Should RTÉ keep its "citadel" in Donnybrook?
Variants of this question pop up now and again, but it doesn't take much imagination to see why they might be asked after a year in which a pandemic has hollowed out its Montrose campus and spurred workplaces everywhere to embrace the pleasures of Zoom.
At last Tuesday's meeting of the Dáil's Committee of Public Accounts (PAC), the future location of RTÉ was raised twice, once by Labour's Seán Sherlock in the context of using telecoms to decentralise from "Donnybrook and the citadel that is RTÉ" and "give voice to the regions", and once by Fianna Fáil's Marc MacSharry, who suggested the broadcaster might "cash in the chips" of its prime acreage.
"Surely to goodness with the advent of 5G, and people already talking about 6G, there is a mechanism to use more geographical locations to produce content," said Sherlock, while MacSharry wondered if, "aside from retaining modest and essential studio facilities", RTÉ might move somewhere "in county Kildare or Meath or Wicklow or wherever".
MacSharry suggested RTÉ could make €200 million from flogging off its remaining 24 acres at Donnybrook, “naturally a very sought after part of Dublin”. He was basing the figure on the broadcaster’s 2017 net gain of €78.5 million after it sold 8.64 acres of mostly unused land to Cairn Homes for a gross price of €107.5 million, which yielded €99.5 million after sales-enabling costs, upon which tax of €21 million was paid.
RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes, appearing before the PAC via videolink, wasn't convinced RTÉ could once again fetch such a lucrative per acre price, especially when the offloaded land had been a developer-friendly green field. In any case, the last time it ran the numbers, the cost of doing a "lift and shift" of RTÉ – rebuilding its broadcast infrastructure elsewhere – outweighed the estimated proceeds.
“It simply wouldn’t add up. We simply wouldn’t have enough money.”
The maths might not always be unfavourable, Forbes hinted, however: “It’s something that we have to keep on the agenda and we have to keep looking at.”
While public service broadcasters in other countries were offered preferential rates to become anchor tenants in new creative spaces, "right now" there is no Irish development similar to, say, the MediaCityUK one occupied by the BBC, ITV and others in Salford in Greater Manchester.
But there was another “however” in her observations. Thanks to the string of investors who fancy their chances of profiting from the global content boom, several large-scale studios are in the planning.
“That’s something, again, we keep a very close eye on.”
One such project is the Greystones Media Campus, a joint venture between construction group John Sisk & Son and the State's Ireland Strategic Investment Fund. Destined for IDA-owned land at Killincarrig in Greystones, Co Wicklow, the 14-studio development is intended as a hub for the film, television and media industry.
The promoters say the mega-plan has “the potential to be transformative in the manner in which the Guggenheim was transformative for Bilbao”, and though the artist’s impressions don’t seem quite as architecturally bold, if it goes ahead, it will indeed be hard to ignore.
RTÉ is familiar with the delights of making programmes in Wicklow, having commissioned Shinawil to produce Dancing with the Stars from Ardmore Film Factory near Bray for four years until Covid-19 put the kybosh on the sequin-fest for 2021.
That’s a long way from saying RTÉ could or should one day be Greystones-bound. Still, it’s an intriguing idea that the organisation, rather than sitting alone in Montrose, might one day depart its mid-20th century television centre to become part of a bigger and more interconnected creative entity. (Its radio building sits perilously adjacent to the land already sold to Cairn.)
At the PAC hearing, MacSharry conceded a need to “get the structural funding correct” in any case. But the danger is that governments might regard a potential RTÉ relocation windfall as a substitute for much-needed public funding reform, or perhaps even as an opportunity to cut funding.
Conversely, if there is no windfall to be had, the rationale for RTÉ upping sticks out of Dublin is slight. Some aspects of the BBC’s most recent decentralisation plan certainly seem like classic perception politics, with the impression of random teams being dispatched to random offices to appease critics who have spent the Brexit years banging on about a “metropolitan elite”. It would be daft to repeat this here.
But given remote broadcasting technology has advanced so much – in news reporting, for instance, outside broadcast unit vans have been superseded by "a small piece of equipment", Forbes noted – there is an argument that it should be availed of more. The negative local reaction to RTÉ's 2019 proposal to move Lyric FM out of Limerick, meanwhile, tells its own story.
For many advocates of a Dublin 4 exit, the location issue is inextricably tied up with the broader debate of what type of organisation RTÉ should be. What they outline is not merely a sale, but a downsizing.
For example, when Shinawil founder Larry Bass told The Irish Times in 2019 that RTÉ should "sell the whole block" in Donnybrook, "move everything out somewhere south of Naas" and "start again" in Co Kildare, he saw this happening as part of a reclassification of RTÉ as a publisher-broadcaster that would make its own news and current affairs, but little else. The rest would be commissioned from independent production companies.
Under this vision, the optimum location for RTÉ’s news studios would be closer to Dublin city centre, not further away from it. But the logic of moving at all would spring mainly from the dramatic impact that becoming a publisher-broadcaster would have on its workforce.
Most of RTÉ’s 1,800-plus employees are based in Donnybrook – or at least they were before Covid-19. An ill-fated retirement party aside, the campus is unusually quiet these days, and Forbes told the PAC that “going back to a full Donnybrook” would “probably not happen for some time”, with the result that it is talking to staff about “the desire for a blended work week”.
Sound the empty desk alert: we may be about to find out there’s nothing like a pandemic for prompting the reorganisation of abandoned office furniture. Is a fresh consultation with property agents next?