The creation of wealth: Moya Doherty on the arts as an economic dynamo

RTÉ chairwoman and Riverdance co-founder is the first woman awarded the RDS gold medal for enterprise

RTÉ producer Moya Doherty at her office on Capel Street: “I’d love to have been a poet but I don’t have the talent.” Photograph: Alan Betson

RTÉ producer Moya Doherty at her office on Capel Street: “I’d love to have been a poet but I don’t have the talent.” Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Long before her time at RTÉ or Riverdance, before all the fame and fortune, adulation and success that later came her way, Moya Doherty discovered the joy of creativity. As a young girl growing up amidst the stifling thickets of 1960s Catholic Ireland, a kind primary school teacher introduced her to poetry.

“I’d love to have been a poet but I don’t have the talent,” says Doherty, who is, surely, the most successful impresario Ireland has produced. “Poetry is the most incisive, creative form of expression; more so, even, than literature.”

Doherty, who originally hails from Pettigo in Donegal and moved later as a child to Dublin, collects a new poem every day. Surely there is an app for that?

“No, I just go online and search for a new poem... every single day. I have a small number of sites I visit, and I just dig them out.”

One of her favourites is Mary Dorcey’s The Ordinary Woman, an epic celebration of the diversity of everyday roles filled by Irish women quietly, relentlessly, and without fanfare – the mother, the wife, the daughter, the women who are fortunate in life and those who, sadly, are not.

Doherty answers most questions thoughtfully. She doesn’t blurt, so she has obviously thought carefully about which might be her favourite poem.

Yet Dorcey’s creation still seems an esoteric choice. On Wednesday, Doherty will become the first woman to be conferred with the RDS gold medal for enterprise, recognition of her role as co-creator of the financial and artistic juggernaut that is Riverdance. She is, clearly, far from an ordinary woman.

Yet perhaps it is the case that she wishes it were otherwise. With extraordinary achievement and all of its glittering trappings – Doherty and her husband, John McColgan, are thought to have earned more than €100 million from Riverdance – comes extraordinary public scrutiny.

I wonder if Doherty ever gets fed up having to talk about the show, and of realising that whenever outsiders parse her achievements, much of the rest of what she has done professionally will inevitably get viewed as a collection of tributaries alongside the raging commercial torrent of Riverdance?

She smiles knowingly: “I’m used to it. It is both a pleasure and a pain. But I feel slightly removed from Riverdance now. It stands on its own. It’s like having an adult child; you let them get on with it.”

Doherty, too, gets on with it.

More than two decades on from its original explosion into the national psyche at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, the Riverdance show is still touring theatres worldwide, still earning and still wowing. It clocked up more than $20 million globally in ticket sales last year.

Evangelist

Does Doherty think Ireland’s establishment has traditionally looked down upon the creative industries when marking the State’s economic scorecard?

“Yes. It was seen as soft and fluffy. Now, it has become a lot more professional, with new thinking in terms of how we sell it. This has given it a much more solid positioning and a better understanding within other economic sectors. The creative industry’s time has come.”

She is pleased, she says, that the RDS gold medal award to her represents a “step away from hard core industry”. Previous recipients have included such orthodox business titans as Gary McGann, former chief executive of Smurfit Kappa, and Willie Walsh, who runs the BA and Aer Lingus owner, IAG.

“I see it as an acceptance of the creative sector side by side with industry,” says Doherty. “To celebrate this, I have invited 40 people from the artistic community to the lunch in the RDS Concert Hall on Wednesday – directors, writers, painters etc. This is for them, much more so than me.”

As a television producer and creator, but also as a co-founder of commercial enterprises such as Tyrone Productions, Doherty straddles the business and creative worlds. Which of them accounts for more of her self? She doesn’t need to think long and hard about this particular question.

“I see myself primarily as a creative. I am much more attracted to that. I had to appreciate and learn the other [business].”

Her role at RTÉ requires her to meld the two disciplines. And, as always with RTÉ, there is also a little bit of politics thrown in. Doherty certainly doesn’t appear to shy away from this aspect. In the backwoods of Irish public sector administration, she actually comes across as a bit of a forester.

Following her original three-year term as chairwoman of RTÉ – which had almost run out – Doherty last month agreed to stay on for another five years. It will be a seminal period in the history of RTÉ.

Under its first female director general, Dee Forbes, RTÉ is trying to close a near €20 million annual deficit. This year it launched a voluntary redundancy package seeking 300 exits, and Forbes has pleaded for a licence fee increase.

A recent Oireachtas committee report recommended that collection of the licence fee be handed over from An Post to the Revenue Commissioners – evasion is running at more than €30 million annually. It also recommended that the licence fee be extended even to homes that do not have a television, and also that RTÉ be allowed to renegotiate transmission fees with cable operators such as Sky.

“I endorse every one of the recommendations wholeheartedly,” says Doherty. “Whether they are implemented or not is another matter. But the debate has started at a high level, and that is a turning point.”

RTÉ’s commercial broadcasting rivals, all of which swim – or, rather, desperately gasp – in the same advertising pool as the State incumbent, often call for its €180 million subvention to be shared more.

A more interesting proposal sometimes floated is that RTÉ should be locked out out of the commercial advertising market altogether, leaving it to its private-sector rivals. Instead, the theory goes, a smaller, more public broadcasting-focused RTÉ – shorn of the need to chase generic ratings hits to satisfy advertisers – could be funded solely from the licence fee, like BBC.

Doherty bats away the notion and launches a passionate defence of its public-private funding model. “No. Then, you would just turn the financing of RTÉ into something that was done in a back room. And the comparison with BBC doesn’t stand up, because of the differences in scale. The dual funding model is strong.”

Critics of the proposal to shift licence fee collection to Revenue argue that it would result in the payment being disparaged by the public as just another infernal stealth tax extracted by the State’s fiscal enforcer. It could erode the emotional connection between citizens and the public service broadcaster they own, or so the argument goes. It’d become a broadcasting water charge.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t agree at all. I don’t think the method of collection is that important for the relationship. I think what RTÉ does with the money is much more important. It is up to RTÉ to communicate that.”

Extending licence

Irish Theatre Trust

“The content is still there for those people. On that line of argument, why would any State money go to the Arts Council, or to theatres like the Abbey, when 90 per cent of the population don’t go there?”

Why, indeed, some people might argue. A libertarian viewpoint would hold that spending public taxes on theatres is just a subvention of the middle and upper classes that mostly frequent them. Shouldn’t the arts stand on its own two feet?

“What would we have then? A horrible, grey dystopian place where there is no richness? We would have no support for RTÉ to tell Irish stories, to report without a point of view or an agenda.”

RTÉ’s critics might retort that media don’t have to be State-funded to report without an agenda. Nor does State ownership guarantee the absence of any agenda.

But this lady is not for turning. Doherty remains committed and impassioned in her defence of the broadcaster, where she began her career as a secretary more than 35 years ago before becoming a producer.

And devil’s advocacy aside, it is hard to genuinely disagree with her. A weaker RTÉ weakens Irish quality public discourse, at a time when it is needed most.

Doherty isn’t reading from a script. Her steely demeanour and refusal to bend under fire belies that this is no fiction – RTÉ’s travails are a real-life drama. Meanwhile, its commercial rivals also have their own struggles with which to contend in a turbulent media sector which is “disrupted” by online players.

Financial tremors aside, the creative and media sectors globally have in recent months experienced a social earthquake arising from the tsunami of public accusations against industry grandees, such as Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, of harassment and abuse of women.

In Ireland, too, there have been indigenous #metoo outings, such as the recent allegations of bullying behaviour made by several women against former Gate Theatre director, Michael Colgan.

It is an obvious area to broach with the first female recipient of the gold medal, a woman trailblazer in the creative and commercial arts. Yet, it is also a sensitive issue. As a man, it is awkward to simply dive in on a woman with such questions. You never know what has happened in anybody’s life.

Sensing where I was going, Doherty kindly saves me from myself and volunteers that she has never experienced any such negative behaviour.

“Some of what has come out is staggering to me. But I never felt any of it, even as a young producer. Sure, I’ve had nonsense, old-school misogyny that was no more than patronising. But no harassment.”

She acknowledges that the outpourings on social media are perhaps a primal scream by women against the negative behaviour of some men. But she is also wary.

“We need to be careful. It is good that people are speaking out. But where there are systems in place for people to report abuse and harassment, that is where they should go, and not on social media.”

The counter argument is that if those reporting systems worked properly in the first place, women wouldn’t have to expose their wounds to the world on social media. That debate will rage on.

Although she has chiselled out a place in Irish society as a successful businesswoman, Doherty explains that, originally, she really wanted to be an actress.

“I wasn’t cut out for it, temperamentally. I couldn’t take the rejection and judgement. It could turn you into a basket case, even if you are strong.”

Then again, shrinking violets generally don’t succeed in business either – and Doherty certainly is not one of those.

As she takes her place on Wednesday among the men who have won the RDS gold medal, she will justifiably feel that she has earned that recognition.

Doherty has created her own success.

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