RTÉ funding options a source of conflict with no clear resolution in sight

Detailed reports may frame broadcaster’s dysfunction, scandal and flawed board but do not map way ahead for a Coalition divided on the issue

The publication of long-awaited reports on a range of issues at RTÉ this week may prove to be a watershed moment for the scandal at the broadcaster.

The hope in Government and in RTÉ is that the expansive verdicts and sheer detail now on the record about goings-on in Montrose may mark an end to the constant stream of revelations.

This may be as close to clarity about the dysfunction and scandal as we get – but the way ahead is still clouded by a political battle which will not be easily resolved.

As well as being difficult reading for RTÉ corporately, long-awaited expert reports on a range of issues at the broadcaster released this week were ugly for the station’s board.


While the governance and culture review found that the board responded “promptly and appropriately” once secret payments to Ryan Tubridy emerged, there was also sharp criticism of weaknesses at board level, from appointments to skills gaps and an inability to sufficiently scrutinise the broadcaster.

Many of the main board figures are now unavailable for public comment. However, Larry Bass, founder of production company Shinawil and briefly a board member at RTÉ (for a single meeting in 2021), said the issues that gave rise to the findings run deep.

Bass told The Irish Times during the week that State boards in general have a problem attracting and training the right people. “Most institutions bleed from the top so if it isn’t right at board level then you’re not going to see it right across the shop floor,” he says.

“RTÉ have consistently had weak boards not serving it well,” he says, arguing this is down to the way State boards are set up. Of his brief time on the broadcaster’s board, he recalls, “I felt there was a deal where the executive management were nearly trying to manage the board rather than the board sitting on top, laying out the strategy and driving the institution forward.”

When it comes to the ultimate blame, Bass lays it at the door of the politicians. “It’s tantamount to disgraceful – we elect politicians and leaders to lead… all of them have failed to grasp the nettle and, as a result, we have an organisation which is bleeding out in front of us.” And now the focus is clearly shifting to the political side.


Minister for Media Catherine Martin has publicly vowed to grasp that nettle – using that specific formula of words. But the decision on funding RTÉ in the future has spawned its own political clash. Martin is said to favour a direct funding model for the broadcaster – something that has put her at odds with Micheál Martin, the Fianna Fáil leader, and his party colleague, Minister for Finance Michael McGrath as well as Paschal Donohoe, the Minister for Public Expenditure.

Martin says she has been presented with a binary choice when it comes to funding RTÉ into the future – paying for it through general taxation and hence abolishing the licence fee, or a wider household charge that would likely be lower than the current fee but be collected by the Revenue Commissioners.

Reports last weekend in The Irish Times and elsewhere outlined how a compromise of increased exchequer funding could be put in place for a time, but that a household charge would also be brought in, suggesting this could be a “landing zone”. Launching the expert reports this week, Martin scotched suggestions that such a hybrid model could defuse the political row – warning that it risked the “worst of both worlds”.

She argued the move would bring another 500,000 people into the net of the charge, including households without televisions and those who do not pay the fee through evasion. The strength of her position took some Government figures aback. One Fine Gael source offered that Martin had “boxed herself in… I don’t understand it politically.”

Advocates for exchequer funding argue that a hybrid approach would not produce sufficient revenue and would be unpopular – as well as being subject to annual political bargaining. One such figure said they were “bewildered and perplexed”, adding “to think that Fianna Fáil want to slam a new revenue bill on people, I cannot understand how that looks like an attractive option”.

Privately, however, some Fianna Fáil Ministers believe Martin is, in part at least, playing politics. “I wonder is there an element of ‘Greens abolish the licence fee’,” said a Fianna Fáil source on Friday – the suggestion being that ditching the fee could be an achievement worth planting a flag in for the Greens during the general election to come. Another Minister said they would be “shocked” if direct funding was the outcome, given what McGrath and Micheál Martin have said publicly. Allies of Martin say there are multiple instances of adequate safeguards being put in place in other jurisdictions, strongly rejecting the idea of a political play.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan backed his Minister this week at the launch of the Greens’ local election manifesto, pouring cold water on the “hybrid” idea and pointing out – as Martin had done earlier in the week – that such an approach “hasn’t been discussed, nobody has made any analysis of it”. Meanwhile, those in favour of the charge say it has worked elsewhere, pointing to the plan to give Coimisiún na Meán statutory powers to set the charge in a way that would leave it “ring-fenced and untouchable politically”. But there was a hint of hedging from Ryan last week, who also twice said he would “wait and see” the options presented.

One unknown is where Taoiseach Simon Harris will land on the question – his predecessor, Leo Varadkar, was thought to be open to exchequer funding, but obviously much will flow from Harris’s position. Government insiders now believe a kick for touch is not possible with all parties committed to a decision before summer, while the time frame available means there is no point trying to defang the conflict through subcommittees or asking senior officials to look at the problem. All that points to a set piece during June or even July, just before the Dáil rises, with the Coalition leaders, along with McGrath, Donohoe and Martin, having to grind out a solution.

There is little sign of things coming to a head behind the scenes yet. The discussion on RTÉ at Cabinet this week was said to be just minutes long, focusing on the broad strokes points of agreement – namely that a decision has to be made before summer, without dwelling on the detail or what would be involved. Martin attended the Coalition leaders’ meeting before Cabinet this week, but it is understood there was no discussion of the unresolved conflict.

However, the uneasy silence over this divisive issue will not hold forever.