How Much is Marian Finucane Worth?
Call it cynical or call it professional, but RTE’s strategy of releasing details of fees and salaries paid to its top 10 presenters for 2007 and 2008 was a very well-achieved exercise in damage limitation. Having softened us all up in advance by having Cathal Goan warn how frightfully excessive the figures would look, then following the golden rule of getting all your bad news out in one go (i.e. two years’ worth rather than the usual one), not to mention doing it on a Friday evening when all eyes were on the Green-FF talks, the broadcaster then made sure we all knew that they knew that these figures were a product of the frothy good times, that those days were now definitively over and that further reductions would follow on the cuts already agreed by stars like Pat Kenny and (more reluctantly) Gerry Ryan.
On Saturday, the Irish Daily Mail led with the fact that Marian Finucane was getting more than half a million a year “for four hours a week”. Now, Marian Finucane is one of the most brilliant and experienced broadcasters in the country. She has reinvented weekend Irish radio and boosted listening figures with her Saturday and Sunday morning shows. And it’s risible to suggest that those shows only take four hours’ work a week. However, the Mail has a point: it does seem an awful lot of money for what’s involved (declaration of interest: I occasionally fill in for Sam Smyth presenting the rival Sunday Supplement on Today FM
What would be an appropriate fee? RTE talks vaguely about “market value”, but this is a market dominated by one major player – RTE – which also receives a huge state subvention in the form of the licence fee. “I have to repeat that they were set at a different time in a different competitive reality where some of this talent might be up for poaching by other organisations and in RTÉ’s view at the time, they delivered value for money,” says Cathal Goan. So a golden handcuff was required for some presenters to prevent them jumping ship to, say, Today FM or Newstalk. Given the latter’s current financial position, that looks a pretty unlikely proposition these days.
Gerry Ryan and Pat Kenny have both suggested their remuneration is in part due to the large sponsorship and ad revenues their respective shows generate. Well, maybe, but if that’s the case we should see drops of 50 per cent or more in their next contracts, given the current state of the market. Who thinks that’s going to happen?
One suspects RTE might be quietly happy with the way political and media attention focuses on star pay rather than on more fundamental questions about the way it does its business. The standard of interrogation at Oireachtas committees of broadcasting issues has been abysmal, and the broadcaster has managed for years to blur the distinction between its public-service and commercial activities – its annual report is a model of obfuscation.
With occasional exceptions (Colum Kenny in the Sindo, Stephen Price in the Sunday Times), there’s not a lot of in-depth analysis in other media, either. Fact is, all of us have our own axes to grind on this subject (Declaration of Interest 2: here at irishtimes.com, obviously, we’re competing directly with rte.ie for traffic and ads). But, at a time when the Irish media are facing into the most transformational era in living memory, it’s about time we started properly discussing RTE’s future role and responsibilities in a changed landscape.
*Just heard Kevin Dawson (RTE’s PR head) declined to discuss the matter on The Last Word this evening because the story ‘had run its course’. That, presumably, is after the lengthy explorations on RTE’s current affairs programmes over the weekend (see Jim’s comment below). Arrogant? Cheeky? You decide.