IN WHAT has become an epic slow bicycle race to the Government’s bold step between RTÉ and the FAI, it’s been a contrasting week for the State’s two prodigal children.
Given the summer of seismic turbulence the State broadcaster endured, you would’ve bet the house on Montrose heading into Christmas first on the Taoiseach’s naughty list.
When your competition for negative headlines is the FAI, however, nothing is certain. Events of the last week should have taught both institutions a very valuable lesson — always play to the whistle.
Last Sunday’s sold-out cup final should have been a victory lap of virtue for the football association, proof that it was reforming in the post-John Delaney era and taking its scolding seriously.
Instead, its showpiece was overshadowed by news that CEO Jonathan Hill had broken his own rule by accepting €20,000 in lieu of holidays not taken, as well as a failure by the FAI to achieve 40% gender representation on its board by 2024.
The timing for this pair of own goals could not have been worse as November is when the paymasters get out the cheque book.
Any progress made in the 11 months prior was compromised by a couple of gaffs so glaring in their incompetence they reminded those that matter of the bad old days, when Delaney treated the FAI as his own private man cave. When you get a reputation for not getting out of bed before noon, you really must get up at the crack of dawn.
As the FAI tried to untangle itself from a mess of its own making, waiting smugly in the hallway would have been RTÉ director general Kevin Bakhurst, his manifesto for change simply titled ‘A New Direction for RTÉ’, tucked underneath his arm.
In it, Bakhurst promises a plethora of reforms that will change the face of the broadcaster — in its own words, the strategic review promised that RTÉ will be a “more streamlined, modern and simpler organisation, with fewer employees, reduced overheads and updated technology”.
As an elevator pitch for survival, it was light on detail but heavy on virtue. While there was no mention of the debauchery and excess that brought the station to this point of chaos, the subtext was clear: “We promise to give up the drink,” Bakhurst meant, but did not say.
“There’ll be no more late nights, no golf trips away with the lads, no stags in Ibiza. We even cancelled our New Yorker subscriptions.”
The devil will undoubtedly be in the largely absent small print, but in reading the room Bakhurst did the easy part well: Tell the Government what they needed to hear, “Don’t break up with us just yet. We can change. Promise.”
As a short-term strategy, the tactic worked, with the Government immediately approving interim funding of €56m for the broadcaster, albeit subject to conditions.
While staff at RTÉ were understandably petrified by the prospect of a 10% reduction of its workforce by 2028, Bakhurst and the Cabinet were sounding equal parts contrite and optimistic, one saying how committed they were to change, the other saying they were willing to forgive, if not forget.
By Thursday, it looked like RTÉ had done enough to win the week, only for the station’s old flame Ryan Tubridy to reappear, revealing his killer new revenge bod on the UK’s Virgin FM.
The news cycle had shifted once more. Bakhurst said that he was “really pleased” to hear that Tubridy had landed a new radio job, which probably really meant he was glad his old nemesis was finally someone else’s problem.
With funding secured for another year and Tubs out of the way, what actually happens next at RTÉ will be the interesting part.
The most high-profile piece of that puzzle will be the awkward conversations around contracts with the station’s highest earners following on from Bakhurst’s pledge to cap salaries for all RTÉ employees at €250,000.
By last year’s figures, that would leave presenters Joe Duffy, Miriam O’Callaghan and Claire Byrne all requiring a pay cut, with Ray D’Arcy and Late Late Show host Patrick Kielty both on the €250,000 mark.
If any of them was to leave, where would they go? Will they feel emboldened by their former colleague Tubridy’s switch to the UK market, or surmise that one new Irish voice on English radio is already enough?
From a radio perspective, the deck of stars at Newstalk and Today FM — RTÉ’s main rivals — seems fully stacked. Despite protestations to the contrary, this is bad news for Bakhurst, as the constraints of the small Irish market mean he’s more than likely stuck with a bunch of talent that has nowhere else to go.
If it’s bad news for the director general, it’s worse news for the lower-hanging fruit at the State broadcaster. Those foot soldiers can hardly be blamed for the profligacy that has crippled the station, yet, if history has told us anything, it is that the talent will be the last to leave the building.
Human resources is only one part of Bakhurst’s problem, an actual new direction — not stated in his published ‘New Direction’ — is another.
Back in 2020, then UK culture secretary Nadine Dorries spearheaded a proposal to take Channel 4 out of public ownership during Boris Johnson’s premiership.
In January of this year, her successor Michelle Donelan confirmed that the process had been halted following discussions with Channel 4 and the independent production sector. Instead, she announced a package including reforms through a media bill which will allow Channel 4 to make and own some of its content and a new statutory duty on the board to “protect” the long-term financial sustainability of the business.
Channel 4 — unlike RTÉ — receives its funding from advertising, sponsorship and third-party sales-deals, not the taxpayer, but still represents a model of media that the Irish broadcaster could tap into to revitalise a flagging institution.
Crucially, Channel 4 does not make its own productions, but commissions or buys all of its programming from independent production companies. Such an evolution was not mentioned in Bakhurt’s mission statement but was not ruled out by him in subsequent interviews, either.
The production of Fair City stands as a totem of RTÉ’s commercial conundrum — in figures released in 2017, RTÉ said that 198 episodes of Fair City had been filmed that year, with an average cost of €54,883, which adds up to a staggering €10.86m per year.
On average, 550,000 people tune in to Fair City every night, which makes it the most-watched drama series in the country. If RTÉ could sell the nightly soap as a going concern while continuing to air the show, it would be a welcome shift towards a more Channel 4 model of media.
One definite priority will be the upgrade of the much-maligned RTÉ Player, a tool so ineffective it made the recently deceased Aertel look like Blade Runner.
Channel 4’s online streaming platform is the envy of the industry, but when you end the year with revenues of £1.14bn, as the station did last year, you can afford to invest heavily in such a valuable asset.
With no such riches to rely on, has Kevin Bakhurst picked the wrong hill to potentially die on? Would scrapping the RTÉ Player have been a braver, more cost-effective decision? You could always kill it and, after a period of consolidation, start again?
If there was one saving grace for RTÉ it is that—through the Oireachtas committee meetings this summer—it aired all its dirty laundry at once, and in doing so has cleared a path for radical reform.
What would be a stain on its soul would be if that reform comes at the cost of jobs and opportunities for the brilliant journalists who do such good work across news, sport. and documentaries at the broadcasters’ many stations. Imagine how lesser our media landscape would be without Docs on One, the Sunday Miscellany, or John Creedon?
New blood is so often the saviour of flagging institutions. None of these shows happen by accident. Their commercial viability should not dictate their future. Their quality should.
It’s up to Bakhurst to learn the harsh lessons of the FAI and put the substance before the style. He has promised us all a new direction for RTÉ, let us all hope that direction is up.