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national broadcaster

RTÉ plans to introduce an organisation-wide 'conflict of interest' form for staff

Management is discussing what the salary threshold should be for automatic disclosure of a register of interests.

LAST UPDATE | 29 Aug 2023

RTÉ PLANS TO introduce an organisation-wide “conflict of interests” form to allow workers to raise concerns about any potential conflict they are concerned about with line management.

It will be the responsibility of line management to “address concerns speedily and appropriately”, according to a scoping document regarding potential registers of interest and external activities which has been shared with staff unions.

The register of interests is designed to ensure the disclosure of information by individuals where they are in a position to make decisions that could “materially influence” them or their immediate family.

RTÉ explains this could be on a one-off or recurring basis.

If there are no such issues, it said it is “good practice” to make a “nil return”, essentially confirming individuals have no concerns about their work and any conflict of interest.

The move comes as RTÉ grapples with the fallout from revelations earlier in the summer that it misreported the salary paid to star presenter Ryan Tubridy and failed to properly disclose €345,000 of payments to him between 2017 and 2022.

It was confirmed earlier this month that Tubridy would not be returning to his weekday radio show.

However the issue became a wider crisis for the national broadcaster amid further disclosures about RTÉ’s internal financial, accounting and governance practices and its expenditure on corporate hospitality for advertising clients.

While barter accounts are commonplace in the media industry, allowing organisations to exchange advertising airtime that would otherwise go unsold in return for goods and services from companies, RTÉ’s use has come under intense scrutiny.

It emerged that the broadcaster paid €150,000 to Tubridy through one such barter account, as part of an undisclosed commercial arrangement with a sponsor.

RTÉ had also faced criticism for using barter transactions to spend hundreds of thousands of euros entertaining commercial clients, including on a trip to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Further contentious transactions included almost €5,000 on 200 pairs of flip-flops for a summer party for clients.

Today, RTÉ acknowledged that trust has been “damaged” by recent events, as it set out its justification for the registers.

“RTÉ content must be seen to be accurate, impartial, fair and independent of any vested interests, and we have extensive policies to deal with many issues, such as conflicts of interest,” the document states.

Under a heading about whether the information will be published, RTÉ said it is committed to operating in “as transparent a fashion as legally permitted” but individuals have rights under GDPR, the Ethics in Public Office Act and the Freedom of Information Act.

It also notes that there is a High Court action being taken by the HSE against the Information Commissioner over a decision relating to disclosing whether a person’s name is on a register of interests.

‘Rebuild confidence’

Minister for Media Catherine Martin said it was “not appropriate” for her to comment on the operational measures of the broadcaster.

“What I will say is it’s clear that a lot of work is required to restore RTÉ’s credibility,” she told RTÉ Radio 1′s News at One.

“I welcome the which they have taken to date to improve governance, accountability and transparency and I think developing a new register of interests is one such measure that should be welcomed.”

She said that since the controversy, the issue of a lack of engagement between unions and staff and RTÉ management has been raised with her “on several occasions”.

The introduction of the form has also been welcomed by Fianna Fáil TD Malcolm Byrne, who says the measure will help to “rebuild confidence” in the broadcaster.

“It is only right that viewers or listeners should know if a presenter or somebody in a senior position has a deal with a motor company if they are discussing an issue relating to the car industry, for example,” he said.

“The proposals strike the right balance between an individual’s right to data privacy and the importance of transparency.”

Other plans

Management is discussing what the salary threshold should be for automatic disclosure of a register of interests by staff internally to RTÉ.

No specific figure for RTÉ staff is included, but the document makes reference to a HSE threshold of €73,209 and a Revenue threshold of approximately €51,000.

The organisation is also scoping a register of external activities.

Existing policies require written permission to engage in external activities from any person engaged in content creation in RTÉ.

This includes speaking engagements, chairing meetings, joining a panel/discussion group, promoting commercial ventures, including draws, raffles, prizes, brand ambassador arrangements, participation in charitable events/launches/promotions, being a member of a judging panel, book launches, and requests to write newspaper columns.

It is proposed to introduce a standardised process across RTÉ for seeking approval for external activities.

There will be a standard external activities form which must be completed by any person seeking approval for external activities.

This is to ensure the same process applies across RTÉ and the purpose of the form is to identify conflicts of interest or potential conflicts of interest that may or may not be seen to conflict with the national broadcaster’s obligations.

Consideration is also being given to placing a financial value on an acceptable gift for the possible establishment of a register of gifts.

RTÉ staff are currently only allowed to accept gifts of nominal value.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has said it has noted RTÉ’s proposals.

They said the scoping document will be considered by NUJ members and by the RTÉ Trade Union Group in the coming weeks.

NUJ Irish secretary Seamus Dooley said last week that union members had “confirmed their commitment to transparency and recognised that greater openness and consistency in the application of policies and procedures is vital if trust in RTÉ is to be restored”.

“Members will have the opportunity to express their views on the proposals and to seek clarification of the measures outlined today,” he said.

“We will be discussing who is covered by the register, the basis for the policy and the appropriateness of the proposed model.”

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