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Q&A: Should RTÉ be under the remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General?

Dáil committee has called for the public body to audit the broadcaster

1) Why are people suggesting the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) should audit RTÉ?

It’s essentially the culmination of the entire RTÉ management crisis. The thinking is that if we – the State and by extension the public – have full access to its books, then there won’t be any more surprises. That sentiment is likely to be neatly encapsulated by a forthcoming Public Accounts Committee (Pac) recommendation that RTÉ budgets and expenditure be overseen by the C&AG. The C&AG, of course, presents its audits to the Pac. So that would place RTÉ firmly back beneath the watchful eye of publicly-elected representatives long frustrated by the financial drip feed from Montrose.

2) It seems like a no-brainer. Shouldn’t RTÉ have been under its remit before now?

They once were but the Broadcasting Authority Act 1990 allowed it to appoint qualified auditors. Even though part of the subsequent Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act 1993 gave the C&AG the power to inspect the accounts of public bodies that receive more than half of their funding from the State, RTÉ is exempt. Siún Ní Raghallaigh, whose resignation last week was the latest twist in the long-running saga, had previously recommended RTÉ be placed back in the hands of the C&AG, although it is likely any such move would require legislation.


3) What would the C&AG have the power to do?

Essentially what they already do for most other public bodies; pick over the bones of financial activity, particularly spending, and present their findings in routine reports. C&AG auditors have long been a simple instrument of transparency (and often a source of embarrassment) for other institutions. It audits almost 300 public bodies, excluding local authorities and commercial semi-States such as RTÉ. In the past it has revealed how the HSE ordered more than 10 times the estimated number of ventilators needed at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and how the former State jet was sold for €350,000 less than its value.

4) How would that scenario apply to RTÉ?

It would bring political comfort in areas of spending that have been at the root of the RTÉ controversy. There would be an annual inspection of accounts, meaning any issues would be flagged with Pac. Such oversight would likely include or complement other financial safeguards now being sought, such as updates on activity in the broadcaster’s notorious barter account, as well as details of exit payments and spending on big projects such as ill-fated musicals.

5) Would that kind of political oversight threaten RTÉ’s independence?

Probably not, although there are some caveats. Prof Jane Suiter at DCU’s School of Communications noted universities under the eye of the C&AG have not suffered any loss to academic freedom. “RTÉ have clearly demonstrated that self-regulation doesn’t work for them,” she said. If the broadcaster had been majority State-funded and not dependent on such a high level of commercial revenue, she explained, it may have remained under State financial supervision, arguably avoiding recent problems. However, Prof Paul Wragg, an expert in media freedom and regulation at the University of Leeds, said while appropriate in theory, public accounting oversight must not be allowed give way to political overreach in terms of interference.

6) But isn’t that unlikely? Are there any examples of anxieties around political interference in public service broadcasting?

Yes, it is the subject of ongoing debate in the UK. Prof Wragg pointed to political tensions with Channel 4, which was “openly criticising government policy proposals”, and which the Tory government had moved to sell from public ownership. The so-called BBC bias was anathema to many politicians who felt its coverage unfair – former prime minister Boris Johnson at one stage threatened to scrap its licence fee. Prof Wragg said while there is a public interest in re-establishing State oversight, such a system must itself be entirely transparent “so that there’s not even the nearest hint of financing being withheld subject to” political whims.

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