Hidden payments, junkets and deceit – the crisis in RTÉ is a stain on the record of public service broadcasting in Ireland, as well as an insult to the taxpayer and ordinary staff working for the state broadcaster.
While Ryan Tubridy was paid over €500,000 a year (a figure initially underreported by RTÉ,) the average journalist at the station earned nowhere near this amount. While RTÉ spent €1.5 million on flights, concerts, alcohol and even flip-flops through its barter account, the joke in the workplace, according to staff representative Robert Shortt, was that ordinary staff would only enjoy the perks of a free copy of the RTÉ Guide – and not even the Christmas edition.
Although €275,000 was spent on travel for clients to the Rugby World Cup and Champions League Final in 2019, RTÉ’s Head of Sport would describe a League of Ireland highlights package show as being “not feasible” just two years later. The company also hired a coach to ferry themselves and their clients from a Drumcondra restaurant to Croke Park for a U2 concert. The coach, which was hardly needed for the ten-minute drive, as well as the food, drinks and tickets, were all paid for by the taxpayer-funded RTÉ at a reported cost of over €5,000.
Why is the taxpayer footing the bill for this blatant misspending? What have we lost out on as a result of it? Public service broadcasting exists to inform, entertain and engage with citizens. It has instead been used by RTÉ top brass to pay for their meals, their drink, their flights, their hotels and those of the clientele that they select. The public, although they have not lost faith in most RTÉ journalists, have developed a mistrust for those responsible for this entire controversy.
It has been hinted at in the media and by politicians that RTÉ could be broken up into different parts and partially privatised following this controversy. This would not make public service broadcasting any better, it would only serve to weaken it. Public service broadcasting still has an important role to play in society, perhaps now more than ever. The lesson to be learnt here is that we need an accountable and transparent state broadcaster that truly serves the public, not one that’s used as a slush fund by the top brass.