RTÉ's current miserable predicament is reminiscent of one of those novels about decaying gentry in post-war England. You know the sort of thing. Trapped in a crumbling old pile that's seen better days, the 65th earl is forced into increasingly desperate measures to keep the bailiffs from the door.
First the butler has to go; then the lower meadow is sold off for housing; next it’s time to rummage in the attic for a few old paintings that Sotheby’s can flog so next month’s electricity bill can be paid. The way things are going, it’s only a matter of time before they start ripping up the floorboards for firewood.
In this case, we appear to be at stage three. RTÉ's decision to put a number of paintings it owns – or partly owns – up for auction through Sotheby's (through its Dublin office) has provoked a range of reactions, from miffed Irish auction houses asking why they weren't considered up to the task, to retired RTÉ grandees decrying the philistinism of the move while pointing out the pitifully small the sum of money likely to be raised, when set against the broadcaster's ever- mounting deficit.
Things are grim at RTÉ, and all the signs are that they're going to get grimmer
Of the paintings themselves, the departure of large-scale works by Louis le Brocquy and William Scott has given most concern. Both were specifically commissioned for prominent locations in the modernist Television Building designed by Michael Scott and built in the mid-1960s. The original purchase of both was jointly financed by the Arts Council, which may have a financial interest now they're being sold.
At least one of these works, we're told, had been in storage for some years due to changes in the way workspaces on the Montrose campus were being used. One might, in the normal course of events, have expected them to be offered to the National Gallery, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, or some other State institution. But these are not normal times.
Things are grim at RTÉ, and all the signs are that they’re going to get grimmer. Some believe that management deliberately planted recent warnings about the future of Lyric FM in an attempt to raise the public from its apathy about of the difficulties the broadcaster is in. If true, that would indicate a callous indifference to the effect those news stories had on Lyric employees. But it’s part of a pattern, of which the sale of the paintings is the most recent example.
Whether it’s divesting itself of responsibility for the National Symphony Orchestra, questioning the need for a station devoted (at least some of the time) to classical music, or getting rid of publicly-funded art, RTÉ seems to be frantically signalling that the State can’t freeze licence-fee funding for more than a decade and yet expect the same level of public service commitments to be maintained.
There's a widely held belief in senior circles in RTÉ that the last two Fine Gael-led led governments have been deeply antipathetic to the broadcaster. Some trace that back to the attitude of former minister for finance Michael Noonan, but there's not much sign of a change since his departure in 2017. The recent announcement by Minister for Communications Richard Bruton of a slow-motion process of licence fee reform over the next several years has done nothing to lessen that impression.
Freedom of Information requests for minutes of RTÉ board meetings over the past three years reveal a rising sense of alarm at the situation. So what’s an embattled public service broadcaster to do? Existential threats should prompt existential questions. Why are we here? What are we for? What should we do? But faced with an indifferent or hostile government, a collapsing advertising market and a generational shift away from traditional linear TV viewing, RTÉ seems paralysed. Pecking away at the cultural activities which partly underpin the argument for a licence fee in the first place doesn’t seem particularly strategic.
It is eminently possible to put forward a truly transformative vision of RTÉ in which it moves decisively away from its current structure, with its hundreds of employees and large footprint in an expensive Dublin suburb, to become a commissioning editor/publisher of audio, video and written content across all digital platforms, including radio and TV.
Such a radical move would probably entail widespread redundancies, along with a complete departure from the Montrose campus (and the demolition of its highly-regarded modernist buildings). It would be shocking. It would be controversial. It would be traumatic for the organisation and its employees. And it would probably be blocked by the Government. But it would at last set a proper agenda, if there’s a place for State-supported public service content in the 21st century, for discussing what that should look and sound like.