When Will RTÉ Finally Reflect Ireland?

Journalist Dil Wickremasinghe remembers going to a public debate put on by RTÉ back in March 2014, to talk about how to make the public-service broadcaster more representative.

“It turned out to be a huge just moan-fest,” she said. “You had all these wonderful migrants, really talented, who’d obviously been going to this annual meeting, had voiced these issues for years, now who were just tired.”

Flash forward a couple of years to last Wednesday afternoon at Dublin City University’s Glasnevin Campus, where the outgoing director general of RTÉ, Noel Curran, gave a speech to a small lecture theatre of journalists, students, and media professionals.

“We have fallen on ethnic minorities, absolutely, we have not done enough. It is difficult, it is an area that we have fallen down on. It’s complicated, it’s been complicated,” he said, during the after-speech questions-and-answers session.

“For what it is worth, there is a big acceptance in RTÉ, a push in RTÉ to change that, and I think the publication of the next strategy over the next couple of months will be an important step in that,” he said.

It remains to be seen, though, if we will still be having this same conversation in two years, or whether this time, RTÉ may finally start to become more reflective of today’s Ireland.

Noel Curran at Dublin City University on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of FUJO.

A Longstanding Problem

For years now, columnists and journalists and other public figures have pointed to the lack of diversity at RTÉ.

While the last census found that 12 percent of residents were non-Irish nationals and RTÉ has repeated and repeated its commitment to diversity, the state broadcaster’s channels and airwaves have remained largely white Irish. (RTÉ declined to give statistics on the ethnic make-up of its staff.)

In the latest Media Pluralism Monitor released by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF), one of the highest risk factors for Ireland was social inclusiveness. In particular, there was a high risk for “access to media for different social and cultural groups, and local communities”.

“We have written so many times about it,” said Chinedu Onyejelem, editor of Metro Eireann, the Dublin-based newspaper. “I have highlighted it in so many places with the RTÉ authorities, but I don’t think they are really doing much about it.”

“For RTÉ, every immigrant pays a TV licence, what are they getting from it? They are not getting much from it,” he said.

Another Diversity Strategy

RTÉ’s promised new diversity strategy was supposed to be out last summer, but it’s still a work in progress.

It has been delayed for a number of reasons, and, in particular, the need to commit resources to election coverage and the 1916 commemorations, said an RTÉ spokesperson. “It was decided to defer the full conclusion of the diversity project until it could be given the commitment that it warranted.”

That shouldn’t be read as evidence that the organisation doesn’t consider it important, said the spokesperson. “The exploration as to how RTÉ as a whole can address diversity in output, recruitment and work culture, continues to be given extensive consideration and is a high priority for the organisation.”

About 10 years ago, there was a lot of discussion and debate about diversity at RTÉ, says Gavan Titley, a lecturer in Media Studies at NUI Maynooth. “Let’s say it was a live discourse in the organisation,” he said. 

After the crash, though, there seemed to be the feeling that migrants were probably headed home, so RTÉ cut a lot of support for programming, Titley said.

An Evolving Approach to Diversity

As with other public-service broadcasters across Europe, RTÉ’s thinking on what it meant to serve and reflect minority communities has shifted, he said.

For a while, the main multicultural programmes were the “sort of window-on-the-world programmes which would be for a majority audience finding out that people are just like us apart from they have these very attractive differences as well,” he said.

Those throw up all kinds of questions about ghettoised programming, and who the intended audience is, and whether that approach leads to boiler-plate tokenistic content.

So, after that came the thinking that there should be an effort, in every kind of story, to bring in a diversity of perspectives, from ethno-racial to gender to religious — all kinds of things, Titley said.

This would deal with concerns about ghettoised programmes and would help to capture social complexity, but it could become tick-boxey, he said.

“What it ends up doing is it flattens everything out,” Titley said. “And so you get a situation where you say, okay, there’s a Swedish guy we can interview and we need to diversity and the Swedish guy becomes the tick box of ethnic diversity for that story.”

The recent broadcast I Am Immigrant was the first programme to look at migration and society for ages, he said.

“On one level it was very much about the second generation, but it was also a very old-style format which is: here are people’s stories, and they are just like you and me, but they’re not and they get lots of racist abuse and harassment,” said Titley.

The Question of Staffing

In all the debate about how to make programmes, though, some say that there has been too-limited discussion about whether or not it makes a difference to have ethnic minority journalists as staff, on the airwaves, in front of the cameras.

An RTÉ spokesperson said the organisation is an equal-opportunities employer and has had a diversity policy in place for years. But it has also cut operating costs by more than 30 percent since 2008, reducing staff numbers by more than 500, he said.

“As a result, with a lack of recruitment to the organisation and a focus on managing reduced resources while maintaining output across more than 25 services, the implementation of a number of programmes, including the development of a Diversity Strategy, was delayed,” he said.

That delay is nearly over, though, he said.

“The Diversity Strategy will be published in the coming months and will cover the period 2016-2018. This strategy will outline how RTÉ will address diversity in an integrated way across the organisation and is being created with and by staff working in the key functional areas,” he said.

Some, though, argue that the idea of people representing themselves has never really been a part of RTÉ’s diversity strategy.

“The way that diversity is defined by amongst media institutions is that diversity is kind of a mindset, it’s an empathetic, cosmopolitan, thinking about differences in society. It doesn’t depend on the identity of the journalist, it depends on the disposition of the journalist,” said Titley.

It’s easy to understand why that’s an attractive way to look at it.

It lets you out of the trap of thinking that ethnic minority journalists must cover ethnic minority stories, which so easily happens, and also “it allows you to construct a justification for essentially whatever journalists you have on the story, making sure they integrate some sort of  diversity angle into the story,” he said.

Does It Matter?

So, why do people care about it?

“It’s not a question of looking at the TV and seeing somebody who looks nice like me, or looks like a Black person, or an Indian, or any other nationality,” said Onyejelem.

“It’s a question of doing the right thing. How are we going to promote immigrant participation in the economy, if we are not employing them in the media organisations?” he asked.

If there was more diversity at all levels of staffing at RTÉ, there might be journalism that better reflected the complexities of all the different ethnicities who live in Ireland, said Roisin Boyd, who worked for years with RTÉ as a current affairs reporter and producer and is now an academic researching coverage of refugees and journalistic practice – including her own.

“It’s not enough to employ a few journalists from minority ethnic backgrounds to influence coverage of issues such as racism for example,” said Boyd. “There has to be recognition that the staff in RTÉ – editorial, production, reporters and researchers need to be made of a diverse group of people.”

If that happened, there might be more of a shift away from stories that always cast migrants as a problem or an exotic other, towards more creative and imaginative stories from different communities, and more of a discussion around what it means to be Irish, said Boyd.

One of the few ethnic minority journalists with a national platform through her Newstalk programme Global Village, Dil Wickremasinghe says she’s managed to punch through to be seen as more than a commentator on issues that affect minorities.

“I think because of the marriage referendum I had so much to say about that,” she said. “I think more people will associate me with the marriage referendum than being a migrant. I talk a lot about birth issues and breastfeeding.”

But immigrants discussing immigrants can still, too often, be a default position.

“When it comes to content, and you are invited to come to some of the programmes, in most cases you are going to be discussing the issues that concern the immigrant community,” said Onyejelem.

“It’s not always fair, it’s not always just. Because I live in Ireland. Irish Water, I am going to be paying water charges,” he said. Why don’t people ask him about that? Or politics? Or the elections?

“Only in rare cases do they invite immigrants to discuss other issues that have nothing to do with [being] immigrants,” he said.

(Admittedly, not here in this article. Sorry!)

Titley agrees. “I think a big borderline has always been, when do people get to talk about things that are not just their experiences and their stories? When do they get to have an opinion about the society and for that opinion to be treated as legitimate?”

What Are the Challenges?

Why, exactly, it has appeared to be hard for RTÉ to diversify the public face of the organisation is debatable.

Some point to the hiring processes, some to the visa restrictions that some minority journalists might have, making it impossible for them to do the rounds of internships and low-paid freelancing work that often serve as a step up into journalism.

“The way they hire people needs to change (…). It’s still very much based on who you know,”  said Wickremasinghe.

To wit: she got a call last week to see if she wanted to be a panelist on a new RTÉ show, a call through somebody she knows through her show on Newstalk.

It’s something she can’t do right now, she says. “I hope they thought okay, if Dil can’t do it, let’s see if they can find another migrant journalist who can do a better job than me.”

Back in 2008, an RTÉ report said that one of the challenges to increasing diversity on air was “a real difficulty, given the relatively recent nature of Ireland’s immigration, in finding new voices from minority ethnic and cultural groups who have necessary skills and confidence to contribute on a broad range of issues.”

But whether it was true then is questionable, and a lot has changed in Ireland since 2008. These days it might just be about connecting white Irish media organizations with talented immigrant journalists, and connecting white Irish journalists with knowledgeable immigrant experts and commentators.

After the RTÉ panel discussion in March 2014, Wickremasinghe looked at setting up the equivalent of Women on Air, for ethnic minorities. It was to be a kind of Diversity on Air, a database of experts and potential panellists and journalists who would be prepped to respond when called up by a researcher or reporter.

“Most researchers are so busy, they want information immediately, they want it from somebody who can be there, who can be confident and deliver. So they go back to the same old, same old people with the same opinions,” she said.

But after squatting on the Twitter handle and the website domain, she’s found herself busy with a new baby and juggling different jobs and just can’t find the time to press ahead with it at the moment, she said.

Another effort in this area was an initiative from Metro Eireann called the Media and Multiculturalism Awards, which began in 2002. 

“During the period it ran, it was used to encourage people, especially media organisations and journalists, to look at diversity,” said Onyejelem. At the moment, though, the awards are on hiatus because of difficulty finding sponsorship, he said.

Says Wickremasinghe: “Making the media more representative with migrants is not a pressing issue for many people because most people working in the media are trying to pay their bills, try to hold onto their jobs. Because they could come in tomorrow and be told they no longer have a job.”

Despite the challenges, though, Irish media needs to change, says Boyd. “Minority ethnic journalists have important stories to tell and they should be working in RTÉ and other broadcast and print outlets,” she says. “Their perspective not only makes sense journalistically but as the national broadcaster RTÉ has a responsibility to be representative of their viewers and listeners.”

Titley says it’s only a matter of time before RTÉ evolves, driven as much as anything by “the necessity to at some level be credible in how you reflect what is going on in a society”.

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Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's editor and general assignment reporter. She covers housing and land, too. Want to share a comment or a tip? You can reach her at [email protected]

Reader responses

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at 20 April 2016 at 14:58

RTE effectively resides in a Truman Show-esque gated community in leafy D4 styled on 1950s De Valera era mythology; hardly a surprise diversity is lacking.

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