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Why the Public Accounts Committee is so keen to get its hands on RTÉ

Sending in the G&AG would guarantee a day out in the public eye for PAC members

In the absence of any better ideas for how to put out the fire at RTÉ, the Government seems quite taken with the idea of sending in the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG). If ever there was a case of activity taking the place of action this would be it.

One of the first things drummed into the heads of trainee auditors – be they in the C&AG office or the private sector – is that they are watchdogs and not bloodhounds. The job is to make sure that the books and accounts prepared by an organisation give a fair and accurate picture of its financial position. Auditors don’t go looking for problems. But if they find them then they must address them. Usually by asking the management for an explanation.

The C&AG’s job, in his own words, is “to provide independent assurance that public funds and resources are used in accordance with the law, managed to good effect and properly accounted for and to contribute to improvement in public administration”. The key word is assurance. It’s not a guarantee.

Ninety per cent of the C&AG’s work – if not more – is making sure that the accounts of the various Government departments are up to date, accurate and show where the money they are given to spend in the budget each year goes. In total the C&AG audits for 40 bodies including Government departments, the HSE and non-commercial State bodies.


It doesn’t audit the commercial State bodies such as the ESB or the DAA and, of course, RTÉ. The reason, presumably, is to avoid a perceived conflict of interest and comply with company law.

The various commercial counterparties of the likes of the ESB – such as its banks and big suppliers – are obviously going to be more comfortable relying on a set of accounts signed off on by an independent third party than by someone who works – indirectly – for the ESB’s owner.

As a result, the commercial State bodies are audited each year by external auditors, usually one of the so-called Big Four firms. In the case of RTÉ it is Deloitte. They may be independent, but they are also watchdogs and not bloodhounds.

The C&AG does have another role, and this is probably where the misguided presumption that if it had responsibility for RTÉ things would be different comes from. It publishes special reports every year that look in more detail at things that crop up in the routine audits of Government departments. For example, it did a study last year on the procurement of ventilators by the HSE during the Covid pandemic.

If, for the sake of argument, the C&AG was responsible for auditing RTÉ, it is no more or less likely than Deloitte to have tumbled to the issue around how Ryan Tubridy was paid. They basically do the same job in the same way.

If it became aware of it, then it could do a special report. It is worth noting that the issue that led to the current omnishambles was uncovered by Deloitte during their audit*. According to RTÉ, the anomaly around reported payments to Tubridy cropped up during a review of the now-notorious barter account. The internal audit and risk committee got legal advice and then got another firm of accountants, Grant Thornton, to examine the transactions. Its report is functionally the same as a C&AG special report. The rest is history.

There is no real basis for believing that anything different would have happened if the C&AG was in Deloitte’s shoes. Its also likely the external auditors would still be required for legal reasons.

Despite this, the idea of bringing RTÉ back under the purview of the C&AG is being enthusiastically promoted, particularly by the Public Accounts Committee. It’s easy to see why they would want this.

The members of the committee have been garnering headlines and political capital for themselves hauling RTÉ directors and senior executives into committee hearings. The addition to the sum of human knowledge of these pantomimes is minimal but it has been great political theatre. One suspects the members don’t want it to ever stop.

The PAC had to bully its way on to the pitch because RTÉ falls in the bailiwick of the Oireachtas media committee. It needed a dispensation from the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight to hold its hearings and it is currently up for review.

A cynic might argue that the main purpose of the PAC is to further the careers of its members but technically its purpose is to examine the work of the C&AG on behalf of the Dáil and by extension the taxpayer.

What this means in practice is that the committee examines the C&AG’s audit reports on the finances of Government departments and other bodies. Its important work but there are no headlines to be got from going through the accounts of Ordnance Survey Ireland or the Defence Forces Canteen Board.

Bringing RTÉ back under the C&AG guarantees at least one day out a year in the public eye for the PAC. The prospect of hauling RTÉ executives in every year for a few days of repetitive self-serving questions, faux outage on behalf of the people and general grandstanding is irresistible. Sound and fury signifying nothing.

*This article was amended on February 27th 2024.