In a sense you have to feel for RTÉ. In the very week it mourns its greatest broadcaster, Gay Byrne, it announces the bombshell of major cuts and the shedding of 200 jobs. In fact, the announcement was postponed for a few days because Gay had died, which only adds to the grim irony.
It has had cutbacks in recent years and yet its losses continue to grow, and the challenges increase.
But the reality is that the entire media landscape is under serious threat now. There is major disruption with the rise of social media and the decline of traditional outlets, especially when the latter try to sustain themselves against so much free stuff.
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But those who crow about this decline and welcome the flood of such free stuff, should be careful.
For it also means that the media we have relied on, such as the newspapers and RTÉ, must compete harder to produce authentic and original stories and analysis which people can trust. A major conference in Dublin addressed such issues yesterday.
Everywhere we see the rise of unverified reporting, deeply partisan analysis and a new fragmented and ghettoised media landscape. And it is not good for democracy. This is what fuelled Brexit in the UK and Trump’s populism in the US.
The irony of the Trump cries of ‘fake news’ is that he is generally the fake news, and the mainstream media calling him out are usually telling the truth. But when Trump jibes back about the loss-making ‘Washington Post’ and the ‘New York Times’, he knows it hurts, because they are loss making and they are struggling to keep up in a changing digital world.
RTÉ is the same. In television here the model really is broken. My kids watch YouTube quicker than they watch TV – any TV, never mind RTÉ. Some YouTubers have millions of followers, more than most TV stations could dream of.
Meanwhile, we have countless actual TV channels to choose from, all of them drawing advertising from the same pool as RTÉ.
But this is where the sympathy for RTÉ runs out. All media have had to face these big pressures and have reformed radically. Jobs and wages have been cut, websites developed, pay walls introduced (albeit too slowly, in my opinion). The newspapers have had to face the realities of the free market.
It’s a tough world, but that’s the way it is.
However, RTÉ has clung to the old ways. And the reason is simple – it relies on the licence fee, and the belief that the Government will increase it, to cover RTÉ’s losses. Director general Dee Forbes has done tremendous work in bringing the losses down, but still periodically looks for an increase in the licence fee.
But this is complete baloney.
In fact, the licence fee should be just abolished now and the station should rely on direct State support, if that is what we are to have. For if the media landscape has completely changed, with people watching YouTube and the Discovery channel and whatever else, on their tablets and their phones, then why should they have to pay a licence fee to RTÉ, which they might never watch? It makes no sense.
The licence fee is from the era of de Valera when the station had a duty to uphold ‘Irish values’. That day is gone.
RTÉ’s reliance on the licence fee also distorts the market in ways the public is probably unaware of. One is that because it is State-subsidised, it can charge less for advertising and so depresses the prices for other media.
Secondly, it can run a news website rivalling the newspapers, which have to create these sites commercially without Government support.
Newspapers have to fend for themselves. Even a modest demand a few years ago that the VAT rate be reduced for the newspapers – as it was for the hospitality sector and where it had a very positive effect – fell on deaf ears in the Government.
RTÉ people are sore that the real world has caught up with them. On ‘Morning Ireland’ Dee Forbes was confronted by presenter Bryan Dobson about the leaked nature of the announcement. “Gay Byrne used to jokingly say that the only way he knew what was happening in RTÉ, was when the public outside told him,” he said.
It was a strange comment but perhaps that’s the way with an evasive, semi-State bureaucracy with its head in the clouds. But maybe Dobson and his €200,000 salary are actually part of the problem. Asked about the RTÉ cuts, Minister Heather Humphreys was not slow to mention the high salaries of so many RTÉ presenters, and asked why they should be paid more than the Taoiseach. Not much sympathy there.
Finally, these salaries are to be trimmed.
Such largesse is fine if you can afford it, but RTÉ is broke, as is clearly evident.
Those high presenter salaries are not crucial in the overall finances of the station but their endurance creates less sympathy from a shop-around public. The Government may be feeling the same. Politicians have to live or die by the free market of voter’s choices. It is the same with broadcasting.
It’s time RTÉ joined the 21st century.
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