There has been horror unconfined, this week, in polite society on both sides of the Irish Sea, at the prospect of Boris Johnson’s conservative Government doing away with the BBC. It is worth talking briefly both about the reasons for the horror, and the reasons for the UK Government’s proposal (which is not actually to do away with the BBC, but with the television licence that funds it).
It is not a coincidence at all that most defenders of the TV licence are people on the broad political left of centre, ranging from social liberals to socialists, and everything in between. The reason for it is very simple: That to such people, the national broadcaster, be it the BBC or RTE, is “theirs”.
In their minds, both institutions serve an important purpose: providing a bulwark against extremism, and anchoring the news, and the culture, firmly in the broad, liberal, middle ground. Make no mistake about it: If there was ever a sense that RTE, or the BBC, were broadly harmful to the things educated middle class people tend to believe in, both would be abolished in the morning. They exist, as they always have done, to support and defend the establishment’s broad view of the world.
Boris Johnson and his Government, by contrast, are regarded as bad and dangerous. Again, in simple terms, this can be defined by the fact that Johnson and his Government tend to stand for things that people on the broad left of centre find to be an abomination: Brexit, most prominently. But also, things like a hostility to progressive academic consensus on social issues, opposition to immigration, and various other positions that might be described as views a normal person would keep to themselves at a polite gathering of regular attendees of the Abbey Theatre.
The problem for the BBC and RTE both is this: In the days before the present, all-encompassing culture war, it was quite easy for both broadcasters to represent the views of the broad centre of the country that they served. That is no longer the case. We now live in a world not with two broad camps of people with differing political approaches, but with differing approaches to almost every aspect of life. There was a time, in the not so distant past, when everybody agreed, for example, what the word “woman” meant. That is no longer the case.
Both RTE and the BBC have picked a side. Neither of them, to continue with the example, any longer dare to define “woman” according to what the word always meant. Now we hear both broadcasters talk about “pregnant people” and “people who menstruate”, so as not to offend anybody on one particular side. This has a dual effect: It binds one group more closely to them, and alienates another group more from them.
In their defence, they are in an impossible situation in the longer term: If RTE, for example, decided that it would only use “gendered language” in its reports, and refer to “pregnant women”, it would find itself facing a mass of protest and discontent from its own employees, and many of its most loyal listeners. We live in an era of endless culture war, and, if you are a public institution, the pressure to take a side is unrelenting.
But that, too, must have consequences. RTE, for example, no longer has any relevance to me, or to thousands of you like me who are my readers. Few of us recognise the conversations on its airwaves. Why should we pay €165 per year to listen to Sam McConkey suggest that men require a licence to socialise, as he did on Sunday, without as much as a challenge from the presenter? Why should we fund Philip Boucher-Hayes, in his endless, relentless, crusade on climate change? Why should we be asked to pay for Ryan Tubridy’s endless pandering to the wokest cause he can find on a given day? Why should we pay for Claire Byrne, to campaign endlessly for lockdown forever and scorn any other perspectives, as she has done, shamelessly, for two years?
What value, in other words, do we get from RTE? In my own case, and I sorely doubt I am alone, the answer is none.
Nor is there, any longer, any real commercial justification for the licence fee. What does RTE provide, that others do not? If we want Irish news, Virgin Media provides it, for free. The Irish Times provides it, for free. As do others.
If we want sports, what does RTE give us? The GAA – but again, nothing that Virgin Media cannot provide. Sky Sports offers much more, for not vastly more than the licence fee.
What about drama? RTE offers us Fair City, and the occasional depressing drama series about crime in Dublin, usually with socially liberal messaging woven through it. Again, you can get better, and more, on Netflix, for less.
Documentaries? The Weather? Religious programming? Always, everywhere you look, somebody else is doing it better, for less money.
The licence fee is an anachronism. Paying it, and watching RTE, is increasingly more of a habit than a need. It is not an essential public service, and has not been for some time. Does RTE provide strong journalism on the issues that matter to you? Well, would you be reading Gript if it did? And yet, tens of thousands of you are.
On this one, Boris Johnson and the Tories are right. And they’re right even in the light of the fact that the BBC is 10 times the broadcaster RTE is.
RTE will limp on, of course, for political and cultural reasons. Those of us who increasingly detest it remain a minority here. But that will not be the case forever. The problem for RTE is this: It has picked a side, and it had better hope that its side is in the majority forever. Because the moment it is not, it will be gone. And not a moment too soon.