Ministers reluctantly realise they will have to help RTÉ

Public service broadcasting is necessary for politics and a healthy public life

There is  significant frustration among many politicians about RTÉ and the way it operates. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

There is significant frustration among many politicians about RTÉ and the way it operates. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

My apologies in advance to readers who may take the following thoughts as a piece of self-referential media navel-gazing.

But it’s not, actually. Public service journalism and public service broadcasting are necessary for politics and a healthy public life. Without them, our public life will suffer, our governance will be worse, our society will deteriorate.

Take one example from the coming era of information wars. Technology is now available to make what are called “deep fakes” – invented video clips of such quality that they are indistinguishable from genuine news reports. A group in the UK produced a couple this week showing Boris Johnson endorsing Jeremy Corbyn and vice versa. They are not yet flawless, but they soon will be. And when voters can’t trust what they see or hear, the role of trustworthy and trusted public service journalism will be indispensable.

The public model, embodied in RTÉ, is faced with an existential threat

Few occupations are fonder of talking about itself than journalism. But see if you disagree with any of this: it’s a basic requirement for a democratic society to function that citizens and voters need to know what is going on in their country, how they are governed and the choices that face them and their political leaders.

The commercial model for providing that service to citizens is under pressure – surviving, though downsizing. The public model, embodied in RTÉ, is faced with an existential threat. Never mind that at least some of this may be RTÉ’s own fault. Ignore for a moment the fact that constantly running deficits is not sustainable in any organisation, public or private. The threat is real and if you believe that there is a case for the Government to help – through whatever means – then it is surely sensible to help before the product is so degraded that it is no longer important.

Judging by the speeches of TDs in a Dáil debate on the issue on Thursday, there is political support for the idea of funding public service broadcasting.

But there is also significant frustration among many politicians about RTÉ and the way it operates. Public service broadcasting is a public good like schools, hospitals, railways and roads, observed the thoughtful Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless, before adding: “RTÉ is not a public good in its own right.” It is a distinction lost on many in Montrose.

Water charges coverage

Some of this is about corporate performance. And some of it is about chafing at the intrusions of journalism. Fine Gaelers constantly raise the coverage of the campaign against water charges (one senior Fianna Fáiler tells me: “They have a point”). “RTÉ opposed water charges and did everything they could to bring them down,” says one Minister. Many others have said much the same to me.

My view is that Fine Gael greatly overstates the water charges stuff. But the important thing for RTÉ to understand is that Fine Gael really, really believes it. As Tony O’Reilly observed, governments always feel persecuted by the media; oppositions always feel ignored.

One Minister, citing a recent interview, says it was plain that the presenter thought their job was simply to “get” them. “You’re sitting across from a presenter who is better paid than you, who works fewer hours than you do and the whole thing is an attempt to create a gotcha moment,” the Minister says. Is that view shared by other Ministers? “I’d say every single one of them. There wouldn’t be a dissenting voice.”

Well, diddums. Some of this is just whingey; some of it is petty. Ministers have entire departments to back them up, press officers, spin doctors and advisers hired at the public’s expense; they are in a struggle for political advantage in which inconvenient facts can be ignored and information manipulated to their advantage. Part of journalism’s job is to make Ministers uncomfortable.

Ministers do realise its funding model is broken and has to be fixed. They will want to see the broadcaster implement pretty severe austerity measures

But some of it may be justified. Even RTÉ’s stoutest defenders would admit that its coverage of issues can sometimes amplify demands for more public spending without the context of necessarily confined budgets. After all, to spend in one area means not spending in another. Powerful interests tend to get less scrutiny than Ministers. Whatever you think of this, the perception in Government is real, it is keenly felt, and it is a dynamic that RTÉ bosses will have to deal with. It is they, after all, who are asking the Government for help.

Tough decisions

It would be hard to find a politician that hasn’t smirked a bit at RTÉ’s woes. But there is movement in the hive mind of Government this week. Several conversations with Ministers and others suggest to me that the smirking is giving way to something a bit more mature – a sense that while it may not like it, it is the Government’s responsibility to help RTÉ to preserve the important things that it does.

Ministers do realise its funding model is broken and has to be fixed. They will want to see the broadcaster implement pretty severe austerity measures. They also want – not unreasonably – RTÉ to come forward and say what it means by public service broadcasting and what should be protected.

“Look, everyone actually believes in public service broadcasting,” says one person on the sensible wing of Fine Gael. “But what is it? Why aren’t RTÉ telling us what it is?”

Another Minister wonders: “How come TV3 [Virgin Media One] can have a nightly politics show and RTÉ can’t?”

RTÉ will have to do some hard thinking and make some tough decisions – perhaps more than it thinks. If it does that, my strong sense after this week is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. But it will be, I am afraid, a long and dark tunnel.

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