Michael Heney: The next director general of RTE may not be a journalist
All the candidates should be pressed on their views about investigative programming by RTÉ and how it will be funded in the future
The candidates to be grilled by board chair Moya Doherty and her colleagues will know they have a hard act to follow in Noel Curran. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Next week the process of selecting one of the most important cultural figures in Irish life is due to move up a gear with the interviewing of candidates for the position of director general of RTÉ.
The organisation’s octopus-like tentacles are understandably a source of considerable resentment within other sections of the media, but with nine out of 10 people using one of its services every week, the unique influence of the national broadcaster as window and mirror on Irish life shows no sign of lessening.
RTÉ’s audience has long been migrating from its traditional posture to one that is internet-based, online and digital.
Keeping up with these shifting trends, reducing costs and staff numbers in a time of recession, radically changing radio and television schedules, and continuing to provide high-quality programming, has been the endless challenge of the last five years in RTÉ.
However, one of the most important legacies of this DG’s tenure – and one that could potentially now face the greatest threat – is securing an invigorated and confident investigative journalism strand within RTÉ’s output. That this statement can even be made some four years after the calamity of the Mission to Prey programme is extraordinary.
Many of us thought it was a lost cause; I recall myself privately using the phrase “milk and water” to describe the likely nature of the investigative programming that would follow.
Now, after the latest shocking revelations from the RTÉ investigations unit about standards among holders of public office, such concerns seem out of place. Much of the credit for this must fall to the news and current affairs executives involved, in particular investigations editor Paul Maguire, and to the various producers, reporters and researchers.
However, everyone close to the action knows the resuscitation of investigative journalism within RTÉ could not have happened without the direct and indirect involvement of the director general.
Second, as a result of a mandatory obligation instituted in RTÉ’s programming guidelines since Mission to Prey, the DG must now be informed if the RTÉ legal affairs team advises that an intended broadcast carries a significant or serious risk.
This requirement to involve the station’s top executive reflects, at least in part, an acknowledgement that any mistakes will be costly. It is a situation where a cautious DG will always be tempted to shelve a risky broadcast and hide behind the legal advice.
Any lack of appetite for the fray could also show itself in budgetary priorities. Investigations have to be funded; they have to be staffed; staff have to be trained.
This is not necessarily an argument for having someone with a journalistic or programming background as the next director general.
Not only is that person to be chief executive officer of a large corporation, with all that entails, but the breadth of the responsibilities of the new incumbent will require other talents going far beyond the journalistic.
What may seem essential, however, is that in the first instance, candidates for director general be grilled closely on their view of investigative programming and, crucially, how they might prioritise its funding alongside other budgetary considerations.
Second, there may be an argument for legislative change. As currently set out in section 89 of the 2009 Broadcasting Act, the DG’s job combines both chief executive and editor-in-chief roles. In this, it is modelled on the BBC structures. These roles are separated in the ITV system; they are also separate in Irish newspapers. The Irish Times, for example, has a managing director and an editor, who each report separately to the board.
RTÉ board chairwoman Moya Doherty and her outgoing DG are unusual in that they are both equally at home in the commercial and editorial worlds.
Ideally, the search is for a candidate with a similar mix of experience to cover all the required bases.
However, it is more than possible that the stand-out candidate in the selection process under way this week in RTÉ will major in business, commercial and digital skills, rather than anything to do with programme-making.
In such a scenario, can it be assumed that robust and sometimes risky programme-making will continue to be encouraged and supported?
Another way forward could be to reorganise and merge editorial elements dispersed at present between the old and quite independent citadels of RTÉ Radio, RTÉ Television and RTÉ News and bring them under the control of one person, working to the DG.
Either would, of course, redefine the job of director general, not necessarily to the desires of a new incumbent, and could require an amendment to the Broadcasting Act. The value of such a move could be to generate a useful separation of programming leadership from the overall running of the corporation.
With the complexity of the modern competitive broadcasting environment, whatever happens, further significant change seems inevitable at RTÉ if it is to secure the substantive legacy of recent years.
Michael Heney is a former senior RTÉ television producer, who worked under seven directors-general. He is currently studying for a Ph D in the UCD school of history and archives