Public Service Broadcasting: what it is, what it is for, and what is its future - Moya Doherty

Public Service Broadcasting: what it is, what it is for, and what is its future - Moya Doherty

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Wednesday, 8th November 2023

We are delighted to bring to you the full text from Moya Doherty's lecture for the Gay Byrne Memorial lecture series.

It is a privilege to be delivering this presentation which celebrates

 both the work of the Royal Television Society  and one of television 

and radio’s most profound voices, Gay Byrne.


I am aware though, that it is a privilege qualified too by a 

degree of apprehension since the subject of the presentation, 

public service broadcasting, 

is under intense scrutiny and pressure, not only in Ireland, but in general 

across global media outlets. 


Yet never was public service broadcasting more necessary 

in a world where political chaos reigns, the daily news is rife 

with real wars and rumours of wars and 

our everyday lived experience

is seemingly under threat even on the streets we like to call home. 


We are living in what seems like the disruption of the disruption.

But  I am convinced that public service broadcasting is 

essential to public life in contemporary Ireland and I am 

also aware that what we have traditionally understood to be 

public service broadcasting may no longer be fit for 

21st century purpose. 


The Future of Media Commission recognised this when it stated that

‘the traditional model of PSM is evolving to recognise 

and incorporate the greater agency that citizens and 

consumers expect, as co-creators and stakeholders in 

the media system.  


 This demands that PSM show great ambition in engaging 

with audiences, a levels of transparency and public accountability.

One of the greatest challenges facing media is to ensure 

that they are appropriately diverse, accessible, 

inclusive and representative of contemporary Ireland. 


There is a need for greater diversity of representation, 

including for groups that are currently underrepresented 

and marginalized, in programming, commissioning and 

production of news and current affairs, arts and culture, sport,

Irish language and entertainment.’


 These challenges are sufficiently onerous in themselves 

but they are to be addressed in a society where 

the accepted rules of democracy no longer pertain, 

the platforms for information, and more especially disinformation, 

are multiple and there is a distinct generational 

difference in the accessing of news and current affairs. 


Research published this year from the Reuters organisation 

found that the consensus that public service 

broadcasting of news is a ‘good’ thing is now gone 

and that factors such as age, education and actual usage 

of public service media define our relationship with such broadcasting.


 The diversity of public service need which the 

Future of Media Commission noted means that there 

is now no single primacy of voice as there was when

Gay Byrne was a trusted and constant presence in our media lives. 


 Gay’s audience faced its own disruption 

in the form of the 60’s cultural revolution 

but they were not bewildered by the cacophony of digital noise

 as we now are and 

the primacy of RTE as the public service broadcaster 

allowed Gay to operate as a conduit for citizen debate, 

a filter when necessary and a provocation 

when change was imminent. 


Gay it was who inadvertently 

created the cult of personality around ‘star’ presenters, 

he it was who orchestrated and conducted the 

long form interview show and he it was 

who gave a platform to the listener 

and viewer to air their views nationally. 


The Dear Gay letters are a testament to the 

emotional power of interactive radio 

and an indication as to why it was not surprising that 

the advertising community clamoured to be 

associated with such media power.


Suzy O’Bryne who is here this evening with Kathleen Watkins Bynre

and family has edited a Dear Gay book published by Gill and McMillan 

And due to be launched well before Christmas so 

you can buy one for everyone ….. in the ……on your Christmas list.



But the gifts that Gay brought to RTE were 

a two-edged sword since systems became 

embedded which would not only be challenged

 but inevitably made obsolete as advertising moved

 to more live and immediate platforms, 

the national consensus dissipated  and broadcasting 

itself shifted to multiple forms of niche narrow-casting.


 RTE has, for a number of years, found itself in existential crisis, 

a crisis which is not merely financial.   


We are all aware how that existential crisis imploded 

over the last few months and one of the great sadnesses

 of this period is that serious errors of judgment

 have come to be seen as defining RTE rather 

than the exceptional work and societal benefit 

it engenders during, for example, the national crisis …. 

the pandemic ………2016 Centenary.


 I realise that entering the present debate about RTE

 should be accompanied by the Seamus Heaney caveat 

- whatever you say, say nothing - but as former chair 

there are a number of observations I would make. 


The first is about the role of a Board ……


A public board should, of course, 

ensure that governance is rigourous.

It can only do that according

to the accepted governance conventions of the time.   


To suggest that when these governance rules are 

followed and signed off, in some cases by 

two appointed arbiters, the board should then ask 

to see the secret systems which do not yet exist 

because they are not yet in the public domain 

is nothing short of Beckettian. 


The  other, perhaps more vital role of a public board,

is to analyse the contemporary space, 

find the threats and opportunities and support 

those within the organisation to negotiate a possible future.   



To do this it is essential that the board’s members

are informed and future thinking. I was often told the 

RTE board needed more hard-nosed business people 

to advise on cuts and staff numbers, 

a strategy which makes those staff least able

 to defend their position most vulnerable.    


In a creative industry context an 

organisation’s greatest asset is its people 

and it is often forgotten that all creative enterprise 

is people dependent. 


Not only does it run counter to all modern business theory

 but it allows a narrative of decline to become dominant, 

to promote cuts which will lead only to less programming 

which then further erodes the place of public service broadcasting 

in the national consciousness. 


It is the supreme example of what the Slovenian cultural theorist

 Slavoj Zizek calls the ‘chocolate laxative syndrome’   

where we are told to keep taking more of that 

which is making us sick in the forlorn hope 

it will somehow change an inevitable outcome.   


The consequence of this is further pressure

 on those tasked with running the organisation 

to succeed at all costs and, inevitably, the kind of unravelling 

we have witnessed over the last few months.   


If there is a silver lining to this crisis it is that it is 

now clear to all that the present model is broken and that, 

in particular, the dual funding model of funding

 is simply not sustainable.  



We should not allow what happened at RTE 

to dominate our view or understanding 

of the concept of public service media.   



To have that debate we need to make a distinction 

between the operations of RTE as an organisation 

and public service media as an idea.


The title of tonight’s presentation poses the initial question 

as to what public service broadcasting actually is.   

To answer this we need to be looking for a new definition 

because public service broadcasting 

is no longer what we thought it was.   



A public service broadcaster can no longer assume 

the primacy of voice, assume to be at the 

forefront of technological change or 

assume to be relevant for the majority of the population it serves.    

Lord Reith’s much lauded BBC mantra 

that public service broadcasting should entertain, 

educate and inform, while still perhaps the ideal

becomes deeply complex in a world where 

we live as a networked species.



Any new public service media definition tentatively 

offered should be grounded in an informed understanding of two things; 


the contemporary technological space in which

 it must operate and a set of philosophical theories 

which can act as a vision for the future.


We have to accept that  the complexities of contemporary technology 

Is that the space  is one of continual change 

and rapid progress what the commentator 

Douglas Rushkoff terms, ‘the acceleration of the acceleration’. 




It is possible to identify the overarching trends

 in which specific technologies are operating. 

The most dominant of these trends at the moment

 is the new convergence. 



The idea of convergence has been around for some time 

and the phone you all carry in your pockets or bags 

is the most prominent example of that,  

no longer a communication device only but also a 

computer, a sat nav, a multi-pixel camera and, for some, 

a security device.   


Most of us never exploit fully our phones and 

I wonder what someone who returned 

from a twenty year exile on a desert island might think 

when told we hold in our hands a device 

with all the knowledge in the world on it and 

we use it for watching videos of cats 

and fighting with one another.



But the new convergence at the industrial level is of a new order.  

It ensures that apparently distinct technologies - 

virtual production, drone systems, liDar scanning, robotics, virtual reality, 

augmented reality - come together in a complex rhizome to deliver content to

an audience with high expectation and user expertise.     




One excellent example of this is a project recently 

launched on Rathlin Island. It is a green 

technology project examining the 

impact climate change might have on island communities 

but it will be delivered through the construction 

of an exact 3D model of the island using all the technologies 

listed above to create a model which can be used 

to test green strategies in real time. This technological convergence 

also means that the distinctions between creative sectors has blurred 

and that no one organisation is capable of delivering 

an entire project on its own


Collaborative partnership becomes the key modus operandi 

for any public service body. 


How can all public service media transition to this 

new technological space while maintaining the services expected of it?


Most are already five years behind this technological curve 

and the time needed to retrain staff and accumulate 

new equipment and physical resources would leave them 

further adrift of the contemporary production world. 


This conundrum exercised the Board I chaired on a monthly basis. 

The answer, painful as it may initially seem, may be to accept that transition

is not possible and to acknowledge the need to fast-track a new coalition 

of private, public and other key bodies 

which would house the new public service model. 

If managed correctly the old model would wither away and 

those who wished to retrain would also transition 

while those who do not would also be supported in that wish.


There are a number of precedents for this, and the added virtue

of such a coalition is that it allows true green sustainability to be built into

the new system.   


 It will of course be costly but decision makers need

to consider the cost of not doing this or something equally radical.   

The greatest risk is not to take the risk. 

Public service media can, and must, play a key role, 

working with others in the coalition, 

to democratise these emerging technologies.    


This is particularly true of artificial intelligence for example 

where the apocalyptic narrative is deafening.  

If we do not democratise these technologies 

we are ensuring that the gap between 

those who can access knowledge, information and 

ultimately understanding, and those who cannot widens.   


Those who cannot will then drift further into 

conspiracy theory and superstition which will then advance 

inexorably the threats to democracy we have witnessed 

in the politics of the extreme right in the USA and, 

recently, in our own country.


One last related point on artificial intelligence or AI.   

I don’t think AI will take  your job. Someone using AI may 

apply for your job so  we need to ensure that the workings 

of AI are known and available to all from primary school onwards. 


The way this could be done is to establish, 

now, what MIT calls a Global AI Observatory 

which could operate on the model of  the 

International Panel on climate Change and 

develop protective and educational 

strategies to support global citizenship. 

Obviously I believe one way to advance 

that global debate would be through the various 

global public service media organisations.




The shift to any new model must be grounded in a vision, 

an inspirational goal which audiences 

and policy makers can feel an empathy with.   

The factor which I feel most dominates our daily existence at the moment

  is the feeling of hopelessness, a sense that nothing can be done, 

an acceptance of the fundamental 

Thatcherite lie that there is no alternative. 


Recently there has been the beginnings of a 

counter-movement which is developing the theory 

that values such as imagination and hope can move from 

emotional/psychological contexts to become actual strategies for change.   


The first of these is to be found in the work of the 

ex-CEO of NESTA, Geoff Mulgan, in particular in his latest book, 

Another World is Possible: How to Reignite Social and Political Imagination.   

Mulgan offer the view that  imagination (and creativity) 

need to be seen as strategic objectives rather than abstract concepts and that

imagination has to be developed as an infrastructural policy strategy. Here is a short

summary of Mulgan’s book in his own words:



“This book focuses on a simple question: how could we become

 better at imagining the society in which we might like to live 

a generation or two from now?   

It draws on literature from the social sciences, the arts, 

philosophy and history, but also on a lifetime’s

 involvement in making ideas real - 

working top down in the heart of government;   

working bottom up with hundreds of social entrepreneurs and innovators; 

and working in digital technology during a period 

when it was being used to transform so many fields.    

It s designed to be an antidote to fatalism - 

to remind us that other worlds are possible”



The Croatian theorist Srecko Horvat develops 

this thinking in his book, Poetry From the Future.    


In it he asserts that ‘we are living in a long winter of melancholy, 

not only in Europe but across the world.”      

“The past is forgotten, and the future is without hope.   

Dystopia has become a reality.’   Rather than seeing this as inevitable, 

Horvat  says  that this dystopian mediascape 

can become the platform for rebirth and resistance 

through the application of hope as a strategy where 

education, economic, social, 

cultural and public service media policies are designed 

to offer hope through new and alternative

 models of operation and governance.    

We need to develop, what Zizek calls, “the courage of hopelessness”.


This may sound like utopian thinking but there is a unique example

of the application of imagination and hope for change in the form of the 

Covid Recovery Programme Employment and Skills Initiative 

delivered by the then Minister for Communities, 

Minister Hargey in Northern Ireland in 2022. 


This initiative created 200 three year jobs in arts and 

creative industry organisations but the aim was not 

employability but the building of capacity in these sectors.   

All indications are that the scheme has been a success 

with demand far outstripping resource and 

genuine progress in the sectors targeted.   

Imagination and hope as strategy in action.



But what might these new strategies look like in the

context of public service media? 


Public service media must evolve into a wider 

collaborative partnership of key delivery partners, 

a partnership which includes, of course, government.   

The public service media organisation should, in such a partnership, 

become  a social and cultural broker for the 

creative industries space as a whole acting as the driver 

and facilitator for new and ground-breaking productions.


It should be the space where the most challenging

 and important debates take place, 

not just about news and current affairs 

but about the social and cultural dividend 

which can emanate from such a partnership.   


I believe there needs to be a new equity 

between news and culture since for most it is 

culture which forms their dominant world view

In this partnership model the public service body 

becomes the place where innovation, 

research and experimentation takes place, 

addressing and hopefully offering possible solutions to problems, 

technical and societal, which individual organisations 

and bodies would not have the expertise or resource to address.    



Such a model also allows for the pooling of financial resources 

to confront projects which again no one body 

could contemplate and advancing 

a new concept of public/private partnership.   

The benefits of such a collaborative partnership 

are increased risk sharing;  

obtaining access to new markets and technologies;  

speeding products to market;  

pooling complementary skills;

safeguarding intellectual property rights; 

and, acting as a key vehicle for 

obtaining access to external knowledge.



Public service media can, and must, become the conduit 

through which the complexities of 21st century life - 

social, cultural and economic, - must be filtered, 

a neutral hub at the centre of an infrastructural rhizome 

operating in the recognition that we life our lives now 

through ecologies where no one aspect is distinct from another. 


Public service  media transforms itself into a model of public service consortium.

I spoke earlier  of RTE being in existential crisis.   


At the risk of being dramatic that existential crisis seems 

to be everywhere in our lives at the moment.     

It is imperative public service media 

finds a form where it represents truth and trust to the people 

it serves as Gay Byrne did on a weekly basis 

but it must make sure that in developing 

its new model that no one is left behind. 


I say this because I realise that we in this room exist in a place 

of relative privilege when it comes to existential crisis 

but I take solace and courage once more from the words: ‘

of Horvat a revolution is not a dinner party or writing an essay. 

Although it often starts like that.”


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We are delighted to bring to you the full text from Moya Doherty's lecture for the Gay Byrne Memorial lecture series.