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Talks ongoing with RTÉ's top presenters and one has already taken over 15% pay cut, Forbes says

Director General Dee Forbes faced questions on RTÉ’s finances and its future at an Oireachtas Committee hearing today.

RTÉ Director General Dee Forbes
RTÉ Director General Dee Forbes
Image: Oireachtas TV

RTÉ DIRECTOR GENERAL Dee Forbes has said that RTÉ provides value for money over streaming services such as Netflix and that the existing system for the collection of the TV licence is “broken” at an Oireachtas Committee hearing today. 

The head of the national broadcaster also defended the pay of some its top presenters as the job they do is a “difficult one” and that it’s “not something anybody can do” despite what members of the public may think.

According to Forbes, any delay in transitioning from a licence fee to a media charge is “completely untenable” for RTÉ.

Forbes also said that there was no agreement with the government that the extra €10 million in funding that was announced today was done on the agreement that it would save the Lyric FM studio in Limerick.

However, this evening, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said RTÉ should defer its decision to move the Lyric FM studio. 

“The Government has given its view that RTÉ should not proceed with the sale of part of its Donnybrook site until full consideration has been given to a green field option and that it should defer any decision on removing Lyric FM from Limerick until the commission has reported.”

Financial woes

rte-111 Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

The financial problems at RTÉ were laid bare in November when it announced it would be seeking cost reductions of €60 million over the next three years. 

Forbes admitted the broadcaster was facing a “fight for the future” of the organisation

As part of cost-cutting efforts, RTÉ pledged to “reduce the fees paid to our top contracted on-air presenters by 15%”, which is in addition to cuts of “over 30% agreed in previous years”. 

RTÉ executives are to take a 10% reduction in pay and the board of RTÉ will “waive its fees”. As well as a reduction in staff numbers of about 200 next year, other staff-related savings are to be found.

Earlier today, the Department of Communications announced that RTÉ will receive an additional €10 million in funding per year to help boost its ailing finances. A new Commission on the Future of Public Service Broadcasting will also be set up to review RTÉ’s approach and make recommendations on a path forward and is to report by September 2020.

Minister Richard Bruton said the government was “meeting RTÉ halfway on the financial challenges they face”. 

Questioning

dee forbes Forbes said that the system for collecting the TV licence was broken. Source: Oireachtas TV

Appearing before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment, representatives from RTÉ and the department faced questioning on how it will address the problems it is facing.

“Ireland’s TV licence system is irrevocably broken and is no longer capable of properly sustaining public service broadcasting or Ireland’s broader audio-visual and creative sector,” Forbes said in her opening statement. 

She said that outdated legislation meant that 11% of households don’t pay the TV licence while 13% evaded altogether, costing the broadcaster tens of millions a year. 

Committee chair, and Fine Gael TD, Hildegarde Naughton asked Forbes about the high pay of presenters and what metric is used to calculate their pay. 

hildegarde naughton Fine Gael's Hildegarde Naughton queried the pay given to RTÉ's top presenters. Source: Oireachtas TV

Forbes said the role of presenters at RTÉ is “multi-faceted” and she understands why it can be a topic of conversation.

Under later questioning by Senator Michael McDowell, she said one of the top earning presenters has already taken a pay cut in excess of 15% while negotiations are ongoing with the others. 

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane pressed RTÉ on where exactly its cost savings of €60 million were going to come from.

He said that the areas provided to committee members on where RTÉ cuts could fall – Lyric FM Limerick studio, selling the RTÉ Guide, cutting staff numbers – hadn’t been costed. 

“I’ve no costs I can hold you to account on,” he said, adding that if his party attempted to put forward policies without costing them they’d be “laughed out of the room”. 

Forbes and chief financial officer Breda O’Keefe said that a number of the matters in question were commercially sensitive and that RTÉ had demonstrated its ability to make cost savings during the economic downturn at the turn of the decade.

“I’m not questioning what’s been done in the past,” Cullinane said. “I’d like if RTÉ could forward to this committee a bit more detail to this €60 million. If something is commercially sensitive that’s fine, but people are losing their jobs.”

david cullinane Sinn Féin's David Cullinane was critical of a lack of detail in how RTÉ would make the necessary savings. Source: Oireachtas TV

Fianna Fáil’s James Lawless, meanwhile, said the RTÉ Player needs to improve if the broadcaster is to truly become a “digital-first” organisation. 

It was also put to Forbes that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in the Dáil today that any decision to move Lyric FM from Limerick should be deferred pending the recommendations from the newly-created Commission on the Future of Public Service Broadcasting. 

She said she wasn’t aware of the Taoiseach’s comments and that RTÉ is due to speak to staff at the Limerick studio on Friday.

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Sean Murray

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