Can RTE change its cosseted culture?

There used to be a vigorous, challenging, intellectual vibe about RTE in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. But now it is home to a culture of complacency. By Vincent Browne.

Cathal Goan, the outgoing director-general of RTE, is a fine man: personable, intelligent, well-read, good company.

Had he the decisiveness and general managerial ability to be head of RTE at a difficult time? Certainly in some cases.

In other cases, maybe not.


(Picture: Cathal Goan, outgoing director-general of RTE)

One decision during his reign as director-general makes the point: the granting of such enormous fees to RTE’s leading presenters.

For example, Pat Kenny was the highest paid person in the public service, earning €950,956 in 2008 before agreeing in 2009 to take a pay reduction to €630,000.

Explaining the high salaries to presenters, Goan said in 2009: ‘‘There’s no question that by today’s standard, they [the wages] were excessive. They were set at a different time in a different competitive reality where some of this talent might be up for poaching by other organisations and, in RTE’s view at the time, they delivered value for money.”

The reference to the ‘‘talent’’ was deeply offensive to very many talented people in RTE who were dismayed that the appellation applied only, apparently, to those paid the most.

The claim that such fees were justifiable in terms of the marketplace here for TV and radio presenters was ludicrous - certainly, no other station could or would have paid anything like the fees RTE paid to Kenny and the rest. (Incidentally, this is not to belittle Pat Kenny’s ability. He has been, in my opinion, the outstanding broadcaster in Ireland since the retirement of Gay Byrne.)

And then, that the station should use its competitive advantage in the hiring of presenters, arising from its licence fee subsidy, on top of the advantage it enjoys from having been a monopoly station for so long, was and is questionable, if not actually illegal.

RTE enjoyed massive revenues while Goan was director general, from the licence fee and from advertising. It had a huge advantage over its competitors, including TV3 (for which I now work), yet it spiralled into deficit once the advertising tap was turned down.

This is because costs at RTE are massive, and have been allowed to be massive by a culture of indulgence, cosseted due to decades of immunity from the vicissitudes of the real world.

Now RTE is to name a new director-general and, on past form, the appointment will be an internal one. No director general has been appointed from outside RTE since Kevin McCourt became director general in 1962.

And because the appointments have been entirely internal for the last 48 years, a culture of entitlement, of complacency, of arrogance has developed which has done much to undermine journalism there and much to immunise RTE from the real world.

There used to be a vigorous, challenging, intellectual vibe about the place in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, although that was subverted by the emergence of an internal cult associated with the Workers Party, which did substantial damage to the station.

The failure to fire those involved in the systematic manipulation of programmes, there and then, did lasting damage. Now there is no internal debate about programme bias, and little care. 

For years, they ran Crimeline, which whipped up alarm over crime levels in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. The programme was sponsored by an insurance company that had a direct interest in public alarm about crime.

And it has got worse. At one stage, there would have been a challenge internally to the ideologically-loaded depiction of public monies as ‘‘taxpayer’s money’’ - one function of the tax system is to readdress the absurdity of allocating resources solely by market criteria, via market-led salaries.

Furthermore, the use of the term ‘‘taxpayer’’ adds to the libertarian notion that the state plunders the rightful property and income of citizens.

There would also have been a challenge to the soft-focus interview culture with "captains" of industry and banking, who have somehow managed to convey that "we" are all to blame for the crisis.

And there is much, much more.

When last was a senior executive in RTE headhunted by an outside agency?

There are obvious and able internal candidates within RTE for the position of director general: for instance, Claire Duignan, now head of radio; Ed Mulhall, head of news; and the recently-departed Noel Curran, formerly head of television.

The latter is probably the best of the internal candidates. But isn’t there a case for appointing an outsider? Someone not steeped in the dreary culture of RTE? Someone who would challenge the tired assumptions and bad practices?

Tom Savage is the chairman of the RTE Authority. and my guess is that he will go either for Curran or an outsider. But whether he can deliver is something else, especially since Eamon Ryan will have the final say and will want to play safe.