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.”