RTÉ plans up to 250 redundancies and eyes licence fee reform

Dee Forbes backtracks from statement that she would like to see doubling of licence fee

RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes has announced sweeping executive and structural changes at a meeting with staff this morning, as she signalled the broadcaster would be looking for up to 250 redundancies.

New content divisions will replace RTÉ’s existing television, radio and digital departments as part of moves to secure its “relevance and survival”, Ms Forbes said.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1 on Wednesday morning, Ms Forbes suggested she would like to see a doubling of the licence fee, which at €160 a year she described as “incredible value for money”.

However, in a later statement she appeared to backtrack from this idea, calling it a “nonsense”, and saying she was focused on Government reform of the licence fee collection system, which is widely regarded as not fit for purpose.

It is estimated that €30 million to €40 million is lost to licence fee evasion each year, while Ireland has one of the highest evasion rates in Europe.

RTÉ will become “a smaller, more nimble organisation” and there will be phased voluntary redundancies over the next two years, Ms Forbes said.

Restructuring

Jim Jennings, the managing director of RTÉ Radio, will become head of content as part of a restructuring of the RTÉ executive board, while chief technology officer Richard Waghorn has been appointed head of transformation.

A new head of channels, audiences and marketing will be appointed shortly and may come from the executive ranks of RTÉ Television, its largest division.

RTÉ will also appoint a new head of human resources, who will join the executive board as it goes through the process of reducing employee numbers.

The interim managing director of television, Dermot Horan, will leave the executive board as part of the reshuffle.

It is expected that staff at RTÉ Digital will be redeployed to other divisions as RTÉ becomes more digitally focused across each part of the organisation.

The 45-minute meeting, open to all staff, was attended by about 400 people in Studio 4, RTÉ's biggest studio, where it films The Late Late Show.

Ms Forbes, who took up her role last July, outlined her vision for RTÉ between now and 2020.

During the meeting, she identified Finnish public service broadcaster YLE as an example of a media organisation that had transformed itself.

Ms Forbes has implemented the reorganisation at the top of the company after consulting with senior executives. This process is understood to have included a number of off-site “away days”.

Executive board

The reshuffle at the top, which will see the executive board increase from eight to nine members, will be followed by a headcount reduction of at least 100, but possibly as many 250 people, through a combination of voluntary redundancies and retirements.

The National Union of Journalists said it would work with other unions in the RTÉ Group of Unions to ensure that the redundancy programme would not have an adverse impact on RTÉ’s ability to meet its public service obligations.

“At a time when journalism is under threat RTÉ must protect the public service ethos of RTÉ,” said NUJ acting general secretary Séamus Dooley.

“Workers at RTÉ have embraced considerable changes in their terms and conditions of employment and in working practices. The NUJ, in common with colleague unions, will consider all proposals in relation to restructuring of RTÉ.”

Mr Dooley said the future of public service broadcasting in Ireland would not be secured without an increase in the licence fee and reform of the inefficient collection system.

“Any consideration of the future of RTÉ must include a review of current levels of funding. Restructuring without a parallel process of investment in resources is doomed to fail.”

RTÉ employed 1,978 people at the end of 2015, according its annual report for that year - the most recent one that has been published. A little under 300 of these were part-time or casual.

Its headcount increased in both 2014 and 2015, with the organisation adding 122 employees over that two-year period, as the mood of budget-tightening in the wake of the recession began to loosen.

Deficit

However, 2016 was an expensive one for the broadcaster, while advertising revenues did not increase by as much as was hoped. Its deficit for last year, although not yet confirmed, is expected to be in the region of €20 million.

The news comes as the sale of part of RTÉ’s Donnybrook campus in Dublin 4 was confirmed. The bulk of the €75 million expected to be raised from the land sale will be spent on upgrading infrastructure and other capital projects.

Ms Forbes said RTÉ had been “under-investing in the organisation for nearly a decade now” and that this was not sustainable.

“The funds from the land sale will be used to invest in much-needed technology upgrades and in key digital infrastructure, to reduce debt levels, and to carry out other essential workplace improvements.”

Speaking on Today with Seán O'Rourke on RTÉ Radio 1, Ms Forbes noted that the licence fee cost 40 cent a day.

“I think it’s incredible value for money,” she said. “Quite honestly I think it should be double that.”

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten is expected to shortly put forward a number of amendments to the Broadcasting Act.

It is possible that licence fee enforcement may be given to an organisation other than An Post, however any increase in the rate is politically unlikely.

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics