Rot Behind the Magic Door

As RTÉ abdicates responsibility for production of children’s programming, Mark Cullinane takes us through a deeper cultural, institutional and potentially terminal malaise at the national broadcaster.

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Once the initial frisson of hazy nostalgia for Wanderly Wagon, Bosco or The Den (choose your generation) subsided, one could be forgiven for reacting with a shrug to the news last November that, owing to a worsening internal financial situation, the public service broadcaster RTÉ would soon shutter its children’s television department and outsource all future production.

Although the decision to put out to tender all programming for a whole chunk of its audience came as a bolt from the blue even to staff at the coalface of kids’ TV in Montrose, for a public increasingly accustomed to the reality that ‘economic recovery’ is in fact perfectly compatible with wholesale cuts to public services, this may have appeared as a mere surface wound- especially for an organisation whose generous remuneration of those at the top of its star system is common knowledge.

For some of us, the indifference was surely tinged with more than a hint of schadenfreude. After all, here was the public broadcaster, desperate to make efficiencies, hoisted upon its own petard; its act of self-privatisation serving as both example and consequence of its thorough internalisation of neoliberal common-sense.

And given what an impediment the broadcaster’s special editorial brew of national boosterism, middle-class liberalism and instinctive deference to political and economic elites has been to a bewildered and disillusioned general public trying to make technical and ethical sense of the political, economic, social and cultural dislocations of recent years, it’s hard to be roused to speak up in defence of the 21st century Morbegs that never will be. In any case, they’ve already said that it doesn’t mean they’ll be spending any less on children’s programming and that it won’t affect their commitment to Irish-made children’s content – so really, why care?

So it was perhaps to a less than receptive audience that Bosco, the face of Irish children’s television in the 80s and 90s, emerged from their box to deliver a stinging video riposte to the suits in Montrose for selling out the children of Ireland.

But you don’t need to succumb to rose-tinted (or rosy-cheeked) romanticism about the quality of the broadcaster’s children’s output- past or present- to see something troubling in new Director-General Dee Forbe’s readiness to cut loose the only non-profit kids’ TV unit in the country and gift-wrap its funding for what are euphemistically known as the ‘indies’.

The short-term casualties are, of course, the already precariously-employed freelancers who look likely to lose their jobs early in the coming weeks. If murmurings in Montrose reported in The Irish Times are anything to go by, these are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg as the broadcaster scrambles to respond to growing losses induced in part by weaker than expected advertising income in 2016.

But the existential questions begged by sacrificing a key plank of the broadcaster’s institutional legitimacy may well come to be deeply regretted. For the prize of scraping a pass on the statutory minimum annual spend on independent productions, never again can RTÉ assert its public service status and ethos as a reason why any class of programming simply must be made by it alone. Waving the white flag over internal provision for that part of the population seen as most urgently requiring shielding from an exclusively commercial media environment signals loud and clear that RTÉ feels that its public service obligations can be fulfilled just as well from the substantial distance as mere publisher of other people’s work.

Indeed, saving money on pesky staff and equipment and bestowing commissions on eager ‘indies’, thus currying favour with what Forbes describes as public service broadcasting’s commercial ‘frenemies’, fits closely with RTÉ’s now well-established organisational strategies for survival in a post-broadcast world. This ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ approach appears, as I’ve previously argued, less as a tactical rapprochement with large and powerful private media industries and is more an index of its utter absence of ideas about what could and should be distinctive about a modern public media enterprise. While seeing no essential differences between public and private provision warrants at least full marks for consistency with the broadcaster’s default editorial line in its political reportage, the ongoing efforts of many of these ‘frenemies’ in intensive legal and lobbying efforts at home and in Europe to arrest the development of public media suggests that such a strategy of self-abnegation is unlikely to serve it well.

Having failed so far to bring about sudden institutional death by persuading European legislators and courts to reclassify publicly funded broadcasters as- get this- illegal state aid, private interests are likely to settle for second prize- the hollowing out of public media institutions by transforming them into glorified funding bodies for private production houses with the commercial nous, financial muscle and contacts to push to the front of the queue. A glance across the water at the BBC suggests what lies just a little further down this particular slippery slope, yet the reportedly rapturous reaction to Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary’s anti-public service and anti-RTÉ tirade at a recent Fine Gael fundraiser serves as a reminder that Ireland’s political class will almost certainly not rush to the defence of RTÉ’s organisation integrity in anything like the manner with which it continues to defend its egregious sweetheart tax arrangements with Apple.

The current outsourcing issue is likely to be a canary in the coalmine for what seems likely to be a slow-motion transformation into a Channel 4-style publisher-broadcaster, albeit one with a large public subvention. In the abstract, such a transformation doesn’t sound so bad. Diverting ever more programme funding away from its Montrose studios could mean less of the stuffiness, insularity and perhaps even the political caution that permeates so much of its programming (even if it’s undoubtedly the case that the worst offender, the news and current affairs department, would be the last to face the chop).

There’s even a case to be made that a publisher-broadcaster model is perfectly compatible with radical visions for a democratised and democratising public media that softens or even mutes its editorial voice and focuses instead on becoming an authentic and accessible platform for public expression.

But the cold economic logics that explain why it has embarked on this particular path- cost savings and the placation of domestic commercial media producers- tells us quite enough about the eventual destination to surmise that this is no royal road to becoming a ‘people’s publisher’.

In raising the question of whether the new Director General Dee Forbes, recently poached from Discovery International, had anything to do with the recent outsourcing decision, Bosco was onto something important: the alignment of interests between commercial media players and the strategic direction taken by senior RTÉ figures with close industry links. For example, amid the selection of grandees on the RTÉ Board (the word ‘entrepreneur’ features in the online profiles of no less than four of the ten current members), the new Chairperson Moya Doherty was founder of Tyrone Productions, only resigning upon taking up her new role in Montrose, while Stuart Switzer, Managing Director at Coco Television, retained his position even while serving on the RTÉ Board up to 2015. The current Channel Controller of both RTÉ 1 and 2 is Adrian Lynch, who founded and managed Animo Television until his appointment to RTÉ in 2014.

All three companies are major beneficiaries of RTÉ commissions and feature prominently in the broadcaster’s most recent annual report of its spending on independent productions. No need to allege any legal impropriety here; just look at the revolving door.

Commissioning briefs for interested independent producers that emphasise the attractiveness of programme proposals that entail low-costs per programme hour, which come with external funding already secured or which are amenable to commercial sponsorships amply demonstrates the commercial as well as legal imperatives underpinning its expanding commissioning activities. They also offer a reminder that it is the big production houses with economies of scale, institutional contacts and administrative know-how who are best placed to benefit from the opening up of RTÉ’s schedules to tender.

It’s also worth asking why there’s such an air of inevitability around RTÉ’s increasing commercial alignments. The broadcaster’s current balance-sheet travails are just the most recent example of what have been regular internal financial crises whose roots lie in political-economic forces that go well beyond the more immediate and oft-cited threats of Sky, Netflix, Facebook, Brexit, or whatever you’re having yourself.

Much of this may be attributed to the original sin of the dual-funding mandate which has since RTÉ’s inception left it deeply vulnerable to the ebb and flow of the advertising market, to say nothing of the pervasive cultural impacts on programme commissioning and production engendered by commercial imperatives. This has been sustained and exacerbated by long-term governmental policy, which when not actively undermining its revenue generation capacity á la Ray Burke in the early 90s, has obstinately refused to ease the broadcaster’s dependence on commercial income to the point that the imbalance is more than double the average amongst European public service broadcasters and almost four times that of other Western European PSBs that also benefit from funding through a license fee. RTÉ executives continue to extol the virtues and necessity of the dual-funded regime even as the wreckage mounts and in the face of clear evidence that, as once articulated by the liberal columnist Fintan O’Toole that it is a worst of both worlds scenario that confers ‘all the susceptibility to political caution of a state organisation with none of the protection from market pressures’.

The myriad impacts of commercial imperatives in Irish broadcasting were memorably excoriated as far back as 1968 by three rebellious programme producers who had resigned from RTÉ in protest. But they had seen nothing yet: their critique came from a time before New Public Management and before the state (and later RTÉ itself) dispatched regular waves of management consultants- Stokes Crowley Kennedy, Logical, KPMG, NewERA- to help ensure that the broadcaster evolved in lockstep with the neoliberal turn. Current developments regarding children’s television in RTÉ should be seen in this context of a longer term project of managed privatisation at Montrose, and indeed serving as a mark of its successful internalisation.

A rough 2017 beckons for a public broadcaster out of money, out of ideas and with few friends it can call on for support, whether inside the Dáil or in civil society. Don’t forget that (mostly) benign neglect was the best that successive Labour party ministers for communications in the last administration could offer- illustrating the void of vision for its future beyond managed decline even by those parties seen as having ideological affinities with public service broadcasting’s welfarist roots.

Neoliberal incorporation thus links the generalised crisis of public service broadcasting and the ongoing collapse of the social-democratic project in countries in their shared Western European heartland. But the fact that present circumstances at home have rendered politically impossible just about any changes to RTÉ’s funding settlement illustrates the consequences of public service broadcasting’s entanglement with the broader and escalating crisis of legitimacy of national political systems.

The long-mooted broadcasting charge, a direct replacement for the existing license fee, hardly heralds fundamental changes to the funding of public media. Designed to break the link between television ownership and license fee liability in the age of the internet, the new universal charge would bring into its net many current evaders (of which there are no shortage in Ireland), delivering a net increase to RTÉ’s coffers through reduced evasion and collection efficiencies even in the absence of an increase in the annual fee itself.

But this relatively modest measure to help shore up the public half of RTE’s funding mix has for years been long-fingered time and again for the simple reason that in the wake of the successful mass public resistance to the Irish Water project, no party of government has or likely will dare anytime soon to gift the opportunity of another mass charges boycott to a disaffected public who’ve just had a taste of people power and found they liked it. For all its crowing about resilient viewerships and a successful digital transition, RTÉ must know on some level that it is unloved. And despite the apparent challenges it faced in judging the size of the Right2Water rallies it reluctantly covered in its bulletins, they could hardly have failed to spot the many placards that indicated that Montrose was next in line for a dose of popular resistance.

That fear has been enough to quiet talk of new legislation to introduce the charge- it’s a wonder that the likes of Paul Murphy and Brendan Ogle haven’t been personally blamed for RTÉ’s latest funding crisis- but present events show that the status quo isn’t exactly a victory, either.

This is partly because to allow RTÉ to take its Faustian pact with the state and the commercial media sector toward its logical conclusion is in many ways precisely what the ruling class wants, and fits their vision for the future of public services. A public broadcaster without studios is quite consistent with public policy that is giving us libraries without librarians, rail tracks without trains, and houses without people.

Moreover, while RTÉ’s vision of public service is creatively moribund- notwithstanding occasional glimpses of life- this doesn’t render its political functions benign. With its news and current affairs department having spent the best part of the last decade narrating economic and political crisis in ways consistently sympathetic to the masters of the universe of capital, recent trainwrecks of editorial judgement involving far-right guests on the flagship Late Late and Claire Byrne Live programmes suggest that for its next trick public service broadcasting will follow its brethren elsewhere in the Irish media in sleepwalking into the banalisation of racist discourses; a regression mirroring the death throes of its political cousins in the European centre-left.

This enthusiasm appears to be driven by a combination of the imperatives of bums-on-seats audience maximisation, the idiosyncrasies of prevailing editorial conceptions of programming balance and free speech as well as representing some sort of effort to reflect purportedly changing public opinion (never mind that this latter imperative has proved far less effective in shaping editorial lines on the causes, consequences and long aftermath of the 2008 crash).

Regularly displaying a tin ear to public criticism, these moves are routinely defended in the end by recourse to journalistic authority. But flatlining levels of trust in journalism suggests that a great many of us have serious doubts about the basis of that authority, and by extension the whole public service enterprise as it exists today.

Fortunately for those on the inside- at least for now- RTÉ is ably protected from being forced to seriously respond to public demands by an alliance of institutional technocratic managerialism, professional journalism, and the state. Each has the means and motivation to wall off public access to venues where critical questions can be asked about the fitness of the media which acts in our name and extracts a due for the privilege. Sure, a basic infrastructure of accountability and participation appears present and correct, taking the forms of internal and statutory complaints processes, consultations, freedom of information requests, parliamentary questions and even an audience council. But these mechanisms are in practice subject to the evasion and co-option of political and media elites, or are simply toothless, seriously diminishing their capacity to crystallise and translate public will into institutional change. If RTÉ’s managed privatisation is to be halted and its remit revolutionised, alternative means will have to be pursued; their intransigence must be met with resistance of our own.

Fortunately, the present disruptions to normal service provided by the return of the political in both parliamentary and street forms have hinted at the power of concerted collective action against the apparatus and will of the state and its agencies. The democratic and democratising possibilities of public media are there to be reclaimed from the staid, statist and increasingly commercial hand of actually existing public service broadcasting- if we dare to want them.

And in its own, more modest way, Bosco’s acerbic response to RTÉ, in foregrounding the basic expectation license-fee payers have that their annual contributions should surely be enough to make a few programmes for children, invites us to take the battle for the heart and soul of publicly-funded media more seriously. Who’d have thought it’d take a puppet to take on the marionettes?

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