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Theory and Practice

(Under construction)                                                                                        28 January 2002

RTÉ's new role!

In a synopsis of a new book Broadcasting in the European Union, by Nitsche,  appearing on the Amazon/Waterstones website, the author refers to the changing nature and role of European broadcast media, as well as the ever-widening and deepening integration of Europe.

You may be aware that public service broadcasting has a privileged position under the Maastrict treaty, exempting it from competition.  For the public, this has more than one disadvantage.

According to the synopsis:

Tensions have arisen between:

the [broadcast] media's traditional role in preserving culture and identity and

its new role in promoting a European identity, underpinning economic integration and complementing the achievements of the free market.

We must admit we didn't know anything about this "new role in promoting a European identity, underpinning economic integration and complementing the achievements of the free market."

These are doubtless very laudable aims.

But we before we submit ourselves to further brainwashing, shouldn't we at least make a conscious decision about so doing first?  In the meantime, what decisions have already been made, who decided them, and where and when?

Was it in the Government Green Paper on Broadcasting, 1995?   We are checking this.

And there is a bigger issue.  Governments everywhere in Europe have worked hand in hand with the respective  "national broadcaster".  Is the Euro broadcaster now coming to ensure a greater uniformity of outputs, and a new Euro-identity, to make us better citizens and better customers?

Nitsche's book, Broadcasting in the European Union, may give you some answers.  But beware, it seems to be directed more at solving the problems of broadcasters (while "retaining their public interest function"), than addressing the concerns of the public.

Read also Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman, Methuen, around E10.20, ISBN 0 413 40440 4.   Could have been written more simply, but still, it's worth the effort to get even the gist.

Broadcasting in the European Union, by Nitsche, published by Asser Institute, or Kluwer Academic Publishers ISBN 9 06 704 1319, £41 stg.


28 January 2002



RTE was established under the Broadcasting Act, 1960.

Over the last 40 years a total of some £1.5bn has been contributed by the Irish public to RTÉ on the basis of a tax on the possession of a television set.

So, what has RTÉ given in exchange for this sum?


(Part page 10, page 11, and part page 12)
  1. Public Service Broadcasting and DEMOCRACY
  2. The ETHOS of Public Service Broadcasting
  3. The ELEMENTS of Public Service Broadcasting
  4. Public Service Broadcasting and the GUARANTEE of QUALITY


(Part pages 21 and 22)
  2. Domestic Coverage (section omitted here)
  3. Foreign Coverage (section omitted here)

(Ed. notes: 1. Emphasis and paragraph numbering added.
                 2. Both the Green Paper and RTE's response are informative documents; study of both is recommended )



If we Irish - at home and abroad - are to debate our past, present and future, if we are to give public expression to our values, then we will need indigenous broadcasting on radio and television to express this community's dialogue with itself and with the rest of the world.     The public purpose of this broadcasting will be first and foremost to serve the whole community with a range of programming which is universally available and affordable, and which will not be supplied by broadcasters who are principally obliged to make profits for their commercial operators. Vigorous
public service broadcasting is essential to our country's future as a democracy. In meeting this challenge, the scope and quality of RTE's schedules will determine whether the national public broadcaster retains the loyalty of Irish viewers who are entitled to expect a full service from their domestic television and radio.


It is important to put this emphasis on the broad-based public service in its entirety and not merely on the presence of certain programmes in the schedules, for the relevance of a public broadcaster depends not just on information programmes, news and current affairs, investigative reports and considered documentaries. Education programmes, children's broadcasting, services for minority groups, all these recognise particular areas of the public broadcaster's responsibility. Entertainment and soap operas, game shows and situation comedies, all the programmes with mass appeal - these too, are essential to the ecology of broadcasting. Firstly because they secure the popular following, the wide reach of appeal that is part of the definition of a public service able to capture the popular imagination. And secondly because they ensure that the audience is offered a full range of programmes that are produced and presented from an Irish perspective.


In 1993, the European Broadcasting Union with the support of the European Union and the Council of Europe organised a conference on the theme "Why public service broadcasting", at which RTÉ joined with 42 other broadcasting organisations to endorse a redefinition of public broadcasting entitled "Public service broadcasting: Europe's opportunity".  In Ireland the expression of public service principles has generated a set of obligations for the national broadcaster. Accordingly RTÉ must:

*  reflect the pluralism of the cultures and of the diverse traditions in this island including the nationalist and unionist traditions, north and south. RTÉ's broadcasting recognises the Irish language and its associated cultural expressions as integral elements of contemporary Irish life. RTÉ should also increase public understanding of the values and traditions of countries other than our own, including, in particular, those of the members of the European Union;

* provide high quality programmes which appeal to a wide range of tastes, interests and needs. As well as winning large popular audiences, we should cater to the best of our abi1ity to minority groups and seek to give voice to the marginalised;

* be fair and impartial, and ensure that any information, news or feature which relates to matters of public controversy or debate is presented objectively and impartially;

uphold the democratic values enshrined in the Constitution, especially those relating to rightful liberty of expression;

* be independent of and distanced from vested interests; be universally available to the public without distinction, providing national transmission coverage without regard to commercial considerations.

These are the principles underpinning RTÉ's activity: how will they fare in the future?  The recent policy document RTÉ - A Strategy and Goals to the Year 2000  reasserted these values, noting that:

The technology of mass communication will always be in a state of change and audio-visual styles will alter unceasingly, yet it is hard to imagine circumstances in which the national broadcasting service of a modern European democracy could turn its back on the essential values embodied in these statutory obligations.


It is clear that the coming era will see a proliferation of commercial services (many operating across frontiers and whole continents) whose first priority will be the interests of shareholders rather than of citizens, and consequently their primary motive will be the quest for profit. Of course the new broadcasters will offer choice and in the key areas of news, current affairs and information programming (so influential on the health of democracy) some of them may promise editorial diversity.

It is also clear that their editorial values will be driven by the struggle for ratings and audience share and, in the case of transfrontier broadcasters, there are no compelling reasons for them to produce high-quality reporting and analysis of the concerns of smaller states and territories within their huge transmission footprints. Irish people cannot expect that external services will satisfy the needs of this society.

Quality is the all-important consideration here: there will be choice among dizzying numbers of channels, but how meaningful will the choice be? How sensitive will the emergent services be to the needs of the viewers? How responsive? To whom will they be accountable?


In Ireland RTÉ, as the public broadcaster, is always answerable on these counts and, recognising the importance of accountability, RTÉ has given evidence to a number of Oireachtas joint Commiittees including those on State-sponsored bodies and the Irish language.

Since 1977 the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (established under the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1976) has issued advice on 80 occasions in response to complaints about transmissions on RTÉ radio and television and on Raidió na Gaeltachta.

Since 1984 RTÉ has commissioned the Market Research Bureau of Ireland to conduct Corporate Image Surveys at three-year intervals. The results of these surveys confirm that Irish people look to RTÉ television as their main source of news and information on national and international affairs.

In both 1990 and 1993, 79% of the respondents to the surveys took the view that RTÉ's coverage of news and current affairs was balanced. Even in the areas where RTÉ faces most competition (the so-called multi-channel homes) 73% said that RTÉ One is the best channel for current affairs, and 63% regarded it as best for news. These figures show that RTÉ's news and information services are far ahead of their rivals in the opinion of the public.

The question of accountability must also be addressed in a new and wider context. Clearly, the role of broadcasting in the future must be compatible with the increased autonomy of viewers in multi-channel conditions, in which the notion of a public purpose for broadcasters means that they cannot set out simply to conform to the predetermined reception interests of a mass audience. As an input into determining what the public function of public service broadcasting should be, new ways must be found to establish what the public wants broadcasting to be, to give the public involvement in what is provided, and to ensure that innovation and creativity are hallmarks of the most popular programming. Without those safeguards, there is a real danger of broadcasting service providers losing contact with their audiences and disseminating programmes which satisfy perhaps elite opinion and broadcasters themselves but not the majority of viewers. The diversity supplied may not necessarily be the diversity wanted by audiences.

Change is currently refashioning not only broadcasting organisations, economics and technologies but also the social and cultural conditions of audiences. We live in a communication-dependant society with broadcasting at its core. Rising educational levels, a keener awareness of personal rights and exposure to wider ranges of cultural products create a radio and television audience today that expects very high standards.

At the same time, a decline in moral certitude causes a blurring of what were formerly clear boundaries of taste, attitude, values and personal identities.   Traditionally authoritative institutions that once anchored people's values and attitudes are losing their gravitational pull, as changing conditions in social organisation bring forth new relationships between the individual citizen and authority, including an unwillingness to take the claims of those in power on trust. These changes challenge broadcasters to generate a deep understanding of the evolving expectations and concerns of citizens in their continually changing social conditions.


To date the parties engaged in the broadcasting debate have been overwhelmingly the interest groups and lobbies of the media world. There is a real need to recruit the public into the discussion. Having set out its position in response to the green Paper, RTÉ will establish a structure in which people responsible for key areas of its activities will go to meet the audience in towns and cities around the country. By this means the organisation will seek out the opinions of its listeners and viewers face-to-face.

As well as creating genuine occasions of debate for the public and the staff of RTÉ, this open forum approach will indicate a responsiveness to the public which is not achieved by opinion, surveys, audience research or even by correspondence with the very small minority who ever take the trouble of communicating with RTÉ. These meetings will be a first step in developing better ways of learning what the audience expects of the national broadcasting service.


RTE is committed to excellence in its public affairs service of news, current affairs and information programming - a service which is highly regarded internationally. RTE provides objective, impartial and independent news and current affairs. It acts on the principles that knowledge and information must be democratised; that broadcasting is essential to the health of Ireland's public life; and that debate on social and political matters must be maintained at a high standard and carried to the public at large. These principles underlie RTE's statutory obligations

* to "uphold the democratic values enshrined in the Constitution";

* "to collect news and information and to subscribe to news services and such other services as may be conducive to the objects of the Authority" (Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960 - 16(2)(f));

* "to secure that when it broadcasts any information, news or feature which relates to matters of public controversy or is the subject of current public debate, the information, news or feature is presented objectively and impartially and without any expression of the Authority's own views" (ibid. section 18(1)).

RTE also subscribes to the values of news and current affairs reporting enunciated in the EBU Declaration, "Public Service Broadcasting: Europe's Opportunity", which requires that such reporting

  • is impartial, independent, explanatory and pluralistic;
  • stimulates debate and clarifies issues;
  • counterbalances the trend towards trivialization and sensationalism.

News and current affairs programmes are among those which command the highest audiences in Ireland and RTE's Corporate Image Surveys confirm that its public affairs broadcasts are trusted and valued by the viewers and listeners. Here it is appropriate to stress once again that final point in the EBU Declaration, namely the necessity of maintaining an information culture that is not debased by the trivial and the sensational.


(Section omitted here)


(Section omitted here)


Above all other strands of programming, it is the approach to news and current affairs that confirms the public service character of a broadcasting organisation and, in an increasingly competitive environment, it is vital for public service broadcasters to maintain their characteristic identity on the basis of high standards. RTE is committed to a coverage of public affairs which achieves the highest standards not only in day-to-day news reporting but also in the comment and analytical perspectives offered by its current affairs programmes. Within its own remit, RTE's programmes reflect the plurality of opinion and respect the right of free expression which democracy cherishes. These values are evident both in the breadth and scope of its programmes, and also in the arrangements which RTE has for distinct lines of editorial management for the various elements of the news and current affairs portfolio on television and radio. On television, RTE will develop an editorial approach and presentation style for the news on Network Two which will offer viewers a distinct choice within RTE's services.

It is important to recall the cautionary words of a former BBC Director-General, Huw Wheldon, who remarked, "multiplicity does not mean choice". Meaningful choice will require the funds, talent and resources to guarantee a quality service. The Green Paper raises the question of choice of editorial treatment on television and radio and outlines (13.2) a proposal to make airtime available on one of the RTE television channels for an independent news service. Since the publication of the Green Paper, the context for this discussion has been altered by two public announcements. The first is the advertisement of the franchise for the new national radio station which will carry an independent news service. The second consideration is that the TV3 consortium has published plans which include a news and current affairs service with daily television news and comment from Ireland and abroad. In RTE's view, these new national radio and television channels are the proper frameworks in which to develop choices of editorial treatment on television and radio. It should also be noted that Teilifis na Gaeilge will have a national news service independent of RTE's editorial control. Along with the national and local press, and the commercial radio stations, these developments in national broadcasting will extend the editorial choices available to the Irish public.

End of extracts

Freedom of Information Act, 1997

as applied to RTÉ

The following is an extract from information supplied by RTÉ on its website, qv.  Further information from the Act, and from the Ministerial Order applying the Act to RTE, and specifying exemptions.  More on this here on this site, in due course. Emphasis has been added in the following extract.
                         "What records are available?
The regulations extending the FOI Act to RTÉ state that RTÉ comes under the Act for its records which relate to management, administration, finance, commercial, communications and the making of contracts.

What records held in RTÉ are exempt from FOI?

This right of access is subject to certain exemptions.

  • Under the 1997Act some of the exemptions include records that relate to information given in confidence, records that contain commercially sensitive information, records containing personal information. All of these exemptions are subject to a public interest test.
  • In addition the regulations extending the FOI to RTÉ state  certain records are exempt. These include:
    • The gathering and recording in any form of news, information, data, opinions, on or off the record quotes or views from any person or body or source, for journalistic or programme content purposes.
    • The identification of any potential or actual source of information or material for the purpose of making programmes.
    • The editing and storing of any material recorded by any means, whether written, aural, visual or otherwise, for the purposes of making programmes.
    • The process of making editorial decisions concerning programmes.
    • The process of internal review and analysis of programmes."
End of extract
September 2000

RTÉ and the Freedom of Information Act, 1997

Freedom from information?
From: Donal O'Driscoll:

The omens for a successful implementation of the Freedom of Information Act to RTE (effective 1 May), do not seem good.  As reported, RTE does not seem to be willing, whatever the Act may say, to meet some of the first requests for information, which relate to salaries of key staff.

Interesting as such information may be, the exemptions granted to RTE under the Act are of rather more importance to the affairs of the nation.    These exemptions include "the process of making editorial decisions concerning programmes", and "the process of internal review and analysis of programmes".

Examination of the records relating to these processes is central to ascertaining the efforts (if any) made by management to ensure compliance with the balance and fairness requirements of the Broadcasting Acts under section 18.

Enquiries as to the substance of these efforts are usually met with the response that RTE takes its responsibilities under the Act "very seriously", and that compliance is ensured by means of "editorial reviews" by senior staff.  In other words, by looking into their own hearts.

To sully such a process with any base notions of independent measurement would be a hindrance to efficient management, and indeed, an affront to all concerned.

Thus it is, and thus it seems set to remain.

I submit that the Freedom of Information Act, insofar as it now applies to RTE, is another sham, intended to keep us distracted and amused with irrelevant tit-bits.

4 May 2000

Spokesperson for FoI Commissioner:

"The act is designed to shed light on the working of any public bodies and that is what it's all about."

Quoted in Sunday Business Post 14 May 2000