RTÉ being ‘held to ransom’ for taxpayer funding, Oireachtas committee hears

Broadcaster ‘starved of necessary funding for decades’, union representative tells politicians

RTÉ is in effect “being held to ransom” in exchange for taxpayer funding, an Oireachtas committee has been told.

Speaking to the Oireachtas media committee on Wednesday, which was hearing from workers’ representatives and unions acting for Montrose employees, RTÉ representative for the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Emma O’Kelly spoke of the “anger and frustration” of members there.

Ms O’Kelly said the broadcaster has been “starved of necessary funding for decades by successive governments” and that she was “very concerned” that there was an “insistence” that funding decisions are being delayed “while RTÉ continues to teeter on the brink of disaster”.

She said figures across the political system had professed their support for the journalism done by RTÉ since the organisation was engulfed in crisis last year, but that “without adequate funding those words are hollow”.


Ms O’Kelly, who is also the station’s education correspondent, said the organisation is “in effect being held to ransom”, adding that the station must cut its workforce by one-fifth, or 400 jobs, and outsource work now being done in-house to the private sector, where she warned conditions and security were worse. She said the NUJ believed that the crisis was being used to drive through an “entirely different agenda” – that of RTÉ's privatisation. She said diminished conditions would particularly impact women.

“We believe this is sending RTÉ further down the wrong road,” Ms O’Kelly told the committee.

Fianna Fáil TD Christopher O’Sullivan said it was not good enough that it had taken almost a year to hear RTÉ staff in front of a committee, adding that he heard the “desperate plea” from staff and union representatives for the future funding model for RTÉ – which he said was “going on too long” at this stage.

Ms O’Kelly said the summer controversy was “devastating” for staff and likened it to a “dam bursting”. She said staff had been aware of “what was happening in RTÉ” and didn’t feel they were listened to despite fighting for change internally.

She said funding was a daily struggle in the newsroom and journalists cannot get basic printing, and that sometimes it was “like a lottery” seeking working equipment. She said the building they work in is “falling apart”.

“Months on we are still in the same bind we were in the summer,” Ms O’Kelly said, adding that the model and the level of funding needed to be addressed.

The issue of bogus self-employment took centre stage at the committee for long periods. Ms O’Kelly said she had worked closely with colleagues on so-called bogus self-employment contracts, and that she had been “completely shocked” at the terms and conditions coworkers were on. She said one colleague went on maternity leave three times but never got any maternity pay.

Kerry TD Brendan Griffin read into the record testimony from people on such contracts, which could not be heard in the public session after advice from the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers, but had been accepted as written evidence by the committee.

One worker wrote that bullying and threats over contracts had been “widespread for decades” and that there was a “form of corporate bullying” at the organisation for years.

Keith Walsh, a former 2FM DJ, Mr Griffin said, felt that being prevented from giving testimony at the committee was “trauma on top of trauma”.

Sinn Féin TD for Louth Imelda Munster said that the unions present had done little or nothing to support workers who had been subject to the conditions described. “How was a scandal like that not tackled?” she asked.

Seamus Dooley, Irish secretary of the NUJ told Ms Munster it was strange and curious for unions to “take a punishment beating” for the actions of management.

Labour Senator and communications spokeswoman Marie Sherlock asked about the working relationship with Kevin Bakhurst and was told by Ms O’Kelly that communication had improved “but action speaks louder than words”.

“If change isn’t coming then that’s not good enough,” she said.

Mr Dooley said that because of potential cuts, there was a risk that the news and current affairs department might not be able to meet its remit. He said he had never understood the level of pay given to top earners at RTÉ, saying that the broadcaster was often competing only against itself in pay discussions.

In some tense exchanges, Tipperary independent TD Mattie McGrath said unions were part of a “cabal” in Montrose. He also said Mr Dooley was “acting the twit” at one point. Mr McGrath said the unions were a “big part” of what he said was a “golden circle”.

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times