RTÉ Needs to Make a Case for Public-Service Media in the 21st Century

Mark Cullinane

Mark Cullinane is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Applied Social Studies at University College Cork, where he writes about media and social policy issues.


Last week, Minister for Communications Richard Bruton followed in the footsteps of a string of his predecessors, and announced that significant reform to the licence-fee model that funds Irish public service media was on the way, but not just yet.

Long-standing proposals to sever the outmoded – and increasingly economically unsustainable – link between television ownership and TV licence eligibility in favour of a model reflective of our digital, online and multi-screened era, have now been officially kicked into the long grass of the second half of the next decade.

Par for the course, perhaps, for a state that has never been reluctant to keep its public broadcaster on a short financial leash. But the issue takes on a different complexion in light of RTÉ’s increasingly grave economic challenges since the floor fell out of the advertising market alongside the financial crash a decade ago.

Rounds of austerity at Montrose saw large spending cuts, staff reductions, efficiency programmes and asset sales, with conditions today continuing to deteriorate even with significant growth in the wider economy.

To ease RTÉ’s funding predicament somewhat – at least in the medium term – the government proposes instead to attempt to tackle what are some of Europe’s highest TV licence-fee evasion rates, which currently stand at more than one in eight of eligible homes.

This is to be accomplished by summarily sacking An Post from its long-standing role as licence-fee collector and tendering for a more “robust”, and presumably more commercially-minded, collection service.

Bruton pitched the plan as a pragmatic and phased future-proofing of licence-fee system. RTÉ sees it differently. It has already criticised the new delay in substantive reform as guaranteeing that the “crisis in the funding of public service media will continue”. Already, its ability to fulfil its existing remit was “severely compromised” by income reductions, it says.

The unpalatable truth for both parties is that the apparent inability to resolve this funding impasse stems from their own weaknesses. Neither the government nor RTÉ command enough support to impose what will be seen by many – licence-fee evaders and compliant alike – as a new and unwarranted household charge, whether or not the annual amount payable remains static at €160.

The elephant in the room is, arguably, elite fear of an active public rejection of a reformed “device independent broadcasting charge”, with politicians and broadcasting executives desperate to avoid the nightmare scenario of provoking a non-payment campaign along the lines of that which ultimately sunk consumer water charges just a couple of years ago.

Such a campaign could not only deepen RTÉ’s financial crisis but pose an existential threat to the legitimacy of public-service media in Ireland. All the better then to find ways to quietly implement funding reform without awakening the slumbering giant of public disaffection.

But is RTÉ’s public legitimacy really so secure as things stand now? One would think so from RTÉ’s frequent trumpeting of strong programme ratings and proffered levels of public trust, and the fact that its lobbying efforts for funding reform have been focused at government rather than the broader public.

Indeed, one striking aspect of all this has been the absence of a broader vision from either the government or RTÉ on possible futures for public-service media and how popular consent might be won for such a vision.

Instead, television adverts coldly inform viewers that paying your TV licence is simply one of the “terms and conditions of living in Ireland”. In this age of digital platforms and services, the analogue transmitters may be long retired but the old paternalism of the public-service ethos, it seems, endures.

Bruton and RTÉ may wish to sell licence-fee reform as simply a technocratic matter of administrative modernisation, but it is this institutional aloofness from the public that perhaps poses the greatest threat of all to the broadcaster’s future.

After all, the unprecedented scale of the mass movement against water charges reflected more than opposition to a single charge but to austerity as a whole and more broadly still, it crystallised a keenly-felt disenchantment with a political class unresponsive to public demand after the 2008 crash.

That crash always was, and is, a transnational crisis of democracy as well as of finance and economics. Its legacies have not gone away.

Those legacies include an acceleration of economic and social fracturing as well as political polarisation and a collapse in confidence in institutions, not least the media, even if it is often too quickly assumed that Ireland has a special immunity to disruptions occurring elsewhere.

Today, the authority of media organisations – public and commercial – to credibly narrate the world around them has come under increasing strain, as journalism’s “cultural crisis” has seen an increasing questioning and challenging of the role of journalism in society. This has included, in our increasingly divided societies, a challenge to the credibility and desirability of its traditional claims to objectivity, truth and impartiality.

The case for public-service media’s relevance, legitimacy and – crucially – its democratic functions needs to be urgently renewed in light of changing technological, cultural and political contexts. Whether there is much internal appetite to open up such a discussion with the public, though, is doubtful.

My own research took me into the RTÉ newsroom, in pursuit of a better understanding of how the broadcaster has responded in its journalism to the 2008 crisis, how staff understood their roles and practices as journalists, and how they viewed RTÉ’s relationships with audiences and the public at large.

Journalists, editors and management I interviewed usually took the view that beyond the practical challenges of covering a complex and fast-moving set of issues, the crisis hadn’t prompted much in the way of enduring change in how they viewed and went about their work.

It didn’t seem to have encouraged changes in practices of gatekeeping access to the public airwaves, including to different and dissenting voices, nor did it appear to have shaken their confidence in professional norms like objectivity and impartiality as essential values underpinning public-service journalism.

This picture of relative professional stability and confidence in journalism’s ability to stand above the fray of politics and ideology fits with the testimony of media executives, including from RTÉ, to the Oireachtas inquiry into the banking crisis, which revealed little in the way either of acknowledgement of specific media failures before the crash hit or of changes instituted afterwards.

It sits awkwardly, however, with significant strands of public opinion and also with much recent research of coverage of the crisis and its aftermath (including my own) which has shown that public and commercial media alike has in practice played an important role in, for example, presenting as necessary and inevitable neoliberal and austerian policy responses to crisis through selective practices of issue framing and sourcing.

Despite mounting external challenges to journalism – or perhaps partly because of them – a great many of those I spoke to, particularly those in more senior roles, were keen to reaffirm the autonomy of broadcasting professionals. They viewed enhanced public participation in RTÉ programming or greater journalistic accountability as at best unnecessary or at worst even threatening the integrity of public-service values, which requires standing beyond the reach of public demand, for the good of all.

My later spell as a member of the statutory RTÉ Audience Council, the broadcaster’s flagship mechanism of public participation in organisational governance, underlined clearly to me that the public were seen as, at best, a resource rather than as a partner to whom they had meaningful answerability.

I recall in particular how determined efforts on the part of some members of the council to engage the broader organisation in discussion on its demonstrably abysmal record of covering climate change were rebuffed on the grounds that RTÉ journalism was simply not accountable to us.

Years later, RTÉ wishes to harness the palpable sense of urgency of Ireland’s youth on what they are only now terming the climate crisis by enlisting them in their recently announced “Youth Assembly on Climate”. This will soon see the broadcaster, in association with the Houses of the Oireachtas, help more than 150 young people to take their proposals for climate action into the halls of political power.

This rare piece of outreach is all well and good – even if it is suspiciously coincidental with a sudden awareness on the part of the Irish political class that young people politically energised by the issue of climate change are eventually going to reach voting age and their support for what is an essentially business-as-usual politics is far from guaranteed.

But if RTÉ was serious about responding to its own challenges in the face of existential crisis, it would open up a serious, inclusive and ongoing set of discussions with the public, not least with younger people who RTÉ badly needs to attract in greater numbers to their programming, about the public-service media we want and deserve.

There’s certainly much that many people are likely to have a view on. Questions may be legitimately asked, for example, about whether RTÉ’s reliance on commercial as well as public revenue, which is exceptional in Europe, is really necessary or justifiable for a public media organisation; whether its stable of independently-contracted “top talent” are truly worth the asking price; and if the faces and accents of the broadcaster’s staff, on-screen and off, are reflective of the demographic make-up of the modern Ireland it claims to represent and unify.

Many may want to question the merits of professional “objectivity” when it so often appears to represent less an unswerving commitment to truth than a justification for privileging the voices of the powerful, or to query the selective and opaque application of “balance” to some issues but not to others. Perhaps most fundamentally of all, they may wish to interrogate what the democratic functions of public media are, and what should they be, when democracy itself appears increasingly hollowed out.

Heady and difficult questions some of these may be. But in the absence of authentic public engagement on the issues that matter, official declarations that public-service media like RTÉ “stand against the tide of misinformation, commercial self-interest and incomplete reporting” or that they offer a “compelling response…to the changes and challenges of fragmenting societies, and to the growing public disconnection from institutions” will carry to many the self-serving ring of an appeal to authority and justification for the status quo.

The case for public-service media in the 21st century needs to be won with the public, in public. RTÉ’s future may depend on its willingness to try.

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Mark Cullinane: Mark Cullinane is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Applied Social Studies at University College Cork, where he writes about media and social policy issues.

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