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Analysis: Three new RTÉ reports make for sorry reading

Findings of three reports point to a troubling culture, and it will be up to RTÉ to regain the trust of Government and the public

It will come as no surprise that three reports on RTÉ's culture, governance, HR practices and the infamous barter account make for sorry reading. The collective findings of the reports point to a troubling culture typified by sloppy, indifferent, incurious management over a period of years, culminating in the conflagration sparked by the emergence of undisclosed payments to star presenter Ryan Tubridy last year.

Is this the end of the matter? Don’t bet on it.

For both the Government and for RTÉ, one of the most problematic properties of the crisis is that it has not been confined to a single episode. What looked at first like a scandal over undisclosed payments to Tubridy developed into a galloping omnishambles undermining the very viability of the national broadcaster, sucking in and terminating careers, enveloping politicians (particularly Minister for Media Catherine Martin) and provoking simmering tensions between the Coalition parties over the future funding of RTÉ.

The bewildering array of sequels that unfolded following last summer’s revelation by turns fascinated, infuriated and, latterly, probably bored the watching public as all parties struggled to put a floor under the crisis and the narrative became more and more dense. Certainly the attention of the public seems to have waned. “RTÉ is not coming up on the doors in the local and European elections, whereas 10 months ago, it was what everyone was talking about,” says Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne, who has had a front-row seat as part of the Oireachtas media committee.


It is now the closely held hope of all parties in charge that the publication of the reports represents an end to the destabilising parade of revelations; time will tell if that is the case, as we have seen that hope professed before.

If, finally, the bleeding has been stopped, how is the patient to be resuscitated? There is a path forward, of sorts – even if the destination is still unclear. Firstly, RTÉ will have to examine, accept and implement the reports. This is likely to be a drawn-out formality – new director general Kevin Bakhurst has already placed an emphasis on corporate, cultural and governance reform. He will have to convince the Government that his plan is already achieving what it wants, and promise more, but it is unlikely either party will radically diverge on an overhaul of standards and practices.

There are trickier challenges, however. A future seems to beckon where there is a smaller RTÉ anchored around news and current affairs, sport and a few other areas. Such a broadcaster would necessarily rely more on the private sector, with RTÉ becoming more a commissioner than a producer of programming. This in turn would herald fewer people working in Montrose – but one person’s right-sizing is quite literally another’s livelihood. The prospect of job losses, or a damaging, protracted war with trade unions and workers, will have a deeply political element in a year of elections.

The most purely political call, of course, is the future funding of public service broadcasting. The faultlines are already clear between those who favour full exchequer funding and those who are against it. There is a suggestion afoot that the beginnings of a landing zone are emerging, with a transition to a hybrid model of a reduced public service charge collected by the Revenue Commissioners and increased exchequer funding.

But questions proliferate: Catherine Martin seemed lukewarm on this on Tuesday – what will her recommendation be? And what precisely will increased funding be for? For programming, or for RTÉ corporately? How fast can the Government move on this? How fast does it want to? A cut in the licence fee before the election is good politics, but what needs to happen before then? A decision is promised before the summer – but when will it take effect? What of the Revenue Commissioners’ role – and how will they like the look of this in Dublin Castle?

RTÉ is to get its full €40 million bailout, mandated under this year’s budget, once it accepts and implements the outcome of the reviews. And despite the dwindling income from the licence fee, it is not currently facing an extinction-level event. However, the exact shape of its future form remains in the balance.