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‘Like an episode of Succession’: the inside story of another week that rocked RTÉ

In WhatsApp groups among staff, words like ‘stunned’, ‘incredulous’ and ‘wtf’ pinged from phone to phone

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When news about RTÉ's three barter accounts broke this week, the WhatsApp groups of ordinary staff and correspondents in the broadcaster lit up with furious messages.

Never had the disparity between the commercial and public service arms of the organisation been as glaringly and painfully obvious.

While senior management were getting their work done in private members’ clubs, wooing clients in the finest restaurants and courting advertisers in front of the world’s top entertainers, RTÉ journalists say they were filing their news stories from toilets or using ironing boards as their desks.

When it first emerged that Ryan Tubridy’s pay was topped up and hidden from the public, staff felt nothing but disbelief. How could this have been contemplated given the risks involved?


In those WhatsApp groups, words and phrases like “stunned”, “incredulous” and “wtf” were pinged from phone to phone. Then the disbelief turned to fury. Interestingly, this was more directed at senior management than Ryan Tubridy. This was the fault of senior management, workers felt, who were played by agents, who didn’t upgrade basic kit, and who let the story unfold in such a way that all talk of putting RTÉ's finances on a stable footing were put on ice by Government. After the anger and fury came despair, with many worried that public service broadcasting could disappear down the plug hole.

And then, during the spectacle of the third Oireachtas hearing this week where every detail of those barter accounts was pored over, there was downright humiliation.

€5,000 for flip-flops

Politicians could not believe their eyes when they saw €5,000 transactions for flip-flops, and neither could RTÉ staff, some of whom have had to work on zero-hours contracts. But it’s not the wheeling and dealing of the advertising world or the borrowed cars that has plunged RTÉ into its darkest hour, it is the secret top-ups labelled as “consultancy fees” that only became public knowledge because of beady-eyed auditors.

By Monday, the scandal was entering its twelfth day.

The three Coalition party leaders had a late evening meeting pencilled in with Minister for Media Catherine Martin to finalise the terms of reference for two reviews into governance and culture. The hope was that the Coalition could start to draw a line under a cataclysmic few weeks for the State broadcaster. Behind-the-scenes, some Ministers were starting to worry that the story was entering overkill territory and that it would end in a “plague on all your houses” situation with the public.

Ministers were happy to let the focus rest on the Oireachtas Committees where there was talk of compelling Ryan Tubridy and his agent Noel Kelly if they refused to appear and answer questions.

In any event, the three party leaders were satisfied with what they heard from Minister Martin and backed her three-pronged review.

On Tuesday morning, the Cabinet met.

The agenda was lengthy, and far from RTÉ dominating the conversation, all of the time was spent discussing the Summer Economic Statement and other matters. There was a feeling in the room that the two reviews were under way, the forensic accountant was ready to go, and the issue was being handled by the Minister.

In fact, there was so little conversation about it that Simon Coveney, who has been recusing himself when the matter comes up at Cabinet (his brother Rory Coveney, as part of the RTÉ executive management, is director of strategy), this week did not have to step outside the room.

Did Ministers know that there were further bombshell revelations brewing?

Not an inkling, say three sources. There was no whisper of it at Cabinet or at Leaders’ Questions.

Yet, by late afternoon on Tuesday, a rumour swept through Government Buildings that the RTÉ Board were holed up in a lengthy meeting discussing an explosive new piece of information. Senior officials knew it was in relation to the barter account – the account through which the top-ups were paid – and it could be of such import that heads may have to roll.

Three accounts

Throughout the small hours of the morning leading into Wednesday, before a meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Media with RTÉ senior executives, there was a drip feed of documents that confirmed that the saga was about to get a whole lot worse.

Despite the chief financial officer Richard Collins telling the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) the previous week that there was one barter account, a document was supplied by RTÉ to the committee which opened with the following line: “There are three barter accounts: Astus, Active and Miroma.”

Another document contained a jumble of figures about the Toy Show The Musical project but finished with this line: “actual loss on year one: €2.2m.”

A third document detailed all the transactions in the Astus Barter account, including thousands of euros for flip-flops, balloons, ten-year IRFU tickets, Bruce Springsteen tickets, Spice Girl tickets, Westlife tickets, flights to Japan, nights in hotels.

By the time Ryan Tubridy and Noel Kelly announced via their solicitor that they were willing to appear before Oireachtas committee hearings and had important information, the entire news agenda was dominated by RTÉ revelations which were breaking faster than journalists could type.

Against this frenzied backdrop, RTÉ executives filed into the committee room with pained expressions, the strain clear to see before the questions even began. That’s when the real cracks began to show.

“It was like an episode of Succession,” one Government source said, “because they all started to turn on each other. That’s when the real frustration began to kick in with Government,” they said.

What had been playing out privately in Montrose between the RTÉ board, who are responsible for policy, and the executive, who run the day-to-day affairs, was about to become public knowledge.

Before the committee hearing, Siún Ni Raghallaigh, the chair of the RTÉ Board, rang Catherine Martin to update her. She told the Minister she was deeply dissatisfied with the manner in which she was getting information from senior management on the executive team. She felt the answers she was being given kept changing. Trust was being eroded and something would have to be done. In response, the Minister brought forward a planned meeting with the interim deputy director general Adrian Lynch and new DG Kevin Bakhurst to Thursday.

Not long after that phone call, in her opening statement, Ní Raghallaigh revealed how serious the chasm had become between her board and the executive.

“I am deeply unhappy at the evident pattern of inconsistency and lack of completeness in the provision of information to date by the executive. Regrettably, this pattern has persisted I believe there is a high probability that more information will emerge in the days and weeks ahead. This has eroded Board confidence in the executive.” She then went on to refuse to offer confidence in the executive, some of whom sat right next to her.

Bitten tongues and lips

It was an extraordinary statement, and it set off alarm bells in Government.

“We were trying to be the grown-ups in the room throughout the week, and there were plenty of bitten tongues and lips. The Government remained remarkably on-message and measured. But the Oireachtas hearings were farcical. The drip feed was becoming unbearable,” said one senior source.

Collins, when back at the committee on Wednesday afternoon, insisted that despite what the RTÉ document supplied to the committee had said earlier, there was one barter account. “There is one barter account ... effectively three companies feed into it,” he said.

By Thursday morning, the political pressure on Catherine Martin was becoming acute. Hordes of reporters waited outside the front door of her department while Bakhurst, Lynch and Ní Raghallaigh trooped in for their hastily rearranged meeting.

By all accounts, the Minister did not hold back.

“There was a back and forth. The Minister wanted to break it down, item by item. She wanted to know about the barter accounts, the cars, the register of interests. She made it clear, in an explicit request, that there would need to be a change of tone and a change of culture in RTÉ,” a source said.

She told the RTÉ chiefs that untold harm had been caused by the manner in which the crisis was handled, and that there was serious damage to the relationship between the broadcaster, Oireachtas and public. The message to Bakhurst was: from Monday onwards, this is your job, so fix it.

For his part, Bakhurst has pledged to do exactly that, and to address the staff within RTÉ on Monday with his grand plan to restore trust.

There is a feeling among RTÉ staff that Bakhurst will get one chance to get this right, and the expectation from politicians is similarly high. All expect major change at executive level.

“We are expecting big news. We expect that he will hit the ground running,” said a well-placed Coalition figure. The public bloodletting shows no sign of abating. The appearance of Ryan Tubridy and Noel Kelly in the Leinster House committee dungeons will set off further hand-wringing. The arrival of a forensic auditor in Montrose early in the week will be a reminder to staff that plenty could still emerge. And the fact that the two Government reviews won’t be ready until next Spring means that the story will drag on for years to come.