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TV licence fee in place for RTÉ 'utterly broken', Dee Forbes tells committee

The director general of the State broadcaster was appearing before the Committee of Public Accounts this morning.

File photo of Dee Forbes.
File photo of Dee Forbes.
Image: Leah Farrell

THE TELEVISION LICENCE fee system in place for RTÉ is “utterly broken”, the director general of the State broadcaster has told an Oireachtas committee.

Appearing before the Committee of Public Accounts this morning, Dee Forbes said RTÉ cannot continue to deliver its remit for the people of Ireland unless its funding is addressed.

She was joined at the committee by RTÉ’s Chief Financial Officer Richard Collins, and RTÉ’s Commercial Financial Controller Fiona O’Shea.

In her opening statement, Forbes said “the core structural funding problem remains” at RTÉ, adding that losses to public service media funding are now estimated to be €65 million annually.

She said that 15.2% of homes didn’t pay the €160 licence fee in 2020, and that the number of households claiming to have no televisions currently stands at 15.1%.

“RTÉ has highlighted, for many years, that the licence fee system on which Ireland’s national public service media is reliant, is utterly broken,” Forbes said. 

She emphasised that RTÉ does not want to increase the cost of licence fee, but instead, want to reform the system as it is “no longer fit for purpose”.

Fine Gael TD Colm Burke referenced the fact that there are 167 different grades of pay within RTÉ, and asked whether this was being reviewed.

Forbes said RTÉ had engaged Willis Towers Watson to review this, adding that its report should be finished by September of this year.

In relation to pay within the broadcaster, O’Shea said of its 1,866 employees earnings 117 earn more than €100,000 annually, while 1,749 earn less than that figure as of December 2020.

RTÉ’s highest earners receive 1% of the licence fee towards their salaries. Forbes did not have the figure for how much the rest of its employees receive from the licence fee.

Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy asked Forbes about the controversy surrounding the misclassification of employment status at the State broadcaster.

In 2018, an external report by law firm Eversheds Sutherland, commissioned by RTÉ, revealed that up to 157 RTÉ employees could have been wrongly classified as self-employed, meaning they lost out on employment benefits.

82 people were subsequently offered employment contracts following an analysis of the Eversheds report by the Revenue Commissioners, while a voluntary disclosure of €1.2 million was made to Revenue by RTÉ.

A review into the misclassification by the Department of Social Protection remains ongoing, with 500 employees having their contracts reviewed for misclassification.

Recent figures show that 11 out of 28 employees reviewed have been found to have been misclassified as self-employed. The investigation is expected to run until at least 2023. 

Forbes confirmed that RTÉ are engaging with trade unions regarding individuals that may have been wrongly classified in their employment status. 

When asked by Carthy whether RTÉ would commit to making back payments for payments such as pension contributions, holiday pay and maternity leave, Forbes said: “We have to look at all of this in the round.”

In our governing principles as we outlined, we did actually say in there that the matter of retrospection or anything on that level would happen at the end of the process. As you know, the process which we thought was the advertised process has now turned into Eversheds, Revenue and Scope, so it’s become a more complex process.

“We’re very committed to looking at this and to see what will be the impact on the line,” she added.

‘Legacy issues’

Sinn Féin’s Imelda Munster asked Forbes whether she thinks the employees should be paid their entitlements. The director general responded: “It is not for me to say.”

“We’re engaging with all the parties transparently and openly. I agree that we have legacy issues to deal with here, but to the actual subject and to the detail within that, I can’t speak to it.”

She denied that people might view RTÉ as a “rogue employer” if the entitlements are not paid.

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy asked Forbes whether there will be accountability on the “bogus self-employment” front.

Forbes did not accept this statement, again saying the broadcaster was “dealing with legacy issues here”, adding: “The important thing is that the measures now put in place on a go forward basis are to ensure this does not happen in the future.”

“I’m taking with that you don’t see that accountability,” Murphy responded. 

I don’t accept that it is not bogus self employment, and I would say that if another semi-State company was in front of a programme such as Prime Time Investigates… and this was the profile, I think they would be held to account, and it’s our obligation to hold you to account on this.

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Murphy also asked about the “ongoing discussion” surrounding the performance of the RTÉ Player, saying that she had used it herself but given up due to the number of ads and it not working properly. 

Forbes accepted that there has been “issues” with the Player and a significant amount needs to be invested in it to improve it. 

“We want to have a world class product,” she said. “One thing that is quite different for us compared to a Netflix or an Amazon Prime is we’re dealing with the complexities of live and on demand and that does require quite a different investment.”

Gender pay gap

On the issue of gender pay, Forbes said in her opening statement that RTÉ’s staff body “is almost evenly males/female” and that the broadcaster “equals, and in various cases exceeds, national policy objectives and targets for gender related employment”.

She said that the estimated disparity of gender pay is 4%, “significantly less than the 14% for the economy as a whole”. However, these figures are five years old.

On this matter, Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan asked Forbes whether RTÉ could publish information on its gender pay gap. Forbes said the broadcaster was not in a position to do that “in the current format”. 

Hourigan expressed disbelief that this was the case. “If An Post can do it and other groups can do it, [I can't accept] that you can’t compile a report on the gender pay gap, considering the fact that one of your remits is around transparency in the public good.”

Hourigan also asked about the making of RTÉ’s Operation Transformation, which has been criticised by eating disorder organisations recently for having a “community sanctioned dieting culture”.

Asked about whether there were standards in place while making the programme, Forbes said independent research had been conducted with an official health authority prior to making the programme, but she could not recall the name of the researcher.

Forbes said the programme had evolved over the years.

It’s a more holistic programme, taking into account the wider area of health and not just focusing on one area. It’s something that we get huge reaction from the public to very positive reaction.

She added that she appreciates that there are possible triggers for people within it, and that the creators of the programme are “very aware and across” the issues surrounding the programme. 

“It’s something that, as I said, we evolved the programme, it has changed and certainly we hope it is fulfilling a more holistic approach to the overall health issue you talk about,” she said.

About the author:

Jane Moore

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