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RTÉ Director General Kevin Bakhurst. Leah Farrell
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Willie O'Reilly Promising that no one at RTÉ will earn as much as the DG is pure grandstanding

The former group commercial director of RTÉ says Bakhurst has had to do a Faustian deal to get government funding, but it’s hard to see how it will work.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 15th 2023, 3:00 PM

THIS IS A week of reckoning for RTÉ and its leadership team. After the Tubridy-Forbes revelations of understated and hidden payments came shock, anger and reflection. Now everything must change as the organisation’s finances become increasingly precarious and licence fee revenue plummets.

RTÉ boss Kevin Bakhurst has laid it out clearly to staff, the organisation will shrink and with it the number employed. Cut by 400 by 2028 is his promise. This is the Faustian deal to secure government funding for a reduced organisation. The DG had promised a plan and now he has delivered it. But to my way of thinking it’s short on detail and will be very difficult to deliver.

RTÉ has a history of blowing money on voluntary redundancy schemes with vague promises of reducing numbers, but the staff numbers always bubble up to around the two thousand level. Currently, it has about 1868 employees. Perhaps this is the number you need to run a diversified national media organisation?

You can only reduce the number if you reduce the number of services or the quality of the output.

And RTÉ isn’t proposing to close anything much. A few digital-only radio stations and the time shifted service of RTÉ 1 and RTÉ 2. You can probably run these with fewer people than it takes to man the security hut at the gates of the Donnybrook campus.

Where to cut from?

And 400? That’s 20% of the current workforce. Is RTÉ seriously suggesting that one in five of the current staff are idling their way away on campus drinking cappuccinos and reading their free copy of The RTÉ Guide? It seems an outrageous admission that the organisation should be so grossly overstaffed.

For my part, I believe the figure is aspirational at best and self-deluding at worst.

There are some things that just can’t be done properly with less staff. Orchestras are a good example. You can’t cut the string section by 50% or leave out the choir in a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. It just doesn’t work that way. Orchestras can’t be downsized, which means you have to cut disproportionately elsewhere.

Good radio needs strong teams of researchers, assistants and yes even management. And TV production is inherently inefficient. You need rehearsal time, the right light and extra takes. A lot of time is spent standing around getting prepared. It’s in the nature of the medium.

Some stuff never even makes to the airwaves. I was contacted in the middle of last summer by the then BBC’s Northern Ireland correspondent. London, she told me, wanted a piece on the precarious state of public service broadcasting in Ireland. She dispatched a crew to Dublin and myself and a few others were interviewed for the piece. The correspondent apologised for not being in Dublin herself but proceeded to front the piece in readiness for network transmission.

The following day Huw Edwards, the presenter of BBC’s flagship News at Ten was suspended over claims he paid a young person for explicit photos. The BBC, suddenly caught up in its own public service maelstrom, jettisoned the report from Dublin. A considerable amount of work just evaporated, overtaken by events. That’s news reporting for you.

Promises, promises

Bakhurst also announced that no one in RTÉ will earn more than him. This is just playing to the crowd. It will be music to the ears of the TDs who complain about high salaries but surely won’t play well with RTÉ’s new commercial director, Gavin Deans.

Deans was a successful operator in the private sector and was well-regarded for his understanding of media. ‘If you want more advertising revenue, you and your shareholders have to invest more in the output’ was one of his more insightful observations.

Now his new boss Bakhurst is setting out to de-invest in the schedule and pay on-air talent less. The result may be further declines in audience. And what if Graham Norton in a fit of generosity offered to host the Late Late Show after Patrick Kielty’s contract was up? Sorry mate, we can’t hire you unless you take less than the DG. The BBC wisely don’t say that to Gary Lineker, Fiona Bruce and a host of their other front-line presenters.

Reducing pay is one thing, tying it to the DG’s salary is something you won’t find elsewhere and smacks of grandstanding. There is no compelling reason to do this.

And what of the TV licence fee? There are only two things certain in life, we are told, death and taxes. Yet the licence fee now has all the appearance of a voluntary contribution. Thousands are opting out. What does the government propose to do about the recidivist rate? Can I now inform the revenue commissions that I am opting for a lower rate of PAYE next year, or perhaps that I’ve decided to stop paying my property tax?

We are not at the end of this saga, merely moving beyond the beginning.

Willie O’Reilly has over 30 years of experience working in public and private media and is a former group commercial director at RTÉ. He is also the former chief executive of Today FM and worked as executive producer of the Gerry Ryan Show on RTÉ.

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