- 07 Jul 23
After a fortnight of turmoil and blood-letting in Montrose, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin announced two separate reports into the way in which RTÉ works as an organisation – from its corporate governance structures, through its use of independent contractors and on to other issues to do with Human Resources, pay rates and more. But, amid all that forensic stuff, the National Broadcaster needs to renew its sense of vision...
What a priceless fucking mess RTÉ have got themselves into.
Sorry, I’ll read that again. What a priceless fucking mess the top dogs at RTÉ have got themselves, and the rest of RTÉ with them, into. On a hundred occasions or more over the past week and a half, I’ve heard it said that it beggars belief – and there’s no arguing with that.
You really couldn’t make it up.
In fact, if you had pitched a drama with a plot along these lines to RTÉ, you’d have been laughed out of court. It. Just. Couldn’t. Fucking. Happen. Pal. Sorry. In fact you’d most likely have been escorted off the premises, with the legendary promise ringing in your ears: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
How they’d have laughed back in the RTÉ canteen. Did you ever hear the fucking like of it, eh? Oh dear, oh dear! Your man needs his bloody head examined. Total fucking eejit. I’ll have a skinny latte and a packet of crisps. An Americano for me – and a packet of those biscuits. I hear there’s going to be shenanigans on Fair City this week. Some weird sex angle. Not too weird I hope.
And yet here we are, with the entire Montrose campus having been plunged into existential turmoil, executive heads rolling, apologies being flung around like confetti at an especially lavish celebrity wedding, fierce anger breaking out amongst the staff, politicians left, right and centre getting stuck into their old adversaries in Donnybrook – or ‘in a Donnybrook’ if you prefer – and the whole fiasco being covered in minute detail by every media platform in the country, including... RTÉ itself.
Good evening. This is The Nine O’Clock News.
“Woke up, fell out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup
And looking up, I noticed I was late
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream...”
Or shouldn’t that be a nightmare?
“I read the news today, oh boy…”
The grim reality is that, right now, there is no telling where all of this might end, or how deep the damage may ultimately be to RTÉ’s reputation, its cohesion, its morale and its finances. As a result, the future of the National Broadcaster is under more immediate threat than at any time in the history of the State.
HIGH MORAL GROUND
It started off innocuously enough. A bit of an accounting error had been spotted. Questions were being asked by the auditors. And then a statement was issued, which set out the most basic facts in as unsensational a way as possible.
The amount paid to the station’s biggest star, Late Late Show presenter Ryan Tubridy, had been understated in the company’s books. It was an accounting error. The kind of thing that in a different era might simply have been allowed to blow over after a bit of earnest tut-tutting.
Instead, it turned into a classic example of how the entire fabric can start to unravel if loose stitches are pulled in the wrong direction. Ryan Tubridy and his agent Noel Kelly issued separate statements saying that nothing illegal had taken place and that they had no responsibility for errors in RTÉ’s accounting processes.
Nothing to see here. Just move on. Except that was never going to happen. Some kind of cat was out of a bag that people hadn’t ever seen before. Ryan’s first statement was just one in a series of increasingly strange misjudgments on the part of the main protagonists.
As details of the story were drip-fed into the pubic domain, it began to gather a devastating momentum.
The Director-General, Dee Forbes, was suspended by the RTE Board. Very soon afterwards she resigned and her resignation was accepted. It emerged that the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Catherine Martin, had not been informed that Forbes had tendered her resignation until after it was accepted. Now the recently installed Chair of the board, Siún Ní Raghallaigh was apologising to the Minister.
More arcane, but no less damaging details bubbled to the surface. The €150,000 that had been understated over a two year period was only part of a larger amount buried over a five year period. Or was it longer? It was hard to keep track. The €150k discrepancy involved a deal which saw RTÉ underwriting an amount that would be paid by Renault, sponsors of The Late Late Show, to Ryan Tubridy, for personal appearances at Renault events. But Covid intervened. No events happened. RTÉ had to fork out the cash.
The net effect was that Ryan Tubridy hadn’t suffered the reduction in pay reflected in the RTÉ accounts. RTÉ’s highest earner had been protected from the worst effects of the Covid pandemic. And that gave rise to an entirely different set of responses within RTÉ itself. The bulk of the staff – including members of the NUJ – had accepted significant pay cuts, on the understanding that the top earners were also making the same sacrifices.
That, it turned out, was at best only partially true. Now there was anger, not just at loose accounting, but at being deliberately misled. Deception, it seemed, was now at the heart of the whole byzantine affair.
Ryan Tubridy issued a second statement. This time he did apologise, acknowledging that he should have spotted the understatement of his earnings by RTÉ and pointed them out. But the horse had bolted. The public mood was fractious. There was no regaining the high moral ground.
NASTY AND VICIOUS
As one own goal followed another, blood began to boil over in Montrose. There were emergency meetings. RTÉ staff had already resolved that they had to cover the crisis in the same merciless spirit as other branches of the media, and they did.
It was important for good professionals to show that whatever machinations might have taken place in relation to commercial deals, the editorial staff could be relied on to do their jobs to the very best of their ability.
A different level of militancy had also surfaced. The staff felt betrayed.
In the Oireachtas, different committees vied for the dubious privilege of grilling the main players in the ongoing saga. The Public Accounts Committee would have their day. So too would the Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media. It was turning into a circus.
Unfortunately, the responses from RTÉ executives to the initial questioning by the Public Accounts Committee were frequently inept. Mind you, that is a criticism which might be leveled in both directions.
There is a hilarious clip doing the rounds of independent TD Mattie McGrath asking the RTÉ executives, including Deputy Director General Adrian Lynch: “Who are you loyal to?” Except McGrath’s diction might best be described as an epic fail.
“Who are you loyal to?” he repeats. Lynch looks puzzled, “Who am I lying to?” he asks.
McGrath’s confidence remains undimmed. “The board,” he says, and for a moment it seems that might be the answer to Lynch’s question. “Who are you loyal to?”
The faces on the RTÉ delegation make it clear that they still think they are being accused of lying to persons unknown.
“The government,” Mattie McGrath continues (he’s on a roll now), “the taxpayer, the people who pay for licences.”
Others on the RTÉ delegation look as confused as Lynch, who decides to take matters into his own hands. “Can I just ask one question,” he says. “Who are we lying to about what?”
“Who are you loyal to,” Mattie McGrath says deadpan. There are voices off-stage saying “Loyal to. Loyal to.”
When he finally understands, Lynch – who has clearly been badly spooked by the entire exchange – repeats the word three times, as if he has to convince himself. “Loyal, loyal, loyal,” he exclaims, the relief palpable. No one would be throwing tomatoes. Yet.
Alan Kelly of the Labour Party described RTÉ’s as the worst performance ever before an Oireachtas Committee. But this wasn’t just about those who were there to be grilled.
The former Director General, Dee Forbes, couldn’t be compelled to appear before any committee, because her resignation had been accepted. A lot of politicians were sore about that. And besides, the Public Accounts Committee was informed that she wouldn’t be appearing anyway for health reasons. In addition to which, neither Noel Kelly nor Ryan Tubridy had accepted the invitation to be cross-examined.
That didn’t stop the drip-drip-drip of revelations.
It emerged, during the Q&A sessions, that the amounts paid to Ryan Tubridy had been channelled through what was called the “barter account.” The landscape had shifted again. Enemies and critics of RTÉ were revelling in the most sadistic form of schadenfreude. How much had passed through the barter account anyway? Everywhere you turned, the boot was being put in. Later, other barter accounts surfaced. Jesus wept.
Some of the online commentary was particularly nasty and vicious. But there was no way you could put a positive gloss on what was a disaster of the station’s own making. It was not just an own goal. It was as if the Irish team lost every game in a World Cup qualifying campaign by scoring one own goal after another, after another.
One instinctive response to all of this is to recall the great days of RTÉ football punditry by throwing a biro on the table and ranting about it being an embarrassment…
Another is to give credit where it is due.
A lot of Irish people have a love-hate relationship with RTÉ with the emphasis on hate. Fine. Whatever gets you through the night is alright. But the truth is that, as a broadcaster, RTÉ gets a lot of things right. There’s a huge number of talented people working there. They make – and they commission – lots of great programmes. They do important investigative work. Some of this has helped to change the social and political landscape in Ireland in a hugely positive way.
I know plenty of people who work in RTÉ. They are good, hard-working individuals, who want to do the right thing – and who more often than not do. It must be deeply distressing for them to have their work undermined by bad decisions made, whether at the top, in the commercial department, in accounts, or elsewhere at executive level.
I don’t know Dee Forbes, but I do accept what she said in her statement: that she always did what she thought was in the best interests of RTÉ. The problem is that she – among others it has to be stressed – was clearly wrong in her understanding of what RTÉ’s best interests might really be.
Looking back, I’m sure she wonders why the hell she didn’t insist to Noel Kelly that Ryan had to take a pay cut in line with everyone else. It is what might be described as a sliding doors moment. Unfortunately she took the wrong option.
Perhaps we will soon understand how or why, when we hear from Ryan Tubrudy and Noel Kelly, who have now – through their solicitors – said that they want to assist the two investigating Oireachtas committees and “clarify a number of matters that have arisen.”
It’d be unkind, and I think wrong, in a situation where a lot of people are feeling badly damaged by what has happened, to rub salt into open wounds. The individuals under the spotlight are already finding things difficult enough.
It is undeniable, however, that at least some of those involved had forgotten what the real mission of public service broadcasting is or should be. That a culture of complacency had affected – again – at least some of those in management. And that a rash of individualism, specific to the era of social media, with celebrity-style broadcasters using RTÉ to develop their own ‘brands’, had been allowed to grow at the expense of getting the real job done.
It is also true that a fresh examination of RTÉ’s role is long overdue.
– There are those who argue that RTÉ’s dual funding model allows them to maintain a dominant position in Irish broadcasting that is unfair to every other broadcasting interest.
– Some take that as far as arguing that RTÉ’s operations should be funded entirely from the license fee, leaving advertising revenue to independent, commercial media.
– There are others who view the status quo in Montrose as innately cautious and conservative, and question why so many leading Irish broadcasters and programme makers have to go to the UK to thrive.
– Within RTÉ itself, there are others again who are deeply upset at the gradual erosion of the broadcaster’s commitment to news and current affairs.
– There are many staffers who believe that the disparity in pay between those at the top in RTÉ – including in management – and the rest is a recipe for division and disillusionment.
– There are independent producers who can’t understand why they never get a look in no matter how hard they try.
– And, within music, there is a large community who cannot fathom why RTÉ has not made an unambiguous commitment to playing, an agreed quota of Irish music at peak times, across all of its radio platforms.
BEACON OF TRUTH
All of these different interests would likely agree that a root and branch review of RTÉ’s role, and how it works, has to be a good thing. The circumstances under which this is set to happen may be far from ideal, and the process is likely to be extremely painful for some. But, as Minister Catherine Martin made clear, the Government had to act.
“RTÉ,” she said in a statement, announcing the establishment of two separate external reports into the National Broadcaster, “has created a public space for the people of Ireland to speak of and to one another – to speak of the good in our society and to speak the truth, even when that has been uncomfortable and challenging...
“That is why,” she added, “the revelations of over almost two weeks have been so shattering – they have been an affront to everything that public service broadcasting is meant to stand for. In failing to abide by the standards required of a public service broadcaster, RTÉ has lost the trust of the people and of its own staff. Our job as Government is to help rebuild that trust.
“Public service broadcasting is too important to our democracy, our culture and our society to allow RTÉ to fail. Trust must be restored. RTÉ must restore the values and ideals on which it was founded. This can only be accomplished through a wide-ranging and comprehensive examination of the fundamental causes of the failures in RTÉ, one that also charts a clear path to prevent their recurrence.”
What the Minister says is true – and many people in RTÉ will agree wholeheartedly. But it isn’t just about preventing a recurrence of the failures that took place. It is about creating a dynamic organisation that plays a major role in inspiring and driving Irish creativity; which provides the kind of public service broadcasting that is more vital than ever, in a world of disinformation, fake news, propaganda and data theft; and, of course, which entertains people and makes them laugh, feel better about themselves, and just occasionally, cry.
The challenges facing everyone involved in media right now are immense. And anyone who tries to tell you that finding the right balance in all of these things is easy needs their head examined.
But what must not be forgotten by those working on the Minister’s reports is that this is about more than mere administration. As a public service broadcaster, RTÉ must strive to be a beacon of truth, facts, reliability, knowledge and accuracy. It must aim to contribute always, without fear or favour, to the ongoing struggle for equality – in relation to human rights, treatment under the law, education, opportunity, justice, health, prosperity and democracy for all.
How to get there is open to debate but I believe that RTÉ has the potential – especially with long-time standard-bearers, the BBC, being gutted by the Tory party – to become the best public service broadcaster in the world. You just need everyone who works in RTÉ to be able to believe that too.