Saturday 24 March 2018

'RTE didn't lose out when Kenny went to Newstalk'

The new Minister for Communications talks RTE pay, 'Love/Hate' and how to make the station better

The recently appointed Minister for Communications Denis Naughten at Leinster House. Mr Naughten, an Independent, has overarching responsibility for RTE Photo: Tom Burke
The recently appointed Minister for Communications Denis Naughten at Leinster House. Mr Naughten, an Independent, has overarching responsibility for RTE Photo: Tom Burke
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Denis Naughten doesn't watch much television. If he does it's generally news, current affairs or sports.

He's more of a radio man - flicking between local and national stations on his commute to Dublin from Roscommon. Those RTE Radio One documentaries that win all the awards also make his journeys a bit easier.

As the newly appointed Communications Minister he is doing a lot more commuting and now has a lot less time to watch television.

He also happens to be the minister with overarching responsibility for the State broadcaster, and he's due to have his first official meeting with RTE chiefs in the coming days.

In his first in-depth interview on his vision for the station, Mr Naughten sends a clear warning to RTE broadcasters seeking pay hikes, sets out his plans to clamp down on licence fee dodgers and defends the glorification of crime in Love/Hate.

The Independent minister also gives his view on the station's top stars, from RTE's midlands correspondent Ciaran Mullooly to Drivetime presenter Mary Wilson.

But, speaking to the Sunday Independent in Government Buildings, the minister makes it clear that there is no TV or radio star bigger than RTE - "no matter who they are".

He points to Pat Kenny's €2m move to Newstalk as proof that listeners do not necessarily follow the stars who are demanding massive wage packets.

He also believes that Kenny's successor on RTE Radio One, Sean O'Rourke, is doing an "excellent job".

"I think from a Newstalk point of view it was a smart move. I think it was a smart move from Pat Kenny's point of view, but I don't think RTE have lost out," says Naughten.

He adds that Kenny's multimillion move from the State broadcaster to the private sector shows the issue of broadcaster pay is not a "simple equation".

While Kenny's move justifies RTE's argument for paying stars high wages, he says, it also shows the station has a "strong hand" in negotiations due to the exposure it gives broadcasters.

"Look, if you don't give what is seen as a commercially fair level of pay in the current climate then people will move, but you also see that presenters themselves don't necessarily bring all of their listenership with them either," he explains.

The minister believes it is important that the public know exactly what presenters are being paid - but that commercial considerations also need to be taken on board to make sure stars are not poached by other stations.

Naughten has been subjected to several "good grillings" from Sean O'Rourke in recent times and cautions against going on the show without knowing your facts.

"I have to say about Sean and anyone else, there's very few times that I would say that I've been dealt with unfairly by the media and on radio/television other than when there have been occasions where I deserved to be dealt with unfairly because I wasn't sure of my facts.

"But other than that I have to say I would consider them to be fair," he adds.

Naughten says that while some RTE hosts "go for the jugular", it is often because politicians have "left the gate open".

The presenters of Morning Ireland in particular have a reputation for pulling no punches when it comes to interviewing politicians.

Naughten suggests the "aggressive" style of interviewing was made popular by former long-running host David Hanly, who "didn't tolerate much waffle".

On the other hand, he says some presenters can be very accommodating to politicians who are struggling to get their point across.

As an example, Naughten highlights former Renua TD Terence Flanagan's car crash interview with Mary Wilson on Drivetime.

"She could have wiped the floor with him but she didn't," he says.

The minister doesn't always agree with Ciaran Mullooly, who often reports on the Six One and Nine O'Clock News from Naughten's constituency - but says the reporter does give a rural balance to the station's often Dublin-focused reporting.

One issue that he does have with RTE is the format of interviews with ministers and TDs on some the station's popular TV and radio shows.

The Communications Minister would prefer to see more head-to-head debates on air rather than giving ministers or opposition politicians free rein in one-on-one interviews with presenters.

However, he says politicians are somewhat to blame for this scenario becoming the norm as they regularly turn down offers to take part in studio debates.

"When I started out in politics you'd have the minister and the key opposition person on and basically the presenter was the arbitrator between us, and I suppose the only one that does that now is The Last Word [on Today FM]."

"If you are a journalist trying to put forward the argument of the opposition spokesperson when you have the minister there, maybe when you actually agree with the minister, that can be a challenging thing for any of us," he adds.

Naughten does not believe there is a political bias or left-leaning agenda in RTE but did reveal that he was forced to take on the station over the coverage it gave to Independent candidates in the run-up to the recent General Election.

He says he "had this out with RTE" to ensure Independents get their "fair share of the cake".

"I felt there was an issue in relation to some of the Independents but when I actually sat down and went through it with RTE you could see where they were coming from and part of the problem was our own failure to get our own message across to RTE," he explains.

He believes one of the issues is that RTE researchers can call the press offices of the established political parties to get a representative on air - but when it comes to Independents they might have to make several calls.

He says there wasn't a "clear line of communication" with Independents before the election and RTE would call "some of the usual suspects" who they knew would come on air.

One briefing document he received on being appointed minister warned that RTE is facing a "serious funding battle".

Naughten wants to work with the station to address this funding gap. His main focus will be targeting the massive number of licence fee evaders who are costing the broadcaster around €40m a year in revenue.

The much-talked about broadcasting charge is not a runner for the time being, but Naughten is not ruling it out at a future date. He's also not ruling out an increase in the licence fee. If people want public service broadcasting, Naughten insists, they have to pay for it.

"You know there is a lot of it going on at the moment, a lot of very valuable programming and, personally, I know the focus for a lot of people out there is in relation to the likes of Love/Hate and current affairs [but] personally some of the most useful broadcasting service that I have come across is the Documentary on One and Curious Ear, [on Radio One]," he adds.

With Love/Hate season six due to air next year, Naughten admits the hugely popular show does "somewhat glorify" the life of drug gangs at time when criminals are running rampant across the city.

However, he says it also detailed the grim impact of a life of crime and adds that it is "entertainment at the end of the day".

Sunday Independent

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