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Moya Doherty and the precarious triumph of nothingness at RTÉ

Moya Doherty – together with her husband John McColgan – is best known for founding Riverdance, the show that put a modern twist on traditional Irish dance. What began as the interval act during the 1994 Eurovision song contest ended up making Doherty one of the richest women in Ireland. The Sunday Times Rich List recently estimated the wealth of her and her husband at a cold €86m.

Great, certainly, but not a clear template for a national broadcaster
Great, certainly, but not a clear template for a national broadcaster

Following the enormous commercial and cultural success of Riverdance, Doherty was formally admitted to full platinum-card membership of Ireland’s Great and Good. So she got to sit on a number of boards of directors including the Dublin International Theatre Festival (which she chaired for seven years) and The Abbey Theatre. She was also a founding director of radio station, Today FM.

She has also received numerous awards and accolades over the years, including the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year, the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award and Honorary Doctorates from the University of Ulster and from the National University of Ireland in recognition of her ongoing commitment to the business of the arts in Ireland.

Following earlier careers in RTÉ, Doherty and her husband established Tyrone Productions. It’s now one of Ireland’s leading TV production companies. For many years she was a director of the company. But when Communications Minister (at the time of writing we’re still waiting for him to go away you know) Alex White nominated Doherty to chair the board of RTÉ, Doherty gave up her Tyrone directorship.

In part, that resignation was to avoid any conflict of interest, as Tyrone Productions does a lot of business with RTÉ. But, in part, it would have been to allow Doherty to concentrate on an RTÉ job that imports very considerable challenges.

In a recent Sunday Independent article titled “50 influential women over 50”, Doherty was quoted saying “The 50s are a strange time for a woman, both physically and emotionally – a junction when you look both ways, to the past and the future”. It’s the same at RTÉ. The organisation looks backwards to its traditions and the legacy of its founders but it must look forward to a Brave New World where the role of national broadcasters is under severe pressure.

The national broadcaster is widely perceived to have done an excellent job marking the 1916 centenary with historical documentaries and drama-documentaries combined with live coverage of set-piece commemoration events. But that’s essentially a throwback to its original role as national broadcaster. RTÉ’s problem is that it faces fundamental challenges to the role.

Moya Doherty
Moya Doherty

It was all so different when Moya Doherty first left Pettigo, County Donegal, and large swathes of Ireland could only access one broadcaster. Today, satellite television and broadband mean that RTÉ’s rivals can broadcast into Ireland without difficulty. Moreover, specialist channels, that can use narrowcasting to chip away at different elements of RTÉ’s broadcasting audience, now proliferate.

RTÉ must face massive threats from the likes of TV3 and Sky Sports – as more and more key events are bought up by commercial operations, and Youtube and Netflix, and people’s screen-time increasingly derives from the internet and new entities that may not have even existed a decade ago.

RTÉ’s own annual report shows that its share of total TV viewership dropped from 27.7% in 2014 to 27.0% a year later. Meanwhile TAM Ireland’s survey of viewership habits in 2015 showed that only 80% of all audio-visual content is viewed on a TV set at home.

A key focus of the national broadcaster is to protect its status as the main recipient of the TV licence fee. In 2014, this constituted over half of RTE’s revenue.

Confronted with a drop in the proportion of people getting their audio-visual product from television, (Alex White’s predecessor as) Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte had floated the idea that the TV licence would be replaced by a household broadcasting charge. The idea that households would have to contribute to RTÉ whether they had a television or not was dreamt up in 2012.

Then protests over water charges erupted. That prompted Alex White to say that the switch from TV licence to household charge would not be made until “public understanding and support” had been built. With water charges heading down the drain fast, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. So not only is RTÉ’s advertising revenue under pressure but so too is revenue from a licence which it describes as “not fit for purpose”.

Some fundamental questions arise for RTÉ concerning its TV-licence income. It may not be appreciated by many but nearly €30 out of every €160 paid for a TV licence actually goes to subsidise RTÉ radio services, with over €35 going to RTÉ 2 to allow us watch such cultural jewels as ‘Friends’ and ‘Home and Away’.

RTÉ is vulnerable to the charge that the licence is used as a slush fund to prop up the station regardless of whether any real public interest is in play. This apparent pretence makes RTÉ doubly vulnerable to a sceptical or incisive Minister for Communications. It goes a long way to explain the consistently deferential tone the station displays to the government of the day and to the country’s other governing interests.

Whatever about its public service mandate, RTÉ did succeed last year in broadcasting 15 of the 20 most-watched TV programmes. Its bouncy Late, Late Toy Show headed the table. But the three next most-viewed programmes were all Rugby World Cup matches broadcast by TV3, which had outbid RTÉ for the right to broadcast something it had always held close to its bosom in the past. Frighteningly for RTÉ, TV3 has now secured the broadcasting rights for rugby’s Six Nations Championship from 2018 to 2021.

When one looks down the list of 2015’s 20 most popular programmes, it’s notable that 12 were sports events such as the All-Ireland Football Final (5th place) and several Euro 2016 soccer qualifying matches (7th and 8th). But now Sky Sports has got its wide-ranging foot in the door with broadcasting rights for several GAA matches, while RTÉ has to share coverage of this summer’s Euro 2016 finals with commercial rival TV3.

At the same time, the mainstreaming of satellite broadcasting and of the internet means that RTÉ’s traditional role as the national curator and presenter of top-notch foreign series is now largely redundant. So Sky Atlantic will broadcast the sixth series of its successful ‘Game of Thrones’ (partly filmed in Northern Ireland) without needing RTÉ to transmit the series locally. The same goes for Netflix and its ‘House of Cards’ series.

It’s therefore pretty remarkable that RTÉ doesn’t seem to have a formal strategy to counter these fundamental threats. Instead, at the start of its annual report, we get a recital of RTÉ’s “vision, mission and values statement”. That statement is a long list of anodyne bromides such as, “deliver the most trusted, independent, Irish news service, accurate and impartial, for the connected age” and “provide the broadest range of value for money, quality content and services for all ages, interests and communities”. Nothing really.

In any event listing vague goals is not the same as coming up with a focussed strategy.

It’s also odd that RTÉ’s goals were set out by its Director-General, Noel Curran. One would have thought that RTÉ’s board – chaired of course by Doherty – rather than its senior executive, would determine the organisation’s vision and values. And it’s damning that the first item in RTÉ’s mission is to “deliver the most trusted, independent, Irish news service” when one considers the number and seriousness of recent foul-ups emanating from the station’s coverage current affairs.

RTÉ was criticised by Broadcasting Authority of Ireland investigator Anna Carragher for showing “groupthink” in its disastrous 2011 ‘Prime Time Investigates’ programme that defamed Father Kevin Reynolds. In the same year, we suffered the infamous undiverted tweet that derailed the campaign of entrepreneurial presidential hopeful, Sean Gallagher. RTÉ later apologised to Gallagher following an independent report but that wasn’t sufficient to stop his legal action against the broadcaster, currently before the courts. The Panti Bliss apology was also craven and mishandled so it managed to inflame progressives who supported the trans icon without even boosting conservatives who felt vilified and sidelined.

The Reynolds case was especially instructive regarding RTÉ’s corporate governance arrangements. In a revealing interview with Shane Coleman of Newstalk, Moya Doherty’s predecessor as chair of the RTE board, Tom Savage, revealed that no report had been made to the RTÉ board about the controversy until September, four months after the programme went out and three months after legal action had been initiated against the station.

The board was only informed in the same month that the High Court heard that DNA tests showed that Father Reynolds could not have been the father of the woman in question. It was only as the matter approached the High Court that the station’s directors were notified of the disaster about to break.

The strong impression from the management of the Reynolds defamation case and the fact that RTÉ’s senior executive – rather than its board – set out its vision, mission and values statement is that the RTÉ board may be an ornamental tribute laid at the altar of good corporate governance rather than a body dedicated to effective public accountability.

Communications Minister (and former RTÉ producer) Alex White appointed Riverdance founder (and former RTÉ producer) Moya Doherty to hold RTÉ to public account. What could possibly go wrong?

Although he never had the privilege of actually meeting Moya Doherty, George Orwell anticipated her RTÉ appointment perfectly when he wrote that “The essence of oligarchical rule is not father-to-son inheritance, but the persistence of a certain world-view and a certain way of life … A ruling group is a ruling group so long as it can nominate its successors … Who wields power is not important, provided hat the hierarchical structure remains always the same”.

One can see the advantage to White of this manoeuvre: a woman with proven success in the broadcasting world is appointed to assure the public that things are in safe hands at Ireland’s public-sector broadcaster.

However, in a long career Moya Doherty has never offered any insight into her view of public affairs or even the media. An article by her in the Irish Times suggests above all she considers:
“The value of the unspoken thought is lost. I think that the qualities of honesty and integrity and loyalty were almost lost, and I value them hugely. I love people who can keep a secret”.

Dee Forbes
Dee Forbes

In terms of vision and values it is not clear why former RTÉ producer Alex White appointed her. Can-do and competent entrepreneurialism seem to figure high in the recruitment process in all Ireland’s semi-State arenas but in RTÉ in particular – from PR doyen Savage through Doherty to her protégé as Director General, Dee Forbes.

Doherty can comfort herself with the legacy of presiding over the appointment of the station’s first female director-general. Forbes is currently President and Managing Director of Discovery Networks Northern Europe. Doherty commented publicly on the appointment saying that it would mark “a significant moment in the development of RTÉ. Not only is this the first Director General in almost 50 years to be appointed externally, but she will also be the first female to hold the role”.

The man who’s leaving early to vacate the DG’s position, Noel Curran, stated in RTÉ’s 2014 annual report that “I can now say with confidence that our strategy is working”. But this assertion is doubly disquieting. If it’s so clearly succeeding, why the need to state that RTÉ’s strategy is working? More importantly, there are many indications in its annual report that RTÉ’s strategy isn’t working as staff in the organisation might hope.

For example, it is admitted that, “since 2008, RTÉ has reduced its annual operating cost base by almost €130 million or 29%”. For RTÉ staff who were required to do more with less, It might be some small comfort if RTÉ was commercially successful and jobs therefore more secure as a result of staff sacrifice. But the annual report admits that “RTÉ returned a breakeven result in 2014 for the second year, in line with 2013 results”.

So after taking a scythe to costs and with the Irish economy generating strong economic growth, RTÉ could only manage to break even. What will RTÉ’s results look like if the economy turns down again, as it surely must at some point? And how long will pass before RTÉ’s employees and contractors are once more asked to do more with less?

There may not be an awful lot that RTÉ can do to break the fall in its market share as more viewers switch to foreign channels and to internet-based services. But one area where RTÉ could seek reform is Ireland’s draconian defamation laws. As he departs RTÉ, Noel Curran has a unique opportunity to speak freely on the topic without fear of any immediate, institutional repercussion.

Is it not farcical that his organisation agreed to pay damages to a number of people who felt they had been wronged by having the word ”homophobic” attributed to them. And is it not an example of how the legal protection of an individual’s constitutional right to their “good name” has been exaggerated to grotesque levels?

It is surely time to consider amending Article 40.1.3.2. Would it not be better if our law protected only a person’s right to be “treated fairly” rather than undeservedly assuming that we all start with a “good name”? Is it likely that Noel Curran will make such a call for constitutional change. Certainly his predecessor (Cathal Goan) and Moya Doherty’s (Savage) did not feel the need to expatiate on concern when they left office.

It’s hard to avoid the impression that, like many state agencies, RTÉ was set up with noble ideals of public service but that it’s now fallen under the control of time-servers whose primary aim seems not so much public service as bureaucratic aggrandisement and self-advancement.

That a vision-free sense of entitlement may be a problem is perhaps suggested by a recent profile of Forbes in the Sunday Times, describing her as, “fun, funny and fearless”, and quoting the views of a former colleague: “I think she’s earned the right to do a job that is closer to her heart. She did the top job at Turner; the top job at Discovery. Now she’s got the top job in Ireland”.

Moya Doherty’s visionless chairmanship is no accident.