Fionnuala O Connor: RTÉ row a tale of hames and hubris

The north-eastern corner of the island has neither functioning politics nor anything remotely as lively as RTÉ, fallen as the station is through poor governance.

What the Republic has that Northern Ireland does not – apart from a booming (and painfully unequal) economy and a more successful education system – is now blazing out of the Dáil.

Best ever home-produced television, say square-eyed citizens, while politicians quiz ‘the national broadcaster’ management.

No doubt at least a few tribunes of the people enjoy distracting voters from the cruel shortage of housing. Drug addicts shoot up in Dublin streets, gardaí telling reporters the best they can do is move them on. Last Sunday’s Independent found those anonymous voices but in the same issue chiefly boasted 10 columnists on RTÉ to feed popular demand.

Read more:

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  • Fionnuala O Connor: The quality of mercy
  • Fionnuala O Connor: Reflections on outrage old and new

The station’s conduct, woes and stars regularly provide other media with colour. Many think that presenters becoming more important than content was a path that led, straight or crooked, to today’s downfall. All the same, stuff happening beats stagnation.

BBC NI is a mere offshoot of a UK institution; budgets squeezed, staffing duly sliced. Voters lack a general identification with local broadcasting. The north-western corner identified with Radio Foyle, scalped with only local protest.

Ian Knox cartoon 4/7/23
Ian Knox cartoon 4/7/23 Ian Knox cartoon 4/7/23

Education correspondent and also RTÉ’s NUJ representative Emma O’Kelly, interviewed by Belfast about the fees scandal, made her points well and inserted a word of support for Foyle, an early berth.

She also wrote vividly in the Sindo about RTÉ staffers trying to make programmes on a shoestring while senior management made trips to Japan for the Rugby World Cup and attended U2 concerts with corporate advertisers. All this while, she noted, while money couldn’t be found to fix a broken landline in An Daingean’s Raidió na Gaeltachta station.

RTÉ staff take part in a protest at the broadcaster's headquarters in Donnybrook, Dublin
RTÉ staff take part in a protest at the broadcaster's headquarters in Donnybrook, Dublin RTÉ staff take part in a protest at the broadcaster's headquarters in Donnybrook, Dublin

All-Ireland audiences have watched open-mouthed this past week and a half as RTÉ high-ups make eejits of themselves in front of one Dáil committee after another.

In the north-east the mirth is tinged with envy. Citizens of the Republic complain about RTÉ as Dublin-centred, smug. Not ‘the state broadcaster’; public service broadcaster, family. You can complain about family while holding them close; they’ve got your back.

It is also part of daily life; trusted with news and warnings on big stuff like the Covid pandemic, vaccines, lockdowns.

In the island’s top-right corner, those permanently alienated from ‘Radio Ulster’ have a soft spot for ‘the national broadcaster’, following it with something like nostalgia as if listening to their own past while also sometimes fuming that their loyalty is not returned. "Where are we on the weather map?"

In this last while there has also been the aggravation, as an insider complains, of RTÉ vying with itself to broadcast GAA, "for example a couple of brilliant hurling matches lost" to joint RTÉ/GAA streaming service GAAGO.

The bonds of co-workers across Irish media are strong. BBC reporters Vincent Kearney and Conor Macauley were a touching sight picketing in solidarity with the mass staff protest in Dublin outside their Belfast RTÉ office. Across the street political scientist David McCann, now a BBC NI regular, told a programme he grew up watching the Late Late with his parents, loved the Toy Show. He was describing RTÉ’s place in many northern homes.

RTÉ presenter Ryan Tubridy
RTÉ presenter Ryan Tubridy RTÉ presenter Ryan Tubridy

Jaws hitting the floor this past week belong to a particular northern demographic, upper middle-aged and older. Though the comparatively youthful Patrick Kielty has a northern draw that Ryan Tubridy could never have. Having announced his own pay deal promptly and with apparent candour, Kielty is an imaginative hire who may even escape the backlash over salary levels.

But the times are badly disjointed, pleas for an increased licence fee doomed, while the advertising that sustained the two-pronged funding dries up.

‘The Talent’ demanded ludicrous fees while ‘ordinary’ staff, often under-paid and on barely-existing contracts, helped make presenters look good. On top of work on news and current affairs. Ain’t it all a bleedin' shame.