Ryan Tubridy’s unforgivable sin wasn’t greed. It was the loss of his relatability

His audience felt they knew him, and understood his values and his motives – until they didn’t

It’s the little things that trip you up, as Albert Reynolds famously almost said. In the case of Ryan Tubridy and RTÉ, it wasn’t a little thing, it was a rather substantial pile of money – the €225,000 he received in payments over and above what was reported to the public.

And yet nearly five months on, compared with the havoc it precipitated – most of which had nothing to do with Tubridy – the sum of money involved does seem a slightly paltry hill of beans. Seven Oireachtas committee hearings, two Grant Thornton reports costing €500,000, an emerging €21 million hole in licence fee payments, 400 threatened jobs and a €56 million Government bailout later, this might all strike a casual observer as a tiny bit of an overreaction.

But of course, it was never really about the amount of money involved. It was about what that money represented. The affair was Tubridy’s undoing because it demolished the illusion that was at the heart of his public persona. He was guilty of a sin from which there is no coming back; he lost his relatability.

The salaries of top RTÉ presenters always demanded a heroic suspension of disbelief on the part of the public. The concept of a parasocial relationship is now used mostly to describe the strange, symbiotic relationship between online influencers and their audiences, but the sociologists who came up with the concept in 1956, Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, developed it as a way of understanding the appeal of the newly-emerging “personalities” on TV and radio like Groucho Marx. They characterised it as “intimacy at a distance”. The “spectacular” skill of these new stars was to be able to “claim and achieve an intimacy with what are literally crowds of strangers”, they wrote.


The key to maintaining that bond of intimacy was the personality’s predictability in a world of “otherwise disturbing change”. The “fan comes to believe that he ‘knows’ the persona more intimately and profoundly than others do; that he ‘understands’ his character and appreciates his values and motives”. Ideally, they wrote (and note the quotes), “a performer should have ‘heart’, should be ‘sincere’; his performance should be ‘real’ and ‘warm’”.

And there was the rub for Tubridy. Until June of this year, nobody still working in traditional media in Ireland had nailed that contrivance of intimacy quite as effectively as him. It was entirely possible to forget that he was earning north of half a million euro when you were listening to him giddily extol the joys of simple things in life: a walk on the pier, the joy of a new book, a holiday in Connemara. Not for him meals in fancy restaurants; even his taste in novels is doggedly mainstream and unchallenging. If he can sometimes come across as either slightly glib or irritatingly professorial, it is tempered by the sense that he never takes himself too seriously. His audience felt they knew him, and understood his values and his motives – until they didn’t.

The immediate diagnosis was that Tubridy’s downfall was due to public disgust at his failure to disclose his true earnings. But it was more complex than that. Audiences don’t want total honesty; there is a limit to how much sincerity and – quote – “realness” they can actually tolerate. Presenters know this; and so they’ll go on about their sore throat or their childcare woes but tend not to wang on about their holiday in Florida. The payments controversy made it impossible to ignore that Tubridy, for all his everyman shtick, was living a fairly rarefied life.

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That excruciating chapter is behind him now. Can he now start over and achieve a semblance of that “intimacy at a distance” again with a brand new audience in the UK whose values, motives and cultural reference points are different to those of an Irish audience?

In all likelihood: yes. For a start, he wouldn’t be the first. Tubridy referred to Terry Wogan this week; one observer I spoke to this week rightly pointed out that he has more in common with Henry Kelly. There are plenty of others who paved the path to Heathrow he’ll now follow: Eamonn Holmes, Graham Norton, Sharon Horgan, Aisling Bea, Craig Doyle, Patrick Kielty. It won’t be easy – he’s taking over a three-hour slot, a big jump on the hour-long morning show he helmed on Radio One. But he still has that “warmth” and “realness”. And he is bright enough to – finally – understand where he went wrong. (The wisest approach in future might be to ape Gerry Ryan, who was always clear that he was very much motivated by money.)

His agent, Noel Kelly, must also be feeling pretty smug. All those years he negotiated sweet deals on behalf of his clients on the basis that they’d be snapped up by competition in the UK – vindicated at last.

The real losers are the staff who have been left behind to contend with the fallout – which, again, has little to do with Tubridy himself – the budgets that will be slashed; the colleagues who won’t be replaced; the jobs and programmes that will go; the canteen rats that are serving as useful metaphor for the misery.

And then there’s the not small fact that Tubridy will in his new gig for Virgin Media UK be competing directly with RTÉ in Dublin – it will be simulcast on Dubin’s Q102, and he will present a dedicated “Irish weekend show” on several others. “The best is yet to come,” Tubridy said gleefully this week. No amount of “heart” or “warmth” could persuade his former colleagues to agree with that assessment.