The Cost of ‘Stars’

Every institution needs to be accountable, transparent and discerning. We have lived through the consequences of poor governance and its drastic consequences from Church to Banking, the latest on this Island is our National Broadcaster.

RTÉ did what institutions tend to do. It created an elite and inevitably a culture of precedence and entitlement followed. It also side-lined a defining principle of good governance-everyone has to be supervised. And, the twin fissures in the system, garnished by the glamour and allure of television, created the illusion that less was more. Thus, RTÉ ended up believing that the anointed, the invented and the ordinary, regardless of talent, given particular attention and adulation, were ‘stars’.

RTÉ, imagining it was the BBC, invented a monster. So the monster (or the crocodile) was fed and, as nature would have it, the crocodile kept coming back for more. The process was facilitated by allowing presenters be ‘contractors’ and to employ agents to exert as much pressure as possible on the RTÉ management. As is the way, the bottom line was the fear that RTÉ’s self-generated ‘stars’ might withdraw from the      station and put at risk the lucrative advertising revenue of specific programmes on which the station had come to depend.

The monster that RTÉ created has, inevitably it seems, come to threaten its very existence. Living beyond its means with its resources compromised by agents and adding nothing to its core work value but milking fortunes from the enterprise, there was a creeping inevitability about the present implosion. Keeping sweet the few ‘contractors’ whose natural talent was of significant benefit to the station encouraged those of significantly lesser ability to imagine and to receive undue recompense for their belief that they too were stars in the RTÉ galaxy and that they too could be ‘contractors’ drawing from the same lucrative well. There were (naturally) very few Ryan Tubridys who might be enticed by the larger players in the BBC or ITV but RTÉ ended up over-lavishing their bounty in the sense of giving special treatment to an ever-expanding coterie of very ordinary talents.

The truth is that RTÉ itself unnecessarily boosted the profiles of average presenters (not least through the RTÉ Guide) and turned them into celebrities who naturally exploited their celebrity status to extract increased levels of fees both inside and outside Montrose. The truth too is that besides the 20 or more untouchable ‘stars’ creaming the gold dust there are competent hundreds willing and available to replace them, for a fraction of the cost.

The heresy RTÉ has created is that presenting programmes on radio or television demands exceptional talent. It doesn’t. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery. And paying ‘personalities’ for presenting news programmes or interviewing sports people or listening on the phone to the public complaining for five or ten hours a week should not merit the salary of a brain surgeon. More pointedly should Joe Duffy, a talented communicator in his own right, actually merit a salary of €350,000 – €120,000 more than what An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar earns (€230,000)? At the kernel of RTÉ’s problem now is that the policy of allowing members of a perceived golden circle to embellish (sometimes) their curriculum vitae but (mainly) their bank balances have delivered a mixed benefit to the station.

Reading the list of incomes among the ‘contractors’ against the background of a few hundred other RTÉ employees protesting their comparatively modest earnings set in due relief the extraordinary earnings of the elite minority – in both earned incomes and add-ons. Here’s a sample of the top earnings in 2021:

– Ryan Tubridy €440,000

– Joe Duffy €351,000

– Ray D’Arcy €305,000

– Claire Byrne €350,000 (now 2023)

– Miriam O’Callaghan €263,500

– Brendan O’Connor €245,504

– Brian Dobson €209,282

– Mary Wilson €196,961

– Darragh Maloney €183,738

– Áine Lawlor €183,662 in 2020

– George Lee €179,131

(In 2008, Pat Kenny is estimated to have earned €950,000 and Gerry Ryan €630,000.)

The list (though a moveable feast) has some spectacular and quite remarkable earnings per individual output. While Tubridy earned almost half a million, his Monday to Friday radio schedule of five hours a week plus two and a half hours of the Late Late Show for 30-plus Friday nights of the year is a huge ask – in terms of talent and sheer endurance. By comparison, Joe Duffy’s or Ray D’Arcy’s workload seems a breeze, and ditto the last seven on the above list.

When the RTÉ implosion started a few weeks ago, predictions that Tubridy’s career in RTÉ might be over and that RTÉ itself might suffer the same fate seemed greatly exaggerated. But few would rule out those possibilities now. When brands become toxic, as the Catholic Church has learned, it’s very difficult if not impossible to detoxify them. Stone-walling by the RTÉ Board and creating the illusion that nobody really knew what was going on were quickly unmasked under cross examination as simply digging a deeper hole for those involved. This is the time to undo the present RTÉ culture: introduce a policy of accountability and transparency; ban ‘contracting’ and the use of ‘agents’; moderate the top salaries; end the star/talent syndrome and the personality cult it nurtured which generated grotesquely excessive pay levels; take advantage of the available personnel in local radio and other community media; and introduce the kind of basic standards that are expected from those who are responsible for dispensing taxpayers’ money. In a democracy we deserve true accountability from our National Broadcaster.



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