Moya Doherty returns to write new RTÉ script

Nomad producer’s role as chairwoman is a balance between cheerleader and governor

RTÉ chairwoman Moya Doherty with a bust of broadcaster Gay Byrne on RTÉ’s Donnybrook campus. Photograph: Eric Luke

RTÉ chairwoman Moya Doherty with a bust of broadcaster Gay Byrne on RTÉ’s Donnybrook campus. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

Inside the RTÉ building known as Central, Moya Doherty explains why she has accepted only a three-year term as chairwoman of RTÉ’s board for now, instead of the usual five. She doesn’t like signing away her life for too long. “I am by nature nomadic,” she says, talking about the need to have “an absence of restriction”.

Requesting a shorter stint reminded her of her response when she won a coveted RTÉ producer-director job in 1987: “I was offered a five-year contract and I panicked completely, because I really thought I couldn’t commit to anything for five years.” On that occasion she negotiated it down to two.

Career breaks are important. She thinks that when people “work creatively on a treadmill”, it’s the treadmill and not the creativity that wins. “There is thinking time required.”

She is a producer at heart, and the invitation from Minister for Communications Alex White to become the board chairwoman came from “left field”, she says. “The Minister came on his bicycle to our offices on Capel Street and I was not expecting it.”

She “deliberated very seriously about it” before accepting. She was already having “less and less to do” with Tyrone Productions, the independent television company she founded with director husband John McColgan, so it wasn’t too much of a chore to resign from it, “which I felt I should do”.

Doherty (57) is wealthy thanks to the Celtic cash machine that is Riverdance. She describes her new RTÉ role as rewarding and an honour, but it must come with some headaches too, I suggest. Does she really need to do this?

“I like to work,” she says carefully. “At the stage of my life that I’m at, to be given a responsibility like this – it’s a good time. Sometimes I think you can be unaware of the knowledge that you have garnered on your journey until it’s tested, and I also love to learn. There are many good people on the board and on the executive who I learn from every day of the week.”

In her time as an independent television producer she “probably saw things I didn’t like” about RTÉ. Having been inside and outside the organisation, she sees it “through an interesting prism”. And it has changed. “The RTÉ that I see now, from within, bears no relationship to the RTÉ that I would have known in the past.”

She talks about the financial adjustments made since commercial revenue fell off a cliff in 2008 and left RTÉ bruised and foolish-looking – during the boom it failed to make critical investments, opting instead to bloat.

Four consecutive deficits followed but under director general Noel Curran its finances have stabilised – in 2013 and 2014 the station broke even – and “while there are still huge challenges”, Doherty is aware that the boardroom’s padded leather chairs are much more comfortable than they would have been five years ago.

 

Oversight responsibilities

The role is a delicate balance between cheerleader and governor: Doherty represents RTÉ, but she also has oversight responsibilities.

 

“It is an independent role, and we take that very seriously, and ask the questions,” she says. The board is not supposed to involve itself in day-to-day operations, but the executive board, known as “the executive” to avoid confusion, must share its plans with it, so it can verify that RTÉ is fulfilling its remit. So if the executive decides to spend a chunk of money on a big-name presenter, does the board have a say?

“No, that is operational. That is absolutely operational. If the executive choose to make decisions about the schedule that they can manage within their own fiscal constraints, that is entirely within their discretion.”

There is “an open, healthy discussion” about programming plans. “None of us is going to interfere and say: ‘Don’t choose that presenter, choose that one.’”

One “live issue” that does fall to Doherty and the rest of the board is the fate of its Donnybrook base. Proposals drawn up this year include a partial sale of the site.

“The land is very much a decision that will come to the boardroom table,” says Doherty. “But you know, you can’t sell a piece of land and make drama,” she adds, in a tone that suggests this would be folly indeed. “You have got to use that capital expenditure for the development of digital, or the technical infrastructure.”

RTÉ’s big push now is for what it terms “certainty” on its public funding. “You need a three- to five-year plan for everything,” Doherty says, speaking just as RTÉ’s 2014 annual report was about to be published. (Since then, the Minister has visited the board and Doherty is said to have found him “sympathetic” to RTÉ’s concerns.)

The more commercially minded members of the board are “amazed” that an estimated €30 million is lost to licence fee evasion each year. Recovering this would allow RTÉ to “tell many stories” without costing those who pay already “another cent”.

The competition that hurts RTÉ financially is the same competition that viewers pay to consume via internationally owned platforms then turn around and say: “Why do I have to pay a licence fee too?” Is there a job to be done to sell the principle of public funding to the, um, public?

“Maybe there is always the need to put your case forward and deliver value for money,” she says. But the competition should intensify, not lessen, the case for public funding protection, she argues, “to ensure that we don’t become” – a faint note of disgust enters her voice – “a high-street highway”.

Firmer links with other creative sector bodies would both help RTÉ’s image and strengthen its lobbying position at government level. “I think there is a need for one voice within the creative sector,” she says.

“The shrinkage has been quite dramatic. The spending cuts from RTÉ for independent producers have been really very blunt and very tough, and what happens then is people can’t survive, they can’t pay their rents, they can’t pay their overheads. There’s nothing for them.”

“It is hard to make a living in the creative sector, isn’t it?” I ask, hastily adding, “for somebody starting out”, because it suddenly seems a bizarre thing to say to someone who found the magic formula 21 years ago. She talks about young people taking second jobs to sustain their creative work and concludes it would be “much easier to be an accountant or a lawyer”. Her son Mark is an artist and illustrator, while her son Danny is a writer and actor. Would she have been surprised if they had become accountants or lawyers?

“I probably would have been. And yet coming from the very, very traditional background I came from myself, my parents were surprised by what I did.”

Her parents were both primary school teachers, with her mother working in an era when it was not typical for married women to do so.

“I was a latchkey kid before the term was coined,” she says. It taught her the value of independence. “My parents didn’t look over their shoulder. They expected us to get on. That was their generation – there was no cosseting.”

Doherty, the middle of five children, spent the first seven years of her life in Pettigo, Co Donegal before moving to Dublin. The upside to the 1960s and 1970s was that “there was more fluidity of movement,” she says, “in that you could come into RTÉ and be promoted in a way that probably wouldn’t be available to somebody like me now”.

Somebody like you? “Somebody who came from my background,” she says simply. It’s not the most flattering assessment of social mobility in Ireland today.

She started out as an actor, touring for a year with the Team Educational Company, but had given up the rejection-heavy profession by the time she began working for RTÉ as a production assistant, aged 21. “I didn’t have the courage,” she says.

She doesn’t think there are many similarities between performing on stage and in a boardroom, but she does think acting taught her how to make sure she was heard. “The skills that you learn as an actor about breath control and projection – the technical side of it – is very useful.”

After working on and off for RTÉ in the 1980s, she went to London and threw herself into “the throes of the extraordinary birth of TV AM”. Eventually, she reached a point when she didn’t want to remain working in breakfast television. She had already met and married McColgan and had the urge to return home. She lists her reasons: “The pragmatics of being able to afford anything within the heart of London, a sense of wanting to start a family, not wanting to commute. . .”

If she had stayed in London, her experiences “could have been vastly different and equally engaging”, she says. “I don’t know. I can’t write that script.”

 

Global live entertainment behemoth

The script she ended up co-writing – imbuing Irish dance with new potency – felt like a powerful cultural twist. The seven minutes that changed her life took place on April 30th, 1994, when the interval act she commissioned and produced for the Eurovision Song Contest electrified the audience. “You don’t have to be Irish to love that,” said Terry Wogan, temporarily suspending his trademark wryness.

 

Riverdance is a global live entertainment behemoth that continues to tap its heels today. The couple is estimated to have made more than €100 million from it, but she doesn’t want to talk about money.

“I came from incredibly simple and modest roots,” she says in a bid to explain her unease. “I think that the fact that Riverdance actually grew within public service broadcasting is itself quite curious and shows what is possible, but figures. . . you can shoot the breeze on that.”

She was recently in Shanghai – their latest stage show, Heartbeat of Home, has been touring China. “We have to make another decision now about where it goes next, and that’s the business.”

Not everything has worked out: in 2007 they lost money on musical production The Pirate Queen when it closed early (“The Pirate Queen sinks on Broadway,” was RTÉ’s headline). “There are so many decisions on the journey of each piece of work, you look back and wonder whether you could have done it differently.”

Her RTÉ office is adorned with landscape photographs taken by McColgan, who has just turned 70. “He had an exhibition in Howth and sold them for a lifeboat charity,” she explains.

Does a pressure-cooker situation ever arise from working together? “No, not any more. There was a time, but not any more, it’s in the past,” she says. “We’re quite respectful of each other’s roles and very often agree to differ.”

I ask if she subscribes to the old “inform, educate and entertain” philosophy of BBC architect John Reith – if that is relevant to public service broadcasting today. Her answer tallies with her most famous creation. “I think you might take it slightly differently and say: make the good popular and the popular good.”

CV

Name: Moya Doherty

Background and family: She grew up in Pettigo, Co Donegal, before the family moved to Dublin. She now lives in Howth with her husband, John McColgan, whom she married on Christmas Eve in 1986. They have two sons (Mark and Danny), while McColgan has two children (Lucy and Justin) from his first marriage.

Career: The chairwoman of the RTÉ board is perhaps best known as the commissioning producer and originator of Riverdance for the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. She has been both an RTÉ producer and an independent one, co-founding Tyrone Productions with McColgan, and was a founding director of Radio Ireland (now Today FM). She is the current holder of the title Donegal Person of the Year.

Something you would expect: Listening to RTÉ Radio 1 on Sunday mornings is a cherished part of her cultural routine.

Something that might surprise: “I’m a sneaky fan of The Great British Bake Off.”

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