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Exposing double standards at RTE

Posted on: June 4th, 2013


THREE cheers for RTE and presenter Oonagh Smyth for their brilliant expose of children’s creches on Prime Time: A Breach of Trust last week.

They rocked the normally calm foundations of the cabinet room on Wednesday morning, sending ministers scuttling in all directions. Parents of young children in Ireland should sleep a lot easier after this ghost is exorcised.

RTE has a mixed record on investigative programmes. It badly blotted its copy book in the programme A Mission to Prey with its defamation of Father Kevin Reynolds. Despite this blemish, its crusade to shine a light into the dark corners of Irish life has been important in the development of the State.

It boasts presenters and producers who could command jobs in any global market. It has led the field in demanding transparency from bankers and businesses. Its ace interviewers – like Pat Kenny, the Morning Ireland team, Marian Finucane and Sean O’Rourke – are uncompromising in their challenges to Ireland’s icons. Its presenters rightly demand transparency, sometimes even solvency, from Ireland’s big beasts. What a pity RTE management fails to impose the same standards on itself.

Unfortunately, the antics of RTE’s backroom bureaucrats must be deeply embarrassing to the frontline troops who, day in and day out, deliver information and entertainment to the nation.

Behind the shiny shop window of superstars lurk some pretty manipulative apparatchiks. RTE is losing money hand over fist. Not really on highly paid presenters, but on wanton waste.

Have you heard that extraordinary promotion constantly running on RTE recently? It is the bizarre creation of an outfit in financial trouble.

“Did you know,” blares out the advert, on air at peak advertising times, “that RTE contributed €384m to the Irish economy in 2011 – and for every euro of licence fee RTE receives, it invests more than double back into the economy?”

It goes on: “Find out more about how RTE contributes to the Irish economy by reading the recently published independent PwC report at RTE today, tomorrow, together.”

Sad life that I have, I must be the only poor sod in Ireland who decided to download the PwC report. Does RTE really believe that the ordinary citizens of Ireland are going to be spellbound by the tortuous work of PwC? Are they today rushing to the RTE website for some light bank-holiday weekend reading?

Why is RTE exploiting its control over peak advertising time in a nakedly self-serving message? No wonder they are losing money if they are grabbing these spaces for themselves, slots they could have sold to a client.

RTE kindly provided me with this “independent” report, written by big guns PwC, the same “independent” consultants who pronounced the Irish banks adequately capitalised in late 2008, the very same PwC that has been independent auditors to Bank of Ireland throughout the banking crash, the same PwC whose earnings from auditing a single Irish bank have exceeded €100m in recent years.

Happily for PwC, their banking clients have been delighted with them, their independent auditors, in recent years. RTE must be equally delighted with their favourable findings.

Aware that PwC certainly knows how to charge a king’s ransom for these independent services, before I tackled the report I asked RTE how much it cost.

No dice. RTE refused to say. According to a spokesman, it was a “commercially sensitive” matter. A request for the figure had already been refused to another journalist.

By whom?

By RTE’s very own ‘Freedom of Information Officer’ – RTE’s shield against journalists prying into its financial affairs. Quite a good wheeze when your own frontline staff are so skilled at insisting on transparency from others spending public money.

Quelle surprise. When you do hypocrisy, you might as well do it properly.

RTE commissioned the report into itself. It will pay PwC the secret fee with taxpayers’ money. Was PwC, I wondered, asked to do something useful, like to discover why RTE lost €16.8m last year, or to suggest remedies, even to advise on savings?

Not at all. Nothing so practical. PwC was asked to tell the station chiefs what economic impact RTE had on the economy. It sounded like a totally pointless exercise. It was.

And guess what? PwC’s “independent” estimate of economic impact was music to the ears of those who commissioned it. It states that RTE “contributed €384m to national output”. Which presumably means that, somehow, it spent that much somewhere in the economy.

It triumphantly estimated that RTE “supported approximately 3,550 full-time equivalent jobs across the country”. Whatever that really means. Shades of the claims of Enterprise Ireland.

It helpfully found that RTE supports a “vibrant” acting community. It spent €49m on independent commission activities. It even funds indigenous sporting organisations.

It revealed that RTE enjoys high levels of public support, with 75 per cent of the Irish population declaring they were “proud” of the RTE brand.

Despite competition from the BBC, RTE was still commanding a huge audience. It was “trusted”. It had proved its “effectiveness” as a public service broadcaster.

PwC’s superlatives would make arch-rival KPMG blush.

And from what sources, I wondered, did PwC draw its selective information?

According to the small print in the report, it relied “primarily upon secondary data from [er] RTE”. Ho Hum.

This was beginning to look a little bit too cosy.

The report never once mentions that RTE is a financial basket case. It never addresses waste, overlap, over-staffing in middle management or commercial imperatives. It never suggests any remedy to RTE’s chronic financial crisis. Instead, it is sympathetic with a brave victim of the recession, bemoaning the loss of revenue from the licence fee and RTE’s consequent dependence on commercial income. It applauds RTE for its cutbacks, maintaining that “the scale of this reduction is almost unique in the Irish semi-state sector”.

The report is shameless RTE propaganda. Its authors even had the gall to seek endorsements from those to whom RTE gives business galore. Celebrities such as the GAA’s director-general Paraic Duffy and Football Association of Ireland chief John Delaney are wheeled out as big fans of the station.

Both provide complimentary quotes for PwC’s paean of praise. Both men’s organisations are, incidentally, big beneficiaries of revenue from RTE.

PwC has spun a good yarn, a eulogy of their patrons. They would have done the nation a better service to have commented on RTE’s last annual report. That tells a different story, a tale of multi-million-euro losses, of tanking revenue from advertising and smaller state subsidies, of a politically appointed board, of a director-general paid far more than the Taoiseach, of a pension fund in dangerous and deep deficit.

Last year, RTE cleverly released its diabolical results in August when the Dail was on holidays and the figures were likely to pass beneath the radar. Do not be surprised if they try and pull the same stunt this summer.

That would be the station’s second “stroke” in a matter of weeks. The first was RTE’s decision to use its own advertising time to promote an “independent” report, commissioned by itself, paid for by the taxpayer, to give itself plaudits by the bucketful.

There are two RTEs. The first is the RTE of last Tuesday’s Prime Time, the RTE of Miriam O’Callaghan, of George Lee and other determined interviewers, demanding answers from politicians, businesses and semi-states.

The second is the profligate, secretive semi-state that commissions sympathetic consultants with big names to produce soft reports for consumption by a gullible public.