Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Role of RTE in The State

The Celtic Tiger created an anomaly far broader than just the property market. Across all aspects of Irish society, culture, politics and economics, the bubble distorted perceptions of success, probity, and success.  This is just as true in RTE as it is in government, banking and social justice.  RTE is facing much more than a defamation scandal, or accusations of incompetence in handling the Presidential election; it is facing nothing less than an existential crisis, and a seminal moment in its history, a point of inflexion that is extremely important for the State and her citizens.

Like the legal system, the health system and the civil service, RTE is an anachronistic, poor imitation of British structures of the early twentieth century.  While those systems in the UK are not immune from challenge, their philosohpical foundations were well established, and well considered.  There were points of principle that aligned with the society that begat those institutions, and that supported their perpetuation.  Ireland had no such principles, and imitation was a poor substitute.  As a result, we developed a civil service without accountability, a legal system where ordinary people are not allowed to contract directly with barristers or with medical consultants because they are "gentlemen".  We also have a State funded broadcaster that actively crushes competition in the market, and remains in thrall to its advertisers as it decides on programming.

Today, RTE feels itself under pressure for funds, and knows it won't see a license fee increase any time soon.  Its high profile failings - in the Fr Reynolds case, and "Tweetgate" - have caused it to make some cosmetic changes in rebranding "Prime Time Investigates", moving one editor to a new job, and retiring Ed Mulhall off on a fat pension.  That last one rankles.  Noel Curran could never have walked, at 45 he's too young, and the pension wouldn't have been enough.  But Ed had 33 years under his belt, and will likely get appointed to a couple of Quangos and possibly the board of a production company or two.

The extent to which it overpaid presenters like Marian "four hours a week" Finucane was symptomatic of a fundamental failure in its remit - it was beholden to advertisers, justifying wages on ad revenues, and not on the quality or quantity of the output.  While newspapers are increasingly an online business, RTE Online competes directly with them based on state-funded journalism, further distorting that market, and wielding its massive power to the expense of private media.  Commercially, such decisions make sense.  But politically, socially, is this the kind of State broadcaster we should have?

The sensationalism of Prime Time Investigates (one remembers such over-egged installments about waste tyres and counterfeit cigarettes) was not editorially contrived to contribute to the state by holding people to account, but contrived to maximise the audience in order to generate audience, and ad revenues.  That was evident from the hype building that preceded every installment of Prime Time Investigates - this was not news, or even investigative journalism: it was entertainment.  With such a trajectory, the Fr Reynolds incident was unavoidable.  Perhaps not with such devastating consequences, but litigation was inevitable.  The cuts in ad revenue, and an absence of license fee increases have put enormous pressure on managers in RTE to find new revenue.

RTE is no longer an altruistic arm of state, it is a fully fledged commercial media behemoth.  It does not merely fail to deliver upon its remit as a national broadcaster, it undermines the entire commercial media structure in the state.  TV3 and the Independent are increasingly sensationalist and populist because they are driven to the extremes by the monster that is RTS hoovering up all of the space for "conventional" media.  And even The Irish Times is more given to polemic than genuine journalism these days.  Its battle against that trend is commendable.  But the pressures are odious.

The imitation of the British State has crippled our Heath Service, our Civil Service, and our Legal System.  RTE's pale imitation of the BBC has now been shown to have failed.  We need to rethink entirely our structures for State Media, and build one that suits Ireland.  Let the state run a news channel on television and radio, with no advertising, and privatise everything else.  Then we can work on law, health and the civil service.

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