From top: Chair of the RTÉ Board Moya Doherty (right) and RTÉ Director General Dee Forbes; Marian Finucance
Chairwoman of the RTÉ Board Moya Doherty was interviewed by Marian Finucane in regards to the financial situation facing the State broadcaster.
Ms Doherty spoke about “transformation”, “strategy” and “being nimble”.
She also raised the water charges protests.
During the interview Ms Finucane informed Ms Doherty that she had attempted to watch an item on the RTÉ Player three times on Friday night before giving up – because, after playing a stream of ad, it cut out.
It follows the Director-General of RTÉ Dee Forbes telling Mary Wilson on RTÉ’s Drivetime on Thursday night that the RTÉ Player is going to be a “huge part” of RTÉ’s future and that, in five years’ time, the player will be “more important to a certain generation of people than RTÉ One or RTÉ Two”.
From Ms Doherty’s interview…
Marian Finucane: “I’m joined this morning by Moya Doherty who’s chairwoman of the RTÉ Board. Now you wrote an opinion piece Moya, in the paper [The Irish Times] about the licence fee. And you’re talking about the responsibility of the Government.
“But what about, ultimately, the responsibility of the executive board and the authority.”
Moya Doherty: “Good morning, good afternoon actually, Marian and thank you for inviting me in this morning. I think it’s important to contextualise what has happened in the last week and what has been happening for months and years within public service media globally.
“There is contestant change and it will be in a constant state of reform. It is impossible to predict where public crevice media will exist in five years let alone 10 years. What our job is, as a board, and as an executive is to ensure that the infrastructure is right, the funding is right, the skills are contemporary and flexible to meet the rapid change.”
Finucane: “But with the kindest will in the world, there’s little evidence of that. I mean, obviously, as the authority and the chair, it is your responsibility to support the executive but I’ve, we hear people talking about public service broadcasting, public service broadcasting, where’s our destination?”
Doherty: “Well, I mean, I think Marian nobody has a crystal ball around destination. The cataclysmic change in the industry globally is quite frightening. Right across the media, people are losing jobs. It is painful, it is incredibly difficult but we cannot not change. You stand still and you are history.
“So, just let me clarify firstly the role of the board. It used to be called the authority, it’s now the board.”
Doherty: “The board is nominated and appointed by Government. It is not the job of the board to do the role of the RTE Executive. It is the job of the board to represent Government, to stand over the Broadcasting Act of 2009, which is a dinosaur piece of legislation at this time, which cripples the organisation…”
Finucane: “In what way?”
Doherty: “In terms of the commitments it puts on to the organisation when the funding isn’t there to meet those commitments. So that indeed needs to be looked at. So I think that, and also our most important person in the room are the people you are speaking to out there. The audience.”
Finucane: “Absolutely. Yeah.”
Doherty: “They ultimately own public service media. They are ultimately the ones who need to know in five years’ time where their solid, truthful sense of news and current affairs will come from. That is the most important thing.”
Finucane: “Well I want to go into a lot of individual detail but let’s stick with the broad brush for the moment. If you say that there is no crystal ball, the truth is that the internet is not new anymore.
“And if you take youngsters – we had a group in on one of our Sunday programmes and I think to a man or a woman, none of their children watch television in the way, in the old-fashioned way that people sat down to watch The Late Late Show years ago. It just doesn’t happen. And they choose different ways to find their media.
“And we seem to have. Well I shouldn’t say we because I’m not involved in it. But the organisation, even down to one detail like the [RTÉ] Player.
“I mean if you want to look back at something that was on Channel 4 that you missed, or watch something here that you missed or something that was on American…you can get it.
“I tried three times last night to get something on the Player and it wouldn’t work. All I could get were ads. The ads would finish and then I couldn’t get back into the programme. So I mean I don’t want to diss the people that are working with it. I don’t know what resources they have. I don’t know what support they’ve got. But that’s a huge part of the way people are going to look at product anymore.”
Doherty: “There is no doubt and that has to be improved and it is being improved. And it’s very much the focus of the DG [Dee Forbes] and the executive to do that. This is an organisation that has been starved of funding for a long, long time.
“The last increase in the broadcasting licence fee was 2008. There was no money to spend on infrastructure, upgrading systems that are tired and old.
“The selling of the RTÉ land has allowed that to happen, that investment is now being made. And also Marian, this organisation has been here for a long time. And when you are approaching this and the Director General is approaching change and reform, it’s not just reform, it’s transformation. You’re dealing with…”
Finucane: “To what?”
Doherty: “To dealing with…”
Finucane: “To what?”
Doherty: “A modern, efficient media service.”
Finucane: “And what does that look like?”
Doherty: “That looks like being available on all platforms, having a truth, having a good editorial control and having an efficient work practice model that can be nimble and swift and get our messaging.
“And the messaging out there to the public on all social media and other platforms. To enhance what is on the Player, to enhance an investment in drama and comedy. To give content to an audience, to an Irish audience, to hold an Irish voice. We don’t want stand back and let Netflix and Sky and all the myriad of others come in and dilute the Irish voice.”
Finucane: “Well they are doing it anyway?”
Doherty: “Well we have to fight back against that and that’s what this transformation is doing.”
Finucane: “But it seems to me that I don’t still have a picture of what you’re talking about in transformation. And it seems to me that the other day, at a meeting that I didn’t attend cause I’m not staff in here – there was a big lack of confidence in the management and in your good selves, I suppose as well, in terms of leadership.”
Doherty: “Well I’m sorry to hear that, I think the way this story was leaked was, was shocking….”
Finucane: “How was it leaked?”
Doherty: “I have no idea. A very small number of people had access to that document so I think it shouldn’t be too hard to ask the hard questions. I think it was deeply disrespectful but let’s talk…”
Finucane: “Mind you, we operate on leaks.”
Doherty: “Yes, you do. And let’s talk out Marian, rather than in. This is important. It’s very important, of course, to understand, and I worked in this organisation and I understand the commitment that people have here, the relationships they form, the work that they do, the families that they support but we must make this organisation fully sustainable and fiscally break even for the future. That is our job, as the Board, to do that.”
Doherty: “We cannot do that without Government. What I’m going to do today is…”
Finucane: “Can I just cut across you there when you say sustainable because the minister was on, on Morning Ireland during the week and she was saying about that with the money that was paid in salaries that were higher than the president of the United States, that this was not a sustainable model. And that RTÉ better get its act together on that.
“And clearly I had been alerted to this. I got a call beforehand to say that they were going to ask to cut so I said ‘of course’. I didn’t engage on that. But I just wanted to get that in so…”
Finucane: “…I’m not seen to duck it in anyway.”
Doherty: “No, and we are aware, Marian, that the top earners in RTÉ will now, with this 15 per cent pay cut and the previous 30 per cent, have taken an overall 45 per cent pay cut. That is substantial.”
Finucane: “Yes, but people, I presume on very, very modest salaries will say ‘well, tough bananas’, you know. And for sure they will.”
“And I mean somebody made the point that Dee’s [Forbes] car allowance [€25,000 a year, on top of a salary of €250,000 and pension contributions of €63,000] is more than some of the staff in here are paid.”
Doherty: “I don’t have that detail. But I do think that we must take this out of the granular. The executive will look very closely at the granular and deal with the unions and make all of these incremental changes for the future survival and protection of jobs in the public service media.”
Finucane: “Well are 200 jobs going to go?”
Doherty: “That is, I’m not at an operational level. The chair and the board do not get involved in the operational level.”
Finucane: “But you know about it?”
Doherty: “We know that the management must now start discussion with union [sic] to improve and modernise work practices and make efficiencies.”
Finucane: “Like what?”
Doherty: “You look at the organisation the way, even the geography of the organisation. It’s on this lovely, leafy plot. We’ve got radio miles away from television. We’ve got the canteen in between, we’ve got management sitting up in the admin building.
“They very physical movement of people into the one space because we no longer have radio, television and digital. They are all one.
“So Dee will be grouping people together. They will be sharing skills, learning new skills and getting messages and stories and content out their quicker to a broader audience.”
Finucane: “The notion of land. I mean there was a certain criticism from [Fianna Fáil leader] Mícheál Martin who was saying, as you say, you’re selling off the family silver and you got the money, it was a good, substantial sum of money. But it’s kind of nearly gone now. I mean €30million is a fair chunk of change. But not in the context of what we’re talking about.”
Doherty: “No but the investment has been in HD, has been in studios, in upgrading technology, in putting in new IT systems, in training people to be digital savvy. The money is very well spent.
“And every single penny is signed off by at least ten people, right up to chair level. So we watch that money very carefully and it has been well invested. And it is not money that can be put into content. So money has to come somewhere for content because without content RTÉ is nothing. And I think…”
Finucane: “But the simple fact of the matter is that they’re not going to give you any more money. I mean the Taoiseach said he would but, more or less, once you’ve got your act together. Mr [Richard] Bruton said five years from now.
“And I think someone said at the meeting the other day, five years from now, the place could be shut down.”
Doherty: “Oh, well, absolutely. I mean the five years from now [to receive more money] is just not acceptable. I think, there is an absence of understanding of the acceleration of the acceleration of this industry.
“And I think what I would like to call on Government to do today is to lead the national debate on the future of public service media. Because I believe most listeners will be concerned where they get their news and current affairs from now.
“And also, Marian, the BBC has done this very successfully. The BBC, with Ofcom, has set up with Government a debate in the UK which is called ‘small screen, big debate’.
“I urge the leaders in Government to be visionary and to start that debate.
“And in this country, there lives, in the west of Cork, a man who has written hugely about public service media, Lord David Putman.
“The Government should hire Lord David Putman to run ‘smalls screens, big debate’. And allow all of us to collaborate and to participate in what is the best for the future of public service media in Ireland.”
Finucane: “I certainly thought it was interesting, in the Brexit debate in Britain. Where not 100 per cent but pretty damn close to 100 per cent, 95 per cent, of the print media was described by one particular person as weaponised. And, now that obviously didn’t happen with the BBC because they wouldn’t, they’d have to be more balanced.
“But maybe it is important to think through where you get your sources of information and how trustworthy they are because some of those papers lied. Simple as.”
Doherty: “Of course. They did lie.
“And I was deeply disappointed to read about tensions between the board and the executive. I stood shoulder to shoulder with the Director-General [Dee Forbes] as did many of my board colleagues at the staff meeting. Of course there is robust debate, of course there are deep and meaningful discussions but there is no split.
“We support Dee and her team 100 per cent.”
Finucane: “Because it was figured that there was great tension between you?”
Doherty: “You know what, Marian? There’s an extraordinary piece here around two women. One woman chair [Doherty] and one woman DG [Dee Forbes]. There always seems to be the desire to create the story that there’s tension.”
Finucane: “Well, there could be.”
Doherty: “I’m telling you there isn’t.”
Finucane: “You’re telling me that there isn’t. What concrete things? Lyric [FM] is going to leave Limerick, closing Lyric. Now if you worked in Limerick and Lyric, and you hear on the radio, that it’s being closed down and you’ve kids at school and you’ve a mortgage. What’s to do?”
Doherty: “Marian, we’ve discussed this already. The shock of the way this information was released to staff is despicable but we have got to lift above this now and work together to create a sustainable future.
“I don’t know that our listeners want to hear too much about the minutiae detail within RTÉ. They want to know we can be nimble, efficient, use their money well to get the stories across and have a place in Irish life going forward. Not just…”
Finucane: “But they don’t want to pay for it?”
Doherty: “Well, actually, quite a few of them do pay for it. But. What has been allowed is that, firstly, we have the most expensive collection fee system in Europe. Why? Why do we pay €12million to have our licence collected poorly? Why do we not have a better database? Why don’t Government look at think television is now a large, old screen on somebody’s wall?
“We need to look at other ways because so many people are now downloading and taking RTÉ content…”
Doherty: “On their screens and they should pay for that. So we have to work together with Government to find the best way possible to do that. And actually I feel very sorry for those who do pay and do stay within the law and pay their licence fee and are allowed, by Government and others, to have a vast swathe of people to allow 25 million pounds a year bleed out under the door that could be used for content.”
Finucane: “And this investment that you’re talking about.”
Finucane: “I know that the listener is interested in the bigger picture and is probably not concerned but I imagine they are very concerned for somebody below in Limerick. What do you do?”
Doherty: “Everybody is concerned. That will be worked out, Marian. Change is painful. Transformation is painful. And everybody understand that. But we have got to cut the cost base.
“I sit at board, we cannot continue to sanction the deficits that currently exist.”
Finucane: “Somebody was just saying to me there that on communication, that RTÉ has started using a private company to issue information.”
Doherty: “Well, that’s not true. Let me tell you. RTÉ Board has. Now. Again. Let me emphasise the board is an independent body. This is a crisis of enormous magnitude. We are signing of, we, the board, we’re signing off on a strategy, delivered by the RTÉ executive and costed by RTÉ.
“We are only doing our job by bringing in outsiders to assist us and stress test the figures, stress test the plan. That is our job because we are responsible to Government and to the Irish people for that. And we would not be doing our job properly.”
Finucane: “I was listening to my colleague, Philip [Boucher Hayes] was on the other day with Mary Wilson, trying to get details, I suppose, of where the cuts would come, how it had been priced, all of that kind of thing and there were an enormous number of things for which he couldn’t get an answer.
“You know? How did RTÉ get itself into this mess in the first place? What’s the answer to that?”
Doherty: “Oh, eh. The answer to that is two-fold: Dramatic change in the way we communicate and take information. That is global, Marian. For goodness sake.
“And I really wish, look at even Trump’s America has public service media. For Ireland, not to have public service…”
Finucane: “Well that’s supported in a different way. That’s nearly philanthropic.”
Doherty: “Yeah, well yes. But still it exists. And it is protected. We need to protect public service media here. The licence fee increase. No licence fee increase for all those years, no engagement at Government level, to help, support to move forward. They are responsible for the Broadcasting Act. They are responsible or the licence fee.
“Unless we can work together, this organisation will not survive.”
Finucane: “But, but, but. You know that there will be a general election next year and you witnessed what happened in the water payments debacle. Do you think any politician, any politician – actually I heard Eamon Ryan [of Green Party] in fairness, I heard Eamon Ryan on the other day saying there should be a household charge for the reasons that you mention. In other words, that people are downloading material that they’re not paying for.
“But Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, People Before Profit – any of those?”
Doherty: “Well, Marian, other countries in Europe have managed to fix their collection method. I don’t see why RTÉ should be the outlier here.
“And actually, on the water charges, how extraordinary that twice in the last two weeks we have a boil water notice and we have buckets of rain falling from the sky?”
Finucane: “Well they are very good questions but I’m not going to go into those particular ones now.”
Later – after Ms Finucane asked Ms Doherty “what does that mean?” when she said RTÉ should not compete commercially but, instead, “be unique” and “have it’s own voice”…
Doherty: “Who is going to do the story, like, take that wonderful Nationwide programme going around the country. What other commercial organisation is going to deliver that programme? What other commercial organisation is going to ask the hard facts about housing, the medical system? Who else is going to do, to spend a lot of money on investigative programmes if the public service media isn’t given the support to do that?”
Finucane: “Well, I mean, I presume the Newstalk people are listening to this and thinking we do a lot of this stuff.”
Doherty: “Of course they do but they’re not obliged under the 2009 Broadcasting Act to deliver what RTÉ is obliged to deliver.”
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