We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Breda O'Keeffe gave evidence to committee last year. Alamy Stock Photo

Ciaran Mullooly RTÉ told staff to take our medicine because we were all equal - that was wrong

The former RTÉ broadcaster says some were clearly more equal than others and that there’s a palpable sense of betrayal among staff now.

IT’S BEEN ANOTHER week of high drama for RTÉ and for all the wrong reasons. This morning, we woke up to the news on Friday that Chair of RTÉ Board Siún Ní Raghallaigh had resigned.

That development would have come as no surprise of course to anyone who watched RTÉ’s Prime Time on Thursday night, when Minister for Media Catherine Martin failed to express confidence in Ní Raghallaigh over ongoing controversies around remuneration packages at RTÉ. That marked another dark day for RTÉ and you can guarantee that staff at the station will be feeling the pain. 

Those events came after days of an ongoing drip-feed of damaging revelations about corporate governance at the national broadcaster after another moment of high drama in Kildare Street last week. Having first indicated he could not get into the details of many of the exit payments agreed with departing RTÉ management personnel, the station’s new Director General Kevin Bakhurst ignited controversy once again in the corridors of the national broadcaster.

On 14 February, Bakhurst gazed across the floor of the committee rooms and told Deputy Alan Dillon that the former Chief Financial Officer Breda O’Keeffe had been paid €450,000 upon her exit. The reaction among staff – past and present — was one of incredulity – and those shock waves are still reverberating around the Donnybrook campus today with the latest developments this morning.

The infamous ‘Golden Handshake’ report had already ‘poked the bear’ in Montrose when workers found out that the ex-Chief Financial Officer (CFO)’s application for the 2017 redundancy scheme was never sent to the RTÉ executive board for approval. It also emerged that Breda O’Keeffe was the only person whose application was not considered by the executive board. It also found that the “responsibility” for this did not lie with the ex-CFO (O’Keeffe) but with RTÉ “and the former Director General” (Dee Forbes). We have not heard from Dee Forbes. 

The packages

One must remember that over 250 applications were submitted under the 2017 Voluntary Exit Programmes at RTÉ and 176 were successful. Cost savings of 80% or more were supposed to be identified in most of these successful applications, according to management. 

In a small number of exits, cost savings of less than 80% were identified and people were told that it all came down to specific business cases in deciding whether to accept or reject their applications.

This process meant that over 70 members of RTÉ staff who wanted to leave the organisation were not allowed to do so, and most of those people were told the reason for this was that “the numbers simply didn’t add up”.

Last summer, Breda O’Keeffe confirmed to the Public Accounts Committee that she had availed of the scheme when she left the organisation in 2020. O’Keeffe said she had left the role voluntarily. It subsequently emerged that the business case for her departure was that a named successor would be appointed, saving RTÉ €200,000 annually.

RTÉ culture

RTÉ workers who were refused the exit deal were told that the packages would typically only be granted in circumstances where a role was to be suppressed or there had been a reorganisation within the company to reflect a role being made redundant.

This was patently NOT the case in Breda O’Keeffe’s situation where, not only did the same job get filled immediately, but the incoming CFO was taken on – even before O’Keeffe left in 2020 – leaving RTÉ with the remarkable situation of having to pay two CFOs for a short period.

The RTÉ Golden Handshakes report reviewed 10 other exit payments and said, ‘the total amount of statutory redundancy sums paid to these 10 individuals was €223,010′. Breda O’Keeffe was paid over two times more than the statutory total of 10 other cases (although we don’t know the overall total of those packages) – and the anger over that continues to this day among staff – past and present.

I worked alongside Breda O’Keeffe in RTÉ for over 10 years, met her and dealt directly with her on more than one occasion. Her reputation in the place was very strong. She was a “tough cookie” to work with, highly diligent on financial controls and even penny-pinching to a point so when I walked into her office in 2013 looking for the station to back a new national science museum project to be based on the site of the old RTÉ radio transmitter site in the midlands, I was warned it would not be easy.

The powers that be at RTÉ were extremely guarded in giving any backing to the project. As far as I was concerned, this was about supporting an initiative to protect and enhance the heritage of the state broadcaster. De Valera had switched on the old Marconi transmitter in Athlone in 1932. The 2RN signal with ‘Athlone’ on the dial could be heard all over Europe. Today it is still there but rusting in an old building and we were, quite rightly, getting flack, for not embracing the heritage that goes with this protected site.

O’Keeffe made it abundantly clear from a very early stage that RTÉ would not be supporting the project as the key mover. The reason was clear – RTÉ was broke and the organisation couldn’t afford to protect its own heritage. Land was going to be sold in Donnybrook to prove that point and the land in Athlone around the site was also sold – despite the wishes of the Marconi project committee – effectively scuppering plans to open the national science centre there.

While I was furious that RTÉ refused to give the land to the project, I had to listen to Breda O’Keeffe and other senior managers at the time explain that the organisation was facing severe challenges and simply couldn’t afford it.

Kevin Bakhurst knows the disappointment caused by that episode because he was in Athlone to meet the committee in the aftermath of the land sale and had to explain the financial reasons for the decision. So when the same man revealed Breda O’Keeffe’s departing package two weeks ago I couldn’t help but reflect on that day – with a very sour taste in my mouth.

The land surrounding the Marconi transmitter was sold for less than €400,000 by RTÉ. The organisation paid Breda O’Keeffe €450,000 to leave. An important piece of the nation’s heritage was lost on that day. RTÉ staff and those who treasure the organisation’s heritage will not forget it easily.

Where to now for RTE?

The Golden Handshake report found that Breda O’Keeffe’s application was the “only one” that was not considered and approved by the RTÉ executive board, in keeping with the rules of the scheme. As mentioned, it also found that the “responsibility” for this did not lie with O’Keeffe but with Forbes.

When this controversy hit the public domain last summer, there was a sense of momentum behind the revelations and while painful for staff, there was a feeling that with the appointment of new DG Kevin Bakhurst, change might come, and fast. Instead, we are now left today with an RTÉ Board without a Chair, a worn-out staff at Montrose and politicians baying for blood. 

RTÉ staff are hurting. This ongoing scandal affects every day they show up for work at the broadcaster. Our wages were cut and our infrastructure was devastated in the period of cutbacks. We were all told at the time to take the medicine and we did – while supporting the case for an increased licence fee. We were all equal in the cause, or so we were told. It turns out – some were more equal than others – and it still hurts.

Ciaran Mullooly worked for RTÉ News for 26 years. A former Midlands Correspondent, he is the author of three books: Death on Holy Thursday: the shooting of John Carthy in Abbeylara (2008), Back to the Future, reflections on a career in journalism (2016) and The Future is Now. Life after RTÉ and the challenge facing the midlands (2023).