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Mark Stedman

Analysis If RTÉ is to survive this scandal it must focus on public-interest only from now on

DCU’s Dr Eileen Culloty looks at how RTÉ could move on from the current controversies and embrace a future model of true public service.

THE RTÉ CRISIS highlights major issues with the broadcaster’s governance and commercial practices. Amid calls for reform, there is a significant opportunity to rethink what public media is and how it serves the nation.

The rationale for public service media is relatively simple. Media exert a powerful influence on people’s understanding of themselves and the wider world. When for-profit companies dominate, the public is typically treated as consumers, not citizens and the public interest may be sacrificed for profit. Although some commercial media clearly are public-interest, especially news and arts, it remains true that most have an obligation to maximise profit for their owners or shareholders.

Public service media are supposed to mitigate this influence by prioritising citizens. This goal is as relevant as ever. Ireland is a small country in a large English-language market that is increasingly dominated by international conglomerates. Irish commercial media compete in a market that cannot be relied on to tell stories that are publicly valuable regardless of economic value. That puts Irish culture and identity at risk.

Why RTÉ isn’t working 

That’s the theory. In practice, RTÉ fails as a public provider on two fronts. Its funding model corrupts the public service concept while its institutional structures belong to a different age.

‘Dual funding’ means RTÉ receives license-fee funding while also competing for commercial revenue. This creates a conflict between the public-service remit to disregard economic factors and the commercial remit to attract large audiences for advertisers and sponsors.

The latter encourages personality-led, entertainment formats and a heavy reliance on imports. It also taints current affairs. Today with Claire Byrne is sponsored by a pharmacy group. While the integrity of that programme is not in question, the point of public service funding is to negate the need for sponsors and the potential for undue influence. Successive governments deserve the blame for this situation. They maintain the funding model and have encouraged RTÉ to be more commercial, not less. It is now in politicians’ power to make good on grand statements about public service by, at a minimum, reforming RTÉ’s funding.

Governance aside, RTÉ as an institution needs to be transformed to serve citizens for generations to come. In a digital age, a radio and TV service centralised in Dublin 4 – or Raidió Teilifís Dublin as some call it – is not a good place to start. For all the negativity around digital technologies in recent years, there is great potential to use technology for a more participatory and de-centralised media service. Academics and others have been thinking about this – see, for example, Dr Rosemary Day’s detailed submission to the Future of Media Commission or the views of panellists at a 2021 Royal Irish Academy event.

How to fix?

Building on this, here are four suggestions…

First, focus on public-interest content only. It is not necessary for public providers to buy in commercial content because that content, of all shades of quality, is widely available from other sources. Freed from commercial imperatives, the public provider has no reason (if there ever was one) to match the hypothetical salaries of market competitors.

If highly experienced and talented people wish to move to the private sector, let them go and give opportunities to upcoming staff. Of course, public funding needs to be sufficient to provide a good public service such as expanded arts coverage and well-resourced regional news coverage.

Second, provide a digital platform to promote Irish culture. This could include giving much more space to Irish talent (the creative rather than presenter kind) and providing access to the wealth of content that has already been funded from public sources such as short films and documentaries that may have only been aired once or twice. Pending rights, it could also include access to the films, animations, and dramas from Ireland’s vibrant independent production sector.

Third, support public participation in decision-making. True participation isn’t inviting people to comment about content on social media. It’s giving people power to influence decisions and outcomes. For content creation, this can be done without falling into a ‘design-by-committee’ scenario. TheJournal’s Noteworthy is an excellent example of what can be achieved by simply asking people what stories they want to see. A public provider could do the same for documentaries and arts. At the same time, participation in management is essential for legitimacy. A centralised top-down institution is neither representative nor necessary.

Fourth, help people, especially young people, create their own media and develop media literacy. It is often noted that young people ‘don’t engage’ with traditional media, but why should they if all it offers is content consumption? A public provider could play a crucial role in empowering young people to create media and develop critical awareness about media. One way to facilitate creativity is to open up the RTÉ Archives of public content. A proposal by Green Party TD Patrick Costello moves in this direction. Another avenue is to work with education bodies and communities to provide support for media production. This is clearly possible because people in RTÉ are already doing it. RTÉjr collaborated with Mother Tongues on a podcast series that lets children introduce their bilingual families. A collaboration with students from Coláiste Dhúlaigh animated some of these stories into videos.

Ultimately, politicians and media professionals must trust the public to recognise the value of public service. Citizen Assemblies have shown that, given a chance, people are highly capable of setting aside their personal interests to consider the public good. As individuals, many of us may not have an interest in children’s content, minority sports, or Irish dancing, but as citizens, we can recognise the public service they represent.

Implementing change isn’t easy, but the cost of doing nothing beyond a few tweaks to RTÉ’s governance and funding is the abandonment of future generations to a commercial media world with little in it that speaks to us as Irish people.

Dr Eileen Culloty is an Assistant Professor at the DCU FuJo Institute and School of Communications.


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Dr Eileen Culloty
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