In 1981, Seamus Heaney wrote to his American agent, Selma Warner, about the fees she was demanding for readings by him on US campuses. He was angry because they were too high.
Heaney was not yet quite as famous as he would become, but his reputation was already very considerable and he was a mesmerising performer of his own work. Warner had started to ask for $1,000 for a reading – the equivalent of about $3,300 today.
Heaney’s complaint was that this was too much money: “I do not wish to be a $1,000 speaker. Apart from my moral scruples about whether any speaker or reader is worth anything like that, I do not wish to become a freak among my poet friends, or to press the budgets of departments of literature at a time when the money for education is drying up in the United States.”
He was concerned not to “exhaust the budgets [of university departments] in one or two seasons of gluttony. This is something I feel has to be definitely settled: it has been worrying me for some time and involved not only money but principles and my reputation as an artist. Much as I enjoy the rewards of reading, the first basis of the enterprise is artistic and not financial.”
Heaney’s letter draws our attention to two things relevant to the current woes of RTÉ.
One is that agents take instructions from the people they represent, and not the other way around. With all the focus on Noel Kelly, the agent for Ryan Tubridy and many other star broadcasters, it is easy to lose sight of this simple fact.
Like almost all published writers, I have an agent who negotiates my book contracts. (She has nothing to do with my journalistic work.) She would not dream of doing anything on my behalf to which I had not consented.
For example, an offer came into her agency for the Russian rights to a book of mine. It was inconceivable that she would accept this on my behalf without asking me first – and of course I refused.
I am not suggesting Noel Kelly’s part in the Tubridy story is unimportant. It is worth investigating, not least because his company’s simultaneous representation of broadcasters, and of commercial companies who might have a stake in what they broadcast, raises valid questions about possible perceptions (however unintended) of conflicts of interest.
I’m sure the members of the Public Accounts Committee will want to ask Kelly about these issues, as well as his specific part in both the negotiation and concealment of top-up payments to his client. There is much to be explored in his virtual monopoly on the representation of famous broadcasters in Ireland and whether that helps to account for RTÉ's craven submission to his demands.
But let’s not succumb to “my agent made me do it” stories. Agents, however colourful and assertive, are intermediaries: these deals were done between RTÉ and Tubridy.
It was Tubridy’s job to have the “moral scruples”. Kelly is not his Father Confessor – he’s his attack dog. It is always up to the conscience of the client as to whether the dog should be called off before he bites off any particular pound of flesh.
When did it become necessary for people fortunate enough to be part of public discourse to measure their self-worth by the size of their bank balances rather than the depth of their engagement?
Secondly, and more importantly, Heaney’s instructions to his US agent remind us that people involved in public life (in the broadest sense) ought not to be in it primarily for the money. It is reasonable, as he put it, to “enjoy the rewards” but if they grow too large, they take away the point of the exercise.
What Heaney was so worried about were the things that should always be balanced in the scales against mere greed. One was the trust of one’s peers (in his case his fellow poets): he wanted to be among them as a fellow artist, not as “the talent”.
But another was, in the most enlightened sense, self-interested. He wanted to have a long-term relationship with the people and institutions that were issuing the invitations and understood that it was better to store up affection and respect, rather than suck them dry in “one or two seasons of gluttony”.
When did all of that wisdom become naive? When did it become necessary for people fortunate enough to be part of public discourse to measure their self-worth by the size of their bank balances rather than the depth of their engagement? When did the loss of decorum and self-control around money make one a paragon of market principles?
Maybe the answer, for most people, is never. I can think of dozens of people I know in Ireland and elsewhere who are prodigiously talented – some of them bona fide geniuses – yet who have worked all their lives for modest financial rewards.
I don’t believe in the pernicious myth of the starving artist either – everybody needs enough money to be able to lead a dignified life. But too much money is as corrosive of dignity as too little.
Vast numbers of people in Ireland – in the arts, in sport, in voluntary and campaigning groups – do brilliant, tough, rigorous work because they find meaning in it. The national broadcaster must be reshaped so that it mirrors that meaning.