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VOICES

Pat Rabbitte Two inquiries, two reviews and one forensic excavation into RTÉ is deliberate overkill

The former communications minister says it is our democracy that will ultimately be the one to pay the price for the RTÉ controversy.

LAST UPDATE | Jul 7th 2023, 3:45 PM

If RTÉ has traditionally been weak in home-produced drama, it has certainly made up the deficit in the last few weeks.

The drama at RTÉ since the revelations that senior management sought to conceal the accurate remuneration of its top earner has riveted public and media attention alike. Where else can you go to see Mattie McGrath TD starring opposite Verona Murphy TD?

It would be funny if it were not so serious. Ultimately our democracy will pay the price for the controversy at RTÉ and for the manner and pace of its prosecution. In a world of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, citizens – now more than ever – need to be able to trust their public service broadcaster as an influential player in the public discourse.

RTÉ does many things very well, other things not so well. If one is dissatisfied as a licence payer with RTÉ’s output, worse is to come unless someone gets a grip on the current runaway crisis.

How many inquiries are necessary to establish why the public was misled about the remuneration of its top earner? Two Oireachtas inquiries, two reviews and one forensic excavation by an accountant seem deliberate overkill.

Nor is the self-flagellation at RTÉ helping matters. Entering its third week the controversy continues to dominate although the planet is overheating, warlords in Russia may be targeting a nuclear power plant and, potentially, there is an existential threat to the cervical check programme.

It is not difficult to understand why workers at RTÉ on modest to reasonable incomes are incandescent over the behaviour of the officer class over a long period. Other critics revelling in the broadcaster’s humiliation are not so well motivated.

They are milking the controversy for all it is worth and right now it is great value as a feeble management struggle to staunch the wounds. When the carcass is picked over what will we be left with?

Public flogging

Some of the behaviour at the top of RTÉ cannot be defended. However, it is not clear why it should attract the attention of not one but two competing Oireachtas committees.

Some members of the committees have acquitted themselves well but the grandstanding of others has added nothing but embarrassment.

The overcooked indignation of some ministers encourages the hanging public climate–something they may yet live to regret. Minister for Media and Arts Catherine Martin’s reported refusal to advise householders to pay their licence fee is remarkable.

That serving politicians should nurse a grievance real or imagined against RTÉ for one reason or another should not be surprising. RTÉ would not otherwise be doing its job. However, we have largely abandoned the Reithian principles, “to inform, educate and entertain”.

The ‘gotcha’ principle is now too frequently in evidence as some interlocutors in political interviews seem determined to demonstrate superior knowledge to the Minister. But this is no excuse for sitting back while the broadcaster fatally damages itself.

An element, therefore, of schadenfreude may be unavoidable. But if we believe the high-minded rhetoric about how our democracy is conditioned by the quality of our public broadcasting, ministers should be wary of unleashing forces like we occasionally glimpsed at the Oireachtas committees.

Democracy

The UK Conservative government has been intent for some time now on squeezing the BBC. The pusillanimity of its treatment of the Brexit referendum was due, I have no doubt, to government hostility and the result has been disastrous for these islands.

The BBC is the exemplar of the proposition that public service broadcasting is a public good. I have learned more from the BBC than I ever did at university.

Provided that the runaway horse at RTÉ is reined in, some good can come of this. Reform is now unavoidable and that includes the funding model long-fingered for years. It was my intention as Minister in 2014 to implement a premises-based public service broadcasting charge but that was derailed by the water charges imbroglio.

A decade later the funding issue, notwithstanding accelerating technological change, remains calculatedly untouched. Meanwhile, as the current controversy has revealed, those at the top of RTÉ have been driven to unwise and imprudent ad hoc decision-making that now threatens the future of the broadcaster.

Death by a thousand cuts

The government appears content to continue to sit on its hands while the controversy throws up further fripperies that may not amount to a hill of beans in themselves but cumulatively are enough to undermine the broadcaster. There is now an opportunity for the RTÉ unions to cooperate with the board and the new DG in cleaning out the Augean stables as well as forcing the government to put its grudges aside and place the national public service broadcaster on a stable footing to meet the future.

The longer this saga runs, the more damage will be done to RTÉ’s reputation. The drip-drip of minor transgressions will further erode public trust.

In the blizzard of revelations about flip-flops and match tickets, we still don’t know who gave the guarantee, sanctioned payment and resolved to conceal the transaction in respect of Ryan Tubridy or why he acquiesced in the deceit.

Frankly, I don’t care whether or not Marty Morrissey was wearing flip-flops when driving his gifted car. Any competent management should have rules for that kind of thing and should ensure they are transparent and observed. What matters now is the future of public service broadcasting and we are now in danger, with multiple inquiries and a government content to enjoy the spectacle, of being diverted into punitively addressing the symptoms as distinct from the cause of the malaise.

Pat Rabbitte is the former leader of the Labour Party and former Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications of Ireland.

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