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The Ballad of Secret RTÉ Producer.

by Conor Matthews 10 months ago in social media

A tale of laziness, secrecy, and bad TV.

The Ballad of Secret RTÉ Producer.
Photo by Sven Scheuermeier on Unsplash

The age of the internet has brought about a golden age for whistlblowing, boycotting, and well known secrets. Whether it's the Me Too movement, Black Lives Matter (and affiliates), or Wikileaks, the internet has proven its ability to shed light on the darker corners of those in charge in every country.

Including Ireland.

On the 7th of September, 2017, a Twitter account going by the name Secret RTÉ Producer (@rtesecretpro) introduced themselves with the following;

What would follow in the continuing two month (more about that later) would be an alleged producer working for the national broadcaster of Ireland, RTÉ (Raidió Teilifís Éireann/Radio Television Ireland (think BBC but in Ireland)), Tweeting about the dirty little secrets of the broadcaster, which had long endured a public image of being uninventive, costly, and separated from the mood of the nation.

These images were screen shot from the account while it was still active (again, more on that later). As such, the most recent tweets are sorted from the bottom to the top. I apologise in advance for the inconvenience.

NOTE: Tweets are all alleged comments. All remarks made within them are to be taken in that context.

This might be a good place to interject to provide some more context, especially for any readers unaware how RTÉ works exactly.

RTÉ was founded in 1960 and acts as a "semi-state" broadcaster. Unlike the BBC, RTÉ is technically a half state, half commercial broadcaster, meaning that not only can they be paid by the Television Licence here in Ireland, which is mandatory for any home that owns a television capable of receiving an aerial transmission (before digital), but also from advertisement revenue.

Where the BBC continually broadcasts shows with no interruptions apart from short intervals where they announce upcoming shows, public service announcements, or even breaking news, RTÉ has ad breaks, as well as being in the position to fill airtime with outside productions and shows, to a much greater degree than the likes of BBC, Channel 4, ITV, or their domestic competition TG4 and Virgin Media Ireland.

RTÉ is, yes, technically overseen by the government of Ireland. The government are the ones who appoint the Executive Board, led by the Director-General, and regulated by the BAI, Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. It's a broadcaster acting on behalf of a government who is acting on behalf of the country.

So what you have is a case where a semi-state broadcaster, with room to wiggle on the quality of content, is put in place not necessarily by rising through RTÉ but by a government that steps back from day-to-day dealings. So long as RTÉ's board stay within the limitations of the BAI, effectively they're left to their own devices they never had to suffer under themselves, as evidences from SRP's tweets so far.

[Side note: notice the second tweet from the bottom in the last image; it's foreshadowing].

For context, the "package" SRP is talking about is a severance package RTÉ at the time was using to entice employees to leave. It's no secret that RTÉ for the better half of a decade has been in the red, despite their monetary advantages that come from advertisement revenue.

SRP touches on part of the problem; giving GAA next to free coverage, with commentators, after show analysis, GAA lifestyle-esque shows, and even other GAA inspired coverage, treating the (unpaid) players as national celebrities. Yet SRP in these tweets manages to leave the expense of their talent, presenters like Joe Duffy, Ray D'Arcy, Ryan Tubridy, Derek Mooney. In no way am I saying that these people shouldn't be paid, but RTÉ, so long as they are involved as the official state broadcaster, and so long as they benefit from the TV Licence, need to justify how they can let go of below-the-line workers while paying ten presenters a total of €3 Million.

It's important to remember this is the same RTÉ who wish for the licence fee to include any and all screened devices, essentially wanting to profit from you being on your laptops, your phones, or you devices, whether you watch RTÉ on them or not.

SRP manages to highlight three major factors that should be taken into account before judging RTÉ too harshly;

Youth programming (under 40) was gutted.

Perhaps they could sense the mood, but it's no coincidence youth programming was cancelled and outsourced with the arrival of the internet. We've seen something similar with the cancellation of BBC Three, the BBC's youth focused channel. Even for profit channels like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, which previously in the early 2000s catered to their more teenage/young adult audience with a dedicated time slot called Adult Swim (later to become its own channel), Toonami, and Nick At Night, cut their own dedicated time slots.

This was the age of Myspace and Bebo after all. I probably saw better, more interesting content of Youtube, Newgrounds, and Jib Jab than on RTÉ. Now, a pivot towards this kind of content could have been possible, but it seem RTÉ went with the safer bet; older viewers, who, habitually, are a trusty demographic, more likely to watch for longer and less likely to change the channel.

For its flaws, RTÉ (still) excels at current affairs.

The last year or so of the pandemic had made me appreciate RTÉ as a trusty new source. Even before that, I will admit RTÉ is a delight during breaking news and elections. Their Twitter team is something of a dark horse, surprising even me with their updates, engagement, and general sense of craic. You can't help tell your talking to engaged and informed internet savvy 20/30-somethings fresh out of college with their political science degrees.

Technically, this is the bare minimum expectation of RTÉ and they knock it out of the part. But when it comes to programming after that, it's a bit like a professional athlete trying their hand at something else with mixed, if not terrible results. Imagine if Tiger Woods tried out singing. I don't doubt he could hold a decent tune, but I'm sure they'd be a very politely applause rather than a sincere one.

It IS the national broadcaster.

As SRP points out, TV3 (now Virgin Media Ireland) are solely for-profit. While I detest how semi-state entities muddle the waters, purely commercial broadcasters aim for the widest demographic possible, regardless of the source of the content. For example, at the time of writing, Virgin One is playing "Beat the Chaser", followed by "The Chase: Celebrity Special", then "Love Island", then "Gogglebox Ireland", followed by "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire", and ending the night at midnight with a documentary about the impact of Covid in Ireland. If we're counting formats, that's five uninterrupted hours of British programmes, all out-of-house, with the only Irish programme at a time slot usually reserved for syndicated shows from the 2010s that have long since been cancelled.

If you've been following the tweets instead of just reading my ramblings, you've seen the slow build up of paranoia, first starting with SRP themselves, then their colleagues, before finally reaching the heads themselves. It's fascinating how these kind of things come about; mirroring how the secrets only become an issue once they're in the open, then talked within the institutions themselves, before finally becoming the concern of executives. It should be noted that at no time in 2017 nor since did RTÉ comment on this account nor the claims made within it. If true, however, the concern of the board and commission execs wasn't to address them but rather to silence them.

This is the national broadcaster of my country, trusted to be factual and reliable, with issues ranging from brain-drain, mounting costs and debt, and a PR nightmare. And they want to silence one of their own producers?

Really consider this for a second; a board appointed by the government, acting for the country, were/are ready to spend money not in addressing the issues raised, but in finding out who's talking. It's one thing to be called lazy and petty, but this is getting scary. I can only imagine how SRP, with their job and reputation on the line, must have felt.

This is the last tweet SRP ever made. Days would go by. Forums and Reddit subs keeping up with the account would speculate if they've been locked out of their account again, if they were discovered and fired, or if the paranoia and fear got too much for them.

Days later, the account was completely deleted. Gone forever. No account since, despite mentions of a back-up account, had claimed to be the same person, nor a spiritual successor from another RTÉ producer or employee.

I will give my thoughts on what may have happened, but first I believe it's important to really take in everything SRP covered, lest their efforts be in vain and simply sensationalised.

Let's recap;

  • RTÉ is deeply in debt, caught between sincere attempts to cut costs and an unwillingness to admit the problem is largely their attitude to talent, staff, and commissioning.
  • RTÉ is seemingly frozen in time, unable to shift people out nor move people up.
  • Whether it was the unions or RTÉ, training, promotions, and reasonable expenditures are non-existent.
  • Programming is cancelled not necessarily out of pragmatism but rather envy, pettiness, and ego.
  • Youth programming was completely abandoned out of spite, lack of innovation, and in service of an easier to please demographic.
  • RTÉ is not afraid, allegedly, to make attempts at hacking, vague threats, and to hire private investigators.
  • These criticisms from SRP comes from a place of concern, wishing things to improve. Besides some light remarks, they conducted themselves professionally, ready to correct themselves, and engaging with others. As they point out, their remarks were echoed by other employees, with some contributing their own stories. This is not someone seeking fame, attention, or edgelord status; this is someone with pride for their job but also pride for their country.
  • There has been, allegedly, at least one instance of verbal abuse and bullying to the point RTÉ needed to offer counselling. RTÉ were complicite in workplace abuse. Without any comment, we can only assume, if the claims are true, RTÉ took no further actions at the time. For all we no, that same person is still there, still berating staff.

Now for the question that everyone's been waiting for.

What Happened To Secret RTÉ Producer?

It's coming up to four years since the account was started and ended in a little under two months, clocking in at a total of 220 tweets. What the 500 supposed tweets on the second account would have been we can only guess. 

But what we do know, if the tweets are to be believed, is that this account was serious enough to catch the attention of newspapers, members of Dáil Éireann, and nearly every level of RTÉ. Yet there has never been any acknowledgement of the account, nor comments on the claims.

We can only speculate, but we're left with four possible theories.

  1. RTÉ discovered who was behind the account and swiftly fired them.
  2. SRP ended their account of their own free will.
  3. RTÉ discovered who SRP was and, to keep the matter quiet, came to an uneasy agreement, possibly getting SRP to sign an NDA.
  4. RTÉ or someone on their behalf (possibly PI previously mentioned) gained controlled of the account, locked SRP out for good, and then deleted it.

We will never know for sure, but if I may, I'd like to put forward my personal theory, which aligns with theory number 3.

It would be unwise and shortsighted for RTÉ to simply fire SRP on the spot, as they would now have nothing left to lose. They would still have their account, still have their connections, and can now go fully public. This would have only cemented SRP in the public's mind and would have left RTÉ with egg on their face, seemingly validating everything they're accused of.

It is plausible SRP took matters into their own hands and deleted the account. They had deactivated it before and took breaks, as well as expressing feelings of worry and stress. The last couple of tweets do read like a summary, as though they were aware RTÉ heads were closing in on them. The deletion could have been a spur of the moment surrender, a shredding of documents if you would. But what about the second account and the deadman switch of 500 tweets. SRP seemed so defiant at times, like it would have been worth it for them. If I may be bold, to me it seemed in places that SRP enjoyed the infamy, the titillation that everyone at Donnybrook was talking about them, that board members were chasing after them, like a Irish remake of "Catch Me If You Can". Deletion is very possible, but complete silence? Not likely.

As for the lockout option, again, while there were incidents before, there was the second account. Hell, there could have been third, fourth, fifth account. It's Twitter! You can make as many as you want. This was a user who had amassed over 25,000 followers in a little under two months. That's 0.5% of the country. What could those numbers have been after a year? Twitter isn't just going to stand by and let a rising star like that have their account hacked and taken over, especially when it sends a message to its user base that no one is safe from account hijacking.

No, I think SRP may have given themselves away too much.

They named themselves as a producer. While this was to lend a level of credibility and authority to their claims, it obviously narrows suspects down quite a bit.

They then went on to give away their age. They had knowledge and nostalgia for late 90s, early to mid 2000s RTÉ. At an educated guess, had they been in their 20s or 30s around that time, by 2017 they should have been in their 40s to early 50s. It doesn't help by their own admission they were slightly unaware about Twitter threads.

They also had experience in Children's Programming. While that is a wide net to check, it's not impossible to pull up who was working as a YPP producer around the early 2000s.

They admitted they won't be taking the severance package offered to them. That's a simple yes or no question. Any producer who was saying no at the time would have been a suspect.

Then, if SRP meant this sincerely and not as a joke, they were known to colleagues. I've heard it said eight is the maximum number of people who can keep a keep a secret. Unfortunately, whispers travel. A well meaning friend could have been overheard by someone else, who tells someone else, and so on. SRP made enemies and critics. This was all Donnybrook was seemingly talking about. It's not hard to imagine a rumour of who SRP was found its way to the board.

While there are other factors to take into account, these are the most damning; occupation, age, experience, admission, and an open secret.

However they got them, RTÉ would have had an interest in keeping all of this quiet. Wrongful termination would have only dragged attention to the matter. SRP had an audience ready to unleash hell online if they tweet "THEY FIRED ME!". Don't forget, the year prior, 2016, was the year social media became scary, able to meme Brexit and Donald Trump into existence. Best case scenario, SRP got scolded, a firm warning, and then asked to keep quiet, delete the account (and backups), and either keep their job or take the package and leave it at that. Worst case, legal action was threatened and SRP was, understandably, done with all this.

Epilogue.

Four years later, and the world moves on. A Fine Gael majority turned into an uneasy alliance between them and they're rival's Fianna Fail. A strange new virus swept the world, one we're still learning to deal with. Even Twitter, the very platform our hero took refuge on, is now struggling to stay relevant when the young contender, TikTok has proved itself the platform of choice for short bursts of inspiration Tweets once promised to cater to.

I began by comparing, maybe slightly distastefully, SRP to Me Too and BLM. But I stand by it, as, sadly, things seem to have not changed much for any of these. Despite Me Too, women are still victimised and abused. BLM still has to fight against apathy at the death of another innocent bystander. And RTÉ is still in the same situation they found themselves in as before.

No real improvements. Still in the red. Still looking to go after after smart devices. And while they, for the moment, can laud the success of the award winning miniseries "Normal People", it has echos of RTÉ in 2017, still congratulating themselves on "Love/Hate", a show that ended back in 2014. Will it take another six years before they can boast about their next big justification for their existence?

It used to be said "Today's News, tomorrow's fish and chip wrapper". Unfortunately social media follows the same trajectory with none of the useful byproduct. But for nearly four years I couldn't get over this story. This story, about this mystery person who, for one brief moment, was able to make a national institution quiver in their boots, stuck with me for four years. And after four years of seeing no one bring it up once, I felt like I had to (re)introduce people to it. Because that's the point of whistleblowing.

The point isn't to shock or scare people into action. It's to remind people that accountability is still an expectation of those in power. That a certain level of duty, of maturity, and of professionalism is a must for those who are trusted. If you are trusted to inform and reflect a nation, to cater to their needs, to use their money to better them, then you must be held accountable when you fail that trust, especially when you have such disregard for it that you wish to silence those who know what you're doing isn't right.

There is a term for those who have no interest in keeping your trust, and SRP said it best.

Profoundly disloyal.

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About the author

Conor Matthews

Writer. Opinions are my own.

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