Closure of London bureau betrays RTÉ's public duty


OPINION:JUST INSIDE the entrance to RTÉ’s bureau in Westminster is a large sign listing the national broadcaster’s vision, mission and values.

Its first line states that the company’s vision is to grow the trust of the people of Ireland as it informs, inspires, reflects and enriches their lives. Last week, in an effort to cut costs, RTÉ closed the bureau and I resigned after more than 20 years as London editor. RTÉ no longer has any editorial staff based in Britain, which will now be covered from Dublin, Belfast or Brussels.

Shortly after RTÉ’s director general, Noel Curran, announced the planned closure last March, the then acting director of news and current affairs, Cillian de Paor, sought to explain the decision in a radio interview.

He referred to the summer 2011 riots in Britain. I had been on holiday at the time and RTÉ had dispatched a reporter from Dublin who covered the unrest comprehensively for a week. Cillian de Paor told RTÉ radio’s The Media Show: “That is, in fact, the model, almost, for how I would like to cover a breaking news story.” What he did not reveal was that the reporter who had been sent from Dublin had the RTÉ London bureau’s technical infrastructure at his disposal, including a radio and television studio, editing facilities and RTÉ’s permanent video link to Dublin. Since the closure of the London bureau those RTÉ facilities are no longer available to visiting reporters.

There is no doubt that changing technology allows for less reliance on such infrastructure and greater mobility when covering stories abroad. In fact, most of RTÉ’s London savings will be infrastructural costs. That is why, when the closure was announced, I argued for the retention of an RTÉ presence in Britain without a bureau. I wanted RTÉ to follow the example of other national broadcasters – particularly those from small countries – that maintain correspondents in London working from home and hiring facilities only when required.

Cillian de Paor admitted in his radio interview that there was “still value in having people on the ground”, but RTÉ has decided not to retain a staff correspondent in London working from home. The broadcaster correctly points to its financial obligation to break even. But RTÉ’s evisceration of its London operation and its removal of any presence “on the ground” betrays its basic public service responsibility to cover the affairs of its closest neighbour and its implications for Ireland. This lack of any nuanced approach to cost-cutting in London has been central in my decision to leave the broadcaster.

RTÉ has many talented and experienced journalists in Dublin, Belfast and Brussels and they will do an excellent job covering planned and diary events in Britain, for example a visit by a president or taoiseach.

However, as any journalism student knows, the job is not simply about what has happened but why it has happened. Much of a correspondent’s job is explaining the unforeseen and the unfamiliar to viewers, listeners and readers back home. The ability to do that comes from living in a country, building contacts and forming impressions.

There have been instances over the past two decades covering Westminster when small (and usually unreported) turns of phrase or actions by one government have delighted or infuriated the other side, leading to unforeseen changes in attitude. It is the kind of journalism I recently described to a class of students as “being there”. The need to “be there” is why news organisations still employ resident correspondents and the Ryanair journalism now proposed by RTÉ is no substitute.

For decades RTÉ has been a member of the Westminster lobby system, RTÉ and The Irish Times being the only two foreign news organisations to hold such membership.

That inclusion in domestic political briefings, often derided as being an old boys’ network for the dissemination of government spin, provides useful access and did so particularly during the years of peace process negotiations of the Major and Blair premierships. RTÉ’s departure has meant the loss of that access. Of course the story has changed since the days when RTÉ’s London team covered Northern Ireland’s political leaders coming and going from Downing Street but, as US Senator George Mitchell remarked earlier this year, the Good Friday agreement was only the end of the beginning.

The UK is Ireland’s biggest trading partner and our most important source of incoming tourism revenue. Earlier this month the Government allocated about €6 million of Irish taxpayers’ money in grants for organisations that support some of our emigrants in Britain. There are more than half a million people from Ireland living in Britain and the numbers are still growing by the day. If you count the second- and third-generation descendants of immigrants, the Irish form the UK’s largest ethnic minority. It is significant that President Michael D Higgins has for the first time appointed a representative of that diaspora to the Council of State. However, RTÉ’s decision to close London has been met with disbelief by members of the Irish community who believe they have lost a voice that should be heard back home.

The closure has also raised concern across the political spectrum both in the Oireachtas and the Westminster parliament. The wording of a House of Commons motion condemning the move, signed by dozens of MPs, stated that “on-the-spot access for Irish-based media and engagement in public life in this jurisdiction is vital to fulfil the vision of future British-Irish relations as set out by the prime minister and the Irish Taoiseach in their historic statement of March 12th, 2012.”

That statement was signed in Downing Street by the Taoiseach and David Cameron. Its opening line declares, “The relationship between our two countries has never been stronger or more settled, as complex or as important, as it is today.”

Just over a fortnight after it was signed RTÉ announced its decision to, in the words of one former editor of this newspaper, “block up the window facing our nearest and most important neighbour”.

In his Media Show interview, Cillian de Paor stressed that the decision was necessary in order to retain RTÉ’s “credibility in terms of running a business”. He was speaking as an experienced senior manager operating in difficult financial circumstances. However, the cost to our national news and current affairs broadcaster will be to forfeit the trust which, according to the sign still hanging in my former office, RTÉ seeks to grow as it informs the people of Ireland.

Brian O’Connell is former London editor of RTÉ

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