Unions caution RTÉ over calls to cut ties with orchestra

External review found State broadcaster could no longer afford to support two orchestras

The board of RTÉ will "undermine its own strength" if it backs calls for the national broadcaster to cut ties with the National Symphony Orchestra, union officials have said.

An external review on the issue found RTÉ could no longer afford to support two orchestras - the National Symphony Orchestra and the National Concert Orchestra - at an annual cost of €17.2 million.

It suggested the NSO be directly funded by Government and placed under the auspices of the National Concert Hall.

However, in a statement opposed to the report's suggestion, the Trade Union Group (TUG), a collective of unions at the broadcaster, has called for the orchestra to remain in place.

“If the RTÉ board decides this week to support the recommendation that the Symphony Orchestra should be removed and setup in a new cultural institution it will be undermining its own strength and place in Irish society,” it said.

"Already RTÉ made a very regrettable decision to cut jobs in its Young People's department, the outsourcing of jobs to the private sector has undermined RTÉ already, handing over responsibility for the Symphony Orchestra is another step in that direction and it should be a huge concern to fans of music and supporters of a strong public service broadcaster," TUG chairwoman Shirley Bradshaw said in a statement on Tuesday.

Ms Bradshaw pointed out that since 2007, attendances at concert orchestra events had increased by more than 50 per cent, as pointed out in the report.

“Sixty per cent of people surveyed during the review supported the orchestras, and more than a third had attended a performance by one of the RTÉ orchestras, this is an indication of the esteem and respect people have for our orchestras,” she said.

The report, carried out by former BBC radio executive Helen Boaden, noted that RTÉ had recorded a 24 per cent drop in revenue since 2007.

Seperately, the National Union of Journalists has supported the call for the retention of the National Symphony Orchestra within RTÉ.

Irish Secretary Séamus Dooley said the solution to the broadcaster’s financial crisis was the development of a funding structure which recognised the cultural value of the orchestras.

“We share the concern of Ms Boaden that without a properly funded and staffed set of orchestras, musicians may have no option but to leave Ireland for work,” said Mr Dooley

“Starving the service would be an act of cultural vandalism but I am unconvinced that breaking up the orchestras is a desirable or viable solution.”

He said RTÉ must continue to play a key role in the protection and promotion of our cultural heritage.

“Outsourcing is a slippery slope. We have already witnessed the undermining of the Young People’s department, through outsourcing. The board needs to have the courage to defend its mandate and demand funding for the NSO, rather than handing it over to a new or redesigned cultural institution. Given the mixed record of such institutions, music lovers share with RTÉ employees a genuine fear that the NSO and RTÉ will both suffer because of this proposal.

“RTÉ is unable to deal with the scale of the current financial crisis without a radical overhaul of the licence fee collection system and a licence fee increase. That would require leadership from the Government but if we want a genuine, all-encompassing public service broadcaster it must be properly resourced.”

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has also called on RTE to reject the proposal which it said would represent “further de facto cuts to services and undermine RTE’s capacity to fulfil its public service remit”.

Congress general secretary Patricia King said the review had confirmed the orchestra’s popularity and “esteem”.

“There is no clear rationale behind this proposal and outsourcing of this key body will likely see its wider role and function diminished,” Ms King said.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times