RTE wants to know: are we boring you yet?

As Charlie Bird works himself into a lather describing the "meltdown" in Leinster House, it seems as if the management in RTE…

As Charlie Bird works himself into a lather describing the "meltdown" in Leinster House, it seems as if the management in RTE is trying to establish whether he is boring or not. That was just one of the questions asked about the RTE television news team by a market researcher who came to our house. The questions did not focus on just the chief news correspondent's boringness quotient. They were equally anxious to know whether all the rest were boring as well.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I was flying around getting ready to go out when I heard my husband speaking to a nice man at the front door. This market researcher was explaining very humbly that he had been out for hours and that if he got just one more person to answer his questions he would be able to go home.

I rolled my eyes to heaven. My husband is incapable of resisting such a plea. On one famous occasion when we were trying to leave the house for the airport, he agreed to answer 70 questions on painkillers. The degree of marital frost created by this decision made my beloved wish the researcher had been giving free samples of painkillers.

I almost jabbed myself in the eye with the mascara when I heard the researcher start to ask about RTE news. In his innocence, the researcher had wandered into a household where the Skibbereen Eagle's eye on Russia would be as nothing compared to this home's eye on RTE. My husband, when not engaged in full-time home duties, writes a TV and radio review column for a newspaper so subversive and so threatening to the concept of democracy that the IRTC declared that it could not be advertised on the radio. I refer, of course, to the Irish Catholic.


The researcher wondered whether my husband recognised any of the newscasters or correspondents. This was akin to asking Frank Dunlop if he knows any councillors, or if Charlie McCreevy knows any racehorses.

Then he had to offer his opinion as to whether they were professional. No doubt they will be relieved to hear that he thought they all were. It began to get interesting. Were any of a sample, including Charlie Bird, Mark Little and Mary Wilson, boring? Asking this question of my husband was a dangerous move. After all, this is the man who, when he heard of Charlie's promotion to chief news correspondent, wrote: "What's his next title? Big Chief news correspondent?"

My lips are sealed as to his reply, except to say that he didn't think Mary Wilson was boring.

He was asked whether any of the newscasters were attractive. I considered a return to marital frost when he indicated that Sharon Ni Bheolain and Anne Cassin were, until I realised that his other options included Brian Dobson and Aengus Mac Grianna.

Having patiently answered whether any of the current team were well dressed or entertaining, he was asked who he would like to see presenting the Nine O'Clock News other than the present newscasters. The options were mostly reporters and correspondents. Mark Little was there again, as were Charlie Bird, Mary Wilson and Tony Connolly. Incidentally, Grainne Seoige and Alan Cantwell from TV3 featured in the survey, too.

He was completely thrown when the researcher asked whether he had bought wood varnish in the last month. Was this a comment on the news team? Or could RTE be considering having the Nine O'Clock News sponsored by Ronseal? Picture it: "RTE News; it does exactly what it says on the tin."

It slowly dawned on me that the Lansdowne market researcher was carrying out research for more than one client, particularly when he embarked on a series of questions regarding Christian radio. Would my husband listen to a station sponsored by the churches in order to help people with their faith? Would he be prepared to pay for it? These are not questions animating our national broadcaster, I suspect.

Although market research is an inevitable part of any commercial operation, I wonder how useful surveys are when, unlike my husband, many people refuse to participate. RTE has always been an uneasy mix of public service broadcaster and commercial operation. Recently it has seemed inclined more towards the latter. It was easier to keep the balance when it was the only legal national or indeed local broadcaster. All of that has changed utterly.

Ideally, a public service broadcaster functions as an important cohesive force in society and from this base can challenge the culture when it needs a good kick in the pants. At its best, in its documentaries and investigative journalism, or in lively debates, RTE has done that.

But it has also suffered from a suffocating internal culture. While fancying itself as a bastion of liberal tolerance, in reality many of the people who work there share a narrow world-view which is not terribly representative of the world outside Montrose.

RTE is Dublin-dominated, or to be more accurate, Dublin southside-dominated. Thus, the nation is treated to endless reports on bus corridors which just happen to pass by Montrose's front door. Similarly, a recent debate on speed traps focused on the fact that there was one under the bridge at UCD, the same bridge that so many graduates in the 1960s and 1970s gently meandered over to join RTE on the other side.

There was a more serious recent example. Commentators on RTE sigh about the divisive nature of the abortion issue, yet the Oireachtas committee hearings on abortion were virtually ignored by the station on the grounds that they would wait until abortion became part of public debate once again.

The degree of consensus among all sides was the most striking aspect of those hearings. The atmosphere, with a few very minor exceptions, was thoughtful and nuanced, a million miles from the confrontational atmosphere of a referendum campaign. As a public service broadcaster, RTE could have reflected that to the nation, thereby perhaps contributing to a more rational debate in the future.

At the same time as they were neglecting the hearings, they were covering the most mundane details of the Flood and Moriarty tribunals, including a long report on a session described by Fergal Keane as being "as obscure as the Dead Sea Scrolls".

RTE is in a difficult situation, not least because the current Government appears to have no grasp of the importance of a national broadcaster at a time of increasing cultural fragmentation. The recent wrangling over the price set for the sale of RTE's transmission system smacked more of political payback time than of any coherent vision for Irish broadcasting.

But even given those difficult circumstances, what RTE needs least of all right now is to choose a news team based on market research which focuses on how attractive or well dressed or even professional the presenters are. Instead, it needs to decide whether it really wants to be a public service broadcaster for the whole country, and if it does, to demonstrate that it is up to the job.