Monday 27 January 2020

Little sign of gender discrimination at RTE, but the 'hideous' lack of diversity is obvious

The gender pay gap controversy is not the whole story. RTE has put many women in positions of power, writes David Davin-Power

Different roles: Bryan Dobson and Sharon Ni Bheolain.
Different roles: Bryan Dobson and Sharon Ni Bheolain.

David Davin-Power

RTE is a great organisation - I should know, I worked there long enough - but corporate communication has never been one of its strengths.

The controversy over gender equality and pay is a vivid illustration of a lack of preparedness for an entirely predictable query, following the well trailed publication of BBC salaries.

It was clear that the spotlight would fall on the pay packets of the anchors of the Six One news.

Bryan Dobson and Sharon Ni Bheolain were colleagues of mine for many years; they were, and remain, consummate professionals. But they do not do the same job.

On top of his duties in news, Bryan is the national broadcaster's anchor for election programmes and special events.

He is the go-to guy for the seat-of-the-pants rolling coverage at which he excels. It's a talent honed by many years of experience.

That's not to downplay the role played by Sharon, an excellent anchor in her own way who brings her own strengths to the news; it's just a fact.

It's also a fact that there is little sign of gender discrimination in RTE. The director general is a woman, as is the departing head of digital strategy. For many years, TV and then radio programmes were headed up by Clare Duignan. Many current affairs radio shows are produced by women. Two out of the three managing editors in news are women.

RTE should be proud of its record in rightly valuing women executives and producers.

And in front of the camera the evidence is clear, illustrated by Miriam O'Callaghan, Claire Byrne, Eileen Dunne, Aine Lawlor and many others.

You couldn't say that about other sections of the media, parts of which seem to be a cold house for women, if I may say so.

That's not to say that some don't feel undervalued in their role, but in broadcasting that's a fact of life for many men as well as women; I would be astonished if Kieran Mulvey finds any deliberate bias when he publishes his study.

That there should be equal pay for equal work is a truism in most industries.

But it gets a little muddy when you stray into the world of entertainment, ratings and talent.

That has been ignored in most of the commentary surrounding the pay row.

It's a shame that the controversy has diverted attention from real shortcomings in RTE.

For instance, the plight of researchers and journalists on short-term contracts that offer no security, a situation which the media rightly decries in other areas.

Many of those inside and outside RTE who called for the gender imbalance to be investigated seem blind and deaf to the situation faced by some of their colleagues in this position.

Then there's the glaring lack of racial diversity on air and in the broadcaster generally.

It's 16 years since then BBC director-general Greg Dyke branded his organisation "hideously white". He did something about it, as we can see on our screens.

Ireland has become dramatically more diverse in recent years. As Taoiseach Leo Varadkar noted last Friday, Ireland is now a country that is home to 800,000 people who were not born here, who make up over 17pc of the population: you wouldn't know it to watch or listen to RTE.

In fairness, Noel Curran, as director general, acknowledged that, lamenting that efforts to bring about change had failed. Since then there's no sign of an improvement, or of the long-awaited Diversity Strategy.

It's clear that some kind of affirmative action is long overdue.

The gender pay row prompted RTE to fast-track releasing the pay of the top earners in a way that conflated the two issues; the casual observer might now think that the broadcaster employed a handful of overpaid stars supported by a reserve army of wage slaves suffering savage gender discrimination.

It's true that it is hard to justify the size of some of the pay packets, given that the audience approximates to that of Greater Manchester. The standard defence is that the rewards are needed to retain talented staff, but the fact remains there has only been one high profile defection to the private sector in recent times

As veteran RTE executive Wesley Boyd observed, the issue of pay at the top is a relatively recent phenomenon. It's not so long ago there was only one high earner, and as Gay Byrne will tell you, any increment he secured was hard won.

Pay began to scale up in the 1990s, when agents came on the scene, their arrival coinciding with that of a cohort of RTE executives who thought of themselves as impresarios rather than line managers.

The scene was then set for silly money for some people.

The worst excesses of those days are behind RTE, but the pay genie will never fully return to the bottle.

All that said, RTE has proved a bulletproof brand enjoying respectable approval ratings amid the inevitable grumbles.

But the waters ahead are choppy and the station would want to show itself more sure-footed in heading off unwanted and potentially damaging controversies.

David Davin-Power is the former political correspondent of RTE

Sunday Independent

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