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RTÉ crisis – how will it end?

It was supposed to be the beginning of the end – RTÉ management and board members would go before the Oireachtas Media Committee, for one more joust, and the curtain would come down on its investigation.

Instead, the St Valentine’s Day hearing breathed new life into the controversy.

Director General Kevin Bakhurst gave the committee details of the €450,000 exit package given to the broadcaster’s former chief financial officer Breda O’Keeffe.

The TDs and senators then demanded more information from RTÉ about exit packages for other departed senior executives, like Rory Coveney.

If he could do it for one person, why couldn’t he do it for the others, they inquired?

The politicians also raised serious questions of Director of Human Resources Eimear Cusack and why she didn’t act on concerns over Ms O’Keeffe’s package.

It all underscored a feeling, among some at Leinster House, that the national broadcaster continues to drip-feed information.

But the forensic examinations have to conclude at some point. RTÉ needs to stop explaining its considerable failures in the past and get down to implementing onerous future reform plans.

I’ve been examining the five things to watch out for, as the long-running saga reaches endgame.

1. Oireachtas Media Committee

Despite the fireworks, last Wednesday’s four-hour meeting is likely to be the last time that the committee members will hear from RTÉ executives and board members before they draft their final report.

Chair Niamh Smyth appealed for people like former director general Dee Forbes, former director of strategy Rory Coveney, former chair of the board Moya Doherty and Director of Content Jim Jennings to engage with the committee. That seems unlikely to happen.

The suggestion of compelling these witnesses is being actively considered but, to me at least, it seems like a long-shot.

Barring a surprise, the Media Committee will publish its report in March – with recommendations.

Fianna Fáil’s Christopher O’Sullivan is suggesting that trade unions at RTÉ should be offered an opportunity to tell their side of the story. If agreed to, such a hearing shouldn’t delay the final report.

Kevin Bakhurst needs to be left to do his job, according to Senator Malcolm Byrne

Committee member and Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne told me his general view was that RTÉ Director General Kevin Bakhurst needs to be left now to do his job and reform the station. He believes Mr Bakhurst has the confidence of most politicians.

The senator said governance at Montrose had been a real mess in the past but, he feels, there are real efforts to address that problem.

Labour Senator Marie Sherlock contended on RTÉ’s The Late Debate with Colm Ó Mongáin that further revelations of gilt-edged exit packages for senior executives had been a kick in the teeth for many workers at RTÉ who’d been forced to leave with nothing.

She said all of the questions had not been answered about an upstairs/downstairs institution where different rules seemed to apply to workers and senior executives.

2. Dáil Public Accounts Committee

It’s expected that the Public Accounts Committee will have its remit extended next week so that it can complete its work into what went so very wrong at the national broadcaster.

It’s highly likely that it will issue another invitation to the RTÉ Executive and Board for a hearing in a fortnight’s time.

TDs and senators on the PAC will undoubtedly want to ask further pointed questions about exit packages.

Director of Human Resources Eimear Cusack will also be walked through her involvement in processing the exit deal for former CFO Breda O’Keeffe.

Like the Media Committee, the PAC is then likely to conclude public hearings and finalise its report which could also be published in March.

Eimear Cusack faces further questions over the exit package for Breda O’Keeffe

PAC member and Fine Gael TD Colm Burke feels the committee has obtained “an awful lot of information” from RTÉ.

He added that a “substantial” amount of work had been done and the members would proceed to draft the report. The Cork-North Central TD said he believed the PAC “now need to move on”, adding that it was important to do that.

However, PAC Chair Brian Stanley sounded a different tone when he told me that Breda O’Keeffe had a “moral obligation” to hand back her €450,000 exit package given that due process had not been followed.

The Sinn Féin TD said Eimear Cusack should consider her position – a diplomatic way of suggesting she should resign.

3. Ministerial commissioned reports

All of the reports commissioned by RTÉ into the controversies have been published. The two Oireachtas committees are about to finalise their reports. But that’s not all.

Media Minister Catherine Martin also commissioned an independent external review into governance and culture at RTÉ.

It was charged with examining if the governance framework is fit for purpose, assessing its financial management, and reviewing workplace culture.

Overseen by heavyweights like Professor Niamh Brennan, Dr Margaret Cullen, Brendan McGinty and Patricia King, these reviews are also expected to be finalised in the coming weeks.

Earlier this month, Minister Martin said that her focus was on ensuring reforms are put in place. She said while RTÉs own reports had revealed “dysfunctionality and an appalling culture” in the past, she also stated: “I have confidence in how the interim [executive] board is operating now.”

Not everyone is convinced. Independent Ireland Deputy Michael Collins told RTÉ radio that getting information from the broadcaster had been akin to “trying to pull blood from a turnip.”

He said there was “no confidence in RTÉ at the moment” due to former executives and ex-board members not attending Oireachtas committee meetings. Watching him participate in Wednesday’s Media Committee meeting, Mr Bakhurst seems just as frustrated on that point as Deputy Collins.

4. RTÉ Strategic Plan

Last November, Director General Kevin Bakhurst published a new strategic vision for RTÉ.

It had a number of eye-catching elements: the workforce is to be reduced by 400 people; there’s to be €10m in spending cuts; no one will be paid a salary exceeding that of the director general; more content is to be provided by the independent sector; more land, possibly nine acres, will likely be sold at the Donnybrook site.

There will be far more detail on the vision when RTÉs Statement of Strategy 2024-2028 is published shortly. Mr Bakhurst also expects to confirm his permanent executive management team.

The touted “new direction” for the broadcaster has – unsurprisingly – triggered concern and anger within the workforce which feels it’s about to pay the price for catastrophic failures at executive and board level.

The necessity to shrink RTÉ has not, they feel, been adequately explained. Chair of the National Union of Journalists’ Dublin Broadcasting Branch Emma O’Kelly stated only a few weeks ago that staff were “still waiting for strong evidence of a culture shift in RTÉ.”

5. Future funding of RTÉ and other public service media

The Government has promised to take decisions on the future funding of public service media. There’s no strict date for that decision, with the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar telling the Dáil this week it’s either weeks or months away.

Media Minister Catherine Martin is supportive of direct funding from the exchequer, in line with the recommendation from the Future of Media Commission.

But the Taoiseach and Tánaiste Micheál Martin favour State funding and some form of household charge. They’ve expressed concern that being funded solely from the exchequer could leave RTÉ vulnerable in the future to possible political influence.

Catherine Martin favours direct exchequer funding for RTÉ

Opposition parties have a range of views. Sinn Féin wants to axe the licence fee, giving an amnesty to those who didn’t pay, and fund public service media through the exchequer, administered by Coimisiún na Meán.

Labour Party TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin dismissed the amnesty idea as a “stunt”. He said it was “unsustainable” for RTÉ to be so reliant on commercial revenue and called for a debate on changing the licence fee.

The Social Democrats advocate a three-pronged approach with funding coming from the exchequer, a household charge, and a levy on tech media companies.

People Before Profit wants exchequer funding but coupled with a digital tax on social media and IT companies.

When is endgame?

By April, it’s likely that the two Oireachtas committee reports and the Government-commissioned independent reviews will have been completed and published.

The decision on the future funding is more likely to be made in May or June. After that point, the hard yards begin in Donnybrook as a painful four-year restructuring programme gets under way. This will be overseen by the RTÉ Board, which will shortly be expanded, with a new staff representative to be elected in March.

There’s a lot riding on this, and not just for RTÉ workers and the audiences.

At a time when the penetration of online misinformation and disinformation has never been greater, and elections and referendums approach, the need for public service media has never been more obvious. And yet, at the same time, it’s never been more imperilled. RTÉ truly faces an existential threat.


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