RTÉ’s multiple lobbying meetings with politicians

Register reveals 14 occasions in four months on funding and national broadcaster’s future

RTÉ director general Dee Forbes or the chairwoman of the board were present at most of the meetings. Photograph: Jason Andrews

RTÉ director general Dee Forbes or the chairwoman of the board were present at most of the meetings. Photograph: Jason Andrews

 

Senior RTÉ representatives met politicians or top Government officials on 14 occasions in the final four months of 2019, a period in which the deficit-stricken broadcaster campaigned for higher public funding.

The activity, recorded on the lobbying register, marked a step-up in its formal interactions with the Government compared to previous periods and came as Minister for Communications Richard Bruton said RTÉ had to “transform itself” before the Government took any action to secure its future.

Director general Dee Forbes, or chairwoman of the broadcaster’s board Moya Doherty, were present at most of meetings while, for others, Ms Forbes was represented by RTÉ director of strategy Rory Coveney.

The intention of the meetings was “communication of RTÉ’s overall finances and its strategic plans”, according to the register.

Ms Forbes met secretary general of the Department of Communications Mark Griffin on September 5th “to discuss reforming RTÉ for a sustainable future”. She met Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald later that month for the same reason.

In October, Ms Forbes and the broadcaster’s public affairs manager Vivienne Flood met Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane and his adviser Conor McCabe concerning RTÉ’s future and its funding.

The day before Budget 2020, in which the Government chose not to allocate additional funding to the broadcaster, Ms Doherty and three board members – Ian Kehoe, Shane Naughton and PJ Matthews – met Mr Bruton and his special adviser Patrick Cluskey.

In the weeks after the budget, the broadcaster said it would seek 200 redundancies, cut top-earner pay, move Lyric FM out of Limerick and sell the RTÉ Guide as part of a plan to stabilise its financial position. The last two measures have since been reversed.

On November 11th – five days after the broadcaster’s revised strategy was leaked to The Irish Times – Ms Forbes and Mr Coveney, who is a brother of Tánaiste Simon Coveney, met secretary general at the Department of the Taoiseach Martin Fraserto talk about its plans for the period 2020-24, the future of public service media funding and the broader audio-visual sector.

Ms Forbes then met the Tánaiste on November 20th to discuss RTÉ’s future and funding.

Throughout November, Rory Coveney also held meetings with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, Fianna Fáil TD Jack Chambers and Ed Brophy, special adviser to the Minister for Finance.

Board changes

In early December, Ms Doherty and fellow board member Mr Kehoe, a journalist and former editor of the Business Post and co-founder of online business publication the Currency, met Mr Griffin from the Department of Communications to discuss forthcoming appointments to the board of RTÉ as well as the organisation’s future.

Later that month, Ms Doherty and Mr Kehoe held three separate meetings with Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin, Mr Ryan and Mr Cullinane, “to raise awareness of the challenges facing public-service broadcasting”. Martin Mackin, a director with public relations company Q4PR and a former senator, was also present.

Ms Doherty had previously employed Q4PR to release a statement on her behalf after the RTÉ strategy was leaked to The Irish Times.

In mid-December, the Minister announced that the Government would raise broadcasting funding by €10 million a year, with about €9 million of this going to RTÉ to help it implement its new plan under close monitoring from State agency NewERA.

Mr Bruton described this as “meeting RTÉ halfway”. The allocation is roughly half the increase in annual public funding support that the broadcaster had sought over the 2020-24 period as it continues to battle tough advertising market conditions and programme-cost inflation at a time of high licence fee evasion.