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File photo of former RTÉ Director General Dee Forbes and Ryan Tubridy. Sam Boal/
rte payments scandal

There were 725,000 people on pandemic supports when Tubridy was assured his pay would not drop

Union members told The Journal that there is ‘huge anger’ about Dee Forbes’ letter assuring Tubridy that his pay would not be reduced by RTÉ up to 2025.

THE COVID-ERA promise to Ryan Tubridy by RTÉ’s then-director general Dee Forbes that his pay would not be cut came at a time when hundreds of thousands across the country were facing financial insecurity, a lookback at figures shows.

The controversy surrounding secret payments worth €345,000 made by the national broadcaster to the former Late Late Show presenter has rumbled on for the last couple of weeks, with further revelations coming from RTÉ representatives appearing before several Oireachtas committee hearings.

These include payments of hundreds of thousands of euro from RTÉ’s barter account on luxury priced goods, including complimentary tickets for corporate boxes at sold out concerts, IRFU tickets, golf dinners and flip flops. 

Documents released earlier this week by RTÉ included a letter from Dee Forbes, in which she told Ryan Tubridy in 2020 that his pay would not be reduced by RTÉ up to 2025.

Dated 21 July 2020, the letter reads: “The purpose of this correspondence is to record in writing our guarantee and undertaking that the fees set out in this Agreement will be paid by RTÉ without any reductions and RTÉ shall not make any request or enquiry from you in relation to a reduction in the agreed fees during the currency of the Agreement save as to those that might be imposed by changes to legislation.”

At the same time, the country was four months into the Covid-19 pandemic. 

By 21 July 2020, there had been 25,802 confirmed Covid cases in Ireland overall, and the Government had just agreed a ‘green list’ of countries and territories from which people could travel without having to restrict their movements upon arriving in the country.

In the same week that Forbes promised Tubridy that he would not receive a pay cut for five years, over 310,000 people received the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP).

The social welfare payment was for employees and self-employed people who lost their employment due to the pandemic.

download (5) Letter from former RTÉ Director General Dee Forbes.

Figures released by the Department of Social Protection on 20 July 2020 show that payments valued at €97 million were paid to 313,800 people that week. This was down 31,800 on the previous week and down 100,000 on two weeks.

In the same week, there were over 67,700 employers registered with the Revenue Commissioners for the Temporary Covid-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS).

An estimated 415,000 employees were also being supported by the scheme at that time, having received a subsidy in their most recent pay period.

The TWSS was put in place in order to prevent workers from becoming unemployed. It paid up to €410 per week to an employee of a business that had lost more than 25% of its turnover, on the condition that employers kept those workers on their books. 

The Government also launched the July Jobs Stimulus that week, a €7.4 billion package of measures “designed to stimulate a jobs-led recovery and build economic confidence while continuing to manage the impact of Covid-19″.

This included a €10,000 “Restart Grant” for micro and small businesses based on a rates/waiver rebate from 2019. This was later increased to a maximum of €25,000. 

Overall, the various schemes and numbers paint a picture of a time when many were uncertain about the future during a global emergency, including staff working at RTÉ. 

Speaking to The Journal, chair of NUJ Dublin Broadcasting Branch Emma O Kelly said people working at the national broadcaster at the time were facing the same difficulties as other workers across the country. 

She said some workers had been put on Covid payments and were “very financially stressed and concerned” about meeting bills.

“I got an email from somebody who had Covid and was concerned about coming back to work because their area had been put on double shifts because of sickness, because of staff shortages, and this person was afraid of the workload coming back in after Covid,” she said, adding that some people were working close to 18-hour shifts.

“People were trying to mind their children and work at the same time. We were facing all the difficulties that workers across the country were facing.”

In January, six months prior to Forbes’ letter to Tubridy, RTÉ unilaterally suspended increments. 

“The people who get increments are the young staff,” O Kelly said. “You’re talking about people who have childcare bills, are in the early stages of starting to pay a mortgage or have rent to pay… We were incensed by it because we knew it was a very unfair cut.”

By the end of 2020, RTÉ had asked staff to take pay cuts. O Kelly said that seeing Forbes’ letter to the broadcaster’s highest earner assuring him that his pay would not be cut was “infuriating and very upsetting” for members.

‘Huge anger’

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne on Friday, NUJ general secretary Seamus Dooley described the revelation of Forbes’ letter to Tubridy as a breach of trust to “each individual member of staff”.

He told The Journal that the letter has caused “huge anger” among his members.

“That was six months after the unilateral suspension of increments and it’s six months before pay cuts, and what you had was a letter of guarantee which tells [Tubridy] that there won’t be a pay cut for five years,” Dooley said.

“That guarantee contrasts with treatment of other staff and we had had very specific assurances that all staff were going to be treated equally and that so called top talent would be taking pain, where she’s giving him a guarantee that he won’t have a pay cut.”

He said that the letter has not only caused shock and anger for those in the union, but also “at the level of management and HR”.

“I’ve spoken to people across the organisation, people who would sit on the other side of the table who in good faith, entered into negotiations with us and did not know of this private deal. So it’s not just a question of union members being angry, but actually, a lot of people who, in industrial relations terms, would be on the opposite side of the table.”

Dooley also said that staff within RTÉ could not get approval for resources they were seeking at the time in order to report on the pandemic.

“At that time, the newsroom were looking for additional, short-term resources in order to provide cover for journalists who were working like the clappers I think is the phrase I would use, and they didn’t get approval from the director general,” he said.

“News management didn’t get approval for all they wanted. They didn’t get a sympathetic hearing for that. So there is that sense of anger, a sense of betrayal, and also the reality is a failure to recognise that, actually, we were supposed to be all in this together, except we weren’t.”

O Kelly said the newsroom was “way down on staff” at the time and reporting on a pandemic, which brought a lot of pressure.

“We were so stretched for staff and everybody who was working was working so hard to try to do what we all signed up to do, which was to bring news to the public and there was a huge need for it,” she said.

“Our listening figures rocketed because everybody needed to know what was going on with the schools, with the virus, so we were working under very, very stressful conditions and we’d a huge task, we really knew was of vital importance to report accurately. It was a difficult environment to be reporting on.”

Dooley was part of a meeting with RTÉ’s incoming director general Kevin Bakhurst on Friday, where he said he gave a firm commitment “to work with staff and unions to restore the faith and confidence of staff in RTÉ”. 

He said Bakhurst is aware that RTÉ pushed for staff reductions in 2019 when much of the controversial spending through the barter accounts was taking place, and that he said that he wants to see a return to “public service values” within the organization. 

Tubridy and his agent Noel Kelly will appear before two Oireachtas committees on Tuesday.

Both men will appear before the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Tuesday morning at 11.30m, before attending the Media Committee in the afternoon at 3pm.

The PAC has also invited RTÉ Executives and board to come before it on Thursday.

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