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‘I am proud to work at RTÉ — but something precious has been broken’

We have seen behaviour more befitting the series finale of Mad Men than a statutory body in receipt of public money

'The public has shown remarkable empathy with RTÉ staff.' File photograph: Collins

It isn’t supposed to be about us. Normally our microphones and cameras are trained on those who don’t work at RTÉ. We say we work “behind the glass”, beavering away in various roles, as producers or researchers or sound engineers, while others are in the spotlight. But in these demoralising days of testimony and revelation, we’ve become our own top story.

RTÉ staff share the dismay and outrage of the public. Something precious has been trampled on. There’s the as-yet-unexplained breach of trust in undeclared payments. But there has also been a drift toward an excessively commercialised version of RTÉ, with patterns of behaviour occasionally more befitting the series finale of Mad Men than a statutory body in receipt of public money.

It is a travesty to see an organisation doing fiscal backflips to deliver fees at the top tier — and all while RTÉ maintains it can’t afford to replace retirees, improve the lot of lower-paid workers, keep talented new journalists on the books, fully discuss cultural obstacles to gender equity or create paths of progression for colleagues who outperform their job descriptions week in, week out. I say this as somebody who loves working at RTÉ, with deep respect for my colleagues at all levels.

We won’t get into talking about individuals. Because this mess has focused us on the endangered future of public service broadcasting itself with a whole ecosystem of livelihoods at stake; from security staff to lighting technicians, sound engineers to broadcast journalists. These workers include camera operators, reporters, researchers and producers. And others who depend on RTÉ in a freelance capacity — musicians, writers, contributors, actors, directors, independent production companies and others.


Through it all, the public has shown remarkable empathy with RTÉ staff. We know that despite the revelations of the last few weeks, we’re lucky to be here. We’d like to show in our work that we deserve to be here. All of us who are part of RTÉ hope we can, even now, renew public faith in our programme-making. Even as the controversy over pay has rolled on, we have been continuing to deliver examples of public-serving broadcasting — including upcoming coverage of the Irish soccer team at the Fifa Women’s World Cup or Prime Time Investigates’ superb documentaries such as Milking It: Dairy’s Dirty Secret on the live calf export trade and, previously, documentaries exposing the treatment of children in several Irish creches.

Where I work in RTÉ radio, there are many examples of programmes that I believe are the purest expression of public-service broadcasting: the spontaneous wit of Beo Ar Éigean; explorations in traditional music on The Rolling Wave; the compelling detective work in Documentary On One’s Finding Samantha; Kevin Barry’s magical reading of his work on Spoken Stories; and The Ballad of the Stolijk Rescue on The Lyric feature.

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Ryan Tubridy has stated that it is his desire to return to presenting his radio show "as soon as possible" in the wake of the RTÉ payments scandal.

I’m not trying to write a press release here, but if you scroll across the dial of programmes that wouldn’t be possible without public funding, you’ll hear Nigerian-Irish poet Felispeaks performing on Arena, new radio drama by Marina Carr, composer Jennifer Walshe discussing new music on Lyric’s Culture File, and Lankum playing live at The RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards – among many other examples. This is in addition to the sometimes superhuman feats of organisation that RTÉ workers in the background do every day on flagship programmes.

Our outstanding sound engineers may not be household names, but they work miracles against the clock in their mastery of the medium — one of whom, Síle Ní Bhaoill, retired this week after 42 years of service. I remember how during the pandemic, sound engineers and broadcast staff went to enormous lengths in order to keep us on the air. One of our projects was a drama by Colin Murphy, an alternative radio version of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, which was directed by Conall Morrison and performed by Derry’s Stage Beyond Theatre Company for young people with learning difficulties. Over a period of three months, RTÉ staff recorded every line of the play over mobile phones, and two sound engineers spent weeks processing the recordings so as to merge them into a coherent drama. Because of Covid, we couldn’t record at normal speed or efficiency, but every colleague, including my fellow drama-makers, instinctively understood and were energised by the feeling of serving Stage Beyond and the general public.

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I don’t think any of us at RTÉ have any boasting left in us after the last few weeks. But I am still, after everything, proud of the work we do and the contribution we make to public service broadcasting.

We would like to be joined by new voices from a greater range of diverse backgrounds to make inclusive, inspiring and excellent programmes. This would be a true public service — not the basket-case decision-making and flip-flop soap opera of the past weeks, three weeks of disgrace that have eclipsed far more important issues such as climate breakdown, the EU’s nature restoration law, inequality and broken structures of health and housing. This week, news that Tusla has reported 14 cases of suspected exploitation of children in residential care to gardaí already this year did not get the kind of attention it should.

What we want to do can only be achieved by abolishing the current system and replacing it with a more sustainable and equitable funding model, which is designed to take stock both of the financial pressures on every household — and the ever-greater need to defend and properly resource public service broadcasting.

  • Kevin Brew is a Siptu representative for RTÉ radio drama and a radio producer working in RTÉ's radio drama department, Drama On One.