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Catherine Martin can save her political career and do something big for Irish democracy

RTÉ is a toxic brew whose commercial business and profit-seeking push stale content, ads and inflated salaries at the expense of public service

Instructions for the governance of RTÉ: 1. Procure a goblet-like liturgical vessel. 2. Obtain a toxic substance. 3. Place poison in chalice. 4. Offer poisoned chalice to distinguished person whose secret desires tend towards masochism. The instruction manual for an incoming chair of the national broadcaster is Fifty Shades of Grey.

Catherine Martin has been the best minister for culture and media since Michael D Higgins in the 1990s. Siún Ní Raghallaigh is greatly admired by those who have worked with her at TG4, Ardmore Studios and elsewhere and in her short time as chair of RTÉ has been a dignified and decent presence in the middle of a shambles she did not create.

And yet here we are with one of them effectively sacking the other live on air and, as a consequence, plunging her own political career into crisis. It is beyond a joke that what is at issue is the inability to communicate properly about an institution whose business is communication.

In all the back-and-forth about who said what to whom about the exit package for the station’s former chief financial officer Richard Collins, it is easy to forget the real question: what is the poison? What has made an organisation so vital to Irish democracy so toxic? It’s the lethal cocktail of commercial business and public service.

Old recycled product is dirt cheap and can be chopped up to create space for revenue-generating commercial messages. The programmes exist purely and simply for the ads

One way to get a taste of this noxious blend is to start with an incident on the station last Friday. The Irish women’s soccer team was playing Italy in Florence. A public service broadcaster would naturally show this game live.

But RTÉ had to consign the match to its News Now stream. And just before kick-off, News Now decided to bump the match so it could show Catherine Martin’s news conference from the Leinster House plinth.

The match was thus 15 minutes in before RTÉ managed to start its coverage. The message this sent was that women’s sport doesn’t really matter. It was a model exercise in alienating a cohort of licence fee payers, especially young women. Why did this happen? Why was the game not on RTÉ 2 where the station’s sports coverage usually goes?

Because on RTÉ 2 at that time were programmes of immense national significance: The Simpsons followed by Home and Away. The Simpsons episode was Bart the Bad Guy. It was first broadcast on March 1st, 2020. Anybody with even the most casual interest in The Simpsons has seen it ages ago.

The Home and Away episode is newer. It was first aired in Australia last November. And admittedly, it does sound a bit like the RTÉ drama: “Harper avoids Felicity. Remi tries to mend things between Eden and Levi. Eden declares that she doesn’t want Levi in her life, and she feels betrayed by her friend for intervening.”

After some good kids’ shows, the RTÉ 2 schedule that evening – and pretty much every evening – was largely devoted to repeats of ancient imports. There was an episode of Millie Inbetween first aired by BBC eight years ago. It was followed by an episode of The Next Step, first seen on BBC in February 2020. Then there was Viking School, a cartoon originally broadcast in France in 2020. And then the grand finale of Channel 4′s Junior Bake Off – from January 2022.

This whole stream of our national broadcaster’s output is a throwback to my own childhood. Back then, us innocents watched American TV shows from the 1950s a decade later and were delighted by them because we didn’t know any different. They were all we had: Champion the Wonder Horse and Have Gun, Will Travel were cutting-edge TV for us denizens of the exterior darkness.

Just before kick-off, News Now decided to bump the match so it could show Catherine Martin’s news conference from the Leinster House plinth

Has nobody in RTÉ noticed that things have changed? Do they really think we’re hicks lapping up Simpsons jokes that were generating memes four years ago? Do they imagine a 16 year old in Waterford hanging on breathlessly to see who emerged victorious from a British bake-off grand finale that aired in 2022? Have they actually heard of smartphones and social media and this newfangled internet business?

Well yes, in fairness, of course they have. They’re not stupid. The reason those old shows must go on and that the national broadcaster had no room to cover the women’s team playing Italy is that it’s not about public service or collective Irish events or any notion of what we all belong to. It’s the ad breaks, stupid.

The problem with a live women’s soccer game is that it’s not attractive enough to the big corporate advertisers to justify premium rates and yet you can’t cut into the match for ads or the bloody women will be up in arms. How much is 30 seconds of brilliance by Katie McCabe worth? For the nation, it is priceless. For the national broadcaster, it is worthless.

Whereas old recycled product from British, American, Australian and occasionally European channels is dirt cheap and can be chopped up to create space for revenue-generating commercial messages. The programmes exist purely and simply for the ads.

The Simpsons, even if it’s so long past its consume-by date that it’s growing mould bluer than Marge’s hair, brought in €1,100 for each 30-second slot. Half a minute sandwiched between chunks of Aussie soap was worth €1,300. Those figures quickly add up to an exit package.

The RTÉ debacle is telling us something that ought to have been obvious all along: if you prostitute our broadcaster to this logic, its often excellent coverage is shackled to a crass money-raising imperative. The values of a profit-seeking business (lucrative exit packages and over-the-top payments to “top talent”) crowd out those of public service.

Catherine Martin has the opportunity both to save her own political career and to do something big for Irish democracy. Fund RTÉ from the exchequer as a public service and instruct it to serve the nation and only the nation. Until that happens, it will be stuck on repeat, replaying its own overwrought soap operas and endlessly echoing Homer Simpson’s eloquent exclamation: Doh!

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