Anger over the airwaves

IRELAND’S public sector broadcasters have got themselves into a terrible state and there is anger over the airwaves. In Northern Ireland questions are being asked about the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Nolan Show and the eye-watering sums paid to its presenter and his production company. The leading nationalist parties will not take part in his daily current affairs broadcast because they feel they are treated unfairly. This is a serious matter for the BBC must enjoy the confidence of all sections of society, those with a British outlook and those who prefer to be Irish.

The management also faces revolt from journalists and others over sweeping cut-backs at Radio Foyle, which provides a unique service to viewers and listeners in Derry City and spans the border into Donegal in the Republic. There is a strong sense of identity and community in Ulster’s northwest where people have rightly pointed the finger at Belfast and Dublin’s indifference to their opinions and shameful neglect in the allocation of resources.

The BBC management in Belfast also has questions to answer about how it treats women after settling complaints from two former members of staff, Lena Ferguson and Donna Traynor. They made serious allegations which painted a disturbing picture of a toxic culture at Ormeau Avenue headquarters. The undisclosed settlements mean details will never be aired in public and changes in policy and treatment of staff need not happen.

Journalists who work for BBC in Ireland will tell you of frustration about London’s attitude to the communities in Northern Ireland both unionist and nationalist. National news schedules give priority to events in England and ignore similar stories just because they take place across the Irish Sea in the smallest region of the United Kingdom. It is a reflection of the Anglo-centric nature of the UK itself and the political climate under a Conservative government at the mercy of English nationalists and Brexiteers. This is a shame because broadcasting has the power to encourage a ‘one nation’ mind-set which might bind together the English, Irish, Scots and Welsh.

There is a pressing need for greater transparency about spending and decision making at BBC Northern Ireland if the public is to have confidence in its delivery of news and current affairs. It is accountable to the people of the six counties and not a boardroom in London.

But the BBC’s problems are small when compared to its equivalent in the Republic. The behaviour of management at Raidió Teilifís Éireann in Dublin has been the subject of national debate for the past month and three separate enquiries by parliament some of them televised.

It has emerged that slush funds were topping up the salary of chat show host Ryan Tubridy and lavish hospitality was offered to key clients at concerts and sports events while executives were pleading with government for more cash and filling screens with repeats. Huge sums were squandered upon a stage musical which had nothing to do with RTÉ’s core function as state broadcaster. Director General Dee Forbes resigned and disappeared before she could be put in the spotlight and a pointless game of ‘who knew what and when’ has become a national pastime.

Frankly, the BBC’s Nolan has outlived its charmed life and the show should be replaced with something more substance than style, something that can command the respect of everybody. The proposed internal ‘content review’ is simply inadequate and will not satisfy those who feel treated unfairly. The management cannot justify spending millions of pounds on Stephen Nolan and with his production company while cutting back on services to loyal consumers living in border counties who face unique challenges making their voices heard to those who hold power and the purse strings.

Ryan Tubridy is indeed a popular and talented broadcaster but Ireland cannot afford the huge salary he seems to expect. Few believe he has been entirely honest about his remuneration package which involved sponsorship from a car company and ‘consultancy fees’ paid to his combative agent Noel Kelly. Some of Britain’s most popular and highest earning broadcasters have been Irish, Terry Wogan and Graham Norton, so there is opportunity for him to take his career to another level.

RTÉ needs root and branch reform if public trust is to be restored and government, which created unfair competition, must consider how it is funded if the broadcaster is to survive in a digital 21st century fast being dominated by American giants like Netflix and Disney. The current model is not working and the organisation has been struggling for years to compete with private companies who bid for advertising and talent without the heavy handcuffs of state scrutiny.

Media companies in the private sector answer to shareholders but public service broadcasters are funded from the licence fee and must answer to the public. Spending huge sums on salaries for ‘talent’ is not acceptable to most people. It would be better invested in quality entertainment and investigative journalism. Paddy Kielty made an important gesture when he revealed how much he will be paid for RTÉ’s Late, Late Show when he starts in September. Both of these important public sector institutions should follow his honourable example and I applaud his candour.

The only positive thing to emerge from this intense scrutiny of RTÉ and BBC NI is the consensus that public sector broadcasters still have an important role to play in Ireland’s future. They are an important part of democracy in both jurisdictions and have a wider role in bringing Irish affairs to the attention of the world. The relationship between the media and political worlds will always be fractious. The overwhelming majority of media organisations in Ireland are controlled by forces which have little or no public interest at heart and are driven solely by the profit motive, or in some cases, personal vanity.

A backbone of state sponsored media organisations, with a clearly defined public interest ethos, answerable to parliament and the people is vital for public discourse.

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