Response to RTÉ crisis must not undermine public services values

  • 30 Jun 2024

The NUJ has challenged the philosophy underpinning the five-year strategy for RTÉ announced this week.

“The legitimate aspiration of nurturing creative talent across the for-profit media sector should not be at the expense of the public service broadcaster if it is intended to enhance the cultural landscape of the nation.” Séamus Dooley, NUJ Irish Secretary

In an address to the Hinterland Festival in Kells, Co Meath at the weekend, Séamus Dooley, Irish Secretary and the union’s assistant general secretary, strongly criticised plans to outsource the production of significant RTÉ programmes. He challenged the language used by the RTÉ Chair and Director General to describe plans which he warned would undermine public service broadcasting in Ireland.

Delivering the second annual memorial lecture, hosted by the Meath of Trade Unions in honour of trade unionist and former RTÉ journalism Liam Cahill, Séamus Dooley called for a defence of public interest journalism as a bulwark against the spread of misinformation and disinformation.

Referring to the first anniversary of the crisis at RTÉ he challenged the common narrative that the crisis was about an individual or isolated incidents of poor practices.

He said: 

“The crisis was not simply about exit packages, excessive remuneration, junkets or even flip flops.  It was not about conflicts of interest but about a conflict of values. That conflict remains.

The values which form the cornerstone of public service broadcasting are not those of the marketplace.  The ethos of the marketplace informed the extravagance, the greed exposed at the heart of the scandal, the lack of transparency, the inequality, the waste, the secrecy.”

Referring to the current debate on RTÉs strategy he added: “It is against that backdrop I look with jaundiced eye at the solutions put forward this week as part of RTÉ’s five-year strategy.

The reports of the Expert Group on Corporate Governance and HR provide a roadmap for the future of RTÉ.

That future cannot be viewed only from the prism of a tick box exercise designed to satisfy the mandarins in Kildare Street while core services are dismantled to secure short term funding.

We welcome the promised changes in corporate culture within RTÉ.

RTÉ exists to serve the public interest and in doing so to serve the public.

It does not exist to serve our members, who have no sense of automatic entitlement.

But neither should employees be expected to carry the can for corporate governance failures or the political failure to adequately fund public service broadcasting over many years.

Language matters. The opposite to public service broadcasting is private media, owned, controlled and designed with the primary purpose of making a profit.

The common parlance, “independent productions” can be confusing.

“Commercial production companies” would be a more accurate description of the alternative to public service broadcasting – and it is a term which is in no way disparaging in a mixed economy.

The creative media sector embraces public service and commercial media organisations and the synergy which exists is a vital component to our cultural life.

The legitimate aspiration of nurturing creative talent across the for-profit media sector should not be at the expense of the public service broadcaster if it is intended to enhance the cultural landscape of the nation.

Fair City is the bedrock of Irish television drama, a programme rooted in the proud history of Tolka Row, the Riordans, Bracken, Glenroe and so much more, from Insurrection to Strumpet City. And yes, independent co-productions and commissions also form part of that rich tapestry.

RTÉ drama is not confined to television: the oft neglected RTÉ radio drama is a neglected jewel in the crown alongside archives, documentaries, Irish language and traditional music.

What is important is that the national public service broadcaster is afforded the resources in news, sports, arts, culture, entertainment, archives, music, drama, to do what is does best without the commercial constrains of the for-profit sector or the requirement to return a quick buck.

TG4 is a fine example of public service broadcasting, and I must emphasise that public interest journalism is not confined to broadcasting or based solely on State funded media.

But the essence of public service broadcasting is the freedom to operate in an environment where the values of the market are not the determining factor.

Audience share is important but public service broadcasting can never be defined by the lowest common denominator.

Much of the discourse around public service broadcasting reminds me of the exchanges in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – and that’s in no way a reference to any parliamentary committee:

'You might just as well say,' added the March Hare, 'that "I like what I get" is the same thing as "I get what I like"!''

As Irish Secretary of the NUJ I welcome the ongoing commitment to news and current affairs, but I am concerned at the short-term vision which sees RTÉ as a publisher-broadcaster required to meet minimum obligations while the lucrative elements of content are put out to tender.

It is said that a windy day is no day for a thatching (Ní hé lá na gaoithe lá na scolb!) and in a sense RTÉ has been forced to present a strategy while playing against a ferocious wind.

But we have so many questions:  Will there really be no studio capable of holding a significant live audience in Montrose?

Are we really going to lose the iconic Ronnie Tallon designed radio centre with its magnificent recording facilities?

Might government not consider giving time and space for a more imaginative plan which could see the development of a centre celebrating the history of Irish broadcasting while accommodating the Concert Orchestra and RTÉ archives: could there be a more fitting way of commemorating Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh and the other great voices which defined Irish radio.

The deaths of Mícheál and Tommy Gorman this week served as a reminder of the value of public service broadcasting – challenging, independent, provocative and daring. It also re-enforced my belief that the Irish public values RTÉ and understands the worth of public service broadcasting.

Public interest journalism, in the public and private spheres, is defined by respect for ethical values and true independence.  It requires investment in editorial resources.

In a year dominated by elections and global conflict we are right to be concerned by the increase in disinformation and misinformation, about the undisputed ability of technology to re-enforce prejudices, by the inherent dangers in allowing algorithms to determine editorial choices.”

Full script linked below. 

Liam Cahill Lecture.docx


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