Last month an interesting thing was said during a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). Politicians had summoned RTÉ boss Dee Forbes to explain to them, amongst other things, how the public broadcaster arranges its accounts, how it spends public money, and how many workers it classifies as self-employed. Despite the government pumping millions of Euros into the station on top of commercial revenue it receives from advertising and sponsorships, Forbes told the committee “core structural funding problems remain and, in fact, are deteriorating quickly”. RTÉ, she revealed, loses around €65m every year.
That wasn’t the interesting part though. It was what Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan had to sayabout the broadcaster which raises important questions.
In her opening statement Hourigan noted that discussion of the television licence fee “and the justification for it” would be a topic of debate that day. But she also went on to say that she’s “very proud of the fact that we have a publicly funded national broadcaster”. Hourigan argued that it’s “incredibly important”, especially given that in other countries “we have seen a state-supported free media as a target to be undermined and de-funded”. She then claimed that “The only people this suits is [sic] populists, conspiracy theorists and the far right”.
State-supported or supporting the state?
But this framing of the issue of state-supported media in Ireland misses the point entirely and seems to be an attempt to deflect blame away from RTÉ and its executives. In theory, given that RTÉ is answerable to the state and the politicians that it’s made up of, and politicians are representatives of the public will, then, by the transitive property RTÉ is answerable to the public. This — again, in theory — means that programming representative of the current public milieu should be at the forefront of RTÉ’s endeavours. Climate change would be front and centre alongside the massive failures of the government. To say neither have been would be an understatement. Instead, there’s a tendency to echo government talking points or simply not challenge them. Leo Varadkar can appear on Claire Byrne’s RTÉ Radio 1 programme and state that he committed no crime by leaking a contract to a friend while gardaí are investigating him for that very act.
Of course, there are variations of state-funded media, with the term itself being rather broad. Dr. Mark Cullinane, a postdoctoral researcher in the school of media in the Technological University of Dublin (TU Dublin), pointed out that it can mean
any media with State financial backing of some kind, and could include anything from a fully State-funded modern public service broadcasting institution to a commercial entity that derives some of its income from government, either for the purpose of specific programming or to support general running costs.
Different countries have different arrangements, with some state broadcasters “tied more explicitly to the ruling party and to state ideologies than with an emphasis on political pluralism”. Others might reflect and serve specific and “narrower political, cultural or linguistic minorities”. In the case of Ireland, Cullinane says the state broadcaster is “highly professionalised and institutionally independent” but nonetheless has “national remits and obligations”.
It’s these obligations which RTÉ seems to regularly fail to carry out. If in the case of Ireland the state-funded media is supposed to be answerable to the citizens who fund it, then RTÉ has roundly failed in that regard. When the far right targets RTÉ and other media outlets, it does so for the wrong reasons. Across the extremist gamut the media is accused of fomenting the “Great Replacement”, overblowing the seriousness of the pandemic, or downplaying stories involving crimes migrants are involved in carrying out. In reality, the media in Ireland is more than happy to platform various alt-right or far-right apologists and inciters. It has more in common with those across the entirety of the right than it does with the left.
The BBC is often touted as the example which publicly-funded media elsewhere should live up to. But, like RTÉ, at its core is a conservative element which sees anything remotely left-leaning as a threat. Jeremy Corbyn’s treatment at the hands of the BBC, which has been well documented elsewhere, shows the biases within the broadcaster’s culture. He had to be dragged down regardless of the consequences.
When all of this is taken together the role of a state-funded broadcaster needs to be reassessed given the current state of the world. Climate change and the very real threats to civil liberties and the last semblances of democracy coming from conservative and far-right sources aren’t being properly addressed by the BBC or RTÉ. The latter platforming Justin Barrett and John McGuirk means they either don’t understand the problems facing us or simply don’t care.
In this context then, questioning how RTÉ functions shouldn’t be denigrated as solely a cynical tactic the far right uses. It’s a legitimate concern and members of the government attempting to sully the debate by making such flawed comparisons should be criticised. RTÉ is unsustainable, both financially and ideologically. For too long it’s tried to remain unaccountable to the public while at the same time Forbes hobnobs with Varadkar or Paschal Donohoe. No matter what motivated her to appear alongside them, it’s not a good look for the head of RTÉ to be seen spending time with the people who help decide what her budget is.
Cullinane agrees, telling The Beacon that defenders of state-supported media will point to its existence “as an indicator of a strong, pluralistic and free democratic culture, promoting informed citizenship” and a counter to conspiracy theorists and the far right. Evidence for this comes from elsewhere in the world , where “a turn towards greater illiberalism has been accompanied by attacks on the press and broadcast media”. But this is not a fair assessment of situation. The media expert declares that the problem with Hourigan’s comment is “in setting up the spectres of populism, conspiracy theorising and the far right, which are distinct phenomena, it actively discourages a more critical form of engagement with public service media today”.
Debate, he maintains, about what the state broadcaster in Ireland engages in shouldn’t be shied away from:
If public service media is as central to Irish society and democracy as Hourigan and others imply, RTÉ as Ireland’s largest public service media organisation can surely withstand and facilitate substantive and inclusive conversations on its future – what is worth celebrating, preserving and changing about it, what its objectives should be in social, cultural and political terms, and how we want to fund it and run it. These are necessary conversations because for all of RTÉ’s resilience in terms of overall market share and the continued relevance of television and radio broadcasting decades into the digital revolution, basically every aspect of the entire model of public service media as we know it is under increasing strain.
And as he further points out, public service media everywhere, including in Ireland, all “have a complicated relationship with democracy, sometimes acting as a facilitator of change and other times a blockage”.
Considering all of this it can be said that the time for a debate about RTÉ’s role in Irish society is now. According to Forbes the current funding model is “utterly broken” due to some not paying the licence fee and others simply not obliged to pay it because they don’t own a television. She told the PAC that RTÉ is calling for “reform of the current system” and that the current system of having “licence fee collectors on the road, is a costly one”.
Presumably Forbes would prefer a broadcasting charge of some kind, a general tax — taken at the source — of anything that can play video, be it a computer or phone, in order to shore up Montrose’s finances. To say this would be a huge misstep and an overreach on the part of RTÉ would be an understatement. People want media that reflects their interests, not one that only survives because of an unfair tax. RTÉ’s future depends on its accountability to the public. Without this its future isn’t viable. To say this doesn’t make one a populist or a far-right extremist. It’s simply the truth.