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Simon McGarr This is not RTÉ's first scandal - the broadcaster was at the heart of one in 1967

The solicitor and commentator looks at the parallels between RTÉ’s latest scandal and equally controversial events in the 1960s.

IRELAND IS A strange place. It has both a small number of people and a long memory for events. As a result patterns both repeat and reverse over time. It does add an extra texture to life.

In May 1969, the Director General of RTÉ faced turmoil from his staff. The Heads of the Department (the predecessor to today’s Executive Board) were so neutered that they wouldn’t even meet him to tell him about it face to face. A management culture of fearing to question the DG is nothing new to RTÉ.

One of the causes of the staff uproar was a perceived interference in programming and in particular current affairs programming, by the Chairman of the RTÉ Board, Mr Todd Andrews. Mr Andrews, by one of those coincidences of history, was Ryan Tubridy’s grandfather.

Sit down

The RTÉ current affairs section had prepared a report on the involvement by Gardaí Special Branch in an eviction of a newlywed couple. Internally, concern was raised that the evictees were Communists, but despite that, the report seemed sympathetic to them in its report of their eviction.

It appears that there was uncertainty within the upper management as to whether Communists should or shouldn’t be evicted from their homes by the police.

The report was not shown at the intended time in Jan 1967. The Deputy DG wouldn’t authorise it and the Director General wasn’t available. It turned out that he was away at an International Rugby Match in Paris. History does not record whether a barter account was involved in funding the trip.

My grandfather Jack Dowling, along with Lelia Doolan, wrote a book called Sit Down and Be Counted about RTÉ’s early years. It records that eventually a screening of the suspect programme on Gardaí involvement with evictions was arranged for the Director General and Mr Andrews, as Chairman of the Board.

The Chairman then “with his entourage…came to the seven Days [the predecessor of today’s Prime Time] office and surveyed the staff inside. He did not speak to anybody”

Presumably, he was checking if anyone looked like they might start a revolution of the proletariat. The report was never broadcast and Ireland has remained safe from the risk of security for renters and Communists alike.

Screenshot 2023-06-30 at 14.09.20Source: Sit Down and be Counted

Another report was also spiked. It was on planning permission granted, over the objections of Dublin Corporation, by the FF Minister Kevin Boland to build a petrol station on designated open space in Mount Pleasant Square in Dublin.

The more things change…

Urban planning. Gardaí and evictions. Senior Management at rugby matches. Even members of the same families as the leading players. The historical details rhyme with the contemporary. But I didn’t republish Sit Down and Be Counted in 2020 for nostalgia. I put it back into print because it directly addresses a contemporary issue which was directly raised repeatedly yesterday by the members of the Public Accounts Committee.

RTÉ’s current problems stem from the fact that it is a public service broadcaster with a commercial advertising wing. That wing was the location, as its commercial director was at pains to point out in evidence all week, of the barter account used for entertaining its “clients”.

From the Commercial director’s point of view, RTÉ’s clients are not the people of Ireland. Its clients are its advertisers and commercial sponsors. The product being sold to those clients are the audience. That is to say, us.

This is in direct tension with the public service broadcast responsibilities of an RTÉ which now receives half of its funding from the public via the licence fee. The Tubridy turmoil has revealed a maelstrom of deceit as the Director General attempted to square the commercial need to pay her top presenter at the rate he demanded with the public policy requirement to reduce that pay. The top-up payments were only possible because RTÉ has been built around this duel culture – and has developed a habit at all levels of its management of not asking questions.

This week has seen those two wings come into direct conflict. Even as RTÉ’s management covered themselves in something which close examination confirmed was definitely not glory, its journalists have pressed for answers and helped the audience understand the truth.

Politicians in the PAC were citing RTÉ’s own reporting in their questioning of its management.

But there is also growing recognition from the political class that the core problem was the hybrid funding model of advertising and public funds.

The Government, a year ago, rejected the proposal of its own Future of Media Commission to replace the licence fee with direct support from the Exchequer. It would be ironic if the far more radical and valuable step of removing advertising from RTÉ entirely, to deliver a pure public service broadcaster, were to result from its worst week in living memory.

Simon McGarr is a solicitor with McGarr Solicitors and Director of Data Compliance Europe. The book Sit Down and be Counted can be found here

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