rock told RTÉ Prime Time last week after the programme teased through some of RTÉ’s options, including the mooted demise of Lyric FM. Echoing Mr Bruton, Mr Rock said choices needed to be made at RTÉ, “but they’re not my choices or the choices of government to make”. The Minister carried on this theme at the weekend in his response to reports that the Cork studio was at risk, saying this was a matter for RTÉ and its board.

The principle of independence for the State-owned broadcaster is never more important to assert than when it is being forced to shrink.

It feels boring to confirm that depriving the nation of Marty in the Morning isn’t going to end RTÉ’s financial crisis, and that, even if closing Lyric FM could solve its difficulties overnight, there would be sound reasons to say “wait a minute, maybe we should still keep it”.

‘Star’ salaries

The reasons to keep “star” salaries quite as high as they are – a bill of more than €3 million for the 10 highest-paid presenters in 2016 – aren’t as sound. But pay cuts at the top, which surely will be a feature of the next round of contract negotiations, won’t balance RTÉ’s books alone. The perennial problem is that most of RTÉ’s services are either popular enough to bring in advertising that RTÉ can’t afford to lose or they serve an uncommercial niche with clear public service merits.

Montrose thought it had found a suitable target for cost savings in 2014 when it attempted to wind down the longwave Radio 1 service used only by the non-digital diaspora. Alas, “everybody went bananas” and obliged RTÉ to “backtrack pretty sharpish”, as Prime Time presenter David McCullagh recounted to Noel Rock. “Individual services will always provoke passions, David,” replied Rock.

Almost always. One of RTÉ’s biggest mission retreats in recent years – the cuts it has made to children’s programming – was achievable because the move was most vocally lamented by children’s programming makers. The lesson is this: audiences who want to keep a particular RTÉ service must be passionate in their defence of it, or else get their political representative to wake up and do the same.

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