Five ways to put the “public” back into public service

Thankfully, I don’t get invited to too many media conferences any more.

I don’t have the time to attend, and I can’t afford to lose anymore friends in the business.

Still, it would have been fascinating to listen to new RTE DG Dee Forbes talking about the future of Ireland’s public service broadcaster, even if her comments fall far short of the revolution that is necessary to reboot it.

Dee spoke of the need to make more “frenemies”, for more collaboration and, of course, to cut costs.

All depressingly familiar to audiences and journalists alike – and probably the exact opposite of what is needed.

Unfortunately Dee’s comments portray someone who seems to have accepted the narrative that the problems of modern media are for journalists and program-makers to solve, not politicians or bean-counters.

But reform of RTE would go a long way towards righting the listing ship of Irish media – and in turn it might even restore the faith that many have lost in public service broadcasting.

In no particular order, here are some of the things I would do if literally every competent person in Irish media management died and somehow left me in charge of our public service broadcaster.

1. Get RTE out of the advertising market.

Ban everything – product endorsements, ad breaks, sponsored competitions, the works, and instead run it on government funding alone, through a combination of tax-payer’s money and the license fee.

No logos, no product placement – just public service.

It can’t be done?

Sure it can.

Here in Sweden, when two girls from the Stockholm Gaels appeared on state TV to talk about Gaelic football, the floor manager put a strip of gaffer tape over the logo on the O’Neills ball they had brought with them. There would be no free advertising there.

Getting RTE out of the market would open up an enormous revenue stream for private media outlets and remove the need for RTE to produce popular (and indeed populist) programming, and instead get it to focus on its public service mandate.

2. Switch the focus of the sales teams, with those currently involved in selling advertising selling Irish-developed content and concepts abroad. Long before the success of Nordic noir, “The Lyrics Board” was lighting up Scandinavian TV screens, although that may not entirely be a good thing.

3. With the removal of advertising as a driving force behind every decision, reassess the talent pool. There would no longer be a need to pay hundreds of thousands of euros to individuals, just because their names are synonymous with hundreds of thousands of listeners or viewers.

I firmly believe that those who work for public service broadcasters should be (very) well-paid, but even the top talent themselves would surely admit that things have gotten out of hand.

4. Become a centre of excellence for the broadcasters and producers of the future.

The two-day RTE radio documentary course I did a few years back, conducted by their award-winning staff in Montrose, totally changed my approach to how I work with radio, and that for the better. My work has become much, much better, which benefits both me and my listeners.

RTE’s crews, producers, directors and broadcasters are all top-of-the-line professionals – why not share their work ethic and methods with coming generations of journalists and technicians via paid six-month internships?

5. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, work with other media outlets and the government to create workable legislation and guidelines for the industry.

At the moment it is far too easy for powerful organisations and individuals to suppress the truth by sending a flurry of solicitor’s letters, or by leveraging the depth of their pockets knowing that neither RTE nor anyone else can afford to defend a case against them.

Equally, there is little alternative for those ordinary Joes and Josephines who have been wronged by media reporting to gain recompense.

Given that RTE acts to all intents and purposes like a commercial broadcaster, it’s easy to forget just how important public service broadcasting is to a democracy. It needs to be able to report without fear or favour on all aspects of Irish life, and to ensure that all aspects of Irish life are represented in its output.

At the moment it is basically Sky One with the Angelus, and that is far, far short of the kind of journalism and programming that some of the most talented people in broadcasting could deliver to a country that so desperately needs it.

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