Media minister requests meeting with incoming RTE boss and board chair

It comes after revelations about the RTE barter account during a committee appearance this week.

David Young
Friday 30 June 2023 19:45 BST
Catherine Martin, Minister for Tourism and Culture speaks to the media (PA)
Catherine Martin, Minister for Tourism and Culture speaks to the media (PA) (PA Wire)

Ireland’s Media Minister Catherine Martin has requested to meet chairwoman of the RTE board Siun Ni Raghallaigh and incoming director general Kevin Bakhurst in the coming days.

Among the issues the minister is seeking to discuss is the external review, Mr Bakhurst’s plan to “reconstitute” the executive board, the Grant Thornton review and engaging with RTE staff, the PA news agency understands.

Mr Bakhurst is to take up the role from July 11; Ms Martin said last weekend that she had not engaged with him on the controversy, insisting it would not be appropriate prior to him taking over.

Ireland’s public service broadcaster has been engulfed in crisis amid revelations about its internal financial, accounting and governance practices.

Much of the focus centred on the workings of a UK-based “barter” account used by RTE to pay for certain services and tickets and trips related to corporate entertaining.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Irish secretary Seamus Dooley expressed concern after RTE board members and senior RTE executives appeared before two parliamentary committees this week.

The NUJ Dublin Broadcasting branch held a meeting on Friday, where its chair Emma O’Kelly referred to “alarm” among members at the security of employment in the wake of governance concerns.

Mr Dooley said that the corporate governance failures had come at a “heavy high cost”, and that Mr Bakhurst needs to meet unions and staff as a “top priority”.

It comes after Irish premier Leo Varadkar said he could not rule out the possibility that some payments made by RTE may have been on the wrong side of the law.

Mr Varadkar said he did not think it had yet reached the point where the Garda needed to be involved, but he did raise concerns over whether payments made by the national broadcaster were compliant with company law.

Arriving for a European Council summit meeting in Brussels on Friday, the Taoiseach was asked by reporters whether any of the disclosures to date merited the involvement of the Gardai.

“I’m not sure we’re at that point,” he said.

“But it did concern me to hear that payments, it would appear anyway, that payments were made by RTE to outside contractors for work that wasn’t actually done.

“And that does raise issues in terms of accounting rules and company law, but I think we’re not yet at the point (of Garda involvement).

“I don’t think we can rule out the fact that it’s not just a case of irregular payments, that some of these payments may have been on the wrong side of the law. But don’t want to jump to that conclusion.”

At a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee in the Oireachtas parliament on Thursday, it was revealed that RTE paid out hundreds of thousands of euro to pay for tickets and trips to events like the Rugby World Cup in Japan, Ireland rugby matches in Dublin and the 2019 Champions League Final in Madrid.

Mr Varadkar said it was not unusual for large organisations like RTE to entertain its clients.

The Taoiseach said his concern was around apparent “concealed” payments that have been uncovered.

“I don’t think it’s unusual that any company or any large body would seek to entertain its clients, that’s part of the way business works,” he said.

“The fact that it was so untransparent, even concealed, that payments were made for work that perhaps wasn’t done, that’s much more serious I think and is a matter of real concern.”

RTE operates on a dual funding model, with 55% of its income, 200 million euro a year, brought in by way of the licence fee.

The rest is generated through commercial revenues.

Mr Varadkar said RTE may have to change the way it manages its accounts, potentially separating out its public and private sector funding streams.

“I think going forward there is going to be an issue about how RTE manages its accounts,” he told reporters in Brussels.

“It receives public money from the licence fee and other sources and receives commercial money from advertising and commercial partners and it all goes into the one pot and I’m not sure that’s going to be appropriate going forward.

“You know, as somebody who’s a trustee of a political party, we have to keep the public money separate from the money we raise ourselves, we have to produce separate accounts.

“And I’m just kind of wondering might it have been better if RTE operated on that basis.

“But, like I say, this issue is still evolving.”

Mr Varadkar said using powers under the Broadcasting Act to appoint a designated person to go into RTE to establish what had gone wrong had not been ruled out.

The Government has already ordered an external review and is finalising its terms of reference.

One option would be to use the Act to appoint someone to go into RTE to secure all the relevant information and address the issues.

Mr Varadkar said initially the Government was not planning to take this approach, but he stressed that Catherine Martin was still reserving her judgment on that as a possible option.

“We haven’t decided exactly which legal mechanism will be used,” he said.

“So there is an option under the Act for the minister to appoint a designated person and at least earlier in the week it wasn’t planned to do that, but the Minister is still reserving judgment on that and it remains an option but the important thing really is less the mechanism that we use, it’s more the fact that it’s done and that somebody from the outside who understands corporate governance, understands accounting and understands how organisations should be run, and should not be run, is brought in to carry out an assessment, to do a report for government and to put things right.”

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