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Taoiseach open to putting more money into RTÉ but says station needs to 'modernise and reform'

The national broadcaster revealed details of a plan which will see 200 jobs cut next year.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to the media about the RTE restructuring while canvassing in Clondalkin
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to the media about the RTE restructuring while canvassing in Clondalkin
Image: Niall Carson

Updated Nov 7th 2019, 6:40 PM

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said the government is prepared to invest more funding into RTÉ, but stated the government funding and the licence fee is not the only solution to the public broadcaster’s problems. 

Speaking this evening in Clondalkin, Varadkar said he has yet to see the detailed plans from RTÉ on how it plans to make €60 million in savings over three years.

The national broadcaster revealed details of a plan which will see 200 jobs cut next year as part of a major restructuring plan that will seek to reduce costs by €60 million over three years.

The plans will also see the pay of its top contracted on-air presenters cut by 15%.

RTÉ executives are to take a 10% reduction in pay and the board of RTÉ will “waive its fees”.

As well as a reduction in staff numbers of about 200 next year, other staff-related savings are expected to be found.

The Taoiseach would not be drawn on whether RTÉ presenters should be paid more than he is, stating:    

I am not going to get into issues of what other people are paid or not… there are lots of people who work at RTÉ who don’t earn big salaries and are working very hard for the money they make. Obviously the issues at RTÉ do need to be resolved, and there is a plan that has now been put forward.

Earlier today, Business Minister Heather Humphreys said she personally didn’t think it was viable for RTÉ to pay its presenters such high salaries. 

“I think it is something they are going to have to look at, I am saying to businesses everyday of the week you have to look at your bottom line, costs, competitiveness and your productivity. So there’s a whole range of issues there they need to look at,” she said.

He said the “government will come to the table” to discuss issues with the board of RTÉ, stating “we want to protect RTÉ and make sure it continues as a public service broadcaster”.

When bluntly asked if the government will give more funding to the station, Varadkar said “yes”, however he added:

“This is about much more than the licence fee and government funding, so yes we can come to the table, yes we can contribute to the solution but there won’t be a solution without RTÉ itself modernising an reforming.”

He added that it is worth reflecting that in 2013, RTÉ was breaking even , but since then, despite increases in State funding and despite an increase in the numbers paying the TV licence, the station’s deficit has grown.

He said the amount of money the government will commit to RTÉ and the timing of when it might get an injection of cash is a “matter of discussion”.

“We want it to survive, we want it do well, but the licence fee and the govt funding cant be a solution on its own,” said Varadkar.

The Taoiseach said reform of the licence fee is needed, but said any radical change won’t happen for at least five years. 

He said the government is considering a household media charge in the long-term, adding that is not something that can be done quickly as it would require legislation. 

If such a charge were introduced, it would benefit other broadcasters and medial outlets, said the Taoiseach.

“If we are going down that route we will have to consider that there is more to public service broadcasting that just RTÉ,” he said.

Opposition to the cutbacks

The National Union of Journalist (NUJ) members at RTÉ have said they will oppose cut-back proposals at the broadcaster which “will only serve to further damage public service broadcasting”. 

At a heavily-attended meeting this afternoon, which is understood to have taken place on the Late Late Show set and was live-streamed on RTÉ’s internal TV system, staff were addressed by Director General of RTÉ Dee Forbes. 

Following the “packed meeting”, NUJ members working in RTÉ said that the broadcaster’s proposals “are short-sighted and ill-judged”. 

“We believe that even if implemented they would not address the current crisis in public service broadcasting,” NUJ members said in a statement. 

They added that staff are “united in their resolve to oppose proposals they believe will only serve to further damage public service broadcasting” and that NUJ members “will not allow staff to be used as the ‘soft touch’ to mask the government’s failure to adequately support public service broadcasting.”

“Staff in RTÉ agreed to pay cuts in 2008,” the NUJ statement said. “Those pay cuts have only just been restored, bringing workers in the organisation back to their pre-2007 pay levels.”

‘Costing Jobs’

In a statement last night, RTÉ said that licence fee evasion rates in Ireland are among the highest in Europe and is “costing jobs”.

The station says that between people who evade their TV licence fee and those who just watch RTÉ programming on the RTÉ player, “over €50 million is lost to public broadcasting every year”.

Following the announcement yesterday evening, Tánaiste Simon Coveney told the Dáil that the government was only told of RTÉ’s massive restructuring and cost-cutting measures this morning.

Coveney said that Minister for Communications Richard Bruton received the final report from RTÉ this morning, as “RTÉ weren’t expecting to have to deal with this today”.

“We would have had an idea of the contents, we only received a complete plan this morning,” the Tánaiste said. He said that Minister Bruton met recently with RTÉ. 

The government was criticised today by Fianna Fáil’s  Dara Calleary who said that RTÉ “is on life support and you’re offering tea and sympathy”. He asked for detail on what would happen to Raidió na Gaeltachta and TG4, saying that there needed to be support for Irish language services. 

He also added that “changing tendering isn’t going to change evasion rates”, and asked the Tánaiste for more detail on how to tackle Ireland’s high evasion rates.

“Good media is dying on the vine while you whistle by the graveyard,” he said.

‘Ordinary Workers’

NUJ members at RTÉ said they “will oppose any attempt to further cut the pay of ordinary workers in RTÉ” and “fight to protect our many low-paid members in RTÉ, as well as those on precarious contracts including bogus self-employed contracts.”

They added they also will oppose any compulsory redundancy proposals from management and said they opposed the sale of the profitable RTÉ Guide – “which we learned only today would include the ‘sale’ of its staff, our members,” the statement said. 

“We ask the government to address RTE’s funding crisis as a matter of urgency,” they added. “We as workers are passionately committed to delivering a quality broadcasting service to the Irish public. We work hard for this every day, and will fight to continue to do so.”

SIPTU, meanwhile, has said it will also oppose any compulsory redundancies at RTÉ. 

“These workers have been through several rounds of rationalisation at the station,” Services Division Organiser, Karan O Loughlin, said.

They have taken the pain to assist in ensuring the survival of the crucial services which are provided by RTÉ and the thanks they have received is to be faced with an ultimatum concerning job cuts.

She added: “What has made this situation even worse is the way this plan was exposed. Only senior management at RTÉ had access to this plan yet it was leaked to the media. This was extremely disrespectful to the loyal staff at the station.”

With reporting by Christina Finn

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