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RTÉ’s fight for survival comes down to parting shot after the bell

 

COMMENT

Just over a year ago, The Irish Post reappeared on the newsstands after a two-month absence.

I wasn’t at the newspaper when it closed so my perspective was different from that of the rest of the staff, who were at the coal face of the battle to save The Post.

What struck me was how many people were genuinely upset that the paper had gone. And once the staff galvanised and fought hard for survival, they were carried along by a wave of goodwill from the wider Irish community.

When RTÉ announced they were closing their London bureau, the Post, having been through the same trauma, pledged their support. A campaign to save the London bureau was launched.

However, unlike for the newspaper, there was no major groundswell of support for RTÉ; as much as this paper banged the drum, relatively few people rallied to the cause. Some 190 people took the time to post a coupon or sign the electronic petition on the Irish Post website. That should not be discounted, but this number is small compared to previous campaigns the paper has run and smaller still next to the volume of people that got behind the bid to save The Irish Post.

Critically, when their time came, the Post staff raged against the dying of the light. Can the RTÉ staff here honestly say they did the same? Certainly, they did not do so in public.

I’m sure former London correspondent Brian O’Connell made a strong case for the bureau’s survival behind the scenes. He wrote eloquently and persuasively in the Irish Times two weeks ago about the perils of ‘Ryanair journalism’ and in favour of having a constant presence in Ireland’s nearest neighbour, where so many Irish people live.

The problem was that O’Connell made his play after the final whistle had shrilled and the crowd were long gone home. You need to throw a shape when there’s still something to fight for. Instead of using his undoubted stature to sway the matter when it was live, O’Connell kept quiet, only breaking his silence for a parting lament.

Had he spoken out six months ago, the hugely experienced and respected journalist would have made it difficult for the RTÉ brass to press ahead with their cuts, which O’Connell points out in the Irish Times, lacked nuance.

Apart from O’Connell’s sensible suggestion to have London reporters work from home and hire crews only when needed, the main nuance I can see is that Ireland’s tax-funded broadcaster still — during a crushing recession — sees fit to pay ‘stars’ like Pat Kenny, Miriam O’Callaghan and Ryan Tubridy more than the Taoiseach.

No news-gathering operations should be slashed while Kenny, O’Callaghan and Tubridy are earning six-figure salaries, let alone the kind of pay-cheques that would make a sultan blush.

But in an age of ‘personalities’, honest grafters, not ‘the talent’, will always be at the sharp end when the axe swings.

The only way for an operation like the London bureau to avoid the chop is to make itself indispensable. Did they do this?

Well, I have not heard many say a bad word about them. I’ve not heard many say a good word about them either. I realise that an office putting together short clips for the news aren’t going to cover every Irish Centre bingo night and whist drive; still, their profile was far too low.

Even the location of their office — Westminster — told you about their priorities. In a recent interview with this paper, O’Connell talked about “Albert and John being friends” and how Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern would finish each other’s sentences. This makes for uneasy reading. If you’re going to allocate so much time to politics, then at least put it up to the politicians, make them squirm. Being on first-name terms with these people is no cause for fond reflection.

The political class is held in low esteem. Over a third of the electorate don’t vote. Of the two-thirds that do many are, like myself, acting out of a vague sense of duty and the forlorn hope that one crowd is slightly less bad than the other.

At best, politicians are seen as detached from everyday reality. Spend too much time in their circle and you too will become a degree removed from the people whose story you are supposed to be telling.

This is my main gripe with RTÉ London: they did not tell our story, the Irish in Britain, in a manner which enriched and inspired — as per their mission statement. When the bombs stopped and peace was secured, their once-vital operation seemed bereft of purpose.

The Irish Post is far from perfect, but we have always been on the front line, while the London bureau wasted huge chunks of time far from the trenches, in their Westminster lookout.

The battle to save the London bureau has been lost, which is sad. Ultimately, though, too many people on the outside didn’t feel it was worth fighting for — while those on the inside didn’t fight hard enough.

 

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