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Meltdown at Montrose: RTÉ's year from hell as drama of Tubsgate became existential crisis

From bombshell statements to tense committee hearings to a string of budget cuts, it has been an incendiary 2023 for the public service broadcaster

An upbeat tone breezed through RTÉ's new year ratings press release: the first weekend of television in 2023 had “provided whopper entertainment and feel-good vibes to boost the January blues”.

But the whopper entertainment would soon be replaced by news of whoppers: RTÉ's June admission that it had repeatedly understated Ryan Tubridy’s pay bludgeoned Montrose’s finances and reputations into a supreme mess from which it has yet to recover.

This was a year of feel-bad vibes in which a blue Tubridy would bang the Oireachtas committee room table in his own version of Tubthumping, in which the Late Late Show house band would be introduced in an RTÉ-targeting gag as “Grant Thornton and the Flip-Flops”, and in which Google’s Irish “what is” search charts would rank “what is a barter account” second only to “what is botulism”.

What went wrong at RTÉ went wrong before 2023. The hidden payments scandal that erupted in midsummer was primed to explode ever since the public service broadcaster – under financial strain and charged with making cuts to its cost base – somehow fluffed its negotiations to reduce the pay of its highest-paid individual.

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On a May 2020 phone call with Tubridy’s agent Noel Kelly, then director general Dee Forbes verbally agreed to a three-year tripartite arrangement between RTÉ, the presenter and former Late Late sponsor Renault Ireland that would see RTÉ pick up the tab for €225,000 worth of undisclosed side payments to Tubridy.

RTÉ paid for the first €75,000 via a credit note to Renault, reimbursing it for a €75,000 payment it made to the presenter in exchange for personal appearances. But for the second two payments, RTÉ used its barter account to pay him.

Enter the auditors.

During a “routine audit” of its 2022 accounts in March this year, two unusual invoices totalling €150,000 and marked “consultancy fees” were flagged and raised with the RTÉ board’s audit and risk committee, which then commissioned Grant Thornton forensic accountant Paul Jacobs to carry out a fact-finding review. Minister for Media Catherine Martin was informed there was an issue the same month.

But it wasn’t until June 22nd that the RTÉ board released its bombshell statement revealing the existence of these hidden payments and also admitting that Tubridy’s pay had been understated by €120,000 from 2017-2019. Siún Ní Raghallaigh, who was appointed chairwoman in November 2022, apologised on behalf of the board and said it was “a matter of profound regret”.

RTÉ's misstatements meant that although it had seemed as if Tubridy’s pay had fallen below €500,000 for each of the years from 2017, it hadn’t. This looked to many Montrose-watchers precisely as Ní Raghallaigh described it a week later: “an act designed to deceive” on the part of RTÉ. It was tough to argue, also, with the verdict of the National Union of Journalists that the secret nature of the payments was “a breach of trust unparalleled in the history of RTÉ”.

That the saga involved Tubridy, who had stepped down as Late Late host in March and basked in the tributes of his swansong episode in May, guaranteed that this was incendiary stuff.

His first response – that he was “disappointed to be at the centre of this story” but couldn’t “shed any light” on why RTÉ “treated these payments in the way that they did” – failed to achieve the desired effect of distancing himself from the scandal.

Who could shed light on it? Forbes had kept a low public profile for months, but that wasn’t unusual. Appointed director general in 2016, she had always rationed her media interviews, and by June 2023 she was the outgoing DG, her term just weeks away from completion. As the RTÉ board put out its staggering statement, one suggestion floating about was that she was on annual leave.

In fact, Forbes had been suspended from her position the day before. The following Monday, she resigned. She was “deeply sorry” for what happened, she said, but insisted she did not “at any stage act contrary to any advice”. She then took aim at the board for treatment that she alleged fell short of “the levels of fairness, equity and respect” that anyone should expect, resulting in “a very serious and ongoing impact” on her health and wellbeing.

The upshot was that she would not be attending the first or any of what would turn out to be a full set-top box hard drive of Oireachtas committee grillings.

Even before the members of either the media committee or the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) could have their say in the formal setting of Leinster House, other voices were filling the vacuum: those of rank-and-file RTÉ staff.

Within days of Tubsgate breaking, about 100 RTÉ employees staged a protest on campus. A second demonstration, double in size, followed a fortnight later. The anger was palpable, but constructive: just like the no-prisoners coverage of the story on RTÉ's news and current affairs output, the protests helped distance “ordinary” employees at RTÉ from the excesses of those at the top of the organisation.

Punishing workloads, ageing equipment, pittance freelance rates, a litany of industrial relations battles with the Forbes regime and RTÉ's funding time bomb were all on their minds.

Morale was not helped when the original payments disgrace led to the disclosure of an array of other issues, including RTÉ's handling of the voluntary redundancy package received by former chief financial officer Breda O’Keeffe, the lax board controls surrounding the costly debacle of Toy Show the Musical and the loose financial controls governing the operation of the barter account.

That barter account, used to pay for various hospitality outlays, fast became infamous when it emerged that it had been used by RTÉ's commercial division to purchase 200 pairs of flip-flops at a cost of €5,000 to distribute at summer parties with advertising agencies and clients.

It was far from flip-flop weather in July when former RTÉ news and current affairs managing director Kevin Bakhurst returned to Montrose as director general. He had been appointed to succeed Forbes back in April, though only after some embarrassingly public faffing by the RTÉ board.

That was now forgotten: RTÉ had a new chief in situ but a whole new financial emergency. The rate of licence fee sales and renewals was starting to fall off a cliff as Tubsgate threatened to mutate into an existential crisis.

Bakhurst’s first move was to replace the RTÉ executive board with an interim leadership team. RTÉ director of strategy Rory Coveney resigned, while commercial director Geraldine O’Leary, a much-respected figure in Irish advertising circles, brought forward her retirement by a number of weeks.

Both had been among the hapless RTÉ contingent to attend the initial round of Oireachtas committee hearings. Chief financial officer Richard Collins, an unwitting star of the proceedings after he was unable to immediately say how much he was paid, was left off the interim leadership team and resigned three months later.

The big personnel change, however, was the on-air one. Having been kept off his Radio 1 show since the scandal broke, Tubridy used an emotional six-hour performance at the Oireachtas to list what he believed to be “seven untruths” about the affair. But he was also clear that what he wanted most of all was to go back “to the job I love”.

That was always going to be awkward. And when his statement in response to Grant Thornton’s second report in August “muddied the waters”, Bakhurst cut the cord, ending talks on a new radio contract. This left Tubridy, by Bakhurst’s account, “shocked and disappointed” – at least until Virgin Radio UK came calling.

Tasked with a slow, painful and still ongoing bid to restore trust in RTÉ even as a plethora of investigations continue to create fresh spates of negative headlines, Bakhurst joined the Oireachtas committee hearing merry-go-round while simultaneously negotiating with Martin and other Government Ministers on its future funding. Without additional support to make up for the lost income, RTÉ was on track to run out of cash by next spring, he said.

Amid a string of tense committee moments, there was a stand-off with the PAC about RTÉ's refusal to share a legal note on the May 2020 deal, citing reasons of legal confidentiality. It ended a month later with RTÉ handing over the document.

RTÉ's requests for public funding, meanwhile, became increasingly urgent as licence fee sales continued their apparently inexorable plunge: the drop in 2023 alone is expected to exceed €20 million, exacerbating a pre-existing funding gap. Next year does not look pretty either.

The Government had already “set in stone” an interim funding sum of €16 million. Martin then announced that a further €40 million would be made contingent on Bakhurst implementing a string of cuts as part of a five-year plan.

This plan would not be about “ripping the heart out of RTÉ”, the director general tried to assure staff in November as he outlined how the broadcaster would need to make €10 million worth of cutbacks in 2024.

It was bad news for Carrigstown and its fans. From January 2024, Fair City will be cut from four to three episodes a week to allow for a summer “production pause” of the soap opera, which costs RTÉ an estimated €12 million to make each year.

The content cuts mean there will be no in-house Saturday evening entertainment show in the spring – in 2023, this was Angela Scanlon’s Ask Me Anything – and no in-house factual programmes on summer Sunday evenings next year.

The transmission of comedy The Young Offenders’ fourth season will be delayed until 2025, the production of a third season of unfortunately-titled quizshow The Money List has been deferred, the acquired programming budget will be whittled down and “production savings” will also be made in news and sport.

A recruitment freeze remains in place, while an initial 40 redundancies will be sought in January as RTÉ unveils details of a new voluntary exit programme. But this marks just the beginning of what will be a multimillion shrinking of the public-service broadcaster: by the end of 2028, Bakhurst expects its headcount to fall by about 20 per cent or 400 people.

In the meantime, the Government has said it will either introduce a replacement public funding mechanism for the licence fee or reform how the fee is charged and/or collected. Alas, promises made by successive governments on this score are as numerous as the buttons on a remote control.

In his Christmas message to staff, Bakhurst wrote that he remained “positive and optimistic” about RTÉ's future despite everything. Perhaps it will be possible one day for both RTÉ and the wider concept of Irish public media to change the channel.

For now, however, RTÉ remains stuck on the sad calamity of 2023, an annus horribilis where too much of the “whopper entertainment” it provided was the wrong kind.

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