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Where is the pride in RTÉ? There doesn’t seem to be any ambition to make it special

If RTÉ is moving away from its DNA, outsourcing key programmes and limiting what it makes in-house, then what is it for?

Kevin Bakhurst with RTÉ staff. Photograph: Alan Betson

RTÉ has a “new direction”, outlined in a strategy document published last week. The document is a confusing catalogue of very basic technical changes, managerial tasks, and little that speaks to necessary vision for a creative, robust, expanded RTÉ that will live on for generations – a place with a great working culture and a place the brightest talent in media gravitate towards. That’s what we need.

But for some reason, those tasked with outlining and guiding RTÉ’s future say that’s not what we’re going to get. Ambition is missing. What’s also missing is an understanding that the people make the organisation. Get rid of them, and you’re just a department store for the wares of others.

Many of the things outlined are basic: a verification mark for disinformation; losing digital radio stations (the drawn-out consequence of RTÉ making a terrible error in not investing in podcasting at scale); launching a sign-in for the RTÉ Player (standard for every streamer); the finalisation of a “commissioning roadmap” to achieve a “broader portfolio of genres and programmes” (how does this not already exist?); “engaging with Coimisiún na Meán” (should meetings be in a strategy?); participating in a review of Irish-language services (again, just a task); appointing directors of audio and video (RTÉ has a tendency to rebrand senior positions rather than change culture); “reviewing staffing and developing new production models for audio and video” (two separate things, bunched together, that tell us little); strengthening advertising sales (the day to day of running a media company); securing a reduction in up to 400 staff, beginning with 40 through voluntary departures; “completing work under way to produce the economic case and capital plan for the modernisation of RTÉ’s physical infrastructure” (you’d have thought this would have been done when it sold its land); and publishing a new governance framework.

The upshot is that RTÉ will reduce the amount of programming it makes itself (a key element of its function), commission more from the independent sector and, as has been widely reported, look to farm out two programmes that are essential to RTÉ’s DNA: The Late Late Show and Fair City. The latter is an especially terrible idea. Assuming these institutions of Irish television can be made by anyone, and putting them at risk altogether should an independent producer decide to one day pull the plug, is frankly foolish.

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If anything, the document compounds RTÉ’s existential crisis. If the entity is moving away from its DNA, and becoming something other than a strong national broadcaster that expands – not limits – its work, then what is RTÉ for?

On the emphasis on streaming, this is merely a mode of delivery. A streaming platform is where audiences watch and listen to things. But what about what they’re watching and listening to? RTÉ should be concerned with output over delivery and distribution. The RTÉ Player should be top class – we all want that – but being a streamer is not a strategy, it’s a fact. The RTÉ Player is a niche, regional streaming platform. People go to RTÉ to get RTÉ. They can watch boxsets anywhere.

I hate to state the obvious, but RTÉ is the national broadcaster. This is its USP. There isn’t another one of those. Do that, and do it well. Where is the pride in RTÉ? Where in the strategy is the ambition to build on, not reduce, what makes RTÉ special?

Commissioning more (original, not newly outsourced, please) independent productions is good news. But the main obstacle the independent production sector faces in its dealings with RTÉ is RTÉ’s general dysfunction. How does director general Kevin Bakhurst propose that changes? Because that’s what the independent sector complains about all the time. RTÉ is not Screen Ireland nor Coimisiún na Meán, and its role is not to guide the independent sector.

While heaping praise on the independent sector, there was very little in the video interview with Bakhurst that accompanied the strategy’s publication expressing the necessary and appropriate appreciation for RTÉ workers. “We have brilliant people here,” he said, eight minutes into the interview. These workers are the people who make the organisation. They are the ones who kept the entire thing running, while executives made a catalogue of disastrous decisions that led them to Oireachtas committee hearings and, once there, set about making a holy show of themselves.

These workers have had their morale flattened, and their jobs put at risk by a succession of outrageous scandals. With all the big payouts and car allowances, day to day in RTÉ, every penny now has to be accounted for, and often denied when it comes to the resources needed for people to do their jobs to a standard. RTÉ workers haven’t even had a functioning central canteen to eat in at their workplace, which is insulting. If you want to save RTÉ, you have to value this talent, not let it go.

The scramble for short-term financial savings bears the hallmarks of breaking up the kitchen furniture to fuel the fire. A month before the RTÉ scandals started rolling in 2023, I wrote a piece questioning whether RTÉ executives knew what they were doing. I’ll ask it again: what are they at?