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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C

Larry Donnelly Public service journalism is so important in a democracy - just look at the US

Our columnist looks at the RTÉ mess and asks what next for the embattled broadcaster.

BEFORE SKETCHING OUT a few thoughts on the future of RTÉ in the wake of revelations about money that was paid to Ryan Tubridy, as virtually everybody else on this island has at this stage, it is important that I set out a couple of due disclosures.

It is a truism that Ireland is a small country with only ever one degree of separation between us. With regard to the fourth estate, it is even smaller, often with zero degrees of separation.

First, as my critics are fond of reminding those who peruse social media channels and comment sections, my wife, Eileen Whelan, is a news presenter with the national broadcaster. Second, Ryan Tubridy has always been kind to and supportive of me and my family. He interviewed me on his radio programme with great sensitivity and his characteristic warmth after I wrote in this space on the subject of my late father’s failing health.

Ryan is also an enthusiastic devotee of and a past participant in the Kennedy Summer School, which is an annual festival of Irish and American history, culture and politics in New Ross and of which I am a co-director (we are non-profit and pay no fees to speakers). I cannot and will not say a bad word about him as a person.

Error of judgement

Undeniably, though, he has made a mistake, a big one at that. He is being held to account for it in the court of public opinion at the moment. And it appears that things will get a lot worse for him before they improve. His stature has shrunk. Many of his fans are extremely disappointed.

When the news broke that he had accepted considerably more money from RTÉ than had been reported, I was on Cape Cod. Like a substantial, probably older slice of this country’s citizenry, I was gripped immediately by this startling development and was glued to my phone for hours.

The reaction of my Boston friends could aptly be described as baffled, scornful and wholly indifferent.

So jaded are they by a warped and diminished media ecosystem in the United States that a pal retorted: “the guy got a few extra bucks… good for him… what’s the big deal… you actually believe that journalists are on the level?” Here, fortunately, notwithstanding the Irish population’s collective capacity for cynicism, attitudes haven’t – or at least hadn’t – reached this nadir. We generally expect more.

That is not to say that there weren’t storm clouds on the horizon prior to what we have learned recently. As a young man in his twenties put it to me while every print, broadcast and online outlet was fixated on the inner workings and practices at Montrose, “why is this dominating all the headlines? RTÉ means absolutely nothing to me or any of my friends… the only time we ever watch it is for Ireland matches.”

Committee hearings

To this longer-term crisis facing all mainstream, legacy media organs can now be added a massive problem of its own making. Among other investigations, Minister Catherine Martin has announced an “independent, root and branch examination” of RTÉ in the form of concurrent, parallel reviews: of governance and culture and of contractor fees, human resources and associated matters.

The payments made to Ryan Tubridy, as well as some of the excessively sweet deals RTÉ personalities evidently have been availing of, make it clear that the latter is warranted.

The abysmal performance of executives when summoned by the various Oireachtas committees helped to highlight why the former is badly needed. As an aside, it is positively shocking that they were not better prepared to answer the probing questions that were asked when anyone with a pulse was fully aware that, with a large, infuriated audience tuning in, politicians would be going for the jugular.

More troubling than the lack of readiness were the repeated statements to the effect that there was a single barter account. This claim was subsequently shown to be false. RTÉ executives were misleading the committee or manifesting their ignorance. Neither possible transgression is excusable.

The Oireachtas Committee on Media has received documents with further disturbing details. Ryan Tubridy and his agent, Noel Kelly, have agreed to come forward and explain themselves next week. Soundings from politicians suggest strongly that “heads are going to roll” – perhaps imminently.

Where this will all wind up ultimately is anyone’s guess. When the dust eventually begins to settle, however, there are two imperatives in my estimation. First is that the increasingly inevitable harsh consequences for RTÉ vis a vis remuneration and terms and conditions for its people must not be felt by already disadvantaged freelancers and low-paid employees. I can imagine how sickened and angry they are today.

Second is that the “media fund” – intended to bolster “the wider media and journalism sector at local, regional and national levels” beyond RTÉ and proposed by Government following the publication of the Report of the Future of Media Commission last year – should commence operation with a very healthy account balance.

‘Pain and outrage’ 

It is foolhardy to think that RTÉ is the sole entity in Ireland engaged in public service journalism. The others deserve the opportunity to do more and access to the financial resources required to flourish. Indeed, they continue to do excellent work, typically on shoestring budgets. Their “talent” are not routinely allocated generous perks and bonuses.

Pain and outrage have been palpable in the remarks of well-respected professionals within the besieged organisation, such as Emma O’Kelly, Paul Cunningham and Orla O’Donnell. The despondent sentiments they voiced are shared by the vast majority of their colleagues who do what they do – whether in front of a microphone or behind the scenes – for all the right reasons.

We can only wish them the very best of luck as they embark on the long process of rebuilding trust and taking back RTÉ. For, if the appalling vista that is the media landscape in the US can teach us anything, it is that we need good public service journalism in 2023.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with


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