Tanaiste says RTE site sell-off might not provide sustainability

A sign for the RTE Television Studios in Donnybrook, near Dublin (Liam McBurney/PA)
A sign for the RTE Television Studios in Donnybrook, near Dublin (Liam McBurney/PA)

Selling off RTE’s prized Dublin site will not provide the long-term sustainability the national broadcaster requires, Micheal Martin has said.

The Tanaiste said he did not know if it was the right decision to put the Montrose site in Donnybrook up for sale, but he said organisations that sold off land often ended up regretting it.

RTE is facing a funding crisis, exacerbated by a drop-off in licence fee revenue amid a negative public reaction to a summer of controversies at the broadcaster.

On Wednesday director general Kevin Bakhurst introduced an immediate recruitment freeze and a halt to discretionary spending.

Outlining potential cost-saving measures, the director general told a parliamentary committee in Dublin that said there would be a move to drive down the salaries of the top-earning presenters and he said the sale of Montrose was also under consideration.

RTE pay revelations
RTE director general Kevin Bakhurst (Brian Lawless/PA)

He said a professional valuation of the site was under way, but he highlighted that a sale could potentially be complicated by the fact that several of the buildings were listed.

He said he could not rule out compulsory redundancies but would prefer to slim down the organisation by way of voluntary exits.

Asked about the potential land sell-off on Thursday, Mr Martin said: “You can say sell land, that doesn’t create sustainability, these are a once off, it creates a one-off capital revenue, it doesn’t deal with long-term sustainability.

“I’ve been in government a long time and you know very often selling land is something you will regret later.

“But that may not be the case here.”

The crisis at RTE erupted in June when the broadcaster revealed it had not correctly declared fees to its then-highest-paid earner Ryan Tubridy between 2017 and 2022.

The furore subsequently widened as a series of other financial and governance issues emerged.

Tanaiste Micheal Martin questioned the wisdom of an RTE site sale (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Tanaiste Micheal Martin questioned the wisdom of an RTE site sale (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Prior to its difficulties over the summer months, RTE had asked the Irish government for 34.5 million euro (£29.6 million) in additional interim funding for next year.

Since then, its revenues had taken a further major hit with the broadcaster currently projecting a loss of 21 million euro by year end due to a fall in TV licence payments in the wake of the controversies.

That 21 million euro in revenue gap was on top of a deficit of seven million euro RTE had already budgeted for in 2023.

The Government has yet to decide how much extra funding it will release to the embattled organisation, but has made clear that any investment will have to be reciprocated with a significant programme of internal reform.

Tubridy and RTE are now in “dispute” over his contract at the broadcaster, the director general told the Oireachtas committee on Wednesday.

Mr Bakhurst said it was RTE’s position that it did not owe any money to its former top presenter.

Tubridy stood down as Late Late Show host earlier this year but was continuing to present his weekday show on RTE Radio One when a furore over incorrectly disclosed payments RTE made to him erupted in the summer.

At that point negotiations over a new radio contract for Tubridy were halted and he was taken off air amid the crisis that engulfed the organisation.

Mr Bakhurst later re-entered negotiations with a view to securing Tubridy’s return to the airwaves on a new contract but those talks broke down in August after the director general claimed the presenter was not taking sufficient responsibility for his role in the payments controversy.

Appearing before the media committee on Wednesday, Mr Bakhurst also said there was no plan agreed for Tubridy to repay 150,000 euro he was paid in advance by RTE for future personal appearances with a commercial partner.

RTE pay
Ryan Tubridy (Niall Carson/PA)

Asked whether Tubridy should repay the money, Mr Martin expressed frustration that coverage of the issues at RTE was being dominated by personalities.

“I’m not going to get into the personalities anymore on this, I’m not entirely comfortable with how all of that has been dealt with by RTE,” he said.

“I think there’s a more fundamental issue apart from personalities altogether, which is about the governance of RTE, the lack of authority from RTE in response to all of the issues that arose during the summer, and the lack of coherence.”

He added: “My view of this is there has been far too much focus on the individuals.”

Media committee member and Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin caused controversy at the hearing on Wednesday when he suggested he would get better value if he used the money due for his licence fee to buy a round of drinks in the pub.

Mr Martin said he did not agree with the comments.

“Brendan Griffin is an elected representative and he is entitled to make comments as an elected representative,” he said.

“I do not agree with that.

“I believe people should pay the licence fee.

“I believe in public service media, mainly because of its connection to democracy, and the importance of getting an informed perspective on a range of issues.”