YOU HAVE to feel sorry for RTÉ director general Dee Forbes, who is faced with the wrath not only of her staff but also the RTÉ board, which has serious doubts about her and the other executives responsible for the plan to save RTÉ.
The scoop about the plan, secured by Irish Times hack Fiach Kelly, drew gasps from Dee and board chair Moya Doherty, not merely because of the premature leak, but because it contained references to divisions between the board (Moya) and the executive (Dee). Following RTÉ’s hurried statement in response to the IT story, the references to those divisions was excised in subsequent editions, partly because it contradicted Forbes’s statement about working closely with the board, but also because of strong representations and denials from Dee.
However, differences there are and they centre on the board’s much keener, even catastrophic, view of the station’s finances and viability. Specifically, the board does not believe that the plan (and Forbes’s statement that night) went far enough nor does it believe that the listed cuts will be enough to save the station from perdition.
Furthermore, the board members – some of whom are heavy-hitting, private-sector types – do not believe that Dee is the right woman to slash and burn as required. Two years ago, the rumour swept around Montrose that Forbes was about to resign following a series of rows with the board.
In particular, the then relatively new DG (less than a year in the job) had complained she had not been apprised in advance of the totality of RTÉ’s financial quagmire and had consequently engaged in indignant recrimination with board members. Happily, Dee arrived in the newsroom later that week to scotch the reports and told key broadcasters that she was going nowhere (see The Phoenix, 24/2/17). But there is little doubt that the division between Moya’s gang and Dee’s crew go back some years and that the latter is being held responsible for failing to impose stringent cuts.
Moya did not get to be chair of the board without proving herself in the business of commercially profitable programming, but she is not the only hard-headed businesswoman on the board. One of these is Fionnuala Sheehan, former chief executive of MEAS, the hilariously entitled Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society, which drew up “codes” on the “promotion and merchandising of alcoholic drinks”. MEAS was funded by the drinks industry and lobbied against government measures to curb alcohol promotion and consumption. Given this background, Sheehan’s nomination to the RTÉ board – by the Oireachtas communications committee – caused a flurry at the time (see The Phoenix, 10/10/14).
Other suits on the board include publisher Frank Hannigan and Shane Naughton of The Economist Group.
The board’s ‘strictly business’ attitude to RTÉ and its public-service remit was illustrated in 2016. Then it sold a large part of the Montrose site to private developers without insisting on a significant social housing element.
Board members have been muttering about their fiduciary duties and have rather less time for Reithean phrases about public-service commitments than Dee, who must answer to – or at least humour – the station luvvies. The board believes that, unless savage cuts are made, the government – whose contempt for RTÉ is bottomless – will not come to its aid.
Dee’s side of the house believes that the government simply hates ‘those RTÉ lefties’ and will screw them whatever they do.