Last month, when Ryan Tubridy was about to present his last Late Late Show, the RTÉ website ran a tribute: “what you get from Ryan Tubridy is his full attention. His mental red light is always on.” Except that when it came to his own salary, the light was on but there was apparently nobody at home.
The red light’s on Tubridy now. And it casts a sickly glow on his understanding of public service and the ethics of journalism.
When the scandal of the hidden payments that RTÉ gave him every year since 2017 broke last week, Tubridy claimed to be “surprised” and “disappointed” about these “unfortunate” errors.
His hand-washing was so thorough it could have been used as a public health message during the pandemic: “this is a matter for RTÉ and I have no involvement in RTÉ's internal accounting treatment or RTÉ's public declarations in connection with such payments”.
The only reasonable interpretation of his statement is that Tubridy wanted us to believe that, over five years, Mr Full Attention never noticed that RTÉ was lying to the Government, to the Oireachtas, to his viewers and listeners, and to his co-workers, about his own salary. Which doesn’t just beggar belief – it reduces it to absolute destitution.
“Ryan Tubridy Highest Earner in RTÉ” is a headline so often used that subeditors probably had a shortcut for it programmed into their keyboards. And every one of those reports came with specific figures: €495,000 (2016); €491,667 (2017); €495,000 (2018); €495,000 (2019); €466,250 (2020); €440,000 (2021).
All those figures were bogus.
Was Tubridy somehow unaware that his salary was highly controversial, both inside and outside RTÉ? Or was it some other Tubs who told the Irish Mirror in November 2019 that preparing for the Toy Show was his way of escaping a “warlike” divide in RTÉ over pay cuts?
When he was reading the newspapers in preparation for his radio shows (which generally started with his monologue on what’s in the news), did he not see his own employer’s dramatic announcement that same month that the jobs of 200 of his colleagues would be cut, including the line: “We need to reduce the fees paid to our top contracted on-air presenters by 15 per cent, in addition to the 30-plus per cent cuts as agreed in previous years”?
Are we really to believe he did not know his salary was actually cut, not by 15 per cent, or by the 11 per cent subsequently claimed, but by just 5.5 per cent? Or that he never noticed that, year after year, his listeners and viewers were being told blatant untruths about his pay?
To allow such false statements to go unchecked once may be “unfortunate”, “surprising” and “disappointing”. To do so, over and over, on dozens of different occasions, is an irreparable breach of trust.
What does that trust mean? That, however much we may carp about this or that aspect of RTÉ's output, we believe that the public broadcaster is committed to telling the truth to the public.
It makes mistakes and misjudgements – but they are failures of performance, not of intent. This is true for the vast majority of those who work in RTÉ: hence the station’s impressively robust reporting on its own crisis.
Tubridy is the broadcaster’s most prominent public face. He represents it and its values. But he was still not paid enough, apparently, to create a sense of obligation to uphold those values by calling out falsehoods he was uniquely placed to discern. It was all, in his telling, a matter for somebody else.
Of course it’s true that other people, not least RTÉ's former director general Dee Forbes, who resigned on Monday morning with immediate effect, bear the primary responsibility. But the viewers and listeners don’t know Forbes – they knew and trusted Tubridy.
In his second statement, issued only after the reaction to his miserable initial reaction, Tubridy acknowledged that “I should have asked questions at the time and sought answers as to the circumstances which resulted in incorrect figures being published”.
This merely applies another layer of disingenuousness. Tubridy didn’t need to ask questions or seek answers. He knew the truth and he had the biggest megaphone in Ireland with which to broadcast it.
All he had to do was comment on one of the dozens of false news stories and correct the record. He chose not to do it – at a catastrophic cost to RTÉ's reputation.
He should not, therefore, return to the air. You can’t betray your colleagues, your listeners and viewers, and the people who own and pay for the station you work for, and just go back to being our genial host.
He chose silence when he had endless opportunities to speak. The consequence of that choice is that an extended period of silence on his part, while RTÉ tries to undo the immense harm he has done to public broadcasting, would be most welcome.
The red light that glows over his head now should not be the one that warns that the studio is broadcasting live. It is the alarm signal that warns of what happens when private greed undermines public trust.