Pat Stacey: RTÉ is a mess but public service broadcasting is still essential
Scrap the state broadcaster and you also destroy public service TV
Last month’s RTÉ Investigates exposé of the scandalous goings-on at the Dublin creche chain Hyde & Seek was one of the most deeply upsetting pieces of factual television we’ll see this year.
Anyone who watched the programme was appalled and angered by the dreadful treatment of small children by Anne Davy, who runs the company with her husband Peter.
This was an outstanding example of investigative TV journalism doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. Had it not been made, the despicable behaviour we saw on screen would be continuing undetected.
It was also a powerfully persuasive reminder of why public service broadcasting, which is under greater threat now than at any time in the past, needs to be preserved and protected from the cynics who would tear it down tomorrow if they could.
Publicly funded broadcasters are the only ones still committed to making this kind of television on a continuous basis and putting it at the centre of their prime-time schedules.
If you doubt that, just look at what’s happened in Britain, where serious current affairs and investigative programming has been in decline since the Nineties.
ITV’s two flagship current affairs series, which were once regarded as vital components of the network’s identity, are long gone.
Thames Television’s This Week was cancelled in 1992, while Granada’s World in Action — which successfully campaigned for the release of the Birmingham Six and in its heyday was regularly watched by half the population of the UK — disappeared in 1998.
BBC1’s Panorama, the world’s longest-running (since 1953) current affairs series, is still on the go, but often appears to be hanging on by its fingernails.
Since the mid-Eighties, various BBC controllers, desperate to win the ratings game against their commercial competitors, have kicked it around the schedule like a football. In 2007, its running time was slashed from an hour to a half-hour, which is an inadequate format for the kind of in-depth investigations Panorama used to undertake.
There was a surge of outrage on social media in the wake of RTÉ Investigates, but also a surge of justified praise for the programme for exposing the company’s practices.
How ironic that, barely a fortnight later, some of the very same people who were lauding RTÉ for this were now demanding it be either turned into a monthly paid subscription service or dissolved altogether.
The trigger was the government’s announcement that the licence fee is to be scrapped and replaced with a “device independent broadcasting charge”. Ultimately, this will require every household in the country, even those without a television, to pay for RTÉ. It doesn’t matter if you never watch RTÉ; if you own any electronic device capable of streaming TV programmes — any broadcaster’s TV programmes — then you’re liable for the charge.
Personally, I think it’s a bit early to be getting worked up about a still vague plan that won’t take effect for another five years. It really is an argument for another day.
The bigger question is whether we honestly want to live in a country without public service broadcasting. RTÉ, at present, is a mess and there are many things I loathe about it.
The cheap, crappy property and lifestyle shows that swallow up hours of airtime. The amateurish approach to drama and comedy, which sees large amounts of money being wasted on dreary duds like Taken Down and puerile trash like Bridget & Eamon. The vapid chat shows, most of them nothing more than ego-massaging vehicles for overpaid presenters.
But RTÉ’s commitment to public service broadcasting, however constrained by resources it is much of the time, is still invaluable. If it were to disappear overnight, who else is going to expose the crooks, cheats, liars and chancers?
The answer is no one. You don’t throw the baby, no matter how dysfunctional it might be, out with the bathwater.
The RTÉ Investigates programme exposing the creche scandal was public service television at its finest and needs to be protected.