Noel Curran’s FuJo Lecture: Action Needed for Irish Public Broadcasting

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Noel Curran, RTÉ’s outgoing director general, delivered a pointed talk in DCU on the future funding of public broadcasting in Ireland. He was invited to deliver the FuJo lecture to mark his contribution to Irish media and his appointment as DCU adjunct professor of journalism.

To open his talk, Mr Curran contextualised the current position of RTÉ in terms of the economic recession which left many people “scarred, tired and angry” and “disillusioned with the institutions and political parties they hold responsible”. He said leading RTÉ through this period has been particularly challenging while maintaining fairness and giving space to political diversity requires constant attention from the public broadcaster.

He said RTÉ has had to adjust to economic conditions with job losses, pay cuts and cutbacks while also adjusting to rapidly changing media environment. Describing the “immediate feedback loop” of social media opinion, he noted that Facebook and Twitter have no interest in frontline reporting while resources for reporting have greatly reduced among news organisations.

“Quality, breadth and depth all cost money, money that media organisations are increasingly finding it difficult to generate. … What [Facebook and Twitter] don’t do is precisely what RTÉ and others engaged in quality journalism do.”

Considering the current strength of public service media, he stressed that much has been achieved in terms of reshaping schedules and digital offerings. After years of falling market share, RTÉ Radio 1 will soon have a share of 25% nationally and 33% in Dublin. Revamped versions of RTÉ.ie and RTÉ Player are due this year. The RTÉ News Now app is the most downloaded in the country and a new channel strategy for TV has been launched adding RTEjr and an Irish-language action plan – part of a wider diversity plan.

Despite these developments, Mr Curran outlined substantial challenges in terms of the public funding model and audience fragmentation. Regarding the latter, he noted that while the majority still watch live TV, the rise of non-live viewing complicates funding because “commercial income from digital remains a fraction of overall commercial income”. At the same time, increased competition among channels is driving prices down.

In particular, he identified four major structural problems facing RTÉ which, he said, require action on the part of government and cooperation among Irish media organisations:

Broken systems for regulation and the licence fee

While the 2009 Broadcasting Act established the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), Mr Curran argued that it created a complex system of regulation in which BAI recommendations are consistently ignored. In particular, the BAI’s numerous recommendations to increase RTÉ’s public funding have been disregarded. Instead, Mr Curran noted that public funding to RTÉ has been cut by over €15m since 2010. Such policy decision-making, he argued, requires an independent review; particularly given RTÉ’s financial dependence on the politicians it has to critically scrutinise. He noted that RTÉ is left to begin a new five-year planning cycle but, without clear funding policy, the process lacks credibility and purpose.

“It is very difficult to see how a public media organisation like RTÉ  is not going to ruffle some political feathers. How is that same organization going to then persuade the body politic that it needs broadcasting policy changes?”

Regarding the licence free, he stressed that RTÉ is “not looking for a free ride” but that the current system is not fit for purpose. As Laura Slattery and Hugh Linehan summarise in their Irish Times report, “RTÉ was not seeking an increase in the amount paid by households but the replacement of the licence fee by a public service broadcasting charge, a change proposed and deferred twice by the last government.” Mr Curran also proposed engaging the whole content production industry in a way that could see RTÉ reduce its commercial content as well as sharing content with local commercial broadcasters and newspapers.

Cable retransmission fees

Current law in the UK and Ireland exempts satellite and cable providers from paying compensation to broadcasters like RTÉ for carrying their signals. In the US and other countries, retransmission fees have created a significant boost in income; especially amid the decline in advertising revenue. Mr Curran called for changes to the legislation to address the unfairness of the exemption and for the benefit all Irish broadcasters.

Impact of UK advertising distortion

As about 47 UK channels now sell Irish advertising, often at significant discounts, close to €50 million is taken out of the Irish television market each year. By depressing the price of advertising in Ireland below comparable UK rates, the issue affects all Irish media including newspapers. Mr Curran called on the government to find a meaningful way to respond to this market distortion.

 

Industry cooperation

To address the above issues, Mr Curran argued for the potential for “an Irish content producers approach”. He noted that RTÉ has been developing better relationships with Screen Producers Ireland and the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI) in order to explore joint-funding platforms and to press ministers for necessary sector reforms.

Mr Curran concluded his talk by reading an excerpt from a letter he received from Sheila Garvin Ryan; the sister of Mary Garvin who featured in the Prime Time Investigates programme “Inside Bungalow 3”. In the letter, Ms Garvin Ryan expressed thanks to the Prime Time team and RTÉ for changing “for the better the care and well being of people with intellectual disabilities all over the country.” Telling stories of consequence like ‘Inside Bungalow 3’, Mr Curran said, are what truly matter in programming and this is the ultimate rationale behind aggressively chasing commercial income, pressing for public money, and sometimes cutting costs to secure the future of content provision in difficult times.

“RTÉ must and will continue to find and tell stories of consequence and relevance, stories that touch and move people, stories that demand a response, and stories that seek to enrich and add to public debate and the vitality of our culture.”

 

After the talk, Dr Kevin Rafter, DCU School of Communications, posed questions about the whether the future of broadcasting is online and how a small broadcaster can position itself in a digital market. Mr Curran argued that the move away from traditional radio and TV consumption has not yet reached a tipping point for moving entirely digital but he noted that RTE is exploring more digital avenues including a BBC 3 style digital only channel.

In the Q&A sessions, Mr Curran answered questions about the role of commercial programming in public service broadcasting, ethnic diversity and politics.

Dee Forbes will take over as RTÉ Director General later this year.

Noel Curran has joined the Advisory Board of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism (FuJo) and has been appointed an adjunct professor of journalism in the DCU School of Communications.


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