Pulling Toy Show the Musical would have been ‘unthinkable’, says former RTÉ executive

RTÉ publish updated report detailing names of previously anonymised figures involved in controversial musical

Toy Show The Musical. Photograph: Ste Murray

RTÉ's former director of strategy Rory Coveney claimed it would have been “unthinkable” to pull the broadcaster’s Toy Show the Musical production in the weeks after it launched, due to poor ticket sales.

On Tuesday RTÉ published an updated version of Grant Thornton’s report on the controversial musical, revealing the names of the majority of the senior figures interviewed, who were anonymised in the original version.

The updated report shows that Julian Erskine, a senior Riverdance producer who was brought on by RTÉ as a consultant, raised the suggestion that the musical could be scrapped before the first curtain was raised, following a poor uptake in ticket sales.

In response the report notes Mr Coveney, who resigned last July, said by the time tickets went on sale RTÉ were “locked in” to the project, with large costs already committed.

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Mr Coveney said it would have been “unthinkable” to scrap the show in the weeks after tickets went on sale in May 2022. The decision would have had implications for RTÉ “beyond the financial in terms of reputation, confidence and market credibility”, he told the review.

The production, which ran for several weeks from December 2022, only sold 11,044 tickets despite early internal projections it could reach audiences of more than 100,000 people, resulting in a loss of €2.3 million.

The report found the board of RTÉ was not formally told about the production until after a contract had already been signed with the Convention Centre Dublin to host the musical, at significant cost. It said a commitment by senior RTÉ executives to bring the proposed project to the board’s audit committee never happened, while required approval by the wider board was never sought.

The updated report shows Mr Coveney said there was “very little, if any, concern” about audience numbers initially, with meetings planning the musical more concerned with the creative side of the project. “In terms of people’s views on the financials and the audience numbers, there was conspicuously little interrogation of them,” he told the review.

The report shows board member PJ Matthews said by the time the project was brought to a wider board meeting, “the ship had left the harbour”. The idea of halting the production at that point would have been “catastrophic” and inflicted “severe reputational damage” on the broadcaster, he said.

Moya Doherty, who was chair of the RTÉ board during the period, agreed that directors would have been required to approve the show, given it was to cost more than €2 million. In her interview with Grant Thornton, Ms Doherty said she believed every board member “had the opportunity to ask questions, raise objections or disapprove of the project”.

Ms Doherty told the review she accepted that no formal vote was taken by the board to approve the project, but that given no board members objected to the proposal there was “at the very least” implicit approval.

However, several directors disputed that the board had formally approved the musical, according to the report. Robert Short, RTÉ's staff representative on the board, said it was “never asked for its approval” of the project. While Anne O’Leary said she felt the production was presented to directors “as a fait accompli”, without a request for approval.

Mr Coveney, who was the “driving force” behind the project, told the review he believed it had been “greenlit” at a March 29th, 2022 meeting, where some board members were present.

The report details the meeting was attended by then-director general Dee Forbes, Mr Coveney, then-legal director Paula Mullooly, and board members Ms Doherty, Ms O’Leary, Connor Murphy, Ian Kehoe, and Daire Hickey.

Board members who attended the meeting described it as a “briefing” on the project, rather than a request for approval, the report said.

David Harvey, another board member, said when the project was brought up during a board meeting on April 28th, 2022, it was absolutely presented “as a done deal”.

Mr Coveney stepped down last year after coming under pressure over his role in the ill-fated musical during Oireachtas committee hearings into the wider financial and governance controversy that engulfed RTÉ. Siún Ní Raghallaigh took over as chair of the board from Ms Doherty at the end of 2022.

In a statement, RTÉ said it had sought to facilitate requests from Minister for Media Catherine Martin and two Oireachtas committees to republish the Toy Show the Musical report to include the names of key figures involved, which had all been anonymised in the original version.

The broadcaster said following this request 20 of the 26 individuals interviewed for the Grant Thornton report agreed to have their identities included in an updated report.

The release of the updated report comes in advance of RTÉ executives and board members appearing before the Oireachtas committee on media on Wednesday afternoon, to answer questions on the sprawling controversy facing the broadcaster.

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Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is acting Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times