RTÉ crisis: The week that saw battlelines drawn between broadcaster and Ryan Tubridy

Differences between broadcaster, led by new director general Kevin Bakhurst, and its top star over hidden payments were exposed in three more stormy Oireachtas committee hearings

Better than a home-produced RTÉ drama, the third week of the crisis into Ryan Tubridy’s hidden payments that has engulfed the national broadcaster brought several dramatic new episodes in a matter of days.

It was another bruising week for the parties as the chasm between Tubridy and his employer widened further, leaving the future of the broadcaster’s biggest star in further doubt and RTÉ facing multiple external investigations. Three more Oireachtas committee hearings and the arrival of a new character, Kevin Bakhurst, RTÉ's new director general, meant the plot lines rolled on for another five days of drama.

The Bakhurst blitz

RTÉ's new boss was up before Morning Ireland, the station’s flagship radio news programme, on Monday morning, his first official day on the job. A 7am email to all staff told them what they already knew if they had read the papers: he was standing down the existing executive board, director of strategy Rory Coveney was gone, there would be a register of interests for staff and its “contractor” top stars monitoring any outside perks and deals, and financial and staff reviews.

Coming almost three weeks after the bombshell disclosure of hidden payments to RTÉ's top star Ryan Tubridy shook Montrose and stoked public and political fury, the email from the new boss was a manifesto for change. It was broadly welcomed by disgruntled and angry RTÉ staffers. Not many commented on the fact that it was a challenge to staff too.


“The culture in RTÉ needs change,” Bakhurst told them, “from top to bottom.”

He followed it up with a radio interview on the News at One, a press conference with journalists from other media afterwards at RTÉ's front door and a television appearance on the Six-One News. In all, he was frank but guarded, especially on the one question everyone kept asking: what about Ryan Tubridy, scheduled to appear at two Oireachtas committees the following day?

“We’ll see how the week goes and what comes out of it,” came the reply.

It’s the Ryan Tubridy Show!

There wasn’t long to wait to see what came out of it. Dressed in grey slacks, a black blazer and green tie, and flanked by his agent, lawyer and a blue-chip PR consultant, Tubridy was a model of civility to all he encountered in Leinster House the following day.

Mirroring his on-air persona, he was cheerful, energetic, engaging and betrayed little sign – other than looking slightly drawn – of the “terrible state” he said he had been in for three weeks. Having been bunkered in Monkstown, the south Dublin suburb where he lives, the controversy nonetheless seemed to leave his star quality undimmed. During a break in proceedings, Tubridy was mobbed by a visiting group of schoolchildren in the coffee dock in the Leinster House annex, seeking selfies with the star in his darkest hour. He looked positively gratified by the experience.

Tubridy and his agent, Noel Kelly, the man who helped channel €75,000 a year in undisclosed payments from RTÉ to his client, went in all guns blazing. They came with a dossier of documents that pushed the blame back to RTÉ.

But down in the committee rooms, it was more serious business. Tubridy and his agent, Noel Kelly, the man who helped channel €75,000 a year in undisclosed payments from RTÉ to his client, went in all guns blazing. They came with a dossier of documents that pushed the blame back to RTÉ. Tubridy delivered a compelling performance, right down to stabbing the table with his forefinger for emphasis at key points. While he allowed Kelly take the early lead, Tubridy grew into his performance, engaging with questions, elaborating on themes, adding layers of colour – right down to the peculiar affirmation that his enormous salary “doesn’t affect my soul”.

The verdict from the Government, by now standing a few paces back from the molten core of the controversy, its investigators soon to be in place, was pithy.

“Performance so far like a panto,” one source texted. “OTT on the drama.”

But Tubridy’s performance wasn’t aimed at the political or media classes, one RTÉ source observed the following day; he was trying to make a “very salient case to the public”.

As for the public, there certainly was an audience. Virgin Media, screening it live, pulled in an average of 155,000 from 11am to 2pm, a 34 per cent share of the audience, and 117,000 from 3pm to 5.30pm – especially good for afternoon TV. Not bad numbers for an Oireachtas committee.

The stunt of showing it in pubs underwhelmed a bit; a reporter dispatched by The Irish Times to observe matters reported that journalists far outnumbered customers in one bar where the audience was a single, sleepy punter.

The reviews are mixed

The patience of member of Oireachtas public accounts and media committees wore thin as the proceedings wore on for more than six hours. They were specifically vexed on the repeated assertion by Tubridy and Kelly that the unorthodox invoicing arrangements raised no red flags because they were acting on RTÉ's instruction. Time and again, Kelly in particular outlined how RTÉ was a massive organisation with audit and finance controls that his outfit simply didn’t have, and that they were just following instructions.

One by one, members lined up to take potshots at this version of events: Catherine Murphy, the Social Democrats TD for Kildare North, bitingly referred to it as the “Nuremberg defence”. Alan Kelly, Labour’s TD for Tipperary, said: “I am going to be straight. I do not buy any of that. I do not think anybody listening or watching or anybody in this room buys that.”

In the afternoon session with the media committee, Ciarán Cannon, the Fine Gael TD for Galway East, also went on the attack, demanding to know why Kelly agreed “to process a false invoice from RTÉ, which falsely described the service as rendered to a company that he had never heard of and not to the company he was seeking to provide the services to”. Kelly pushed back, but Cannon persisted and snapped, when Kelly offered the line that he was doing as instructed by RTÉ.

“Can we stop there? ... Mr Kelly has been touting that line all day long,” he shot across the committee room. “Mr Kelly cannot suggest for a moment that a credible answer to that question is ‘RTÉ told me to do it.’”

It wasn’t a demolition of Tubridy and Kelly, whose opening statements had set the tone for the day with their carpet bombing of RTÉ, but neither was it a resounding success for them.

The following day’s papers hedged it, neither declaring victory nor defeat for Tubridy. But it was clear that relations between the star and the station were now in the deep freeze.

Without a committee hearing, Wednesday day slid by, but by evening there was another mad scramble as more documents and opening statements dropped.

Mindful of the scolding from committee members Tubridy had received for not sending over documents until a few hours before the meeting, RTÉ supplied its opening statements on Wednesday night. But the key lines were in the opening statement of Adrian Lynch, the broadcaster’s acting deputy director general, held back until the following morning.

RTÉ hits back

Lynch picked up on the obvious scepticism of the politicians about three central points of the Tubridy-Kelly narrative.

The star and his agent had argued that when it came to the decision to underwrite the €75,000-a-year Renault deal, everyone who needed to know about it in RTÉ did in fact know. After all, they had the February 2020 email to prove that some members of the executive had been copied in before the decision was eventually made.

Secondly, they argued that they had no clue that the sum was being paid by RTÉ through a UK-based barter account. The message here was: that is RTÉ's misdeed and we had no hand in it.

Thirdly, the two men downplayed the idea that this Renault commercial agreement had any serious role in keeping Tubridy in RTÉ. Not so, Noel Kelly said, they only wanted it guaranteed by RTÉ just in case the sponsor changed halfway through.

Asked if he believed in Tubridy’s ‘seven untruths’, Adrian Lynch was clear: No, he didn’t

The politicians do believe more people than Dee Forbes, Bakhurst’s predecessor as RTÉ director general and a central figure in the whole payments saga, were aware of the controversial guarantee, but they were clearly dubious about the fact that the invoices paid through the barter account were labelled as “consultancy fees” to be paid through a UK company.

They wondered why Kelly did not think this instruction odd, and they were not convinced by the argument about a change of sponsor being the reason for the underwriting, especially given that the whole thing was designed in such a way that RTÉ would have to pick up the tab if anything went wrong.

Lynch went into Leinster House’s committee room three on Thursday morning hoping to solidify those suspicions and defend his colleagues. The only way to do that was to rubbish Tubridy’s and Kelly’s account.


Bakhurst was beside him and backing him. Asked if he believed in Tubridy’s “seven untruths”, he was clear: No, he didn’t. Later he added another nugget: Tubridy was no longer being paid by the station. They would have to agree with the star, Bakhurst added, what level was appropriate for the job – a job, he didn’t have to add, that Tubridy was currently not doing, at the station’s insistence. Either way, the gulf between RTÉ and Tubridy had widened.

At the start of the meeting, there was a feeling that the Public Accounts Committee would lay off on holding any further hearings while the Government-appointed reviews got under way. But by the end, there was growing support to ask Breda O’Keeffe, the former chief financial officer, to appear. She had told the committee she was busy and could not attend on Thursday, and yet found time to text Lynch nearly halfway through to tell him she disputed any claim that no one on the RTÉ executive had known about her exit package.

“My God,” expostulated Verona Murphy, who could not understand how this phantom text had made it through from a witness who was too busy to appear. Later that evening, RTÉ announced it would conduct an external review of two voluntary severance schemes. Who knows what other bodies are buried there?

It will all come down to money in the end

Within the political bubble around Leinster House, there is a mixture of emotions and reactions to the plight of RTÉ. There is, to be sure, some gratitude among the Government ranks that the critical eye of the media is elsewhere focused, especially at a time of the year that has traditionally been troublesome for ministers.

It is the end of a long term, there is pressure to get issues settled at Cabinet or in the Dáil before the August recess and patience and tempers tend to be a bit frazzled everywhere.

But there is also genuine annoyance and anger at RTÉ for some of the practices exposed there. There is concern for the damage being done to the national broadcaster, which for all the faults politicians perceive in it (often when it reports on them in ways they find uncongenial), is still recognised as an essential element of our political debate and national life more broadly. And there is fatigue with the story: has it not, asked one Government insider, gone on long enough for you?

But beyond all that, there is, among the group of people within Government that will have to decide on these things, an expectation that before any great reimagination of RTÉ, or restructuring of its public-private mix, or indeed much anything else at the station, the crisis is moving towards a desperate request for more money to keep the lights on in Montrose.

RTÉ has been claiming it is in a financial crisis for years. This is not entirely just special pleading – as far back as 2018, the then broadcasting regulator, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, said RTÉ was underfunded by €30 million a year. In recent years it has been scrambling to make ends meet, its leaders getting louder and louder in their pleas for more public cash.

But the hardliners in Government, who are supportive of the idea of public-service broadcasting but critical of RTÉ, put the kibosh on the big funding idea in the report of the Future of Media Commission, a Government-sponsored think-in, which would have seen the licence fee income replaced by annual exchequer funding.

Last year, Catherine Martin persuaded the Government to pony up €15 million in the budget to keep RTÉ afloat while Ministers and their mandarins considered – with no great urgency, it has to be said – the future funding options for the station. Even that process has now been suspended. It doesn’t take an accountant to figure out what that’s going to mean.

“What’s it going to be? Fifty million?” asked one TD rhetorically on Wednesday. Said another source, deep within the Government machine: “I’d say the memo is already written. The ask is coming. No doubt.”

The figures are pure speculation. Bakhurst said this week that as far as they can tell, licence fee income is steady and there hasn’t been a collapse in commercial revenue. There is a pervasive fear, however, that this is exactly what is going to happen. And even if the slump in revenue doesn’t come, RTÉ is still going to have look for more money from a Government that has so far proved resistant to its pleas.

One source, acknowledging that some Government support is likely, said it would not be pain-free for the broadcaster or its sponsoring department. RTÉ will have to find savings, the source said.

It will have to do what everyone else in media has had to do: cut its costs. Catherine Martin’s Department of Arts and Media will have to find money in its existing budget.

This week, the country and its politicians fixated on the future of Ryan Tubridy at RTÉ. What did you think of him? Will he be back? Should he be back? What does Bakhurst – consistently measured but carefully non-committal – really think?

No doubt Bakhurst is turning it over in his mind. But he also knows the money is a much bigger deal for him to worry about.