Government patience with RTE is running low, minister warns

Incoming director general Kevin Bakhurst has been urged to announce changes within the broadcaster on day one of his job on Monday.

Government patience with RTE is running low and the broadcaster’s incoming director general must make clear on day one that changes will happen, a minister has warned.

Higher education minister Simon Harris said Kevin Bakhurst must also make it a priority to engage with staff, saying he was “flabbergasted” that current executives had not done so two weeks on from the start of the crisis engulfing the national broadcaster.

RTE has been reeling since revelations last month that it under-reported the salary paid to star presenter Ryan Tubridy and failed to disclose 345,000 euro of additional payments to him between 2017 and 2022.

The furore has since widened amid further disclosures about RTE’s internal financial, accounting and governance practices and its expenditure on corporate hospitality for advertising clients.

Ryan Tubridy
RTE presenter Ryan Tubridy (Brian Lawless/PA)

Experienced media executive Mr Bakhurst takes over at RTE on Monday and he has pledged to “restore trust” in the organisation and intends to publicly outline his plans on day one. He has already signalled an intent to reconstitute the current executive board.

The Irish government has already announced two separate external reviews of RTE and also moved to send in a forensic auditor to examine the broadcaster’s accounts.

Two parliamentary committees in Dublin are conducting their own examinations of the situation.

RTE executives have faced claims of “drip-feeding” information to parliamentarians in the fortnight since the scandal broke.

Tubridy and his agent Noel Kelly are to appear before the two parliamentary committees probing the scandal on Tuesday.

“We’re getting pretty low on patience at this stage being truthful,” Mr Harris told RTE Radio One.

“The drip feed is doing extraordinary damage. We need RTE to get back to commissioning drama, not being the drama. And I think Monday is extraordinarily important. A new director general will start here, that director general needs to, from day one, make it very clear that the changes that are required will happen.

“He needs to do something that I am shocked and flabbergasted we’ve heard hasn’t happened yet – he needs to talk to staff. He needs to talk directly to the people working in this organisation who have been let down.

“I mean the fact that two weeks in there hasn’t been engagement with staff is not acceptable to me.

“I don’t think it’s acceptable to the people in this country who value RTE and value the work that’s done here.”

Kevin Bakhurst
Incoming RTE director general Kevin Bakhurst starts his new role on Monday (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Harris said the appointment of forensic auditors to examine the books was unprecedented.

“We’re going to send in people here next week to get the facts because either the people who’ve gone before the Oireachtas committees either haven’t been able to or haven’t been willing to – it’s for others to judge – share all of the information and it is not tenable that you continue to have the drip feed.

“So next week, early next week for the first time ever, forensic accountants will be appointed to come in and look at the books.

“They’re going to start with the barter accounts and any other off balance sheet payments that they come across and then any other matters that they believe needs to be investigated.”

Barter accounts are commonplace in the media industry. They allow organisations to exchange advertising airtime that would otherwise go unsold in return for goods and services from companies.

RTE’s use of barter spending has come in for intense scrutiny since it emerged that 150,000 euro was paid to Tubridy through one such account to effectively top up his salary, and that the payment was not properly declared.

The Irish broadcaster, which is sustained through public funds and commercial revenues, has also faced criticism for using barter transactions to spend hundreds of thousands of euro entertaining commercial clients, including on a trip to the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

A series of further transactions was revealed on Wednesday, including almost 5,000 euro on 200 pairs of flip flops for a summer party for clients.

In a further development in the controversy on Thursday afternoon, RTE star and sports reporter Marty Morrissey apologised for taking part in an “informal” arrangement where he used a Renault car after MC’ing a dozen events for the car brand.

He said he returned the car “voluntarily” on Friday June 23 after reflecting on the controversy at RTE and concluding that the “ad hoc” arrangement was “an error of judgment”.

“I have apologised to RTE, my managers and colleagues for any embarrassment or difficulty I have caused them because of this matter,” Mr Morrissey said.

Former RTE director general Dee Forbes quit last week amid the fallout from the undisclosed payments scandal.

She had originally been due to stand down this month, with Mr Bakhurst having already been announced as her successor.

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