Garrett Harte writes that as RTÉ’s future comes under scrutiny, the wider broadcast market must be included in any new plans
In 2011, during the Arab Spring revolution in Tunisia, a group of local students involved in the uprising had first hand experiences of media extensively regulated by the government and the destructive prevalence of extremist content on social media platforms, notably Facebook. Some 97 per cent of adults in Tunisia relied on Facebook as their main primary source of news and information.
These experiences left a lasting impression on the students, leading them to further question the influence and challenges posed by media and in particular social media in their society.
This was the inspiration for the creation of Express FM, Tunisia’s first independent talk radio station. In 2017, I had the privilege of working closely with a team to help them establish the country’s new station.
Tunisia has a population of just over 12 million people, with the majority living outside of the capital Tunis in smaller regions nationwide and with disparate communities and regional issues. The team behind Express FM were intrigued to know how media in Ireland operated and were surprised to note that there was only one independent, national talk radio station in Ireland, Newstalk.
In particular, the Tunisians wondered how could a progressive, modern European country such as Ireland only have one independent national station? How was diversity achieved? Were the public not calling out for more independent stations? When we explained the role of independent local radio in Ireland and the strength of audience in each county and region, they became more curious.
They wanted to know how this model of journalism was funded, and indeed why independent commercial radio stations were obliged by the government to self-fund local news, sport, current affairs and community information. As the first layer of dust settles in the RTÉ controversy, the question still lingers and the future funding of public service broadcasting takes centre stage.
It has sparked a much-needed discussion not only about the future funding of RTÉ but also the wider independent media industry. There is always opportunity in every crisis and in this case the opportunity is fundamental to our everyday discourse and trust – to reimagine the funding model for media in Ireland and ensure the sustainability and success of the country’s public service media.
Questions over RTÉ bailout: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar declared that any State bailout for RTÉ would come with conditions attached. Not an unusual comment to make in terms of any State rescue request. What will these conditions look like and how effectively can they be introduced in Montrose? RTÉ’s failure to implement meaningful reforms over the past decade and the lack of pressure from politicians to demand change have contributed to the debacle.
The challenge for the Government now is that many law-abiding citizens are questioning the value of the licence fee until such time as they see full transparency in RTÉ. In the last three months, 25 per cent less people have renewed their TV licence fee. They have lost trust in the way RTÉ conducts its affairs and are clearly taking a stand and making a protest by failing to pay the licence fee.
If the protest continues in the short-term, it represents a collapse in the licence fee that will result in a significant funding shortfall for an already cash strapped RTÉ. However, it will also have a negative impact on the funding of independent broadcasters. It is not good news for RTÉ’s future, nor is it good news for the wider independent sector throughout Ireland that needs funding.
Most importantly, it is not good news for the protection of public service broadcasting, a crucial tenant of our democracy. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar declared that any State bailout for RTÉ would come with conditions attached. Not an unusual comment to make in terms of any Government rescue request. What will these conditions look like and how effectively can they be introduced at RTÉ?
In January, the long-awaited Commission on the Future of Media issued its report. A key recommendation proposed by the commission is that RTÉ should be directly funded by the State. While the proposal was at first turned down by the Government, the crisis in Montrose put to bed any reconsideration that taxpayers would fully fund RTÉ with an increased licence fee model.
The Future of Media Commission report serves as a blueprint not just for RTÉ, but for the entire media industry, including independent broadcasters. These stations deliver more hours of public service content every week than RTÉ, covering news, sport, current affairs, drama and documentaries. A reformed licence fee model has the potential to impact the entire sector, not just RTÉ.
It is the Government’s responsibility to address concerns about transparency in RTÉ, while ensuring fair funding for other broadcasters. The crisis at RTÉ also provides the perfect opportunity for the national broadcaster to embrace a new operating model and transform itself into a leading publisher/broadcaster in the image of Channel 4, which is publicly-owned but self-funded.
Channel 4 a model worth considering: Garrett Harte says the crisis at RTÉ provides the perfect opportunity for recognising the need to embrace a new model and transform itself into a publisher/broadcaster in the image of Channel 4, which is publicly-owned but, unlike the BBC, is self-funded. C4 receives no State support and instead relies entirely on its own commercial initiatives, including advertising. Its successes include shows like Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls.
Outside of news and current affairs, the broadcaster would commission all content from independent production companies. Ireland has a hugely talented and internationally successful independent creative industry. We boast several top independent television production companies, such as Kite Entertainment run by Darren Smith and ShinaWil with Larry Bass.
The independent operations create and produce the highest quality of formats which should receive additional support and investment. By tapping into the expertise of the independent creative industry it would position RTÉ as a global leader in innovative and creative broadcasting.
The recent crisis at RTÉ has highlighted the long-overdue need for reforms. Effective financial management and accountability are essential for any organisation. RTÉ’s failure to implement meaningful reforms over the past decade and the lack of pressure from politicians to demand change have contributed to the current situation. Both sides bear responsibility for this failure.
All public funding for RTÉ will face intense scrutiny in a public forum, making management challenging. We have witnessed the need for strong public service journalism to report on the orchestrated far right-led campaigns of misinformation and disinformation in relation to refugees and asylum seekers arriving into Ireland from war torn and oppressive regimes in other countries.
We should not underestimate the impact of the far right on our political landscape. We are witnessing increased levels of well organised and orchestrated ultra-nationalist protests in communities. We are sleepwalking into a scenario where controlled levels of misinformation and disinformation are allowed to enter our daily conversation through unregulated social media platforms.
The RTÉ scandal should not be allowed to create a situation where the citizens of the state do not see a value in investing in public service broadcasting and refuse to pay for the service. Nor that Government support for trusted independent media, local and regional radio stations is stopped.
The Government needs to move quickly to ensure meaningful reforms are made in RTÉ with a clear time frame for implementation. It will come with open public scrutiny to ensure full transparency. The role of the independent sector should not be taken for granted in providing fair and balanced public sector media in our local radio stations.
Support for independent entities needs to be protected and enhanced as much as any discussion on the future funding of RTÉ. Winning back the hearts and minds of the general public is an immediate challenge that needs to be prioritised with actions to ensure trust is restored as a matter of urgency. If the correct steps are taken, the opportunities for Irish media are enormous.
It is the prize on offer.
Garrett Harte is managing director of Harte Media and former editor-in-chief at Newstalk