7 December 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Strange Days Indeed…
09 Mar 2000 :
Resignations, rows and downright indignation. Not the language we had expected to hear describing the state broadcaster in this bright new century. Just what is happening in RTE and what will happen to a Digico formed without it? Gary Quinn took a look at what has happened so far.

In the space of two weeks Joe Mullholland has announced his retirement, this following hard on the heels of Helen O'Rahilly, director of television production's surprise announcement that she was returning to the BBC. The Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands Ms. Sile deValera has proposed to exclude RTE from its 40% stake in Digico and after an absence of two years from the interview circuit the Minister herself has returned with an interview set in the sunnier climes of LA. Even the Taoiseach was dragged centre stage, albeit incorrectly. Strange days indeed.

Now it cannot be claimed that each of these are directly and intimately interrelated but stress and low morale can force decisions which otherwise might have been harboured in less stormy weather. Joe Mulholland is 60 years old. He wants a break and probably deserves it. He claims to have been overly identified with problems at the station while maintaining that his departure has not created tension between him and the RTE Authority. His role of Managing Director of Television will retire with him and RTE Television will now be directed by Cathal Goan, currently a chief executive at TG4. RTE Authority might feel that they had reason to be very put out had they wanted to. Cathal Goan replaces Helen O'Rahilly who resigned after only one year at the helm of television. Taking over as editor of the BBC's documentary and history channel on its new digital network was an offer that, according to some commentators, she simply couldn't refuse.

The BBC hiring staff for their digital channels brings us neatly to the next bend in the road - Digico. Last summer the Minister announced her plans to create a new broadcasting infrastructure. Aptly named Digico, it was to be a commercial entity with public broadcasting at its heart. To ensure this, she had bargained the transmission network, currently owned in full by RTE, against a 40% stake in the new company. RTE agreed. Valued at their estimate of £70 million, the sale of the transmission network would give them a strong hand at the negotiating table. They could effectively determine the future of digital broadcasting.

Then came the Government leak which left them reeling. RTE was to be excluded from Digico entirely. The problems arose when the network was independently valued. A consortium of financial advisors were selected to assess the network. Led by AIB, they surprised the minister with a network evaluation of almost half RTE's self estimate. With 100 transmitters on 70 sites around the country they saw the resource to be worth somewhere between £30-40 million. Considered a knockdown price it would have seriously affected RTE's percentage gain ownership of Digico. RTE vented its fury and the RTE Authority set its course. Meetings were scheduled and statements made. They would have to wait though. The Minister wasn't home.

While RTE grappled with the Digico debacle, the Minister Sile deValera took on Hollywood, using the visit to promote Ireland as a location to film studios such as Fox and HBO. An important trip but one which prevented her appearance in the media here. Coincidence? Who knows. While there she granted an interview to the Sunday Times. Its content aside, this is notable only to those who have recorded the absence of interviews she has given to anyone during her time as Minister. This was the first in two years. It dealt largely with the Arts Council and its current instability since the resignation of Brian Farrell, Paul McGuiness and Jane Gogan. Between them this trio are seen as the strongest members of a council which is considered too large, too lacking in expertise and needing serious restructuring. She wasn't to be drawn on RTE, casting a shadow over any short-term changes in proposed policy. Change is imminent, the quality of its effects are yet to be seen.

Since then, RTE and the Minister have met, discussed and drawn their lines in the sand. The RTE delegation was strong including Chairman of the Authority Prof. Farrell Corcoran and the Chair designate Pady Wright, Director General Bob Collins and Managing Director Liam Miller. A sign of their determination it still has some way to go. According to Farrell Corcoran the meetings were "lengthy and useful" but that the issues at stake were "going to take a bit of time to tease out." But time could prove costly. With digital broadcasting rolling on, Ireland is already falling dangerously behind in the global race to establish this new broadcasting infrastructure.

There is low morale at RTE. Late in '99 they announced massive job cuts, spending is down and the need for new indigenous production is up. The Minister's decision was ill-timed adding fuel to an already well-fanned flame. The chances are that we will see her amend her proposals in the coming weeks in the face of unparalleled criticism from the opposition benchs and RTE alike. RTE owns the transmission network and may simply refuse to sell for the price suggested regardless of their stake in the digital future of broadcasting. It is difficult to imagine a broadcasting landscape which wouldn't include Public Service Broadcasting as an integral part. Public Service Broadcasting is vital for a healthy media - A voice which isn't necessarily there for financial gain. The next few weeks will be crucial.

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