Undermining RTÉ would not serve public interest

Opinion: RTÉ needs scale and resources to guarantee a strong indigenous voice

RTÉ, like all organisations during this recession, has had to adapt to a new reality. The station has downsized. It has reinvented itself to meet the changing needs and expectations of audiences in the digital age.

RTÉ realises that any sense of entitlement the organisation may have felt about its public funding is gone. RTÉ must show why it should receive such funding.

Changes to the funding of Ireland's public service media should be considered carefully. Both the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI) and TV3 have suggested different ways of redistributing public funding, in effect restricting RTÉ.

Commercial radio and television contribute enormously to Irish life. I have always publicly recognised the positive role that TV3 and regional radio stations play. But let’s look at their arguments, and the implications.


If commercial radio is to be subsidised by a media charge for providing public service content, then why shouldn't The Irish Times and Independent Newspapers avail of a subsidy for their online operations? If Radio Kerry, for instance, is to receive a direct subsidy from the licence fee, then why shouldn't the Kerryman newspaper also receive money for their print and online presence? What about community websites providing a genuine public service? Where does it end?

We should look at the facts, and the powers, behind this understandably emotive debate.

A speaker at the IBI conference this week talked of RTÉ "monopolising" the radio market. Yet RTÉ accounts for only 25 per cent of the radio advertising spend in Ireland. Others talk of a David versus Goliath battle between RTÉ and commercial operators. Yet approximately 35 per cent of commercial radio stations in Ireland are owned or controlled by either UTV or Communicorp.

UTV, an international media company, made a £23.9 million group operating profit last year. Communicorp is owned by businessman Denis O'Brien, whose net worth was recently valued by Forbes magazine at $5 billion. Both companies are driven by profit, which is both healthy and necessary. But it is hard to explain why their subsidiaries should receive a State subsidy.

TV3 believes that RTÉ is the problem, but every night Irish television channels, both public service and commercial, compete with the best-resourced broadcasters in the world. There are now more than 30 non-Irish channels selling Irish advertising in this market.

Heavily regulated
RTÉ's commercial activities are regulated heavily by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, by the Competition Authority, by a Government department and by the Broadcasting Act. As it stands, TV3 has twice RTÉ's advertising minutage. Any debate around RTÉ's commercial footprint should be mindful of the attempts by former minister Ray Burke to restrict RTÉ, and the impact this had on the entire advertising market in Ireland.

Diminishing RTÉ in an attempt to support commercial media will not work, nor will it serve any meaningful public interest.

The BAI will shortly conclude its review of the adequacy of public funding that enables RTÉ and TG4 to meet their public service obligations. The authority will present conclusions and recommendations to Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte and his department.

This review is happening at a time of change and challenge for the media sector in Ireland. The temptation during such a difficult and complex set of challenges is to try to solve today’s problems, while ignoring tomorrow’s challenges.

RTÉ is looking to the future, having achieved much in recent times. The station funded and managed one of the most successful digital television switchovers in Europe, yielding €874 million to the exchequer. RTÉ has restructured its business to become a public service media organisation that delivers high-quality content in ways that fit the increasingly mobile lives of Irish people.

Importantly, RTÉ continues to make stand-out programmes, from high-end Irish TV drama like Love/Hate to national and international news, big sporting occasions, specialised arts, Irish-language and music programming. The new children's television channel, RTÉjr, is free of advertising. And RTÉ has reinvested in investigative journalism, despite cutbacks elsewhere.

Adjustment has been significant. Between 2008 and 2012, RTÉ’s operating costs reduced by €104 million. 500 people left the station in that time.

The challenges will not diminish. Commercial revenues and public funding have fallen dramatically. At precisely the time that RTÉ’s resources have contracted, media consumption has fragmented. Those who will gain from this “perfect storm” are not other Irish-owned media organisations but, in the main, large international media providers who invest little or nothing in Irish content.

A lot is at risk beyond RTÉ’s own future: a viable independent production sector, significant Irish TV drama, national, international and regional news coverage, distinctively Irish young people’s programming, significant investment in Irish sport, Irish-language services and classical music performance. All of these add to Irish life. They are not sustainable on any scale without a strong and viable RTÉ.

It is clear, given Ireland’s small population, that the dual-funding model should remain if we are to sustain quality public service media in this country. RTÉ is open to a discussion on the balance of its public versus commercial funding, if the overall result does not undermine the organisation’s key public role. But that debate should include the new media charge, index-linking of that charge, reduction in evasion levels, the future of the Sound and Vision Fund and commercial media licences for commercial premises.

Unique contribution
RTÉ is far from perfect, but it is an organisation that makes a unique contribution to Irish life. Information is now delivered on diverse platforms and from diverse sources. International media are diluting national and local culture like never before. Some of the largest media companies in the world are now operating, and growing, in the Irish market.

This is healthy, so long as Ireland also has a public service media organisation that has the scale and resources to guarantee a strong and distinctive indigenous voice and indigenous perspective on the world; a voice that is accessible to all across different media, which articulates our stories, relays our experiences and allows for national public debate and conversation. That is RTÉ’s role. It should be defended.

Noel Curran is director general of RTÉ