Orchestral manoeuvre will undermine RTÉ in the long term

Helen Boaden’s report reveals treatment of orchestras that is counter-productive

Helen Boaden’s report outlines how RTÉ’s orchestras have been constrained and left ‘demoralised’ by budget cuts. Photograph: Conor McCabe

Helen Boaden’s report outlines how RTÉ’s orchestras have been constrained and left ‘demoralised’ by budget cuts. Photograph: Conor McCabe

 

For big, damning reads on how Ireland truly regards the production of culture, look no further than the report by former BBC director of radio Helen Boaden and consultancy firm Mediatique into the two RTÉ orchestras and how a “sustainable future” might be ensured for them. It is as forensic and as heartbreaking as they come.

On the basis that RTÉ cannot afford to maintain both the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, the report has recommended that the NSO should become a cultural institution in its own right or within the National Concert Hall, with RTÉ paying a fee for broadcasting rights.

The suggestion strikes discordant notes for many, not least those within RTÉ’s Trade Union Group, which opposes the move. But even those that chime with the authors’ conclusion that “the status quo cannot continue” may be depressed at how this state of seeming inevitability has come to pass.

As Irish Times music critic Michael Dervan wrote, there is no doubt that RTÉ management subjected the orchestras to a “depreciation of once-valued assets” in a calculated process that involved letting the NSO slip from a complement of 89 players in 2007 to just 68, a level last known in the 1950s.

With some 52 of its 55 concerts in 2016 taking place in Dublin, the NSO no longer does much regional touring – one of the “fundamental differences” with its counterparts across Europe.

RTÉ’s desire to avoid paying subsistence expenses is highlighted as one reason: NSO members must travel, rehearse, perform and then travel back within a period of 10 hours, a practice that “effectively precludes the orchestras visiting much of Ireland”.

Not recorded

This seems unfair to licence fee payers outside Dublin. It’s certainly not “RTÉ Supporting the Arts” in action. But at least the performances are being recorded, right? Um, not always. Some 30 per cent of NSO concerts and 80 per cent of Concert Orchestra events are not recorded “because of a lack of engineering staff, following cutbacks since the recession”.

The report politely recommends that more of an effort should be made on the part of RTÉ to pony up for dedicated sound engineers. It also trawls through what it describes as “very limited use of RTÉ orchestra services” by stations and channels other than Lyric FM. Despite the “critical” amplifying effect of broadcasting, it notes that the NSO “rarely appears on television”.

When the first wave of radio orchestras were created across Europe more than 90 years ago, the idea was to democratise high culture and carry “the best of everything into the greatest number of homes”, as it was put by the BBC’s first director general John Reith.

The logic of housing orchestras within public service broadcasters has not expired since then: broadcasting remains the best way for orchestras to reach large audiences and “take them on journeys of exploration and pleasure”.

Nor has the Reithian rationale for public media funding exactly been forgotten in RTÉ’s promotion of itself. The collaborations between the “lighter”, smaller Concert Orchestra and DJ Jenny Greene at Electric Picnic and other sizeable events have been used to back up the narrative that RTÉ is a cultural beacon that “does things a little differently”, as director general Dee Forbes phrased it, in the fulfilment of its remit.

And yet the report’s authors are not exactly overstating it when they say problems with falling income and touring cuts have been “compounded by a clear lack of consideration” of how the orchestras fit within RTÉ.

Its current business plan sets a target for cuts from the joint operating budget of the orchestras. The figure is redacted from the report. But its authors say they would need to secure a staggering 75 per cent increase in their commercial revenues to make up the funding cut. There aren’t enough Electric Picnics for this to happen, and so the NSO has effectively been put on notice.

‘Necessary evaluations’

RTÉ now says it is “acutely conscious” that any decisions following the review will “not be for it alone to make”, while Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan says her department and the Department of Communications are undertaking the “necessary evaluations”.

Some important context: RTÉ is broke. The Boaden/Mediatique report details how orchestra funding has been “relatively protected” between 2007 and 2016 compared to television and radio budgets, including the outlay on “public service genres” such as young people’s, religious, drama and factual programming.

Some who were burned by these cuts may be tempted to break out the tiny violins when they hear of the orchestras’ woes. But most people within RTÉ will fear, as the unions do, that it marks another slip down the self-defeating slope of outsourcing. First they came for the string section.

The proposal to set the NSO adrift creates great uncertainty for musicians in the short to medium term, though assuming, somehow, that Government funding of the arts actually matched its stated ambitions for once, it could herald an era of greater stability and direction. In theory.

The opposite is true for what it means for RTÉ. In the short term, it makes brilliant sense for RTÉ to have one less thing to fund. But how can it ultimately help its cause, as it trumpets its need for more money to survive, to jettison a key wing of its public service mandate? The answer is that it doesn’t.