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Recent RTÉ controversy is of Bakhurst’s own making

The last thing Government wants is to have to find someone else to run RTÉ

The renewed controversy over payouts to departing RTÉ executives has dented Government confidence in the organisation’s director general, Kevin Bakhurst, and caused many senior figures to wonder what else is coming down the line at the beleaguered national broadcaster.

Since his return to lead the organisation last summer after the calamitous final months and then departure of Dee Forbes, Bakhurst had been regarded by most people in Government as the best thing RTÉ had going for it. Public expressions of confidence in him by Ministers were matched by a private expectation that he was the right man at the right time.

With a deep knowledge of the broadcaster but sufficient distance in recent years so as to be untarnished by controversies, Ministers and senior officials hoped he could do what was necessary at Montrose: cut costs, reform the culture, and put the broadcaster on a stable footing so that new funding – of one kind or another – would be possible.

It is almost 12 months now since news that RTÉ was facing a crisis began to circulate around the highest levels of Government, and it’s three-quarters of a year since the controversy exploded into public view; the best that can be said for the Bakhurst project is that it is a work in progress. And from the point of view of many people in Government, that progress is slow, too slow.


The agreement of confidentiality clauses in the settlements reached to smooth the exits of former chief financial officer Richard Collins and head of strategy Rory Coveney is seen by many as a mistake by Bakhurst. While such clauses are standard in these agreements, and most people accept that the two men had to be paid off – to some extent, anyway – to leave, the clamour for transparency was entirely predictable. Bakhurst must have known that at some stage he would be telling an Oireachtas committee that he couldn’t tell them what they wanted to know about this. So why did he agree?

One Government source sniffs: “People pay too much attention to lawyers.” Certainly the politics of doing so were predictable, and predictably bad.

Also, Bakhurst’s insistence that he had previously revealed the presence of the exit payments is at least contestable. Last year he was asked by the Irish Independent about Rory Coveney: “Did he get a payment going out the door?”

He replied: “No, he didn’t get a payment going out the door. But he is entitled, as other people are, to, you know, statutory-level kind of payments when they leave an organisation.”

Certainly the impression that most people in Government had, one Minister confirms, is that there were no big payouts. Now they have learned there was. The obvious next question: well, how much? Predictably, the Oireachtas Media Committee has taken up the running.

The significance of this is that previously Bakhurst had been trying to clean up other people’s mistakes – but this is seen as one of his own making.

He remains, however, the indispensable man. The last thing Government wants is to have to find someone else to run RTÉ. The very depth of the crisis at the station gives Bakhurst a paradoxical power.

But his task is getting harder, not easier. Political patience is not an inexhaustible commodity. The Government’s oft-stated determination to resolve the question of RTÉ’s future and how it is funded should be set against the many other priorities it has, and which it wants to conclude before the next election. RTÉ’s future is unlikely to get the attention it needs until the questions about its past are fully answered. And those questions are not going away.

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