The suspicion that RTE has been living “way beyond its means” and has been engaged in the provision of exorbitant rates of pay to its ‘top talent’ has moved from the realm of tentative speculation into that of clear fact.
Indeed, such suspicions have a long and notable history.
For example; in December 1966 the then Fine Gael TD for Kildare, Gerard Sweetman, rose to his feet in Dáil Eireann to question the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs.
Deputy Sweetman asked the Parliamentary Secretary if he was aware that “the Chairman of the RTE Authority can regularly be seen driving motor car GZJ510, registered in the name of the Television Authority, with a liveried chauffeur, also in the employment of the Authority?”
Deputy Sweetman also asked for clarification on whether any member of Radio Telefís Éireann had any benefit paid by the Authority other than the cash remuneration included in the statement presented to Dáil Éireann in June 1966.
He finally went so far as to suggest that since the use of a “liveried chauffer” and driver was not a benefit covered under legitimate remuneration it was “very deliberately concealed” by the Parliamentary Secretary’s predecessor.
All this was flatly rejected.
But the exchange is instructive for a number of reasons.
In the first instance it serves to highlight the historical persistence of a public and political suspicion surrounding the use made by RTE of public money, particularly with respect to how it is disbursed to those in the upper echelons of the organisation.
This was accepted as an ongoing concern by the current Director General of RTE, Dee Forbes when she appeared before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications.
I would suggest in fact that few things have been more corrosive to the reputation of the State broadcaster than this issue.
The opaque process through which exorbitant salaries and fees are calculated adds to the public disquiet.
Such disquiet is a big problem because there is an important public interest in maintaining the integrity of genuine public service broadcasting and indeed of RTE as the statutory provider.
For the record, I am a strong supporter of public service broadcasting. It has the capacity to play an indispensable role in scrutinising and investigating decisions and policies that affect the common good.
What is clear at this point however is that RTE, as the primary conduit through which public service and independent broadcasting is supposed to flow, is in deep trouble.
Despite years of ‘reforms,’ the sale of land, the application of pay cuts and the auctioning off of the ‘family silver’ in the form of art work, nothing has stemmed the crisis.
This is one reason why I believe that a statutory and legislative approach is now needed to regulate how existing pay scales are determined or quantified.
To put it rather more bluntly; if RTE cannot get its own house in order, then perhaps it is time that options were presented to it that may be able to achieve this in the long term.
Public Service Broadcasting is too important to be left wandering in a leadership vacuum.
To address the pay aspect, I initiated a process in September with the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers (OPLA).
At that point I had informed the OPLA that I intended to introduce a Private Members’ Bill which would require broadcasting/media organisations in receipt of public funding to align broadcasters’ salaries with existing public sector pay scales.
Since then I have received broad and even enthusiastic support for the proposals.
Only last week, The National Union of Journalists Dublin Broadcasting Branch described the existing salary levels for top presenters at RTE as “indefensible.”
I share that view.
NUJ also overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution by its members calling on management at the State broadcaster to reduce immediately the fees of top presenters by linking them to civil service salary rates.
These statements effectively mirror the proposals those that I advocated for in early September.
The legal advices I have received suggest there are several options open to us to achieve alignment of broadcasters’ salaries with existing public sector pay; but each of these needs further investigation to rule out unintended consequences for the wider broadcasting sector.
To be clear; my aim is to restore and protect the integrity and viability of the public service broadcaster while maintaining parity of esteem for all workers at RTÉ.
I want to achieve this in a way that minimises any limitation on the independence of RTÉ.
A possible balance may be struck along the lines of the provision in the BBC’s Royal Charter which provides for that institution’s independence, but which also makes its subject to any financial provisions made by law.
What is clear at this point is that the future determination of salary arrangements at RTÉ will have to include measures at statutory level.
That is essential.
We have waited too long for people to wake up to the waste of public money and damage to corporate morale caused by excessive pay for some.
We now need a legal structure to shape the broadcaster’s actions on this for the longer term and in the public interest.
Rónan Mullen is an Independent Senator on the National University of Ireland Seanad Panel