Sunday 20 October 2019

RTÉ focuses on fake news as hopes of new funding dry up

RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes
RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes
Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes spoke at a huge media conference last Friday, alongside her predecessor Noel Curran, at the International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam. The subject was: can public service broadcasters stay relevant?

Forbes appears to have lost her hard-fought battle for a funding boost - as I revealed last week, the broadcaster had suggested a sizeable funding fillip of €55m.

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Forbes is currently focusing on the threat of fake news and the importance of public sector media (PSM) in a democracy.

In a pre-conference interview, she hammered this lofty message home hard. "The danger is that the essential value of PSM in protecting democracy, freedom and serving all citizens equally can sometimes be taken for granted. As such, I think our biggest threat is not political pressure, but complacency within the political establishment."

She also warned ominously that a "lot was at stake" given RTÉ's funding shortfall and what it perceives to be a need for more public funding to protect its future.

It was a message Forbes also made at the recent autumn schedule launch.

Consultants Communications Chambers were charged with analysing RTÉ's submission to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) in which RTÉ outlined two scenarios - what it could do with more public money and how it would manage without.

Interestingly, the experts warned there would be outcry when (the 'if' seems redundant now) the broadcaster would be required to make significant cuts at the organisation.

Unsurprisingly, there was a warning about union uproar. But perhaps of more surprise, the consultants warned of a political backlash.

So how does this sit with Forbes's reference to political complacency?

RTÉ is struggling to attract younger viewers, who are no doubt plugged into YouTube and Netflix most of the time.

With the exception of Young Offenders and a handful of programmes which strike the right chord with under-35s, the experts said RTÉ 'super serves' older audiences. To rebalance things, RTÉ will need to move its existing funds into online and material aimed a tech-savvy audience which may not yet be getting enough from its public service media but is more than super-served by digital alternatives.

When older audiences see some of their material being trimmed they won't be best pleased. And those likely to be left unhappy will be the core voting base of many politicians around the country.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Communications Minister Richard Bruton may not have felt the case for extra funding was compelling, but dozens of politicians may be less than 'complacent' when dissatisfied constituents come knocking.

RTÉ has seen that even efforts to cut niche services have met with relatively high-profile opposition in the past.

For example, around five years ago RTÉ attempted to cut its long-wave radio service but faced a backlash from elderly Irish living abroad. There was outrage, a petition and the service has been given reprieve after reprieve.

Of course, there is a strong argument this really is the essence of public service media - ensuring the ageing Irish diaspora, many of whom were forced to leave their home country for economic reasons, have a line into Ireland.

But it is a reminder there will be plenty of protests when services used by people all over the country, even in small numbers, face the prospect of cuts.

Is RTÉ hoping such a reaction will revive its case for a funding increase? Possibly. This, together with a strong argument about the issue of fake news, could be a shot in the arm to the complacent political establishment.

But strong opposition to a financial handout will continue. New minutes from a BAI meeting over the summer show the regulator's recommendation of a €30m funding increase was strongly opposed by commercial rival Virgin Media, which owns a number of TV stations as well as a player. According to the minutes, the company raised "serious concerns" about the recommendation.

The BAI's defence mainly focused on the conditions which would go with any such funding and a requirement that the money only be used for public services, not to compete with commercial rivals.

So going back to the topic of Forbes's panel discussion, can public service broadcasters stay relevant?

You would like to think the answer is yes. RTÉ does produce good content, ranging from Prime Time Investigates to Can't Cope, Won't Cope. Even Fair City plays a very important public service role, ensuring Ireland has a soap all of its own. TV3 (now Virgin Media) made a very good attempt at this with Red Rock. However, such shows are expensive to make and really do need some financial support in a country of this size.

So perhaps the question should not be can RTÉ stay relevant?

Or should RTÉ get more money? Or even if RTÉ is our protector from fake news (lots of organisations, including my own, feel they contribute significantly on that front).

It should be: can RTÉ provide value for money with the €180m a year it already gets from its audiences?

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