RTÉ chair Moya Doherty has ‘huge regret’ over Larry Bass episode

Board members felt ‘anxiety’ about Dancing with the Stars renewal, committee hears

RTÉ chair Moya Doherty expressed "huge regret" about the outcome of television producer Larry Bass's short-lived tenure on its board at an Oireachtas hearing on Wednesday, but she denied that RTÉ had sought to challenge the system of political nominations to the board.

“This was at no point a challenge to any system that you have in place. We regard it highly,” Ms Doherty told the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media.

Larry Bass, chief executive of Dancing with the Stars production company Shinawil, resigned from the RTÉ board after just eight weeks last September, claiming his appointment had "upset a number of people".

Mr Bass had been one of four board nominees put forward by the committee earlier in 2021 and approved by Minister for Media Catherine Martin.

RTÉ subsequently signalled “a concern around corporate governance, around principles, around ethics, around models”, Ms Doherty said.

Mr Bass then exited the board the day after attending his first board meeting, saying he had to “protect his business” after the renewal of Shinawil’s contract to make Dancing with the Stars was questioned by fellow board members.

‘Flat structure’

“I do want to say that what happened is very regrettable. [However], how we run the RTÉ board is very much in a 21st-century flat structure. It is not a hierarchical structure, and we need consensus,” Ms Doherty said.

“Consensus was not available on the day, and there was a genuine concern about conflict of interest, and perception of conflict of interest, with such an enormous contract being handed to a board member. That posed my board colleagues huge concerns and a lot of anxiety. It is not what we would have wanted.”

Senator Malcolm Byrne said it was "a concern on this committee that almost our competence was being questioned" in relation to the nominations.

“I’m really sorry if that is what has come across,” Ms Doherty said.

Dancing with the Stars was later recommissioned by RTÉ following its one-year pandemic break, attracting a high audience on its return to RTÉ One’s Sunday evening schedule earlier this month.

The first episode in the new season recorded an average viewership of 525,000, which was a 40 per cent share of those watching television at the time.

Final year

The RTÉ chair, who is serving her final year in the role, appeared at the committee virtually alongside director general Dee Forbes.

Asked if she was frustrated by the Government’s failure to publish the report of the Future of Media Commission, Ms Doherty replied that RTÉ was “beyond frustrated by it”.

In her opening remarks, the Riverdance producer and co-founder recalled a photograph in the National Photographic Archive's Ireland on the Box exhibition that shows children picketing the gates of RTÉ in 1974 to protest at a decision to end Wanderly Wagon. This highlighted the "paradox" faced by the broadcaster, she said.

“The only way it can make savings is to cut services or programmes, but doing so brings upon it the wrath of the audience it is seeking to serve.”

While 1974 was “a different world”, the industry has seen dramatic change even since the start of her term as RTÉ chair almost eight years ago, she added, saying it was now “a genuinely existential moment for the provision of public service broadcasting in Ireland”.

She cited the rise of streamers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV Plus as well as competition from international companies such as Sky, and also noted "the relentless advance" of social media into people's personal lives, a shift in advertising revenues to tech companies and a move away from communal media consumption.

RTÉ’s future is “constantly being threatened” because its funding falls short of its fundamental costs, she said.