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Government official says RTÉ may need 'radical re-thinking' - not more public funding

The State broadcaster had around 100 fewer staff opt for redundancies that it hoped.

Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR was told by one of his officials that ”radical re-thinking” of RTÉ’s role might be needed to address its chronic deficits – rather than constant rises in its public funding.

Meanwhile, the State broadcaster may struggle to further stem its losses after only 160 staff put their hands up for a redundancy programme – around 100 fewer than it had targeted with the scheme. 

Records released to TheJournal.ie show that RTÉ courted senior government figures in a series of meetings to discuss the organisation’s funding in the lead-up to last year’s budget.

They included a meeting between Tánaiste Simon Coveney and the broadcaster’s director general, Dee Forbes, in September.

A few days later she also met with Department of Communications director general Mark Griffin, while on 1 October Forbes met with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Just over a week later, RTÉ got a boost in Budget 2019 when it was allocated extra funding worth €8.6 million per year.

That included €5 million from increasing the amount RTÉ was paid by the government for free TV licences issued as part of welfare packages and another €3.6 million from licence fee collections that had previously gone to TG4, which had its direct exchequer funding increased. 

The State broadcaster recorded a funding deficit of €6.4 million last year, although that was down on the €19.4 million loss it delivered in 2016.

Its total revenue increased slightly thanks to an increase in licence fee income, offsetting a €6.7 million drop in its commercial revenues.

2/8/2017. National Lottery 30th Celebrations RTE director general Dee Forbes and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Source: Sam Boal

‘Radical re-thinking’

An internal briefing note prepared for Varadkar in advance of his meeting with Forbes and RTÉ chair Moya Doherty said that the broadcaster had “undertaken a number of measures to address its budgetary situation”.

“However, it is clear that trends such as growing international competitions, shift of advertisers to digital platforms and (an) increasing number of ‘no TV’ homes makes RTÉ’s financial position very perilous,” it added.

The document, obtained under freedom of information laws, noted that RTÉ’s five-year strategy, launched last year, was dependent on “a substantial increase in funding”.

“It might be argued that a more radical re-thinking of RTÉ’s role in the digital era is required rather than just relying on further incremental increases in public funding,” the note added.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland last year recommended a minimum of €30 million in extra annual funding be granted to RTÉ.

Meanwhile, in August 2017 RTÉ said it was looking for 250 redundancies to help reduce its funding deficit – although a staff member reported at the time that the organisation would take 300 jobs cuts “if that was available”.

However Varadkar’s briefing documents said that only 150 staff had “availed” of the “voluntary exit program” to date.

An RTÉ spokesman said the number of staff who had taken redundancy packages had since increased to 160. He added that the organisation “continues to carefully manage its cost base” but it had no intention to introduce forced redundancies to meet the target.

The redundancy scheme was funded with the broadcaster’s €107.5 million Donnybrook land sale to developer Cairn Homes, which was also going towards repaying debts and investing in facilities.

Nearly €30 million was set aside for the redundancies and related costs in RTÉ’s 2017 accounts.

The broadcaster recently warned that its “precarious” financial position was likely to take another hit if the UK crashed out of the EU later this month as a no-deal Brexit would further reduce its advertising income.

A government working group is reviewing the current licence fee regime – including whether it should be replaced with a new charge – and is due to deliver its report later this month. 

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