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Laura Slattery: ‘Parallel universe’ haunts RTÉ as its North Star remains elusive for a reason

Executives dragged back into the Oireachtas orbit as a consultation confirms widespread disaffection among staff

“Great local drama continues on RTÉ,” the Blackshore promo goes — and at RTÉ, too, it doesn’t say. Its drama has never been greater nor more local, and the cast of the saga only seems to be expanding, like the universe.

Or should that be parallel universe? One existed at RTÉ, according to Emma O Kelly, the RTÉ education correspondent who chairs the Dublin broadcasting branch of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). She used the past tense on Morning Ireland before clarifying that RTÉ employees “don’t really feel that this is in the past”.

Indeed, with RTÉ poised to launch its third voluntary exit programme in seven years, the present continuous is the tense that most often applies to human resources matters at Montrose. RTÉ is cutting staff — again. It plans to reduce its headcount by 40 this year, tying this to a familiar bid to reduce layers of management, and it intends to employ 400 fewer people by the end of 2028, a drop of more than 20 per cent.

Employees are worried about the future, a newly published consultation exercise confirms.


“Staff streamlining is the most concerning of all commitments internally. RTÉ's past track record, culture, communication, and career development and training are damaging credibility here,” concludes Red C, the research firm tasked with holding focus groups on director general Kevin Bakhurst’s five-year strategy.

It is not necessarily about numbers. Some 64 per cent of RTÉ staff agreed that “RTÉ should become a smaller organisation in pursuit of longer-term financial stability”. This wasn’t too far behind the proportion of the public (71 per cent) who thought the same. But when asked to suggest one thing that “would make a better RTÉ”, by far the top answer given by employees was their own “fair treatment”, alongside “better communication” and the novel proposal that management might “listen to staff”.

Some long-termers — sick of and sickened by the drama — are keen to leave with a redundancy lump sum, a move that has proven harder than expected in recent years, with the broadcaster’s voluntary exit programmes in 2017 and 2021 resulting in about 200 rejected applications.

Some of the 45 staff denied an offer under the first scheme might have applied and been turned down a second time. Even allowing for this, the refusal rate points to a studio-sized swathe of annoyed people. And after last week’s report on the exit package paid to former chief financial officer Breda O’Keeffe — signed off on by former director general Dee Forbes, but not approved by RTÉ's executive board — many will have upgraded their annoyance level to enraged.

The McCann FitzGerald report, commissioned by Bakhurst, noted that the 2021 scheme was “a source of some discontent” among RTÉ staff disappointed that their applications had not been accepted. The law firm went on to say it was “satisfied that they were considered consistently”. But, as the NUJ’s Irish secretary Séamus Dooley told Radio 1, this will have been “cold comfort” to these employees when they read how a senior executive paid multiples of their salary secured a “special route” to a payout.

The attention on O’Keeffe’s departure was, remarkably, self-inflicted. At an Oireachtas media committee last July she volunteered that she had left under a restructuring scheme, sparking confusion about how this could possibly have led to any cost savings. She declined to attend subsequent sessions of the Public Accounts Committee, though she appeared to have tuned in to the first of them, with RTÉ deputy director general Adrian Lynch attempting to read out a message she sent him as it was unfolding.

Although McCann FitzGerald’s report found that O’Keeffe was not responsible for the failure to bring her application to the executive board for approval, she must surely regret mentioning the nature of her exit at all.

It will do no harm for Government politicians to look closer to home and remember why the broadcaster was charged with suppressing so many roles in the first place

Eimear Cusack, the director of human resources who issued a formal offer letter to O’Keeffe on the instruction of Forbes, may not be best pleased about it either. With Forbes unable to attend Oireachtas hearings on medical grounds, Cusack, a sitting member of Bakhurst’s interim leadership team, has been firmly pulled into the orbit of committee members lining up for their next face-off.

RTÉ employees and their representatives will be keen for TDs and Senators to embrace this opportunity to revisit the industrial relations and employment law issues that have, for years now, dogged those at RTÉ who were never classified as “stars” and who have yet to find the portal to the parallel universe.

Such is the anger that McCann FitzGerald’s report documents a string of “unsolicited” communications from former RTÉ staff. It also observes what could be interpreted as the undervaluing of certain employees, with the exit of one group of nine personnel under the 2017 scheme creating a “resource gap” filled at first by contractors, then new hires.

“Interviewees informed McCann FitzGerald that the importance of these staff had not been fully appreciated when the approval decisions were being made, but it became clear over time that the role had been very useful.”

There is something terrifically dry about this way of describing the phenomenon of people in large workplaces failing to understand what it is their colleagues actually do and why it might be essential.

But as worthwhile as it will be to interrogate what Senator Marie Sherlock, Labour’s media spokeswoman, calls the “upstairs-downstairs” culture at RTÉ, it will also do no harm for Government politicians to look closer to home and remember why the broadcaster was charged with suppressing so many roles in the first place.

Red C’s research found that Bakhurst himself is “untainted” by scandal, but that “fundamental concerns” about his strategy include a perceived need “to define the organisation’s North Star”. In other words, RTÉ requires clarity about where it is going.

That’s tough to map out when the Government, still dithering inexorably on how to fund it, continues to cloud the sky.