The RTÉ payments scandal has provoked widespread outrage. Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin warns of how the Government could use the opportunity to gut RTÉ, and argues that we need to fight for a proper Public Service Broadcaster worthy of the name.
The RTÉ dumpster fire continues to blaze. The spark that lit it was the revelation that over the course of six years, Ryan Tubridy was paid €345,000 more than what RTÉ claimed. Since then, a sordid picture of what happens at the top table has emerged. Secret deals, special perks paid through ‘barter’ accounts, and extravagant dinners with corporate representatives seem to be par for the course.
Each Oireachtas Committee reveals something new, ranging from the ridiculous to the thoroughly enraging. Last week, RTÉ’s Chief Financial Officer Richard Collins told the committee that he didn’t know what his own salary was, prompting a tongue-in-cheek response from Waterford Whispers News that further plagiarism of their work by RTÉ would result in a letter from their solicitors. This week, new spreadsheets show that thousands have been spent on luxury goods such as complimentary tickets at concerts, stays at luxury hotels, and bizarrely, €5,000 on 200 pairs of flip flops for corporate clients.
What is clear is that the clandestine deal with Ryan Tubridy is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a rotten culture at RTÉ, at the heart of which is the enormous division between those at the higher echelons, and ordinary workers at RTÉ. The top brass earn exorbitant salaries and pay fast and loose with the public purse, while the vast majority of workers who keep the public broadcaster going endure cuts, pay freezes, and in many cases, bogus self-employment contracts.
RTÉ Workers Take a Stand
Workers at RTÉ have taken a stand against the deceit by the RTÉ executive, along with the rotten culture and inequality at the heart of it all. Workers expressed their outrage that someone already earning €440,000 a year needed to get more money – that it happened in secret was even more of an outrage.
Paul Cunningham drew attention to the “freelancers, who are paid a pittance”, in stark contrast to the “special people” who have been looked after very well in RTÉ.
As Richard Boyd Barrett put it in the Oireachtas committee, “This looks like orchestrated, organised, deceit and concealment by somebody. When everybody else was taking cuts, the people who orchestrated this, called it ‘consultancy’ in the books.”
The entire debacle demonstrates that there are clear divisions in RTÉ. There are the ordinary workers who keep the ship afloat, be they journalists, researchers, freelancers, or whatever else. And there’s the “talent”.
Many people listening in to Oireachtas hearings this week may find it jarring to hear RTÉ board members refer repeatedly to “the talent”. These are the top earners in RTÉ – the people who we supposedly need to pull in the viewers or the listeners.
Examples of the “talent” include people like Joe Duffy, who recently told people the only communist he knew was Vladimir Putin. There’s Miriam O’Callaghan, who co-hosted the last leaders’ debate during the 2020 election, sparking allegations of bias as her brother, Jim O’Callaghan, is a leading member of Fianna Fáil. And of course, we have the hero of the hour, Ryan Tubridy. Think of this what you will.
The argument for these vast sums goes like this: We need to spend big money in order to keep the “talent” at RTÉ, because these people attract big numbers, which means increased advertising revenues, which we desperately need, because despite being our “public broadcaster”, RTÉ operates under a similar market-driven logic to any private media outlet.
This logic is what led them to approach Renault when Ryan Tubridy and his agent said he wouldn’t accept a pay cut like everybody else. God forbid RTÉ lose Ryan Tubridy! So a commercial deal was struck where Renault would pay instalments of €75,000, on top of his already exorbitant salary, in return for a ‘commercial agreement’.
Ultimately, this deal wasn’t carried out in full, but Tubridy’s contract was his contract, and so RTÉ, i.e. the tax-payer, had to pick up the tab – this was done through a ‘barter’ account and filed as ‘consultancy fees’. The initial scandal centred around why this deal was done behind closed doors, who made it, why it was done behind the backs of the public and the other workers at RTÉ.
The deceit involved has rightly provoked a huge amount of anger. The public have a right to know the truth about it, and what kind of culture exists at RTÉ that this was allowed to happen.
At the heart of the matter, there is the question of what a public broadcaster should be. Should it operate in the same way as a billionaire-owned media conglomerate, maximising profits and reach to the detriment of everything else?
A Semi-Public Broadcaster
RTÉ is dual-funded. It receives around €200 million of public funding annually – funded through the licence fee. This makes up around 55% of its total revenue. The rest of the funding is commercial.
At the Oireachtas Committee on Wednesday 5th July, Director of Commercial RTÉ Geraldine O’Leary explained her role, and why, in her opinion, the various junkets that were dished out to clients were important:
“Across an 11 year period, I was responsible for bringing in revenue of €1.65 billion. Part of that job is maintaining relationships, this is people selling to people. RTÉ has a very good track record of retaining clients, client retention is really key, and over the period where we brought in €1.56 billion, we spent 0.1%, as you know. So, as a cost of business, compared to any other media company, any other tech company, this stacks up. It may be unusual because we are dual funded, but I answer for the commercial side of the house.”
Whatever her role in the Tubridy deal might have been, O’Leary is right that this was simply her job. She will have been handsomely paid for it, of course. But all of that aside, this is simply what happens in the corporate world, and given its commercial aspect, this is a world where RTÉ is firmly entrenched.
The real question arising from all of this, however, is what should a public service broadcaster look like? Why should RTÉ operate under the same logic as a private, profit-driven media company? And is it in the public interest that the public service broadcaster might be subject to influence by the corporations that part-fund it?
Take the Renault deal as an example. The head honchos at RTÉ were willing to do a deal with a car company to keep their “talent” on board. This is at a time when the climate and biodiversity crisis is accelerating at an alarming rate, where motor companies are responsible for driving a huge proportion of emissions. It clearly didn’t cross anyone’s mind that perhaps getting into bed with Renault might not be the best idea.
Similarly, GAA broadcaster Marty Morrissey came clean this week about having been given “the use of a car” by Renault in return for MC-ing GAA events at Renault garages. He has now returned the car and apologised, describing the choice to take it as “an error of judgement”.
We can take apologies like this at face value, or be sceptical about them, but this isn’t the point. The reason this kind of thing is allowed to happen is because of the way RTÉ has been set up – set up by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments. Fianna Fáil Minister for Finance Michael McGrath described the barter accounts used to splurge on corporate clients as “a normal part of commercial life”. This should come as no surprise – what has been happening at RTÉ is very reminiscent of Fianna Fáil’s antics in their hay day.
The drive for commercial deals in order to bring in revenue has created a culture of junkets and sweeteners, where a small number of people do incredibly well. The blinkered focus on dubious ‘talent’ means that the RTÉ executive has bent over backwards to facilitate the people they think will bring in the numbers. While the full picture of who is responsible for the Tubridy deal is still not clear, what is certain is that the people at the top are willing to operate under a different set of rules, willing to pull the wool over the eyes of the public about their activities.
There is now a serious danger that the damage done to the reputation of the public service broadcaster will be used to gut RTÉ – including cutting the jobs of those who bear absolutely no responsibility for the scandal. The media have already run a story that the Government is planning to reduce RTÉ to a “rump” – splitting it in two to separate the commercial from the public, getting rid of 2FM, a reform of Lyric FM, and the loss of up to 400 jobs.
Some of the reported proposals could be welcomed – like salary caps and the cutting of some of the high end jobs. But largely, the stench of opportunism from the free market ideologues at Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is all over these proposals.
It has the looks of the beginnings of a classic case of disaster capitalism – taking advantage of a crisis to implement more neoliberal reforms.
We cannot lose sight of the fact that RTÉ has been set up this way by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments. It mirrors the hierarchy in all sections of society – in the civil service, in the HSE, in corporations, in our housing system. A select few profit while the vast majority carry the can and keep society running. The big wigs at RTÉ will be fine in the event of any restructuring driven by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. If they don’t keep their jobs at RTÉ, they will move into high paying jobs in the private sector. The people who could lose out are the ordinary workers.
Likewise, the public will lose out in the event that the public service broadcaster is gutted. Whatever RTÉ’s flaws, a media landscape dominated by private interests, as is the case in the United States, or in the UK where there is little difference between private media and the Tory-captured BBC, would be a bad thing.
We must push back against any right wing attack on RTÉ. Instead, we need to fight for a proper public service broadcaster that is not influenced by commercial interests.
What Kind of Public Service Broadcaster?
Just as the right-wing will see an opportunity here to launch an attack on public service broadcasting, there is also an opening to take the fight forward and push for positive reforms.
This should start with a complete overhaul of the higher echelons of RTÉ. There need to be proper pay caps – much lower than the €154,160 to €176,350 figures which are reportedly being considered by the government.
Instead of splitting RTÉ in two and maintaining the commercial side, the commercial side of RTÉ must be done away with altogether. Relying on big corporations for funding means that inevitably public broadcasting will be distorted by private interests. At the moment, those at the top of RTÉ and the commercial interests they are courting are all swimming in the same pool and have a shared interest in keeping this model going. The scrapping of the commercial side, coupled with the introduction of proper pay caps, would ensure that this does not happen.
RTÉ would therefore be 100% publicly funded. But this should not be done through the hated, regressive TV licence fee. A 1% tax on the profits of Information and Communications could raise €500 million – more than the revenue it currently brings in.
On the other end of the pay scale, there needs to be a proper recognition of the vital work that ordinary workers at RTÉ do. An end must be put to bogus self-employment. Proper wages and conditions must be introduced for all workers. Ordinary workers should also have a say in how the public broadcaster is run. Instead of having an appointed executive board of people who represent the same class as the major corporate and political interests who dominate the landscape in Ireland, the board should be elected by ordinary workers.
These measures would ensure the rot at the heart of RTÉ is done away with. It would restore public confidence and protect against right-wing attacks. Ultimately, it would mean we have a real public service broadcaster worthy of the name.