Most of us are familiar with RTÉ’s bias, be it through cosying up to government quarters, lambasting Sinn Fein, or constant under reporting of anti-water charge protests. Seamus L Moore takes a look at their role and service as the national public broadcaster and sets out to answer the age old question of “why is RTÉ so shite”?
Noel Curran, the outgoing Director General at RTÉ, recently delivered a speech at DCU lamenting cuts to the public broadcaster. He spoke of the vital need for RTÉ’s dual funded model to continue in order to provide “a full, quality service at low public cost”. Now Montrose is only less than 5km from the centre of Dublin, but for all intents and purposes, he may as well be living on another fucking planet.
RTÉ was always there in the background growing up: The Den, The Works, Glenroe on TV, Gerry Ryan, Pat Kenny and Joe Duffy on the radio. Sights and sounds that Irish households grew up with.
Some friends and contemporaries may even still watch it to take the piss. It’s never too far away, from familiar jingles during your visit home or in the next waiting room you find yourself in. Whatever our changing engagement with the national broadcaster, there’s one constant on the tip of everyone’s tongue “why is RTÉ so shite”?
The ills and shortcomings of the broadcaster can be found in the dual-funded model that RTÉ has been based on since 1961. A funding model between the public service broadcasting of the BBC and the commercial stations of the US was chosen.
The Television Authority’s first Director General of choice was Irish-American Catholic Eric Roth who came from the world of commercial networks in the US. Roth’s preference for importing Cold War subsidised American shows at the expense of indigenous material was indicative of the financial struggles and lack of confidence within the new station in 1961. This was the compromised foundation RTÉ was built on. By 1980 RTÉ was showing more imported programmes than any other broadcaster in the European Community.
RTÉ, the sole broadcaster on the island naturally became so dominant that it was scaring away potential investors in the emerging game for contracts in commercial TV and radio licenses. The 1988 Broadcasting Act, introduced by the disgraced Ray Burke solved this and other problems for the Fianna Fáil led government. RTÉ’s maximum advertising broadcast time was halved from 15% to 7.5%.
This also served to undermine RTÉ’s apparent agenda against the Charlie Haughey led Fianna Fáil Government of the day. These restrictions on advertising were repealed in 1993, yet the incident points to the precarious position that the broadcaster holds. Commercially independent, yet all the while subject to the whims of the government of the day.
This leaves us with a national broadcaster surviving on one hand in a restricted commercial sense and on the other with an onus and obligation to serve as a public broadcaster. This compromise explains the current state of the broadcaster today which is personified by…
I’m not going to name-names but RyanTubridyKathyrnThomasJohnMurrayMarianFinucanJoeDuffyBrendanOConnor.
The fact that these same few personalities are left masterfully segwaying across different subject matter just plays the taxpayer for an idiot.
There is a cost-cutting and lazy managerial culture in RTÉ that gives primacy to filling time-slots over sourcing presenters with specialised knowledge or funding good quality investigative material.
RTÉ is full of jacks of all trades and masters of none. The same individuals get paid an extortionate amount year after year, some in fact get paid more than heads of state. In the grand scheme of things though, with the cost to commision a one-hour investigative documentary running at €60,000, the €416,000 that Joe Duffy received in 2014 does not seem so outrageous. Thus the blandness and vacuousness of RTÉ’s performers is merely a symptom of an underfunded and cash strapped organisation.
The prevalence of light inoffensive banter is a nod to the lazy and commercially sensitive vision that characterises anything the broadcaster touches. Sure there are exceptions, like the Rubberbandits 1916 special, or Pat Collin’s Living in a Coded Land, but these get buried in late night slots. Where is Richie O’Donnell’s new film Atlantic? It’s the highest ever crowdfunded Irish film and asks difficult yet important questions on the exploitation of our natural resources- certainly not on RTÉ.
This is what the captive Irish viewer has had to put up with down through the years, usually coped with by uttering a disparaging remark, or a resigned shrug.
This apathy becomes more tangible and irritating once individuals start to deal with RTÉ on a professional basis. Ciaran Moore of Dublin Community TV, a not-for-profit community television channel, cites numerous difficulties he had with RTÉ:
“A key problem was the fundamental difference in ideas of media between community or alternative media and commercial or public broadcasting (which operates from a fairly purely commercial viewpoint in these matters). We made films to show people and wanted to be able to repeat the broadcasts and share with other non-profit and community channels without having to pay further license fees.
RTÉ and commercial outlets see media as an asset you create and extract rents from. So we always had problems licensing their content as they couldn’t understand our ‘business model’ or why we couldn’t afford to pay fees according to their structures”.
Ciaran explained how RTÉ made things difficult when DCTV wanted to use archive material from Today Tonight for a documentary on the Concerned Parents Against Drugs movement. The footage highlighted an anti-republican bias held by the national broadcaster.
Even though the RTÉ Archive department is considered independent and producers are told this when looking to purchase footage, a non-transparent process exists whereby sensitive footage is subject to restrictions.
There is something deeply wrong about RTÉ using publicly funded equipment to capture events and then insisting on selling it back with restrictions to communities when they wish to use it in a non-commercial endeavor. Yet this is the end result of the compromise of having a public service broadcaster, operating in the commercial sphere.
Ciaran succinctly pointed out that “it’s difficult to find any real notion of a public good in RTÉ, let alone have them apply it to the archives they built and hold on behalf of the people here”.
Of course for RTÉ this is the best of both worlds, the dual funded model ensures that a revenue stream is enabled, but also ensures it’s one that can be censored and restricted to protect their brand. Viewers and civil society lose out because of the inaccessibility of the material and the difficulty and restrictions around sourcing anything which RTÉ may deem sensitive.
RTÉ’s overtly commercial bent is mirrored internally by its behaviour towards it employees. A common trend among staffers (ex and current) that I have talked to is the spread of rolling contracts throughout the organisation. Taken in conjunction with their use of the highly controversial Jobsbridge scheme, this repeatedly points to an organisation with an onus on profit rather than public service.
In fact, RTÉ is especially willing to bend over backwards for the sake of ‘objectivity’, when it may affect their commercial interests. We saw this when RTÉ pathetically handed over €85,000 to the Iona Institute over the PantiGate affair.
Ryan Tubridy nearly shat himself on the Late Late show when Oliver Callan mentioned Denis O’Brien’s name. Fairness and objectivity at RTÉ, but only if you can afford to sue.
So what are to we make of all these accounts, as anecdotal and vague as they may appear? A conflicting picture of the broadcaster develops. On one hand, as a lame duck organisation, paralysed by an ineffective funding mechanism.
Yet on the other hand, and to those on the outside, RTÉ appears as a ‘big fish in a little pond’ that can throw its weight around anyway it sees fit, and its long suffering license payers will just have to put up with it.
But not for long. As a more digitally literate population emerges and alternative modes of entertainment and news present themselves, RTÉ will find itself struggling to stay relevant.
One thing’s for sure, in these uncertain times RTÉ will continue to look after itself.
Illustration by Mice.