Address by Kevin Bakhurst, Head of News and Current Affairs and Deputy DG, RTE, at speakers lunch Friday, 11th September, 2015
2016 will be a huge year in Ireland – it’s a time to commemorate the Easter Rising and the birth of the Irish State; it’s most likely a time for the Irish People to choose a new Government and Taoiseach to lead the country; it’s time to remember the thousands of Irish men who were killed at the Battle of the Somme; in the North, there are planned elections for a new Assembly; we could well know if the UK are in or out of the European Union; Ireland may bein – or out of – the soccer Euros 2016; Irish athletes will be at the Rio Olympics.
Many of these events define our past, enhance our present and will impact on our future. 2016 will also help to define the role and the value of RTE; it will help to show off the incredible strengths of many other parts of the Irish media. And it will also be another year of challenge – and of uncertainty for all of us who choose this particularly peculiar way of making a living.
I should start by saying that it’s incredibly exciting looking at what we have planned for the year ahead – great TV drama; memorable radio programmes; quality live news coverage of the elections and of the key State commemorations; a constantly innovative and comprehensive website; a number of important concerts by our orchestras. If it all goes according to plan. The creative focus over the last months on each of these areas around RTÉ has been really impressive to witness. However it is done against a set of challenges that are not unique to RTE – challenges that are faced by all of us across the Irish and international media – and it is those challenges that I would like to focus on today.
We all face unprecedented competition to our programmes and content today. And it’s not simply Irish competition. On Television, it’s TV3 and UTV of course. But now with satellite and cable, it’s also Sky, the BBC, Channel 4 and so on –who are nibbling at our audiences and eating some of our commercial income at the same time. And whilst Ireland is very profitable for most of those companies – with the notable exception of TV3 and to a much lesser extent UTV, most of them invest very little in original Irish content at all.
On the website – there is a new battleground where traditional broadcasters now meet newspaper groups who meet new web start-ups – and then we all meet foreign companies – all competing for the audience; the clicks; theadvertising and the sponsorship. The world of TV may be competitive – the world of the web gives new meaning to the word.Of course, as we all know in many ways competition is very healthy. And we are all competitive – very competitive – I’m reminded of Ayrton Senna’s famous words with which I totally agree: “Being second is to be the first of the ones who lose”. Or the great Muhammad Ali who said “To be a great champion, you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are”.There’s no doubt that to a great extent, Competition has driven standards and efficiency and innovation. When you combine the unprecedented levels of competition we now experience with the economic uncertainty that we have all lived through, it can however be a barrier to great and ambitious content.
Don’t get me wrong – we are very privileged at RTE that around half of our income comes from the Licence Fee which gives us a degree of certainty that many of our competitors would kill for. But the licence fee has remained frozen for 9 years; the other half of our income – commercial – has fallen by tens of millions of Euro since 2008.Having said that – I fully recognise that many of our competitors, particularly those who have evolved from the world of newspapers – face even more severe financial pressures and some of them face a long term threat to their very survival.
Adapting to survive in this intense world of competition has raised some new questions for all of us who work in journalism. When backs are to the wall –the pursuit of income and of readers and viewers can – and in many cases MUST take precedence over what we might have seen previously as simple editorial judgement. There are media websites now where the top stories are driven almost entirely by realtime audience analytics; where screens in newsrooms that used to show CNN and other news channels now show the latest information on the number of hits. Chartbeat, Spike and Newswhip may sound like a group of rap musicians featured in Fifty Shades of Grey – but for the uninitiated they are the devices that measure audience behaviour and trends and that have often overtaken the judgement of the seasoned news editor in a newsroom. All as websites chase hits for survival. How far journalism has moved – driven by technology and the necessity to survive in a digital age. Famously, arguing against the pursuit of audience numbers for their own sake, Dan Rather once said “ratings don’t last. Goodjournalism does.” Newswhip – a key tool for many modern newsrooms – advertises itself with the words: “Build a loyal audience your sales team can sell”.
The challenge for public service media organisations like RTE is to embrace new technology and new patterns of audience behaviour – to move quickly; to innovate; to embrace change and respond to competition – whilst at the same time making sure that we live up to the values and expectations that are represented by the Licence Fee and the unique way we are funded – we have an unwritten deal with our audience – they expect a news service that isaccurate, independent, impartial, fair and open. We should deliver the news in different ways – on our News Now App; using short videos via social media; embracing mobile journalism; we should use analytics to know what our audiences are interested in. But in the end we need to respect our unique position that is underpinned by public funding – to make editorial decisions based on editorial judgement alone. In the last few weeks, we have coveredthe refugee crisis extensively – sending teams to Germany, Austria, Hungary and Greece – deployments enabled by the licence fee. We have also covered the political crisis in Northern Ireland at length. Both stories have more often than not led the website, Morning Ireland and the Six One – neither story has driven huge numbers on analytics. It is an editorial decision we are privileged to be able to make – because of the unique way we are funded – and the fact that we have no existential need to chase numbers.
I would however like to add one very important rider to that – namely that in the highly competitive environment that we live in – where there is a sea of noise and a huge range of news providers – this also makes RTE a distinctive Irish voice. And it is a distinctive voice that the audience consistently turn to, particularly on the big stories. At RTE we continually survey levels of public support and trust for the organisation and for our News and Current Affairs.
The most recent result tells us that 84% of the audience trust RTE News and Current Affairs – historically one of our highest levels – and that despite an environment where coverage of controversial issues is constantly scrutinised, questioned and even harangued by some on social media, by some politicians and other prominent figures and organisations. But as I say to the news teams – until they’re totally bored by it – we earn our trust every day. It’s an easy thing to lose.
I have touched on the importance to our journalism of public funding and the licence fee. I must say that while it enables us to make the kind of choices I have described, the fact that even our funding has been subject to various cuts has had an impact on coverage. For a while we had to shut our London bureau.Three years ago, we faced the possibility of having to shut several regional offices. Foreign coverage has certainly been curtailed at times – which isregrettable. Some of our technology is creaking, due to pressure on capital budgets. We need more journalists in some key areas to maintain quality and ambition.
I look across the water to my former employer, the BBC and I know that their news operation is also under financial pressure. They have already cut back on the BBC News Channel; many very good and experienced people have leftForeign news and the newsroom in recent months. A few years ago the BBC had to take over funding the World Service – a funding decision that had a big impact on the BBC. In the most recent smash and grab, the British Government has forced the BBC to pay for TV Licences for the over 75’s – the BBC licence fee payers are now funding programmes for overseas audiences and picking up part of the UK government’s welfare bill. The price is a worse service for the licence fee payer; less ambitious journalism – and the overall damage to one of the UK’s few world-class institutions. Properly and openly negotiated and predictable funding helps underpin public service broadcasting and journalism both here and in the UK. Sadly we haven’t seen that in the UK in recent months.
I have touched briefly on the need for RTE to maintain trust. It is the one thing that underpins all good journalism as we know – perhaps even more important to a publicly funded national broadcaster like RTE. As we know too well – RTE made mistakes a few years ago that damaged our reputation and our journalism. I hope – and I know – we have learnt from our mistakes. That doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes in future – but we have the right people and procedures to try to avoid them if at all possible. Interestingly, it was in the field of investigative journalism that we made the biggest mistakes with Mission to Prey. It is – as we all know – the highest risk and in many ways the most difficult journalism to do. It is also the most expensive. For all those reasons, there aren’t too many organisations now doing investigative journalism in Ireland – or indeed in the UK. Yet – at its best – it can represent everything that is important about journalism itself.
At RTE we regard investigative journalism as one of the most important – and yes difficult – things we do. Mary Raftery remains a byword for great journalism. However after Mission to Prey – as RTE retrenched and then rebuilt this area – there was a fallow period where investigations largely ended. However we needed to rebuild the team; rebuild confidence and get back in the game. It is – I think – one of our proudest achievements that Paul Maguire and the RTE Investigations Unit has now delivered a series of hard-hitting, brave programmes and reports that have taken on powerful – sometimes dangerous individuals and powerful institutions. The programmes on ArasAtracta, the Creches investigation, Portlaoise Hospital, Loyalist Collusion, The Hooded Men, Eurosurgical and so on.
However the threat to investigative journalism isn’t simply the cost of researching and producing the programmes; the undercover filming and so on. It is also the legal environment in which we operate here in Ireland. I sometimes think there must be more lawyers than farmers in Ireland. They are certainly busier. Of course it is only proper that people have the absolute right to defend their good name, but the level of legal threats and somewhat surprising legal actions is quite staggering. And of course the costs and penalties of defending legal actions are huge – often if you are successful too.
When some individuals can silence large sections of the media by the frequent threat and use of the courts backed by huge wealth – that is worrying for the future of journalism here. Having spent a reasonable deal of my summer down at the Courts – I’m sure you’ll forgive me in not going further on this.
Lastly I would just like to touch on Social Media – of which I am a huge fan, a frequent user and consumer. For RTE – like many media companies – our content is now often as widely consumed via Facebook, Youtube and Twitteras it is on our own platforms. We know social media has enabled new ways of doing journalism; delivering content and views; enabling debate and accountability. I would have to say in all honesty though that in my view it can sometimes contribute in an unthinking way to the level of anger, bitterness and hatred in public discourse. When I see the vitriol that is aimed at some public figures – often from anonymous accounts – I have to say that it worries me and it is sad and I don’t think it’s great for society. Strong debates are very good. But vicious abuse from an unnamed individual in a dark room doesn’t contribute much to public life, human knowledge or the human spirit. Rant over.