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Latest RTÉ turmoil raises questions for director general Kevin Bakhurst

Coveney severence payment flies in face of Bakhurst’s plans to revive public trust

The latest bout of RTÉ turmoil raises questions for director general Kevin Bakhurst, the “new sheriff” whose task since July has been to overhaul the national broadcaster and revive public trust.

Bakhurst – who has been summoned to a meeting with Minister for Media Catherine Martin on Monday – has until now cast the seemingly endless cycle of disclosure as the outwork of deep RTÉ failings in the past: the very recent past in most cases but, crucially from the perspective of the new director general, the period predating his return to Montrose last summer. That changed abruptly with the drip-feed of information about a huge exit payment last summer to Rory Coveney, the former director of strategy who was the driving force behind the disastrous Toy Show the Musical in Christmas 2022.

This was a theatrical flop of frightful proportions, with RTÉ and the taxpayers who fund it on the hook for a €2.3 million loss. But the reputational damage went far beyond the financial deficit, further eroding the standing of an organisation which has long since become a byword for rampant misgovernance. For the RTÉ board and its executive, the musical was a nightmare. Now the fallout threatens to contaminate Bakhurst himself, the very man who was supposed to clean up the mess.

When RTÉ said Coveney was leaving on July 9th, it issued a statement quoting him saying “I’ve tendered by resignation immediately” to give Bakhurst space to bring together a fresh lead team. It was only at the Oireachtas media committee last week that RTÉ said Coveney received a severance payment. In a new statement on Saturday, Bakhurst said he and Coveney “agreed” it was best he stand down and indicated he received the equivalent of one year’s salary.


RTÉ did not dispute Sunday reports that Coveney received some €200,000 on his way out, an enormous sum that has all the characteristics of a big reward for big musical failure.

Coveney, who did not respond to attempts by The Irish Times on Saturday to contact him, has not commented publicly on the terms of his exit package.

Why did Bakhurst pay this money? Given the febrile state of public and political disquiet over RTÉ at that time, what was to be gained by writing so large a cheque for the public face of the musical debacle? Why not insist that no such payment be made? What standard of corporate governance was applied to permit such a payment?

After all, Bakhurst’s Saturday statement made it clear that Paula Mullooly did not receive an exit payment when she left her role as RTÉ director of legal affairs “to pursue another opportunity”. Neither did Geraldine O’Leary receive an exit payment when she retired as commercial director. What was so different about the outgoing director of strategy that merited severance pay?

The incoming director general may well have seen the Coveney deal as an expedient way of starting to move beyond the discredited management team that predated him. The problem, however, is that money like that looks unwise and profligate – all the more at a time of scandal over secretive Ryan Tubridy payments, lavish corporate hospitality spending and deep anxiety among RTÉ workers about double standards for those with the best pay.

Bakhurst’s Saturday statement said RTÉ will “recoup” the Coveney money by July this year, a reference to future savings from the suppression of a post whose responsibilities were taken on by director of audience Adrian Lynch. But this too begs questions. Can Bakhurst point to any other RTÉ savings after big severance payouts?

Former RTÉ chief financial officer Breda O’Keeffe received €450,000 when leaving in 2020 but her post was not suppressed. Her successor Richard Collins then became another casualty of the RTÉ payments affair. According to Bakhurst’s weekend statement, Collins left “by mutual agreement, with a biding confidentiality clause” after independent mediation. That implies a dispute of some kind and, possibly, a financial settlement. But there is little actual clarity over the terms on which Collins’ time at RTÉ came to an end.

The same goes for former head of news Jon Williams, who left in 2022. That role was not suppressed but, when asked by The Irish Times, neither Williams nor RTÉ would say whether he received an exit payment. If he didn’t, RTÉ has had plenty opportunity to say it.

A spokesman said “it remains RTÉ's general legal advice that it is restricted from providing details regarding the departures of individuals from RTÉ.” Bakhurst has sought an update to legal advice, which is awaited. But with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Micheál Martin joining the clamour for transparency, Bakhurst’s options appear to be narrowing rapidly.

There is more to come. Prof Niamh Brennan of UCD is soon to submit a report on RTÉ corporate governance to the Catherine Martin. But it already seems like there was no corporate governance in RTÉ.

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