When sorrows come, they come not in single spies but in battalions.
Today’s final instalment of The Irish Times/Ipsos poll, which asked about public attitudes to the crisis at RTÉ this summer, contains more bad news for the broadcaster as it struggles to deal with the fallout and faces a growing funding crisis.
The poll data suggests that a public revolt against paying the licence fee will continue. Just over half of people say they will pay, but 40 per cent say they will probably not pay, definitely not pay or never pay. Something fundamental seems to have shifted in the way many people think about RTÉ – or at least in the way they think about paying for it.
Even if the “probablies” end up paying in the end RTÉ is still going to take a hit on its licence fee income. For a business that was already running at a deficit this is worrying news. In the short-term it suggests that the shortfall in licence fee income for RTÉ – now expected to be in excess of €20 million for this year – is inevitable, heightening the broadcaster’s need to either sharply cut its costs or secure a bailout from the taxpayer.
It is also food for thought for the Government as it ponders how public service broadcasting should be funded in the future. Once people get out of the habit of paying for something it is hard to reintroduce that habit (something newspapers know only too well). There are two questions to be answered about RTÉ’s funding – one about the short-term need, the second about the long-term funding model. Today’s poll findings demonstrate neither will be easy.
On the question of cutting costs or a Government bailout there is hard news for RTÉ. Staff at the broadcaster feel it is unfair that they should be made pay for the failures of management. And so it is. However, that is sometimes the way of the world.
The public overwhelmingly favours cost-cutting at RTÉ rather than a Government bailout. Just 15 per cent say “the Government should help fund RTÉ”; a whopping 78 per cent say it should cut its costs.
Of course it is probably inevitable that some combination of both comes to pass. But the public’s clear view will strengthen the hand of those in Government who believe that RTÉ must get its house in order – organisationally, culturally and financially – before there is any more taxpayers’ money given to the company.
Practically that means RTÉ management will have to produce a major cost-cutting programme in advance of receiving short-term financial help. Their most important audience right now is a small number of people at the top of the Government. Those people pay close attention to the public’s view on things. And the public’s view is clear.
The generally tough attitude of the public to RTÉ also seems to extend to its former star presenter. A clear majority of those who express a view (49 per cent) say that it is better that Ryan Tubridy has not returned to the airwaves. Just over a third (34 per cent) would have liked to see him back; 17 per cent expressed no view.
The decision not to bring the presenter back is perhaps the biggest public-facing choice that new RTÉ director general Kevin Bakhurst has made since he took over at the beginning of the summer. Today’s numbers suggest that the public approves.
For an organisation that is desperately in need of reestablishing a relationship with its audience and demonstrating that it gets the need to change, it is a small slice of good news.