Matters Arising in RTÉ: Dáil Statement

Matters Arising in RTÉ: Dáil Statement

Full Transcript: This had and still has all the ingredients of a good scandal. There are public personas, a public fall from grace, and some messy payments being made, which would be a generous description of how these transactions were conducted. It has dragged out over the course of weeks as we get the continual drip-feed of information. It has been messy and, at times, acrimonious and difficult for people who had to attend the committee rooms. Sifting through the detail is important work and the Oireachtas has done a good job in pulling those details out. The committee structure and the Committee of Public Accounts in particular has acquitted itself well over the last week or two.

With all of that detail coming out and the incessant updates that we see, an opportunity has to be taken to draw breath, step back and see the bigger picture implications. Once we begin to strip away what is salacious in this story and what drives the news cycle, we are seeing a wider context where the landscape around traditional media has changed. It has in fact been swamped by new media, particularly social media. Revenue streams that would traditionally have been relied on to fund the fourth estate, including public service broadcasting and also our newspaper sector, have fallen away. As that has fallen away, good quality investigative journalism has become increasingly difficult to fund. Even as the pace of the news cycle has increased, it has become dramatically more difficult to engage in the type of fact-checking and research that underpins good journalism.

In a social media age, the old adage that a lie goes halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on has never been more true. We have seen that context be exploited by social media keyboard warriors but also by more orchestrated bad faith actors. We have seen how that has culminated in straight-out attacks on our democracy. It may not necessarily be in this country yet but it is definitely happening in other jurisdictions. The truth is that when we step back from it, a public service broadcaster and a well-functioning, well-funded fourth estate is vital to the proper functioning of a democracy. In the longer term, once we have dealt with all the salacious details and grubby transactions that came to light last week, that is the issue we will be left to deal with. At a time when there is already a narrative with regard to mainstream media, which is a term I hate using, popularised by Mr. Trump in particular, and a constant undercutting of our public service broadcaster and quality news outlets, we have shattered trust among our public. It will be one of the big jobs of the Minister and of the incoming director general, once we have bottomed out this process and drawn all the necessary information out into the light, to actually begin a rebuilding process.

Neither am I blind to the shattered morale of people working at RTÉ. Like many other Deputies, I had the opportunity to travel to the RTÉ campus last week. There is an embattled mentality among many of the people working there. They found it to be an extremely difficult week. We know from Revenue returns that many of those people were engaged in employment in an inappropriate way, namely, bogus self-employment, and a payment has been made to Revenue on foot of that. That is a matter of public record. It was a testament to all the people who make those programmes happen that the coverage on RTÉ regarding RTÉ was of the quality and integrity we saw last week. It cannot have been easy, in the eye of that storm and with that kind of personal involvement, to maintain those standards, but they certainly did. It is incumbent on us to repay that high level of standards by making sure the quality of work performed in this House is of the same standard.

We are still a way away from that bottoming-out process. I understand the media committee will meet again tomorrow and the Committee of Public Accounts intends to have further meetings on the matter. There remains a culture issue, for sure. Many of the RTÉ representatives learned some hard lessons in the committee rooms last week. As I said, Kevin Bakhurst will have a job of work in front of him when he takes up his position. One issue that struck me during the committee meetings last week was that, while a lot of information came out, we had to ask the questions. It was not the case that we came in and all the detail was laid in front of us in order that we could get a full and clear picture from the off. The questions had to be put and the information had to be dragged out of some of the witnesses, such as details on the timeline for the suspension and resignation. That came some two and a half hours into the meeting of the media committee.

In regard to the timeline of who knew what when, there was an insistence that no one knew anything until 17 March, when the audit and risk committee reported it, but we then found out that, in fact, the problematic invoices had been flagged on 8 March. That is a significant time lag and it was several hours into committee proceedings before it emerged. There was also the sorry story about the invoices, how they were routed and who knew what about them, these consultancy fees. Who asked the difficult questions when raising those invoices, such as what we were actually talking about and what the detail of these invoices totalling €150,000 was?

There are still key players who need to appear before the Oireachtas committees. Dee Forbes, in particular, holds much of that information, and while we have to accept her bona fides in that it is her health that is preventing her from appearing, it is essential we hear that side of the story. Other Deputies suggested there was scapegoating at the committee meetings. If that was the case and that was the dynamic at play, so be it and let us get the other side of the story. Likewise, I think Mr. Tubridy and Mr. Kelly will have to appear before the Oireachtas committees, and it is important that information be brought to light as well.

To return to the big picture, Deputy Bruton and others spoke about how we have to grasp the nettle in respect of the funding model. There has been a dual funding model, between commercial and public service broadcasting, and they do not always work well together. Whatever about straight-up commercial advertising revenue, whereby programme breaks go into paid-for advertising, which most viewers nowadays understand is separate from the content of the programme they are watching, beyond that there is the sponsorship of programmes, which is a different matter. If a company pays a broadcaster a bunch of money to sponsor its programme, will it expect to have a yea-or-nay on that programme’s content? The same is true of product placement. If a presenter is driving to, say, a showhouse and he or she has a brand ambassador deal, is it a coincidence if he or she is driving a given type of car? It is less transparent or clear to me as a viewer how much influence has been bought in such a case, and it is even more opaque in respect of editorial decisions. They may be made in good faith or less than good faith, but if a large commercial revenue stream is being derived from, for example, a car manufacturer, an airline or a dairy enterprise, will that affect the editorial decisions a broadcaster makes in covering news stories? In that sense, are we going to undermine that public service broadcasting remit? There is no doubt this is a thorny issue, and I am always mindful of the Chomsky point of view that if you are getting a product for free, you are the product. When you begin to mix up those commercial and public funding models, you get into that space, which, along with the issue of shattered trust, is especially pertinent when we ask the taxpayer to pay for it. I have difficulty with the idea of a straight Exchequer funding model because it would call into question the level of power the Oireachtas would have, if it were a year-by-year budget line. That would, obviously, have implications inasmuch as the case of a car manufacturer would. It is something to be discussed in the longer term.

As I said, the way back has to begin with a bottoming-out process. There are still questions to be asked regarding the reform of cultural and corporate governance, and the Minister’s external review will be an important part of that. Moreover, there needs to be a clear decision on staffing practices, given some people are employed as contractors in order for them to maximise their salary and others are employed as contractors to have their salary minimised. We cannot stand over that as an Oireachtas and it needs to be dealt with. We also need a clear line of sight on income and salaries. If taxpayers’ money is going in, we should have a clear line of sight on exactly how it is being paid.

Furthermore, as was mentioned by the interim director general, we need to begin and maintain a register of interests in a meaningful way. If the person who is behind the microphone or in the editorial room has some sort of kickback coming from whatever source, that could be entirely legitimate – of course, people are allowed to maximise their income by taking side gigs – but I want to know about it as a consumer and a person who relies on the broadcaster. A central issue relates to direct auditing and whether the auditing of RTÉ should be brought back under the Comptroller and Auditor General. I suspect it should be, because it would give us a clear line of sight.

What we are really talking about here is a proper, functioning democracy. That might sound like a lofty take on it, but if we do not have a properly functioning fourth estate and if media influence can be bought and sold, that undermines the proper workings of our democracy, and that is good reason for us to protect and preserve the national public service broadcaster.