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Analysis

RTÉ's case for licence fee hike in tatters as politicians take delight in having the upper hand

The idea of accountability at the station has been blown up this week.

RTÉ IS IN a “fight for the future”.

That is how Dee Forbes, the now suspended Director General, described the financial crisis at the station four years ago.

The same turn of phrase could very much be applied to the series of bombshell announcements that have taken place this week.

Prior to revelations this week, Forbes would be best known for her appearances before Oireachtas committees where, like clockwork, RTÉ would come cap in hand to seek additional funding from the government. 

However, since the news of financial irregularities emerged relating to the salary payments to presenter Ryan Tubridy, politicians have stated the public broadcaster has lost all credibility in making a case for both TV licence fee reform and cash injections to the organisation. 

On Thursday, RTÉ confirmed it had underreported presenter Ryan Tubridy’s earnings by €345,000 over a period spanning more than six years.

It also confirmed that it had underwritten a commercial arrangement in which two €75,000 additional payments were made to the presenter.

Since the story broke, it has moved at pace. There was the announcement that Forbes, its outgoing director general, was suspended from her employment on Wednesday.

RTÉ only revealed this yesterday, a day after the story broke in the media. The Journal had put a number of queries to the station earlier in the week without reply. 

Ryan has “unreservedly apologised” for not seeking to correct the record when salaries were made public. Now we have Media Minister Catherine Martin meeting with the chair of the board today.

Even the The Taoiseach has weighed in to say that “remedial steps” will be required to “restore trust and confidence” in RTÉ.

Public Accounts Committee

When Forbes appeared before the Oireachtas, like in the powerful Public Accounts Committee (PAC), it has always made for some awkward exchanges between DG and politicians.

Public representatives would pore over the books of the TV station, asking probing questions about what the money was being spent on.

Forbes, since she was first appointed director general in 2016, has been highlighting the financial troubles faced by RTÉ.

As recently as last year, she outlined the station was hemorrhaging cash.

“The core structural funding problem remains” at RTÉ, she said, stating that the losses to public service media funding are now estimated to be €65 million annually. 

One way of digging the TV station out of its financial hole, in her view, was either increasing the TV licence fee paid by members of the public or at the very least, reforming the mechanism in which it is collected. 

The licence fee has never been an issue that politicians have been particularly comfortable dealing with and over the years it has been kicked to touch by successive governments.

While the percentage of those that pay the licence fee has always been an issue, handing over the power to the likes of Revenue to take the €160 directly from every citizen was never going to be an easy sell. 

Forbes has appeared before countless Oireachtas committee meetings to make RTÉ’s case, with many politicians being skeptical to downright opposed to throwing more cash towards the station. 

As one TD said, “over the years it feels like we have been throwing money into a black hole”. They said now there is no confidence in the facts and figures that RTÉ has been presenting over the years. 

Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley, chair of the PAC said yesterday: “The PAC has been misled by RTÉ representatives, including Ms Forbes. What has occurred is a betrayal of trust and we are demanding a full explanation from those directly involved.”

The revelations this week have only hardened politicians’ views that TV licence reform will be placed firmly back on the shelf, with TDs stating that the lack of transparency around the spending of taxpayers’ money has damaged any trust that might have been there. 

“The RTÉ board has to go. The licence fee has to go,” Independent TD Michael McNamara dramatically tweeted.

Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne said it is the biggest crisis RTE has faced in its modern history.  The controversy “does not help the case” of TV licence fee reform, he said. 

“I don’t think RTÉ can make a case for an increase in the licence fee – I don’t have trust in how RTÉ has behaved,” said Byrne.  

That’s the crux of the issue this week. 

Cuts

In her time Forbes has announced job cuts, division restructuring, land sale on the Montrose site, as well as outlining in 2019 a move to “reduce the fees paid to our top contracted on-air presenters by 15%”.

Some have said that all these efforts have been eclipsed by the accounting errors revealed in the last few days.  

Former Media Minister Richard Bruton pumped €10 million additional annual funding into RTÉ in recent years, stating he was meeting the public broadcaster “half way”. 

But the blood is in the water now and there is no need for government to feel it needs to do more.  

Politicians are off the hook when it comes to licence fee reform and any future committee meetings about RTÉ funding will see the government with the upper hand. 

As Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy said this week, politicians have always had to tread a “careful line” with RTÉ over the years in terms of funding and any notions that there could be political interference. 

But he said where public funding is involved, there has to be a “clear accountability mechanism”.  

The idea that such a mechanism exists has been blown up this week. 

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