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Is Kevin Bakhurst the right person to turn RTÉ around?

Jane Suiter: The new director general is a talented media executive, well liked by RTÉ staff. But is he too much of an insider?

Kevin Bakhurst, RTÉ director general. Photograph: Laura Hutton

As the public enjoys a series break from the RTÉ payments drama, we can only hope that when we tune back in for the autumn schedule, radical changes are afoot.

RTÉ's new director general Kevin Bakhurst has made rebuilding trust his central mission. This will not be a small task. He must unravel the deception involving payments that he found “appalling, and disgusting” and provide the answers demanded by the public and politicians – while also laying the foundations for a properly-funded, innovative and trustworthy broadcaster. Staff and much of the public are sincerely hoping he can he tread this tightrope.

RTÉ staff know and generally like Bakhurst as a person, and he has many friends there, but there are also fears. He is at once both insider and outsider, a talented media executive, a man imbued with public service ethos. He has spent time at the BBC, as well as UK media regulator Ofcom.

His previous RTÉ experience was as director of news and current affairs and deputy director general. This means he knows who the key personalities are, where the challenges are, and can hit the ground running. These considerations were, no doubt, a factor when new chair Siún Ní Raghallaigh informed the board that he was the new director general, provoking an unusual public contretemps with some board members.

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But it may also mean that the status quo is one he accepts too readily.

Bakhurst endured a torrid time at the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee (PAC) last Thursday with repeated questions about presenter pay, and accusations of a drip-feed of information, for which he apologised.

In his opening statement he referred to “one of the most shameful and damaging episodes in the organisation’s history” and listed out the changes that would take place in future, including the departure of half of the former executive management team, which has been replaced with an interim leadership team; pushback on presenter pay; the annual publication of the pay of the permanent leadership team and top 10 presenters, and the establishment of a register of interests for staff and contractors.

He later told The Irish Times that he would no longer negotiate with agents. “We can’t stop someone using an agent at the right point, but I can choose with whom I have conversations.”

During the PAC hearing, he also said he spent the summer working on his vision for RTÉ and in discussion with politicians. Ní Raghallaigh also spoke about Bakhurst’s “ambitious agenda for the secure future of the organisation”.

But about that we unfortunately heard little. Asked what the future holds for Donnybrook and RTÉ, he simply stated that a lot of work has been done around future options and the future shape of the organisation.

Privately, some RTÉ staff are concerned about a paucity of vision, as he talks about creating an RTÉ that is “smaller and more agile” and refers to the need to create a “forward looking, digital first, public service media organisation”.

He said in a newspaper interview he is “agnostic” on the licence fee, and accepts if commercial revenue goes, the broadcaster will half in size. RTÉ will be “a slimmed down version of itself”. For many in RTÉ, all of this sounds a lot like an interview that could have been given by his predecessor – or indeed the one before that.

There’s a general consensus that most of RTÉ's travails are due to its inability to restrain commercial interests and an innate conservatism, coupled with a lack of transparency. This is hardly surprising. No other EU public service broadcaster is forced to raise anywhere close to the proportion of its revenue commercially as RTÉ. This may have made sense in the cash-strapped, population-poor 1950s or even the 1980s. But as one of the most successful economies of the European 2020s, it is not justifiable.

Simply selling this or that, downsizing for the sake of short-term cost-saving – even if accompanied by lower pay and a register of interest – is hardly a grand vision. It has not worked in the past, so why would it transform the situation now?

He does not envisage any outside appointments, beyond an external corporate governance expert. That too may be an opportunity missed. Where is the alternative vision for RTÉ going to come from? We need to hear how RTÉ will reimagine public service. Why will we tune in? Why does it matter for us?

Bakhurst has had an unimaginably difficult first week. RTÉ staff are hoping that, by the end of the summer, convincing answers to these questions will have begun to emerge.

As a country, we tend to look to the UK for best practice. The BBC, while producing excellent high-quality, engaging, programming, is anachronistic in still being funded by a licence fee. Partly as a result, it is under constant political pressure, as is the commercially-funded Channel 4, which others point to as a potential model.

We should instead think of looking to the Nordic countries which have strong, trusted public service media often with multiple advertising-free channels, as well as separate commercially-funded stations – and of course excellent drama.

The public needs to understand why RTÉ matters, and how it will change in order to rebuild trust. Once the required transparency has been achieved and reporting on past misdeeds is archived, we need a leadership team that ditches the caution, and tells politicians what they need to hear – rather than what they want to hear.

That needs to involve the new vision. After all, through decades of dithering, they too have some responsibility for the mess RTÉ finds itself in. As the cliche goes, crisis brings opportunity. RTÉ's leadership must now deliver on that promise and not squander this chance.

Jane Suiter is Professor in the School of Communications at DCU and director of the Institute for Future Media, Democracy and Society (FuJo).