Meejit - Public service, RIP?

Never let it be said that your Meejit column doesn't try to get the facts for you so you can make up your own mind about stuff.  Harry Browne on the State broadcaster.

There I was talking to a veteran, respected RTÉ figure, and the matter of the State broadcaster's "1986 to 2006" promotional campaign came up in the conversation. What happened in 1986 to make that year the starting point for these posters and programme gimmicks?

"I have no idea," says he. "It seems entirely arbitrary."

And so it does, though one is tempted to wonder in light of recently announced changes if the dates somehow memorialise a 20-year period when the Radio One schedule was fairly stable. We will surely never see the likes of that again. Or perhaps, more subtly still, it's a rather nostalgic evocation of continuity in change, a reminder that it's not so long since the station was considerably more lightweight across the length of the day than it has become lately, with shorter news programmes, Gaybo prattling for longer than Tubridy, no daytime arts show, nothing like John Kelly and Vincent Browne in the evenings.

In short, this message might go: if Radio One is dumbing-down now, it's because it's smartened-up too much for the last 20 years.


RTÉ's corporate mentality

There is a real, grown-up argument to be had on this matter. On the one hand, since commercial radio (around in the State for not quite those 20 years) has generally offered ample light refreshment, shouldn't RTÉ provide a solid diet of more nourishing fare? But on the other hand, shouldn't a public service broadcaster serve the public what it apparently wants, especially since it has a part-commercial remit and gets hammered as an "irrelevant" and "out-of-touch" drain on the fee-payer every time its ratings tick down a percentage point or two?

Frankly, though, I suspect it gives the suits in RTÉ too much credit to suggest that the latest moves are the result of a deep and prolonged engagement with both sides of this argument. A corporate mentality has been well and truly installed in Montrose for years; with the wider society's ideological wind at its back, it will push its services as far in a commercial direction as it can, and that could be pretty far. RTÉ is often described as an entrenched institution, but who's really left in the public-service trenches?

It's understandable that RTÉ wouldn't want to go the way of American National Public Radio, with its tiny audience and elite pretensions. But Radio One's days as a national flagship are over, and with a proliferation of new services to come when digital radio (eventually) arrives, it seems absurd to cut off a great show like John Kelly's that should be the leading edge of such an evolution.


Occupation watch

The "1986" campaign is ostensibly about Ireland rather than RTÉ, of course. Having arrived here myself from New York in the autumn of 1985, I'm happy to be recognised as the catalyst for "dramatic change in the economy and society" yadda yadda yadda. Still, at least one aspect of the RTÉ campaign is unintentionally revealing about the political climate that produced it.

I'm thinking of the little "RTÉ 1986 to 2006" poster I've seen around Dublin, "Have we become a nanny state?" Horribly reminiscent of the Irish Times posters, with their banal "profundities" in question form, it at least offers a little pun about childcare developments, making it marginally less crassly stupid than the Times campaign.

But "nanny state"? Only the slogan's position, on those little ashtrays outside pubs, gives the question any plausibility at all, as a comment on the smoking ban. Otherwise, its use is simply indicative of how in thrall RTÉ and its ad writers are to untenable right-wing notions about the growing power of an over-protective PC state. The "nanny state" notion, straight out of Kevin Myers, is arseways as a comment on social change since 1986, for better and worse.

In 1986 the ban on divorce was reaffirmed. Various private sexual acts were illegal and contraception was just becoming legally available. Books and movies were still being banned, and porn mags and videos were under-the-counter affairs. A massive proportion of the population was in receipt of State entitlement payments. Healthcare was not quite so two-tier and reliant on trolleys as it is today.

Any sensible analyst would concede that Nanny has gone part-time since then, with clean air in workplaces and a small, rather ineffective "equality" bureaucracy her only evident chores.