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RTÉ and the FAI are trapped in an Irish version of the nine circles of hell

When the board is having emergency meetings eight months into a controversy, you know things are not good

Like Dante’s Inferno, Irish controversies have their circles — the familiar patterns as the protagonists get punished for different levels of misdemeanour. The “cover-up” stage can often be worse than whatever sparked it all off. And in some cases the attempts to escape the cycle of controversy and suffering can be threatened by an explosion that everyone had hoped to avoid, but that nonetheless happens.

And that is where we are with RTÉ. The situation in the national broadcaster now threatens serious damage to the institution and also carries political dangers. When the board is having emergency meetings eight months into a controversy, you know things are not good.

The RTÉ time bomb has defied all attempts to defuse it and reached the stage where serious “revelations” and much less surprising ones get mixed in a pot of outrage. In classic Irish controversy style, the chair of RTÉ resigns because of a row over who said what to whom and when they said it. And so a peripheral detail about the passing of information on who approved a departure deal is now central to the saga.

The danger now with RTÉ is that it has gone through all the normal circles of controversy and things are just escalating as chairwoman Siún Ní Raghallaigh departs, taking a swipe at the Minister on the way out, with a version of events backed up by the RTÉ board. Instead of petering out after the latest round of Oireachtas committee hearings, the RTÉ saga is now supercharged.


Minister for Media Catherine Martin has, in a calculated way, decided to up the ante, going on RTÉ’s Prime Time to, effectively, declare her lack of confidence in the chairwoman. By doing so, she has ensured that the crisis spins on, creating dangers for herself and RTÉ. It looks like a misjudgement that has left the organisation’s board in a difficult position. On Friday, the Minister dug in, saying that she had been given incorrect information, thus contradicting the account of the RTÉ board. This will now roll on and on.

It seems a long time ago since it all started - like all other controversies - with the first revelation of information, in this case about RTÉ's reporting of payments to Ryan Tubridy. In the typical crisis, this initial revelation is followed by a period of more information drip-feeding out. We might note in passing that the gold medallists of the drip feed — the FAI — had another clanger this week with the revelation of a “slip-up” which led to a €12,000 payment to its chief executive.

In the Irish controversy playbook, the drip-feed eventually leads the responsible minister to send in somebody to “establish the facts” — an auditor, a lawyer or, to really look serious, a former judge. This can be a useful delaying tactic, allowing those who know the facts already to decide what to do. In some cases it can kick things into limbo for years — the inquiry into the sale of Siteserv was appointed in mid-2015 and expected to last six months or so. It reported last year.

In the case of RTÉ, however, all attempts to end the controversy, or even park it, have failed. The various inquiries have uncovered information and raised questions, but they have also elongated the controversy.

And the affair, like so many other controversies over the years, raises fundamental questions about control and governance, the appropriate flow of information, and about what is properly the function of the board and management and what is up to the Minister to decide. The danger for ministers and boards is that they are responsible, but do not have control. The answer is proper corporate governance, an element of trust and an understanding of where the lines are drawn. That this has all now broken down in RTÉ is beyond obvious.

Government today is a complex business and these lines of control and responsibility are vital. When Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly expressed surprise this week that the €19 million he had allocated to cut queues for children awaiting scoliosis operations had not led to an improvement, he asked the Health Service Executive to send its internal audit team into Children’s Hospital Ireland (CHI) to see where the money went. It raises the question of who is responsible for deciding how the money is allocated and the resulting impact on service levels — the HSE, the CHI or the department? And how is this reported on to HSE management and the department? In other words, why does an internal auditor need to be sent in to find out?

At some stage after the initial fact-finding stage of the Irish controversy, the next circle of crisis is entered via a call from an Oireachtas committee or, if those in focus are particularly “lucky”, two committees. The committee hearings in RTÉ have certainly brought some revelations and memorable moments, but also a lot of grandstanding by committee members. The format does not allow a forensic line of questioning, and while robust treatment of some witnesses is reasonable, in other cases some committee members have not been slow to draw conclusions about the professional conduct of some of those appearing in a way that seems to go beyond their powers.

You are left wondering who would go before a committee, or who would serve on a State board. The chairman/woman of RTÉ is paid €31,500. Who will take the job now?

It appeared that the RTÉ reports and hearing might have drawn a line under things, until the flaring up of the departure package controversies. Here, there are questions about previous voluntary parting programmes and whether the rules were applied equally and properly to all. But everyone knows that the only way for new director general Kevin Bakhurst to remake his management team was to pay some of the old ones to go.

Now, even after the resignation of a senior figure — in this case the board chairwoman — often a diffusing factor in a crisis, there is no clear route out of the RTÉ crisis. It cannot be parked. And there is no unimpeded view of how decision-making power should break down between the Government and the organisation. Meanwhile, anyone who expects an early decision on an RTÉ funding model with local elections approaching and a general election in the air is likely to be disappointed.

Those who will suffer most from this are the RTÉ staff, who will face a really difficult restructuring as the organisation drifts and its finances deteriorate further. And, in time, the public, if this leads to less output. The Government needs to find a way to end this — quickly. Otherwise RTÉ will, like the FAI, end up as a long term occupant of the nine circles of Irish controversy hell, with its credibility undermined.

The affair will be looked back on in the years ahead as providing the clearest of guides on how not to handle a crisis.