Wednesday, 16 December 2009
Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources DebatePage of 4
Chairman: On behalf of the committee I welcome our guests, Mr. Stuart Switzer, Ms Orlaith Carmody, Ms Eunice O’Raw and Ms Aileen O’Meara. The purpose of today’s meeting is to hear presentations from candidates for nomination to the boards of RTÉ and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The Broadcasting Act 2009 introduced a new method of appointment to State boards. For the first time, an Oireachtas committee has been mandated to recommend individuals for appointment to the board of State agencies. The candidates, if ratified by the committee, will join the members of the board recently appointed by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.
The joint committee was aware from the outset that this process was innovative. It was also a new responsibility for the committee and we were concerned to ensure that we got it right. We have worked hard to ensure that the selection process would be transparent and open, accessible to anybody meeting the required criteria, and that it would enable us to select the best candidates for the role, based on merit, but subject to compliance with the legislation and best practice in the appointments procedure. To that end, we decided to open the process by advertising for expressions of interest, which meant that nomination was accessible to anybody with the relevant qualifications. We considered holding all of the proceedings in public but decided against it as it would have been unfair to the candidates to expect them to interview in public.
Following receipt of applications we compiled a shortlist. We had 269 applications, 139 for the RTÉ board and 130 for the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The shortlist comprised 44 people. Following preliminary discussions with the shortlisted candidates, 20 people were called for formal interview. The interview board was made up of four members of the joint committee, Deputies Simon Coveney and Liz McManus, Senator Joe O’Toole and myself. The interviews were facilitated by the Public Appointments Service, who also gave us invaluable advice and assistance throughout the process, for which we are very grateful. The interviewing panel took two days to interview the shortlisted candidates.
The interview board has recommended eight people to the joint committee, four for each board. The purpose of today’s meeting is to give committee members a forum to question the eight candidates in order to confirm that they have the required skills and experience to serve on these important authorities, and also to afford the candidates an opportunity to address the full joint committee.
We shall take the candidates for the RTÉ board first. We have apologies from Deputies Simon Coveney and Liz McManus who are representing the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security at the Copenhagen UN convention. We shall start with Ms Aileen O’Meara and will afford people five minutes each and then I shall ask committee members if they have any questions.
Ms Aileen O’Meara: I thank the Chairman. I am delighted to be here this morning and feel privileged to be part of the group. I have been a working journalist for 25 years. I have worked in print, radio and television. I have been an independent radio producer for the past four years, as well as a working journalist. I am making programmes in the commercial sector using the sound and vision fund set up under the Broadcasting Act. I also work in digital media, producing podcasts and audio slideshows for on-line use.
I will give some details about myself. I was born in north Tipperary. I come from a farming background. I bear a close resemblance to my sister, former Senator Ms Kathleen O’Meara — I still get mixed up when I come in, but I do not like being called Kathleen. I went to school in Roscrea. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree from University College Galway in English and history, and I went on to study journalism in Dublin City University, which was then the National Institute for Higher Education.
I worked in the Irish Press and the Sunday Tribune. I joined RTÉ in 1991 and worked in radio and television. The last position I held before I left six years ago was health correspondent for RTÉ news. All these positions have given me a good background in journalism. However, I did not leave journalism when I left RTÉ. I now work freelance for the Sunday Business Post as a health correspondent. I also have an independent production company, Twintrack Media.
Why do I want to join the board of RTÉ? Over the past number of days many friends and family have asked me that question, and if I have nothing better to do. I said this was a very good opportunity for someone like me to put myself forward for a position. I do not think I would have been approached otherwise. I say, “Well done”, to the legislators for giving people like me an opportunity to apply and get this place.
I will bring a few relevant perspectives to the role on the board. As a working journalist, I will bring the journalistic perspective. I want to defend and prioritise the production of high-quality news in RTÉ and for the Irish audience. The news and current affairs production in RTÉ is of a very high quality but it needs to be resourced, at a time when resources are very tight and will get tighter. I will be that voice. When we are prioritising what we are spending our money on, we need to make sure we are not keeping journalists away from important events, in particular those happening abroad, because we do not have the money. We have to find the money.
I am an independent radio producer and a vice chair of the Association of Independent Radio Producers of Ireland. It is a new group which was formed a number of years ago because there was no place for independent radio producers to work and make a living until a number of years ago, when the sound and vision fund was established. It gave people like me and some 50 new producers the opportunity to make programmes for the commercial sector and community radio, which is very important and which reflect, recognise and produce quality broadcasting for the independent sector and, in the future, for RTÉ. We are currently negotiating a contract with RTÉ regarding the manner in which we will work with it and beside it and, as a voice on the board, I want to ensure the independent radio sector has a voice, is not discriminated against and works as an equal partner with RTÉ.
I worked for RTÉ for 13 years and left six years ago, but I am still in touch with many people there, so I understand how it works. I have a fairly good insight into how staff are treated, how they work and the pressures they are under. I want to reflect that information on the board. There will also be a staff representative on the board.
As a woman, I will bring a female perspective to the board. I want to see more women at board level across commercial semi-State companies. I am delighted to see I am not the only one here this morning. We need more gender balance in public life in Ireland and this is a very good way of going about it.
Ms Eunice O’Raw: I am a barrister by profession, I am from Dublin and am a mother of three. I am delighted to be here this morning and I thank the committee for this opportunity. I grew up in Dublin. For the first 20 years of my life I had a passionate interest in drama and dance, and I spent a considerable amount of time devoting myself to those two areas. I went on to teach in both areas in order to support myself through college.
I studied economics in University College Dublin, went on to do a masters degree and taught during my time there. I went to Trinity College to do a further masters degree in economics. I then went on to do the King’s Inn examinations and have been a practising barrister since 1996. My practice has been a general one, but in the past ten or 11 years I have been counsel to the Tribunal to Inquire into Certain Planning Matters and Payments and have taken on board all the duties and responsibilities of that role. In the new year I will take on the position of director of legal affairs for the HSE.
In regard to the role I will take on with the HSE and RTÉ, I have a particular interest in seeing both entities serve the public interest. In the past number of years I have been involved with the Mental Health Commission. Through it, I have chaired mental health tribunals to assess whether the detention of individuals under the Mental Health Acts has been appropriate in various circumstances.
I am particularly interested in promoting the interests of those with disabilities, in particular, mental health disabilities, through RTÉ and assisting in every way the accessibility and use of the media to people with difficulties. My passion is for children who have disabilities and learning difficulties. Radio and television are extremely powerful media and to be able to use them to the advantage of such people is something which we need to be able to do, look forward to and drive and strive towards.
In the past number of years I have been heavily involved in studying, researching and developing areas of mediation and conflict and dispute resolution. Over the past ten or 20 years jurisdictions throughout the world have recognised the advantage of alternative means of dispute resolution, whether through mediation or other forms of reconciliation.
As we know, Ireland has suffered a number of difficult issues which have significantly affected people’s lives, and will continue to do so over time. Building relationships, reconciling difficulties in the past and all the areas which I have studied, researched and published on require talents or skills which I hope to be able to apply in my role in RTÉ in dealing with any disputes, issues or difficult areas which might arise. As I said, I am a mother of three children and that is probably my most important role. In terms of looking to my children’s future and the role of young people today, we are living in a difficult economic environment.
From my training as an economist I am aware that people’s expectations are important to how we progress in society, the success of our economy and the way we live our lives. Using RTÉ in a way that will promote education opportunities and perhaps links with the universities and colleges through which I have taught, might assist in introducing programmes of an educational content that will help people to up-skill and develop their interests, given the difficult economic climate we face. I hope I will be able to use all that I have to the advantage of the RTÉ Authority. I see this as a privileged role and one it would be an honour to take on board. I thank the members for their time.
Ms Orlaith Carmody: Ba mhaith liom a rá cé chomh bródúil agus atá mé bheith anseo os comhair an choiste inniu. Is ónóir iontach é. Tá súil agam go mbeidh mé in ann mo dhícheall a dhéanamh obair iontach tábhachtach an bhoird seo a chur i láthair go héifeachtach agus go mbeidh an coiste sásta le mo chuid iarrachtaí.
It is a great honour to be here today. It is probably an example of democracy at its best that we are seeing this process come to fruition. I compliment the House on bringing through the legislation and the boards of the two panels. We were put through our paces with thoroughness and diligence to prove fitness for purpose. In particular I thank the Commission for Public Service Appointments staff for their couRTÉsy and discretion in the way they looked after us throughout the process. It was all handled extremely well.
When these appointments to the RTÉ board were first announced I put myself forward for a particular reason, namely, I believe I can represent the broadest possible range of interests on the board while maintaining resolutely my independence. I worked as a journalist in the RTÉ newsroom throughout the 1990s. Prior to that I worked in the independent radio sector, both local and national, and since leaving RTÉ I have worked as an independent television producer. I have worked across and around the broadcast industry and I can bring that range of experience to the work of the board.
I see myself as representing the ordinary licence payer. I am from Dublin but I have lived in rural Ireland for ten years. I have set up a local, regionally-based business. I am involved with a number of business representative bodies. I am a mother of four children. I am involved in various educational representative bodies and I have also worked over the years with a number of disability groups.
When we talk about disability, education and the Irish language, what we are talking about is public service broadcasting at its very best and most ideal in that it represents the interests of all aspects of society in a full, fair and equal way. Public service broadcasting is a great ideal and is one we must maintain and preserve for future generations.
One of the major challenges that will face the RTÉ board in the future will be how to fund public service broadcasting because not only is it an idealistic form of broadcasting it is an expensive form of broadcasting. It will be argued that our two traditional areas of financing, namely, the licence fee and advertising revenue, will come under some kind of threat in the future because of the changing way we use television. I would hope to bring a balance to those explorations as we find the way forward, drawing on my experience of working within the organisation, for which I have a great grá, with a healthy and pragmatic commercial reality, having worked in the independent sector and in business for the past ten years.
Some years ago I took a master’s in film and television and as part of my thesis I did a study on the way RTÉ has changed in the recent past, particularly in terms of the amount of work it has been outsourcing to the independent sector as per the legislation, and it has more than reached the 20% allowance that is legislated for. It has surpassed that considerably in recent years and that has led to a healthy audiovisual sector of which we can all be proud and that we have built carefully and well. That healthy audiovisual sector sends a strong message to the international community that we are serious about our audiovisual industry, we do it well, we like doing it and we want to do more of it. That is what will attract the inward investment and the co-productions that will be new sources of revenue in the future.
The way we consume television has changed considerably, and that is interesting. I met with an elderly gentleman recently who told me his favourite programme on Radio 1 is the documentary series at 6 o’clock on Saturday evening but that that time does not suit him to listen to it so he downloads it on his laptop, puts it onto his iPod and listens to it while doing the gardening. That is what it is all about. It is what we would call scheduling in the living room. That is a major change for both our listening and our viewing habits, and the impact it has in terms of the way we package our advertising revenue around that scheduling must change considerably. All that technology, which could be described as galloping technology, and the whole Internet phenomenon will change our attitude towards the licence fee and perhaps our willingness to engage with that and pay the licence fee. That is why I see our traditional sources of revenue as being under threat, and one of the major challenges facing the board will be to find new sources of revenue in the future. I hope I will bring energy and enthusiasm to finding the best way forward. It is a huge responsibility. We have a duty of care to future generations to preserve our public service broadcasting for them and leave it intact and improved. That is a great responsibility. It is an honour to be here today and to feel I could in some way contribute to that process. I thank the members for the opportunity and sincerely hope I live up to the expectations.
Mr. Stuart Switzer: My name is Stuart Switzer. I am a television producer and I have been producing television programmes for the past 20 years across factual entertainment and digital content for RTÉ, BBC and other broadcasters. I have experience in publishing magazines, books, DVDs and organising public events that tie into the TV brands we have established. I was also executive producer on the recent Irish language movie, “Kings”, which did so well in being nominated for a foreign language Oscar.
In terms of my entry into the media business, my background was finance and accountancy, initially working with start-up companies but now I hope I am equally happy brainstorming programme ideas as I am with financial concepts and so on. I have experience of working as part of a large team and leader of large teams working on projects such as building the TV studios in the west that now produce “Ros na Rún”, various finance based projects and project financing. I believe I have an unusual mix of commercial and creative skills.
I am a suppoRTÉr of public service broadcasting but not an uncritical one. I acknowledge what RTÉ has achieved in television in 50 years and in radio over a longer period and that it maintains a 40% audience share in a country which faces the stiffest public service broadcaster in the world, namely, the BBC. It has done extremely well. For instance, two weeks ago 18 of the top 20 programmes on RTÉ 1 were home produced as against our commercial station, TV3, where 19 out of the top 20 programmes were ITV programmes. We have a great deal to be proud of in RTÉ.
There are challenges and opportunities facing our public service broadcaster. RTÉ television is nearly 50 years old and some cracks are appearing. TV3 is now the second most popular channel. I believe it should be RTÉ Two, and if confirmed as a member of the board I will fight hard to ensure it retains that position.
In the past RTÉ’s advertising revenue accounted for 50% of its total revenue. It now appears it will be more like 35% in the future which represents a serious drop in revenues. The licence fee will be under pressure and in the current economic climate it will not get any easier to collect licence fees. Significant capital expenditure is required to take on board the costs of digital terrestrial television, DTT, and high definition. So there are some challenges ahead.
As to what I might hopefully be able to bring to the board, I believe that in five years’ time RTÉ will be a significantly different organisation than it is today. One of the challenges is to attract the lost audience of 15-25 year olds who consume their content on-line. RTÉ needs to become a leader, not a follower, producing more and more innovative programmes on a 360° basis across all other platforms, including radio and television, the Internet and mobile, to really capture it. In five years’ time, RTÉ must start to mean as much to a 16 year old as it means today to a 60 year old. RTÉ needs to young itself down therefore. It needs to adopt new programme funding options to replace traditional commercial revenues with new innovative funds. It must look at projects like product placement but, as a public service broadcaster, they would need to be taken on board carefully. It will need to embrace new technologies that will allow more efficient models of production. Some of the existing models of production will look expensive in the face of future competition from low-cost operators, so RTÉ must react to those situations.
I believe I have the knowledge and, importantly, the appetite and experience to represent the interests of viewers and listeners. I think I have the commercial acumen to act as a board member, and the creative experience to understand programming and try to help RTÉ to achieve its objectives efficiently and effectively. I am up for the challenge.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I thank the four applicants for their presentations. It is important to note that this is the fourth or fifth time they have gone through this. I do not propose to ask any further questions, as we have already been there and done that. It is important for the outside world to recognise that this was an unprecedented situation. I believe we have put together the models of best practice and a yardstick for the future. People must also recognise that we did not have a free hand in this. We were tied in by the legislative requirements and had to fit in with what the Minister had already done. There were also issues of gender balance. Under the Act, we had to look for certain requirements of experience, knowledge, capacity and vision. There are 12 or 13 different sections on that in the Act and we had to look for people who would bring a strong commercial, independent and pro-public service broadcasting background. We hope they would have brought to the committee and to the outside world a background in media, broadcasting, drama, arts, law, governance, disability, economy, financial affairs, accountancy, commercial affairs, gaelgoirí, educational, business and technical matters. Those are some of the points we have touched on. It has been difficult to put it all together. I hope that other members of the committee will find that is so. On behalf of my absent colleagues who are saving the world in Copenhagen, I would say that this has been a difficult process for the candidates. We recognise that and we thank them for giving of themselves so generously.
Deputy Noel J. Coonan: I welcome our four guests and congratulate them on their achievements to date, and on getting this far. It is important to all of us that they are successful in their jobs on the RTÉ Authority and in broadcasting. Having listened to all the presentations, and especially that of Ms Eunice O’Raw, the first thing that struck me was how in the name of God they would get time to do this job. They are all very busy people and extremely qualified. Ms Aileen O’Meara has an added advantage in that she probably has the gift of bilocation, which she used fairly successfully in a previous career. I wish her well particularly because I know her family well. She comes from a rural background and represents everything that is good in life. I have no doubt that she will do an excellent job. I do not have any particular question for her.
I am not in the business of questioning because my colleagues have gone through all of this. We accept the difficult role they have been through. It is new for us all. There is no doubt that there will be changes. Coming from a rural background, one thing that concerns me is local broadcasting. I would like to hear more of Ms O’Meara’s views on that and her ideas on how she could help to develop that sector, including the financing of it. In my own county, a very good local radio station could not afford to compete with some of the more professional ones that were bought up in the interest of making money for shareholders. Local broadcasting is a valuable service and one that is appreciated in the country. It needs to be developed, so perhaps she could give us some ideas on that.
I would also like to hear the candidates’ opinions on standards in public broadcasting, including RTÉ, and in journalism generally. It seems to me that standards are slipping and that we are more in tune now with British style or standards. Respect for individuals’ private lives seems to be being ignored or regularly diminished. I accept that the pen is mightier than the sword, but the media get stuck into politicians and do their damnedest to downgrade us. That is only interrupted by their interest in the clergy, including the bishops, and what has happened in that regard. I am interested in the candidates’ opinions on standards so that what is broadcast to the general public is accurate and reflects what is happening. It should not be presented in a contoRTÉd way. Having said that, I wish them the best. I hope they will be open to us as members of the committee should any issues arise that we would like to bring to their attention. I hope we will get a response from them. Go néirigh libh.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: I welcome our four candidates who have come to this stage of the process. The committee is proud of how the process has worked to date. Today is a further testimony to that. I congratulate my colleagues on the sub-committee who worked on the interview stages. They have done an excellent job. As a committee, we have established that the traditional methods of croneyism and nepotism that may have been associated with board appointments, can be broken and that there can be a democratic dimension to how we do this. We have used this first opportunity very well and are proud of that.
I join with my colleagues who spoke previously in thanking all the candidates for their presentations. I wish to raise a few issues which are worthy of elaboration. Ms Eunice O’Raw said she had a specialist interest in the disability sector and in making RTÉ responsive and relevant to those, particularly young people, with disabilities. Obviously that is an admirable concept, but can she elaborate on how that might work in practice? All of us would be interested in that and would aspire to achieving it.
Ms O’Raw also mentioned conflict resolution, which is of interest to me as a representative from a Border county. I would be interested to hear her response as to what degree we can continue with the healing process and to what degree RTÉ can be a catalyst, particularly in being responsive to people who still do not feel completely part of this State. Research has established that there are those who still feel a level of alienation from this Republic. In that context, we have a radically changed Ireland, given the ethnic diversity of our country and the international dimension. Perhaps somebody will respond to this point. I received a school calendar — which is a lovely, novel concept — from my local primary school, which two of my children attend. They did photographs of each class for each month. Parents like this kind of stuff and it is a good fund-raiser. If one looks at the photographs of the classes it is extraordinary to see the ethnic diversity there is, even in a small town in County Cavan. I presume that RTÉ will have to respond to that.
Mr. Switzer was correct in stating that RTÉ needs to change in certain respects to appeal to a young, educated and cosmopolitan audience. That said, I want a response from those on the panel to how, allowing for the great work of TG4, they would see RTÉ continuing to preserve and promote the heritage, culture and traditions of the country.
It is worth re-stating that it is important that while there is a great mix, there is an outlet for good religious programming on RTÉ and for spirituality as part of the broadcasting process, and the opportunity to allow that side of life to be focused on as well. I would be interested in a response on that. We need good religious broadcasting, and we need to preserve our religion and respond to those of the various different faiths who want to believe in religion and pursue it.
Ms Eunice O’Raw: I thank Senator Joe O’Reilly for his good wishes, which are very much appreciated. On the area of disabilities, and the area of mental health disability in which I have a particular interest, unfortunately, in Ireland there is a phenomenal stigma attaching to the area of mental health. It is estimated that one in three in the population will suffer from a mental disorder or illness at some stage in their lives. Approximately 97% of those who have suffered from a mental illness do not obtain employment.
It is because of these areas that there is such of stigma. People are reluctant to admit difficulties in the area of mental health and RTÉ, as a public sector broadcaster, can help remove some of that stigma. It can help the public realise that in the same way as someone can have an ailing arm or leg, there can be an ailing mind, and that does not mean that the person is incapable of work, incapable of enjoying life and incapable of contributing to life.
Through its programming, whether drama or other information programmes, these areas can be addressed so that people can realise that there are methods of coping with these difficulties, there is help and people can lead very full lives.
There are several individuals who have had great success stories. I have had the great pleasure of coming across people who have suffered from illnesses such as paranoid schizophrenia who have gone on to study for PhDs, who lecture and lead very full lives, and who contribute significantly to society.
On children with disabilities, parents fear for their children’s upbringing, they fear for their future and they fear what lies ahead of them. If parents become aware that there are so many in the same boat with these difficulties, they can see there is help for their children, that help will be provided to them, and there are outlets and their children can lead very full lives. As a result of public sector broadcasting, this hope, understanding and fulfilment can be spread to area of disabilities.
The area of conflict resolution overlaps somewhat with the areas of ethnic diversity and, perhaps, promoting cultures, and religious programming mentioned by Senator O’Reilly. I have done a considerable amount of research and study, and publication, in this area.
One of the areas I looked at in recent years is where other traditions have faced these difficulties. For example, Canada is one where there have been a number of minor societies which have had rights trampled on over the years and where society has had to find ways of reconciling difficulties. As in Ireland, Canada has seen difficulties in church involvement and various abuses of minorities that have occurred, in particular, the First Nations’ communities. In recent years there has been development of programmes of reconciliation to help rebuild relations, to educate people on the diversity of cultures that exist in their society, to help promote those interests, and to help provide a unified society and recognition that there is a difference in cultures but at the heart of every culture is the hope that everyone will lead peaceful and happy lives and gain a good, successful, fruitful future, and that really there is not significant difference in that for which people hope for their children and their families.
The strategies of conflict resolution that have been applied in Canada are being recognised here. There has been phenomenal cross-Border work. Through RTÉ there can be an increase in community involvement. For example, when communities feel they have contributed to an entity, they have more of an interest in that entity. By communities becoming more involved, and particularly in cross-Border projects, whether through displaying their talents, their drama and their art, or in other areas, this can help educate people on the contribution that all cultures can bring and help create a unified society rather than one that is prejudiced or concerned about the differences between cultures.
Ms Orlaith Carmody: I would be delighted to. Ethnic diversity ties in well with what Ms O’Raw stated regarding disability. The point is representation, not necessarily catering specifically for ethnic diversity or, a disability in specific programmes, output or content because that in a way increases the marginalisation. The point is for us to depict ethnic diversity and disability in a normal way, to include these people as spokespeople in the news, for our interviewing journalists to be aware that we must seek out a little broader afield when we are looking for commentators, and even for our soap operas to show disability, multiculturalism, diversity and how our society has grown and changed. It is important that we look for this in programming and show it clearly.
In the area of disability, which has been dealt with well, I have worked with the National Council of the Blind of Ireland for several years. The one aspect that always strikes me about the wonderful people I have met who deal with blindness every day is that they want the same things as anybody else. They want: to fall in love, to get married, access to employment and to services, and to negotiate the city without tripping up and falling over. The best way we can help this in the broadcasting sense is to depict them in normal lives as spokespersons, as contributors and as commentators, getting on with their lives and getting on in their work, even down to ensuring that our workplaces are more open to diversity, multiculturalism and plurality in every way.
Ms Aileen O’Meara: There are two aspects with regard to standards in journalism. Deputy Coonan and others will be aware of the divide between the political establishment in the Houses and certain elements within the media. This has been caused by reports relating to expenses and other matters. Everyone is aware that there are massive commercial pressures on newspapers at present and the market is becoming increasingly competitive. The committee should invite the editors and financial controllers of the newspapers to come before it and members could then put questions to them in respect of standards in journalism. It is they, not the journalists, who to a large extent decide what goes on the front page.
Ms Aileen O’Meara: There are also huge pressures on local broadcasters and local commercial stations. The Deputy said he wants to see a greater reflection of events that are happening locally. That must come from the ground up and those who are working locally must push to get their stories on air. RTÉ broadcasts a large number of reports relating to local events.
The question on commercial broadcasting would be best put to the members of the board of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, who will come before the committee later. It is at that level that the supports referred to should be put in place. I do not believe the RTÉ board can put them in place. I agree there are many pressures. The sound and vision fund has been extremely important in recent years. The fact that some moneys from the licence fee will go to independent production companies so that they might make programmes for commercial and community stations will make a major difference in the context of the kind of programmes that will be broadcast. People who run local stations will always inform one that the bottom line is that programmes and documentaries cost money to produce. They will also always ask from where that money will come. If the money comes via the licence fee it will make a huge difference.
Chairman: Perhaps Mr. Switzer will reply to Senator O’Reilly’s question on heritage and the arts and outline RTÉ’s role. I ask that Deputy Coonan wait until the next group comes before us to put his question in respect of local and national independent radio stations.
Mr. Stuart Switzer: It is a matter of allocation of resources and how RTÉ follows its remit. At one level the station has a remit to generate commercial revenues and these constitute part of its income. However, it also has a strong public service remit. The sound and vision fund was originally set up to provide moneys in respect of programming relating to culture, heritage, and so on. It has now evolved into a much more general fund. It would make more sense if the fund were used for its original purpose, namely, to provide money in respect of programmes that would probably not be made by RTÉ in the normal course of events because of the pressure in respect of ratings.
The way in which RTÉ spends the money must be examined. Children’s programming is extremely important and we need to consider the total income and the way in which resources are allocated. Those resources are finite and questions arise as a result.
On heritage and cultural matters, RTÉ has a long history of making some very fine arts programmes. The sound and vision fund should be ring-fenced and should not be used as a general production fund. If this happens, those making the type of programmes to which I refer will then only be obliged to compete against each other for funding.
Senator Jim Walsh: I welcome our guests. Perhaps they might provide concise answers to the four or five questions I will put. RTÉ is in a difficult and challenging financial position. Will our guests indicate their previous experience in the context of serving on boards — either in an executive or non-executive capacity — and the type of companies involved? What is their opinion of the level of pay in RTÉ?
Ms Carmody referred to the TV licence fee and advertising. Will our guests indicate whether they consider the current system fair to independent producers of radio and television programmes? I understand that several of our guests are doing business with RTÉ. Will they address the conflict of interest issues that might arise and indicate how they would be dealt with? What is our guests’ vision for the national broadcaster? Will they identify two or three areas where they consider good quality to be in evidence and also two or three areas that are deficient in the context of the delivery of programmes to the public?
Mr. Stuart Switzer: I gave full consideration to the advent of a possible conflict of interest before I applied for a position on the board of RTÉ, particularly in view of the fact that COCO Television is a major contractor with the station. I am satisfied that the commissioning and financing of programmes is dealt with at management rather than board level. From that point of view, I do not believe a conflict of interests applies. I was obliged to take that into account not just on a personal level but from the point of view of my company.
I have served on several boards, including that which runs our company, a number relating to representative organisations and the boards of several other companies. One of the latter was EO Telifís, a company in the west which commenced production on Ros na Rún for TG4 many years ago. I have not served on a board of a company or authority such as RTÉ, so this is a first for me. I look forward to the experience. I have a considerable amount of experience of serving on the boards of several SMEs.
The TV licence fee is a vital part of any public service broadcaster’s armoury. I would be extremely concerned to ensure that the licence fee should not be disseminated across the commercial part of the TV and radio industries. If RTÉ is to meet its remit in the context of creating radio and television programmes and its cultural remit, then the licence fee must be ring-fenced for the station in an absolute way.
Mr. Stuart Switzer: Pay levels at the station seem high. An average pay level of €80,000 has been mentioned. Reports this morning indicate that the average rate of pay in the ESB is €70,000 per annum. The RTÉ pay structure is somewhat out of kilter because there are many people at the top end of it. This matter will have to be examined. If revenues are dropping by 20%, it is difficult to see how the deficit can be made up from additional income. When 70% of RTÉ’s outgoings relate to payroll, then questions must be asked.
Ms Orlaith Carmody: I have never served on a board of this size or stature before. I have been a director of several small companies for the past 20 years. I am a member of the marketing and events committee of the Drogheda Chamber of Commerce. I have been involved in various business groupings of that nature and I have served on several parents’ representative bodies, including the parents’ council of a major educational establishment for several years.
On levels of pay, we must all take the pain equally. That is the bottom line. Some senior members of staff at RTÉ were quick to take reductions. More work remains to be done. That is the reality of the times in which we live.
The TV licence fee is the real pull-and-tug issue. We discussed this matter with Deputy Coonan in the context of local broadcasting and how much of the licence fee, in the context of the sound and vision fund, and so on, goes elsewhere. I accept that the latter is more the work of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. We must consider how best to maximise the money we receive from the licence fee and how this can be spread as evenly as possible. The introduction of the sound and vision fund and the relevant legislation to have 20% of programming made outside RTÉ rejuvenated the audio visual industry. These developments were a step in the right direction and perhaps we should consider going further and spreading resources more evenly.
The conflict of interest with RTÉ was brought up at the interview panel level and dealt with quite comprehensively. As somebody who is a supplier to RTÉ and hopes to be again in the future, my experience of the commissioning editors and the commissioning process is such that it is very rigorous and every programme stands and falls on its merits. I could not envisage any commissioner commissioning a programme that would not do the business for RTÉ. There is no way it will put a bad programme on air simply because the person making it might be on the board or whatever. I personally cannot see that happening. However, we understand the concerns in that regard. Mr. Switzer will have gone through that as well.
Regarding my vision for the broadcaster in the future, as I said we spoke about the challenges of finding new sources of financing. It is under this umbrella of always looking for the best possible value for the licence fee payer and yet not compromising our standards in any way. That must be the overarching concern in anything we would do and should inform all our thinking.
Senator Jim Walsh: I would have liked Ms Carmody to have identified two or three areas in RTÉ where she felt good quality was in evidence and two or three areas where there were deficiencies. However, I will not labour the point. It is subjective. I am just trying to get a flavour of her thinking.
Ms Eunice O’Raw: I thank Senator Walsh for his questions. I shall try to be succinct. Like Ms Carmody, I do not have experience on a statutory board of this magnitude. I have involvement regarding disabilities and of course I run my own practice as a barrister. I believe the area of pay needs to be reviewed. The cost of living is going down and the level of pay may not need to be as high as it was in the past. Cuts have been made, but perhaps further work could be done in that regard.
Regarding the licence fee, RTÉ as a public service broadcaster has a very different role to play. It is not and hopefully will not turn into a tabloid provider of programmes. It is essential that RTÉ should have the lion’s share of the licence fee in order to be able to provide the public service broadcasting that is needed.
Regarding what I would see as good quality from RTÉ, I would particularly commend its news programmes. RTÉ does an exceptionally good job in that regard. Perhaps it could give more coverage to matters outside Dublin. Regarding deficiencies, I have some concerns when particular broadcasters express personal views in some areas, with which they may not be fully familiar and may not know all the facts. I would hope that deficiency could be addressed in the future.
Ms Aileen O’Meara: I think I would need approximately half an hour to fully answer all the Senator’s questions. However, I shall give a very succinct answer. RTÉ faces major financial challenges. It is the most important priority facing the new board. There is room for value for money on how money is spent in RTÉ and how people work there. I see nothing wrong with setting up a value for money unit in RTÉ reporting directly to the director general and the board. There needs to be a root and branch investigation throughout the organisation as to how money is spent, particularly regarding the management grade to ascertain whether RTÉ needs as many managers as it has. I have covered the HSE for a number of years and I believe I bring that theme to my role in RTÉ.
Regarding my experience on boards, I served on the board of the Children in Hospital Ireland organisation for a short time. I have sat on school boards and I have sat on trade union committees. I am the vice chair of the Association of Independent Radio Producers of Ireland. I have not sat on a board of this level before.
People in RTÉ are well paid. I see nothing wrong with that. Many people in RTÉ are very good at their jobs. RTÉ attracts high quality staff because it pays well and we should defend that. However, there may be a need for a pay cut in the next year or two in RTÉ. If there is to be a pay cut in RTÉ it should be for people earning more than €100,000 a year. I would protect the lower paid in the organisation as much as possible.
As an independent radio producer, I recognise that RTÉ has the lion’s share of the licence fee and it should be shared around a bit more. The market is skewed. RTÉ gets the licence fee and its advertising revenue as well, which is not right. However, the other side is that people want to listen to and watch RTÉ programmes, particularly high quality programmes, and the board should ensure the licence fee is well spent.
Regarding doing business with RTÉ, I have no current commissions with RTÉ and have no plans at the moment to apply for commissions with RTÉ. I believe there would be conflicts of interest if I were a board member and was also seeking commissions with RTÉ.
Regarding good quality programmes in evidence, as a journalist I believe the news is very good. If I were giving an award this year I would give it to Jim Fahy for his coverage of the flood crisis. As members can see, as the last person to answer those questions, I have had more time to prepare than anybody else has.
Senator Joe O’Toole: It was suggested earlier that there be a regular meeting between the board and the members we have nominated perhaps on an annual basis. It not something we have discussed before. I can see heads nodding. I believe it would be very helpful from our point of view.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: I fully agree with Ms O’Meara regarding the lower paid employees in RTÉ who earn less than €100,000 a year. Those people should not be made scapegoats. I would hope that would be the view of all.
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