Sideline cut: Irish society would be lost without its RTÉ mothership
Gay Byrne’s passing may show how its relevance has diminished but it remains a national institution
RTÉ, like all media organisations, is standing at a treacherous intersection and needs to cross it while figuring what it must become. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
The whole country’s banjaxed.
It was oddly appropriate that on the very week when Ireland simultaneously mourned the death and celebrated the life of Gay Byrne, half the country ended up giving out stink about RTÉ.
Somewhere, the dapper showman may be chuckling and nodding in approval while lining up a mischievously upbeat LP. If the nation is chattering about Montrose, then the national broadcaster must be doing something right.
But the future of RTÉ was one of the discussions up for grabs everywhere on Thursday, including that evening’s edition of the Tonight Show on Virgin Media.
The round table guests were game in their attempts to make sense of what is habitually referred to as “the media landscape” as Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates invited their guests to prophesise how Irish television and, by extension, RTÉ might look in ten years time.
Eamon Dunphy, whose true genius has been to move nimbly with changing media appetites and possibilities, began to stir himself for one of those emotive and vaguely presidential addresses with which he periodically gifts the nation.
Kick and scream against the idea as he might, Dunphy has become one of the lions of the Irish media scene. There’s a terrific chapter in his memoir The Rocky Road called Survival in which Dunphy describes the trials of breaking into the closed world of Irish media, from the difficulty of obtaining an NUJ card to his unlikely championing by RTÉ’s Tim O’Connor.
Magill and The Sunday Tribune were crucial to his development: both blazing media outlets now gone while Dunphy storms on through Irish media’s various houses.
In the years when the Sunday Independent had established itself as an irascible and freewheeling agitator on Irish life, Dunphy was its bovver boy in chief. In what might go down as the golden age of television sports coverage for RTÉ, he was its chief provocateur.
When he moved into radio with The Last Word, he fronted a show that was seldom dull and sometimes brilliant because it felt off-the-cuff and unscripted. He still writes a newspaper column even though he declared on Thursday evening that the print medium is basically dead.
But the project absorbing most of his time now is The Stand, his weekly podcast, which again highlights his shrewd ear for interesting contributors, like Niall Stanage and BP Fallon, whose meditations on music culture are a kind of music in their own right.
But for all of Dunphy’s versatility, he became lost in thought about the shape of things to come. The reason for that was simple and identified by an impatient Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan. The Roscommon politician, who assumes the persona of straight-talking-sharpshooter -from the West in his national television appearances, briskly noted that nobody has the first clue of what the media future will look like. It seemed like an accurate assessment.
Then, he gave out about the state of RTÉ.
But a few hours before all of that, radio listeners of Joe Duffy’s Liveline might have stumbled across a conversation between the host and a woman who told of how she just recently lost her 16-year-old daughter to suicide.
Her mother told of how her daughter had suffered at the hands of bullies to the point where she felt that life had become intolerable. An endlessly upsetting and sensitive live moment was negotiated brilliantly by both the host and the bereaved mother who spoke of her heartbreak with extraordinary poise and eloquence. It was a harrowing interview and it brought other voices to the programme to share their stories of bullying and thus opened an important conversation.
In fact, the conversation was emblematic of precisely the kind of vital broadcast connection for which Gay Byrne was lauded this week. Had that radio conversation happened in the 1980s, say, there is a fair chance that it would have stopped the country in its tracks. Time seemed to move at a slower pace. Voices were fewer and therefore more clearly heard.
But now, the public is so distracted by the heightened pace of life, by rushing through the day, by checking emails, by sending messages and by the deluge of available entertainment. But here was that thing: the essence of public service broadcasting: a member of the public contacting a forum with sufficient clout and trust to enable them to speak to the nation about their heartbreak.
And then, on Friday, American journalist Laura Wagner, spoke with the Second Captains gang about her decision to walk away from her job with the sports website Deadspin. Nominally a sports outlet, Deadspin has, over the past decade, established a reputation for deep-dive investigation journalism into all sectors of society alongside wackiness and sarky comment, old fashioned insult - and sport.
It wore its brashness as a calling card. When, in 2013, Donald Trump fired off a congratulatory tweet name-checking two Deadspin staffers for a story they had written on American football, Deadspin’s tweeted thank-you to the Donald was brief: Go F*** Yourself, they advised- but without the asterix. It was that kind of place.
Purchased by a vulture fund for reasons too convoluted to explain, the staff were given an explicit order to “stick to sport” in their editorial content. The new owners wanted something that was neatly packaged and therefore more easily sold on.
By resigning en masse, the staff delivered the same message to their pay masters as they had done to the future president. It was a courageous and inspiring move but their absence means that Deadspin is no longer what it was and could ultimately vanish.
As Dave Hannigan outlined recently on these pages, Sports Illustrated, the bible of American sportswriting for decades, has all but disappeared. Deadspin was conceived as a spiky, snappy response to the ailing legacy media and was apparently making money: still, it has been gobbled up. And that’s the media landscape – volatile and dangerous and indifferent to both new ventures and sacred tradition alike.
It’s one of the reasons why people have trouble in trying to imagine how RTÉ television, even with the partial protection of the license fee, is going to feature in Irish life in the years to come. The torrent of remembrance and celebration of Gay Byrne’s many-coloured moments of brilliance were also an acute reflection of how much has changed since he was king of the screen and the airwaves.
The grousing about RTÉ will continue and the salaries of its cover stars will continue to attract negative public opinion. It’s clear that RTÉ, like all media organisations, is standing at a treacherous intersection and needs to cross it while figuring what it must become.
But one thing remains true. Irish society would be lost without a mother ship of a national television and radio service. After everything, it is an institution worth protecting. Yes, RTÉ produces some mediocre content. But it also produces exceptional documentaries and current affairs and, when the mood takes it, dramas.
It no longer has the budget to broadcast as much sport as it once did. But it retains the talent and energy to still cover what sport it can broadcast extremely well. It may no longer have the power to hold the country rapt. But for all of that, it remains a vital source of information, of entertainment and also of solace and companionship to many Irish people.
One of the reasons so many Irish people are happy to give RTÉ a good kicking when it is down is that they can’t imagine it ever not being there.
But it ain’t necessarily so.