Six meetings, 25-and-a-half hours of committee hearings, innumerable words on newsprint, hours of radio and television coverage, and five grand worth of flip-flops later – are we any closer to the truth of what happened with RTÉ's concealed payments to Ryan Tubridy?
In the round, the answer is yes. The Oireachtas committee system is far from perfect – it is susceptible to Jesuitical answers from witnesses, grandstanding by politicians, rudderless diversions and seemingly endless repetition. Did all this happen, and more? Yes. Were witnesses barracked and did people say things under parliamentary privilege they wouldn’t repeat outside the house in a fit? Of course. Was there a drip-feed of information that compounded the sense that RTÉ was in a nosedive it could not pull out of? Without a doubt. But all told, we know an awful lot more about the controversy after three grinding weeks of testimony in the basement committee rooms of Leinster House.
There were moments when the public understanding of what transpired shifted. For example, the evidence that Dee Forbes, when first questioned about the €75,000 payments, seemingly sought to explain them away as consultancy services offered during Covid. There was the assertion – unchallenged, for now – that she alone used her executive authority to put the deal through on the nod. There were astonishing declarations of an intent to deceive. The emergence of emails this week shedding further light on negotiation of the underwriting arrangement was another key moment.
In the long run, not much may turn on it, but the evidence that a borrowed car was handed back by an RTÉ staffer the day before a key hearing drew sharp intakes of breath in the committee room (as it turned out, Marty Morrissey handed back his Renault some days earlier). Ditto the extraordinary moment on Thursday when Adrian Lynch tried to read a text message from former RTÉ chief financial officer Breda O’Keeffe into the parliamentary record – second-hand evidence from a witness who had not made herself available to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). O’Keeffe’s head must be spinning: she gave a virtuoso performance last week, only to find her emails the centre of another element of the controversy, and the terms of her exit from RTÉ under a voluntary restructuring programme under scrutiny – an advertisement for the caprices of the Dáil committee system. There were other memorable moments: who could forget “Yes, the salary is enormous ... but that does not affect my soul”, courtesy of Tubridy.
The pattern of late night and early morning disclosures of reams of information added a huge amount of detail not only around the deal itself, but vividly illustrated issues that must now be key to a cultural and structural overhaul of one of the key institutions of the State. It’s easy to be flippant about €5,000 worth of flip-flops, €2,000 worth of balloons and a membership of Soho House – in fact, some of these items funded by the barter account may even be defensible. But when placed next to the reality of journalists filing reports from bathroom stalls, it looks squalid and decadent, and puts in sharp focus the need for consideration of whether RTÉ's dual commercial and public service mandates are co-habitable.
This is not to say that the PAC and media committee got to the bottom of the matter. Indeed, media committee chair Niamh Smyth has handed a list of questions to Minister for Arts and Media Catherine Martin for further investigation. There are many dangling threads, partly due to the absence of Dee Forbes, and, to a lesser extent, senior RTÉ executive Jim Jennings, through illness.
RTÉ's assertion of privilege over a key document relating to the agreement to underwrite the deal means that it has not been made public – it remains to be seen if it can be compelled to release it by PAC which has armed itself with extra powers, courtesy of the Dáil. There are different versions of the story that seemingly cannot be reconciled: RTÉ strongly contests Tubridy and Noel Kelly’s version of certain key events; the presenter and his agent blame the broadcaster for, basically, the whole thing.
The committees may reconvene over summer, and away from the parliamentary glare, the story will continue to unravel – with the final outcome in the balance.