Deaglán de Bréadún: Broadcasters are under closer scrutiny than ever

Talks between RTÉ and Ryan Tubridy over his return to the broadcaster's airwaves have broken down. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire
Talks between RTÉ and Ryan Tubridy over his return to the broadcaster's airwaves have broken down. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire

JUST short of two months ago I wrote in this newspaper about the controversy over payments to morning radio host Ryan Tubridy, who had recently stepped down as presenter of RTÉ television's Friday night The Late Late Show.

The headline, "RTÉ may never be quite the same again", accurately reflected the tone and content of the article, but since then it has become clear that the subjunctive mood was over-optimistic and that, in fact, RTÉ will never be the same again.

Let me say at the start that I have known Ryan Tubridy for many years and always found him a likeable and good-humoured individual as well as a talented broadcaster. He is also the author of several books including the very readable and well-illustrated JFK in Ireland: Four Days that Changed a President about the famous visit by President Kennedy in June 1963. I hope that, when the current controversy dies down, he will be back on the airwaves.

Moving forward six decades from 1963 to 2023, last February RTÉ published a list of its 10 highest-paid presenters. The latest year for which figures were available was 2021 and Tubridy was in the top spot with €440,000 (just over £376,000 at time of writing) being paid to his media company Tuttle Productions Ltd. The payments to nine other individuals ranged from €351,000 (£300,000) to €179,131 (£153,000).

The average wage in the Republic of Ireland for 2021, according to the Central Statistics Office, was €53,951 (£46,000). Median gross weekly earnings for full-time employees in Northern Ireland for April 2021 were £575, which turns into £29,900 over 52 weeks. Some might say it is another argument for a united Ireland, although the Republic doesn't have a free National Health Service, at least not yet.

When the payments to RTÉ presenters are announced it doesn't exactly bring joy to the ordinary public, many of whom have to scrape by on far more modest incomes, but it doesn't usually become a subject of major controversy. However a grumbling session turned into a storm of discontent on this occasion, when it was reported that further payments amounting to €345,000 were made to Mr Tubridy over a period of six years. If those extra figures had been published on a year-by-year basis, there would have been less controversy and the lack of disclosure for such a long time added to people's anger.

In my article last June, I pointed out that most people under 70 years of age in the Republic is legally obliged to pay a TV licence fee of €160 (£138) every year and that, if you don't pay, you can be fined up to €1,000 (£856), with the fine being doubled for subsequent offences.

Read more:

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But such is the level of public anger that licence revenue is reported to have fallen by almost €4.6 million (£3.9m) since the current controversy erupted. At present 82.5 per cent of the licence fee goes towards RTÉ's various activities.

Failure to pay for your TV licence can get you into trouble. A report by Gordon Deegan in The Irish Times on February 18 2018, for example, reveals that, in the year 2017, court proceedings were taken against a total of 11,693 people over non-payment of TV licence fines. An earlier report by the same journalist in September 2013 tells us that 242 people were jailed in 2012 for the same offence, although they were all released within a day, indeed most of them within hours.

For a while recently, it looked as if negotiations between RTÉ Director-General Kevin Bakhurst and Ryan Tubridy would lead to the latter's return to the airwaves. However a comment by Tubridy in relation to his level of income in 2020 and 2021 annoyed Bakhurst so much that the negotiations collapsed and the deal was off.

Meanwhile, it looks as if the Irish government will have to come up with a new form of funding for RTÉ since the licence fee has become so unpopular and unacceptable to many members of the public.

Finding a new way to finance the national broadcasting station will be quite a challenge and it looks as if the current rates of pay to top presenters may be cut back significantly in the process.

Meanwhile, in parallel with the RTÉ-Tubridy controversy, issues arose north of the border in relation to Stephen Nolan, who was reported in this newspaper as having sent "sexually explicit images" of reality TV personality Stephen Bear, who was subsequently convicted of "revenge porn" offences, to other BBC employees working on his radio and television shows.

Looking at it all in the round, broadcasters such as Tubridy and Nolan have much greater power and influence in these media-heavy times than most politicians. Think back to the era when mobile phones were as rare as hen's teeth but frequently weighed more and when "online" was a place where you hung your clothes out to dry, not a prime source of news, entertainment and communication.

Time was when whole families gathered around "the wireless" for the news of the day but now you can pick it up on your smartphone in a second. It means also that broadcast personalities are under closer media scrutiny than in the past: a whole new era.