RTÉ withdrawal from London a short-sighted move
IN THE cacophony that has surrounded the Frontline Twitter affair and the libel of Fr Kevin Reynolds, very little has been heard in public over a decision by RTÉ that must seriously weigh against any claim to be a credible, national news source.
By September the national broadcaster will have no news presence in London. The London editor and four other employees will be redundant or perhaps redeployed to Dublin.
Modern technologies have enabled media organisations to dispense with the costs of office space. The Irish Times, for example, no longer maintains its Fleet Street office. The paper’s London Editor operates from wherever his work takes him, using appropriate communications equipment.
No such arrangements appear to be in contemplation in this instance. RTÉ will surrender its membership of the Lobby – the key to political and government access at Westminster – and simply go away.
Does any of this matter? Of course it does. Ireland and Britain are inextricably linked in a series of complex political relationships, most particularly through the processes that have led to peace and political stability in Northern Ireland. These cannot be taken for granted. Public discourse in both countries has to be informed and supportive about them, and the news media have a crucial role in this.
For all of Ireland’s links across wider Europe, the relationship between Dublin and London remains the single most important economic connection we have. The United Kingdom is Ireland’s largest trading partner. Almost 50 per cent of our tourist trade comes from Britain, while Irish people make almost three million visits to Britain each year.
More than 300,000 UK citizens reside in the Republic, while something in the order of 600,000 people from the Republic live in the UK. In addition, it has been estimated, something in the order of three million persons in the UK can claim Irish ancestry in the second or third generation. For all the differences – and tensions – between us, there are deep affinities and a myriad of links.
When two countries, two societies, live so closely together and yet apart, it is vitally important that they understand each other’s priorities, their foibles and their moods. They have to know about each other. In particular, it is in the interests of the smaller to know what is going on with its bigger and more powerful neighbour. Small insensitivities can have disproportionately serious consequences. Mutual support or understanding at times of need can be affirming.
Will all this end when RTÉ shuts the doors at Millbank? Of course not, at least not immediately. Business people and tourists will continue to cross the Irish Sea. Diplomatic staff and civil servants will inform the two governments of policy developments and any changes in the thinking of the other. Enda Kenny and David Cameron will meet and shake hands for the cameras in Merrion Street or Downing Street. RTÉ will buy the images from an agency, or perhaps fly someone in on an early flight to Heathrow or Stansted for the day.
However, the Irish public are entitled to be informed accurately, swiftly and independently about what happens in Ireland’s most important relationship. There must be a stream of information that stands clear of the agreed communiques and statements issued by the civil servants and the Ministers.
The closure will result in a gradual deterioration in mutual understanding. It may take some time before any detrimental effects are even noticed. People with an interest in how we relate to our nearest neighbours, or perhaps with family connections on the other island, will be less well informed. Important issues in British public life, perhaps with implications here, will be elucidated by “visiting firemen” rather than journalists who are immersed in the story.
One of the mainstays of authoritative news journalism is to maintain presence on the ground. If the Prime Time Investigates debacle teaches us anything it should be about the limited capacity of “visiting firemen” to get things right or to offer coverage in depth.
It must be ironic that this unfortunate development should come within 12 months of Queen Elizabeth’s historic visit to Ireland. With dialogue between the two nations having been brought to this high point, it seems particularly contrarian at this time to have the national broadcaster block up the window facing our nearest and most important neighbour.
RTÉ will argue that with cuts of an estimated €15 million in prospect, a London news presence (reportedly costing €800,000 a year) is a luxury it cannot afford. But there are less costly ways of covering the British capital adequately if the will is there.
It must be hoped the decision-makers will want to explore these as an alternative to simple and short-sighted closure.
Conor Brady is a former editor of The Irish Times