Photo credit: Spiva Centre for the Arts
RTÉ recently published a new strategy aimed at safeguarding its TV and radio output between now and 2022. Part of the document states that RTÉ will “adjust its strategic direction to…reflect Ireland’s diversity on and off air”. And there-in lies what I think is a massive problem for RTÉ – the lack of diversity being reflected by its output.
At this point, before I continue, I should say that I work part time in RTÉ and I have held various roles in the company in the last 15 years. I love working in the company. I have many friends there and I see them, and countless others, work tirelessly, creatively and often under immense pressure to produce the best radio, TV and digital output possible. Also, to the naysayers, I would never tire in the defence of RTÉ and its public service ethos.
A recent independent report by Kieran Mulvey, a former director of the Workplace Relations Commision, found that RTÉ needs to “widen the context of its recruitment to include the diverse ethnic background”. However, in relation to its aim to become a more diversified and representative organisation, change needs to be more than just an aspirational strategy in a long and prolonged five-year plan. The audience needs to see change happen fast if the organisation is to become more relevant to the Ireland of today and not just the Ireland of tomorrow in 2022.
One example shows how the diversity of the channel has in fact declined in relation to the gay community. Approximately ten years ago, there was a respectable level of representation of the gay community with Brendan Courtney, Derek Mooney and Aengus MacGrianna all visible in the prime- time schedule. Aengus was slightly less representative in that he worked in the news division and as such had to be seen to be impartial in terms of his personal views. In addition, there were people such as Darren Kennedy and Stephen Byrne beginning to make a name for themselves and people such as Shirley Temple Bar, aka Declan Buckley, appearing as well.
Today, it’s very different story. As of March 17th 2018, Aengus will have left RTÉ, Derek is no longer a fixture on the main weekday radio schedule, neither Brendan nor Darren are on RTÉ screens in regular presenting roles and Stephen Byrne is only predominantly heard on weekend RTÉ 2FM. However, in comparison, there are white, middle-aged, middle-class and hetrosexual males dominating the daily output across TV and radio from the male voices on the Morning Ireland team, via Ryan Tubridy at 9am on Radio 1 through to Dáithí Ó Sé in daytime on TV and a whole coterie of similar names and faces in TV and radio during the rest of the mainstream schedule.
And other minorities can justly feel equally under represented. The company trumpeted the arrival of its first ethnic minority news presenter, Zainab Boladale – “first Afro-Irish woman is newest RTÉ News presenter” via RTÉ Entertainment in September 2017. Yes, it’s a good thing and it should be recognised but it’s only one small example among a very sizeable section of our society. Other communities could feel equally aggrieved given that the census of 2016 showed over 535, 475 non-Irish nationals from 200 different countries living in Ireland. I am not saying every single group should see representation of their individual backgrounds. The amount of available TV and radio work and economic constraints certainly preclude that as a possibility, but one or two people from one or two groups is simply not enough.
So, whilst there are some small moves towards more diversity in both on-air output and production, these are only small steps in what should be a much more progressive march towards diversity and inclusion. RTÉ has to quickly accelerate it’s “reflection of Ireland’s diversity” before large swathes of our society switch off for good.