RTÉ’s latest crisis: What further questions need to be asked?

Catherine Martin, Kevin Bakhurst and the Department of Media are among those with more explaining to do

One of the hallmarks of the RTÉ crisis has been its capacity to rapidly shift in different directions, drawing in new controversies as it continues to unspool across the political system.

After a dramatic Prime Time appearance led to the overnight resignation of the RTÉ chair, the events of the last 12 hours have brought the crisis to the door of Minister for Arts and Media Catherine Martin. As of this morning, she is facing calls from the Labour Party to resign on grounds that she has “failed to ask the most basic questions” and “presided over a most damaging period for the State broadcaster where public trust has been totally demolished”.

Quite the charge sheet – and surely others will follow as the crisis gathers pace.

How did we get here, and what questions need to be asked?


What happened last night?

Ms Martin went on RTÉ's Prime Time programme to discuss the latest chapter in the continuing controversy at the broadcaster – exit packages for executives who left in the wake of the crisis over undisclosed payments to Ryan Tubridy that emerged last summer.

The political system has, for the guts of a week, been agitating for more information on what was paid to Rory Coveney, formerly RTÉ's director of strategy, and its former chief financial officer Richard Collins. These deals took place as current director general Kevin Bakhurst sought to clear the house and put his stamp on the station, and therefore soured relations between him and the Government as well.

But truth be told, it was a chapter of middling intensity in the wider saga, with nobody happy, relations damaged and no easy way out – but equally, no expectation that heads would have to roll to bring it to a close.

And then, Martin went on Prime Time and told the nation that she had twice sought confirmation from RTÉ chair Siún Ní Raghallaigh that the board had not approved the exit packages this week, and had twice been told it had not. However, on Thursday, Ms Ní Raghallaigh had contacted the Department of Media and told them that the remuneration committee of the board had approved Mr Collins’s exit deal. Ms Martin said she was deeply disappointed, had written to the RTÉ chair and would meet her on Friday morning, and the Minister failed to express confidence in her. On the face of it, this is a most grave matter: Ministers must be able to trust the information being given to them by chairs in the teeth of a crisis.

The assessment across Government was swift, shocked, angry and nearly unanimous. “Hard to see her staying on,” texted one senior source. “The whole debacle is getting more dysfunctional by the minute,” said a Minister. A second Minister texted: “When you couldn’t think things could get any worse ... the whole saga is a shambles.” A third: “It’s hard to see any scenario or explanation here that is good and this is a deeply concerning development”.

The writing was on the wall – in the early hours of Friday morning, Ms Ní Raghallaigh resigned – but her statement has upped the political pressure.

Why is that?

The timelines are important: a classic game of political “who knew what and when” is now under way. On October 9th, according to Ms Ní Raghaillagh’s statement, the exit package for Mr Collins was brought to and approved by the remuneration committee. The following day, she says she informed the department “about the process which led to Richard’s departure from RTÉ”.

This is key as it suggests there was knowledge within the department for some months about the very matter that has precipitated the chair’s resignation. Ms Ní Raghaillaigh may have failed to recollect this detail when asked about it this week – that is a serious issue, as a chair must keep a minister abreast of correct information at all times. But if the information was known by the department, why was it not known by the Minister? Who in the department was told? What did they do with the information? Are there records of the meetings of October 9th and the disclosures of October 10th, and will they now be released?

If the RTÉ chair failed to remember a key detail, it is bad for her. But if she had previously told the department that detail, and it failed to percolate up to the Minister, that is another thing entirely.

Questions for Catherine Martin

There are many issues now for Ms Martin. It is worth remembering that she has faced significant criticism since last summer for failing to grab the crisis by the scruff of the neck, put a political stamp on it and assert her authority – for being passive, in effect, and for being behind the curve. As with all accusations within the Leinster House bubble, there is politics underlying those charges – and yet, that is the context in which she now faces key questions.

Why, for example, did she not seek in October (or indeed in July, when Rory Coveney left) confirmation that the board had, or hadn’t, approved packages? She indicated last night that she had an awareness of some sort of package or legal issue – why did she not seek to equip herself with more information about what the board did or didn’t know? She was in the middle of a crisis that to no small degree focused on the board’s ignorance of key details around the Tubridy deal – did she not want to know more about what the board’s involvement was regarding executive exits?

What she knew, what she did (or didn’t do), and when, are now key matters.

She will also face questions over her decision-making in the last 12 hours: why did she bring matters to a head by going on Prime Time? Cancelling the interview would have sparked suspicions, but if she wanted to create a space for her and Ní Raghaillagh to have a dialogue on Friday morning, any chance of that was gone the moment she started speaking on air.

Questions for Kevin Bakhurst

It is clear the current chapter has taken some sheen off Mr Bakhurst as well, and he will face demands for more explanations. He was in the meeting this week with Ms Martin and Ms Ní Raghaillagh when the Minister was seemingly assured there was no board sign-off for either deal. Did he know that the remuneration committee had approved it? And if so, why didn’t he say as much in meetings with the Minister this week?

Questions for the Department

Like all proper crises, this is sucking in not just Ministers, but their officials. It now must be asked what the department did with the information it received on October 10th – if it wasn’t passed to the Minister, why not? And what exactly was it told? And if officials knew there had been board approval for Mr Collins’s deal, why didn’t they speak up between now and then? Vitally, why didn’t they speak up this week if they were present when the Minister was seeking assurances? Ms Ní Raghaillaigh’s statement on Friday pointedly said that she did “remind [officials] that I had previously appraised them of the matter in October”. The Department has some explaining to do.

Another day of hectic developments beckons. Keep track of events on The Irish Times live story here.

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