Friday 9 December 2016

Usual suspects, dark horses and wild cards vie for RTE throne

Candidates must be willing to scrap with politicians, keep audiences happy, count and have nerves of steel, write Maeve Sheehan and Niamh Horan

Maeve Sheehan and Niamh Horan

Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30

Glen Killane Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Glen Killane Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Muirne Laffan
Jim Jennings Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Willie O'Reilly Photo: Arthur Carron/Collins
Kevin Bakhurst Photo: RTE
David McRedmond Photo: Mark Condren
Rory Coveney
Lucy Gaffney Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

The General Election isn't the only contest underway for a top job in Irish public life that involves fighting with politicians, keeping punters happy and balancing multimillion euro budgets.

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Last week, the RTE board concluded the first round of interviews to replace Noel Curran, outgoing director general of the biggest and most influential media organisation in the State. Whoever gets the job will command a salary in the region of €250k and control a budget of €300m plus.

Between 20 and 25 candidates with backgrounds in commercial media, broadcasting, or both, have made it on to the long list. Three or four, who work in British broadcasting, were interviewed in the UK last week, bringing to a close the first stage of the process. Candidates should learn early this week which of them has made it through to the next round.

The list of contenders includes the usual suspects, a dark horse or two and at least one name that's considered totally off the mark. At least 10 are from the within the organisation.

The same four names regularly trip off the wagging tongues in RTE and almost always in this order: Kevin Bakhurst, Glen Killane, Willie O'Reilly and Rory Coveney, bringing up the rear but emerging as the one to watch.

Bakhurst, former BBC News controller, is the obvious front runner. He is one step away from the job already, because he is currently Noel Curran's deputy and also managing director of RTÉ News and Current Affairs.

He has helped restore the image of RTE's current affairs in the wake of the Mission to Prey debacle. He is a Brit and some question whether he has the "cultural resonance" for the job - but he is learning Irish.

Glen Killane was RTE's head of sport before he became managing director of television - the position Curran also held before he became DG, which is having a resurgence with big dramas such as Love/Hate and Rebellion.

Willie O'Reilly is more of a "commercial head" - he is RTE's commercial director, having made his name as CEO of Today FM, but he used to produce the hugely successful Gerry Ryan radio show back in the day.

Rory Coveney has the advantage of having been personally plucked by Noel Curran to be his "strategic adviser". Coveney, a brother of Simon, the Fine Gael Minister for Agriculture, previously worked as communications manager in the Digital Switchover and is regarded as a "commercial" rather than "content" man.

Other internal candidates include Jim Jennings, the managing director of RTE Radio, who is a very experienced programme maker. In a piece of fortuitous timing, last week, he presided over a 64,000 increase in RTE Radio One's listenership figures - although 2FM's slipped.

Muirne Laffan, managing director of RTÉ Digital since 2011, is believed to be one of the few women contenders. She has no experience of "content" but lots in digital, presiding over the development of various RTE apps and progressing the playback facility, RTE Player, into a testing ground for new programmes. Her background is in advertising.

Of the external candidates, Lucy Gaffney's reported interest in the job has been dismissed as "total rubbish" by a source who knows her and as "nonsense" within RTE. Gaffney is chairman of Communicorp, the radio group owned by Denis O'Brien, and stepped down from the board of Independent News and Media a couple of weeks after Curran announced he was leaving RTE - timing that may have fuelled the speculation.

David McRedmond, however, is a "contender". As chief executive of TV3, he brought the station through the austerity years to its sale to Virgin Media last month.

"When it comes to what each of the names have to offer, Glen Killane has risen through the ranks quickly at a very young age; Muirne Laffan has an extremely strong pedigree in digital; Kevin Bakhurst - well, all the money is on him; Dave McRedmond has a very strong pedigree in editorial and business, having kept TV3 afloat," said one source.

Coveney is considered the dark horse: "He is not known by anybody, but has been operating at the top level in RTE for years. He is privy to policy formation in the broadcaster in an unmatched way by any of the other candidates," said one well-placed source. "He has an understanding of public service broadcasting and a broader vision than most of the contenders - and he has an acute understanding from working with the RTE board and the DG on the finances and he understands the need to move to content maker."

Riverdance entrepreneur Moya Doherty chairs the RTE board and heads its interview sub-committee. Shane Naughton, of the Economist Group, is also on it.

When Curran was chosen, Tom Savage, Doherty's predecessor, hailed his "editorial acumen, cultural assurance" and "business flair" in that order. This time around, the same talents apply but maybe not in the same running order.

By law, the DG must be both chief executive and also editor in chief. The notion of splitting the director general posts into separate commercial and editorial roles has been mooted at senior level in RTE, according to sources, and the Department of Communications "looked into it".

But changing the law is never practical before a general election.

The new DG will be taking charge of the organisation in calmer waters than Curran, who, in his five years, oversaw a financial turnaround from massive budget deficits to a small surplus in 2014, digital advances and a golden era of investigative TV journalism after the debacle of Mission to Prey.

The most pressing challenge for RTE's new director general is public funding and what the next government might to do about it.

RTE's commercial income - from sponsorship, advertising and digital - is up. But it has not had a licence fee increase since 2008. Licence fee income has fallen by €22m in five years and Noel Curran described it as "no longer fit for purpose" in the multimedia age. The whole industry wants the public funding model changed, though in different ways. Lucinda Creighton, the Renua leader, has proposed scrapping the licence fee altogether.

"Whenever there is a change of government, there is a nervousness in the air and that nervousness is about a change of funding and change of policy," said one source.

Governments cannot interfere with RTE editorially and political appointments to its board are done through an Oireachtas Committee. But the decision by Ray Burke to cap its advertising revenue almost three decades ago haunts the broadcaster.

For some politicians, RTE has never shaken off the whiff of lefties running the news room. Pat Rabbitte, former Labour minister, accused the broadcaster last year of being "a recruiting sergeant" for anti-water protestors. Fianna Fail produced analysis accusing it of bias towards Sinn Fein and Labour. Sinn Fein and left-wing groupings also complained of bias. No complaint of has been upheld against RTE's news coverage.

Media and politicians are always going to be in the trenches. But RTE's use of tax payers' money, its public service remit and its reach, mean that politicians and the public police it more than any other outlet. Which means: "If you f*** up? Well. When things go wrong, they can go terribly wrong," said one RTE insider.

Add 'Must have nerves of steel' to that job description.

Sunday Independent

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