Sunday 15 September 2019

Samantha McCaughren: 'The time for kid gloves in Montrose is over'

Has the day of reckoning arrived for RTE? Hard choices loom if money isn't available, writes Samantha McCaughren

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Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

RTE has spent well over two years pressing home the message that the organisation is in the depths of a financial crisis. And while director general Dee Forbes has warned of the urgency of the situation at the national broadcaster, she has refused to be drawn on the 'hard choices' that the group would face if extra funding were not forthcoming. However, the day of those hard choices being revealed is drawing close with an announcement on cuts due from RTE management next month.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) has been looking at RTE's pleas for extra money since 2017 when RTE first submitted two possible visions for the next five years. One version outlined by RTE envisaged a transformed organisation, reborn as a multi-media company thanks to a suggested funding boost of €55m per annum. A second version painted a bleak picture of an RTE with no extra income, mounting deficits and an inability to appeal to a young, digitally focused audience.

The Government has failed to deliver a funding fix - and a long sought-after media charge is at least five years off. So now RTE is in a review process finally to settle on those difficult decisions, some decisions RTE bosses clearly hoped they would never have to countenance.

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An analysis of RTE's plans by UK consultants Communications Chambers, submitted to the BAI last year and revealed in today's Sunday Independent, give the first insights into where RTE's knife is likely to cut.

Regional activities, sports content, special events and genres such as drama, education and religion would all face cuts, RTE indicated to the report's authors.

This would lead to something which would have been unthinkable even five years ago - the need for compulsory redundancies at the semi-state company.

While reports from both the consultants and the BAI criticise RTE for not giving enough detail on what would happen if no extra funding were to be secured, the message is clear.

"Without additional public funding, RTE will need to radically change or weaken its offering, and likely see further loss of reach and share," said the consultants. If RTE were forced to make such cuts, there would be a risk it would need support to cope with the political, union and audience fallout, it concluded. Therefore Communications Chambers and the BAI recommended more public funding.

But it now seems naive that RTE felt that a €55m boost to funding would ever be delivered by Government, even though RTE's suggestions included some practical measures such as a Revenue Commissioners-led crackdown on licence fee evasion.

The consultants outline some 'soft constraints' which have held RTE back from more severe financial cutbacks in the past. Chief among these is RTE's reluctance to use compulsory redundancy "which it believes would be damaging to industrial relations and staff enthusiasm".

The report says in RTE's view, staff goodwill has enabled pay restraint. Given RTE's financial position such policies now seem like a luxury it can ill afford.

In RTE's last round of voluntary redundancies up to 300 layoffs were targeted - only 160 or so were delivered.

The time for kid gloves is over.

Sunday Independent

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