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Can you see yourself at the centre of this image? RTÉ can't. Photocall Ireland archive

Column RTÉ's future plans are missing one vital ingredient: you.

The public service broadcaster’s just-published five-year strategy is not short on ambition, but it may point towards an organisation more ready to forge commercial partnerships than embrace its public, writes Mark Cullinane.

LAST WEEK’S PUBLICATION of RTÉ’s five-year strategy document provides the clearest demonstration yet of its management team’s determination to transform RTÉ from a
hoary old public service broadcaster into an efficient, lean, mean public service media organisation – “a new RTÉ for the connected age”.

But as the Government prepares to overhaul the funding of public media next year by discarding the television-linked licence fee and introducing a universal public service media charge, now is as good a time as any to assess whether RTÉ’s future trajectory deserves our support.

The report itself contains few shockers – although whether the professed long-term commitment to Aertel as “Ireland’s leading information service” will really see us fumbling around in 2017 with three-digit page codes on our head-mounted monitors during those daily interstellar commutes to our JobBridge internships on Mars Colony is perhaps questionable.

Attempting to draw a line under a torrid era of enforced cutbacks, downsizing and high-profile editorial errors, this plan seeks to kick-start the necessary process of renewal of the whole project of public service broadcasting, and there is plenty that is to be welcomed in it. A new willingness to play hardball in relation to the remuneration of ‘top talent’ may be born of necessity rather than a desire to rethink the practice of building RTÉ schedules around a small coterie of wealthy contractors, but it is nonetheless a start.

Similarly, increased public scrutiny in relation to the sourcing of guests on radio and TV programming has sparked a commitment to internally monitor how programmes use contributors and to foster new voices.

There’s certainly ambition here: RTÉ’s intentions to open up its extensive archives to the general public and to develop an internal training academy are laudable, if long overdue, initiatives.

Yet, in a disappointing reflection of the quality of debate on public broadcasting in Ireland which tends to be dominated by commercial actors jonesing for a slice of RTÉ’s financial pie, much of this strategy document reads like an elaborate wooing of the private sector rather than something addressed to a broad public.

Under the banner of  ’opening up RTÉ’, many of the more radical ideas in the strategy amount to strategic commercial partnerships with companies big and small, from incubating start-ups on the Donnybrook campus to potential collaborations on new internet protocol (IP) television stations. All of this collaboration and sharing of resources is supposed to, in the words of the report, “help us all reach our digital potential and support the leadership of Ireland’s digital economy”.

Dig beneath the buzzword bingo (Cloud services! Tablet devices! Business intelligence!) and it appears that the chest-beating talk about RTÉ’s essential role in the ‘creative digital economy’ and its newly slimmed-down form seemed designed to communicate to the private sector that RTÉ, far from being a threat, is a natural partner.

New RTÉ, meet the old RTÉ

While the variety of outward-facing initiatives perhaps signal a less insular, ‘Fortress Montrose’ mentality, the contrast between RTÉ’s eagerness to open up to trendy commercial partnerships and its lack of comment on enhanced public participation is stark.

A simple keyword search of the extended strategy document reveals the pervasiveness of the language of new public management in RTÉ’s future vision. Witness the overriding emphasis on the concept of ‘value’ (110 mentions) and derivatives of ‘efficient’ (89 mentions) over those of ‘accountability’ (17 mentions). More worrying still is the high number of references to ‘commercial’ (135) whilst derivatives of ‘participation’ (3) and ‘democracy’ (zero mentions) simply do not feature in RTÉ’s strategy.

It is not a coincidence that this strategy was developed with the assistance of business consultants but without the participation of the public. The ‘new’ RTÉ’s quiet insistence on ‘trust’ rather than co-operation and participation as the basis of the relationship between broadcaster and public means that the future of public media risks looking an awful lot like its past.

As Dan Hind has eloquently and forcefully argued in relation to the BBC, the work of defining the purpose of public media cannot claim to be truly public if that public is not a meaningful partner in the project. Given the way that the report waxes lyrical about the “compelling need for a fractured society to come together and for citizens to work together to rebuild civic society”, it is all the more remarkable that this and other similar exercises are conducted independently from the public and instead merely presented to them afterwards in tastefully designed PDF documents that few ever read.

Don’t mistake this critique for crude RTÉ-bashing: we need a strong public media now more than ever. We need it to provide a breathing-space for a distinctively public forum where democratic communication can flourish. We need it to dilute the power of the media oligarchs. We need it to assist us in the essential task of charting alternative futures for Ireland and the world.

So, if RTÉ are looking for a bold new vision for the future, voguish alliances with digital media creatives and computer scientists is no substitute for a fearless, bottom-up and radically participatory engagement with the public that sustains them. Now that’s futuristic.

Mark Cullinane is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Scholar and PhD candidate in Social Science in University College Cork. He also serves as a member of the RTÉ Audience Council, although this contribution is written in a personal capacity. He can be contacted via his page at or via twitter at @mcullinane

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