Fear drives golden-handcuff pay deals
RTE giving its stars fat-cat salaries to avoid losing them is no long-term solution, says Colum Kenny
If RTE's highest earners are being paid a rate that is commercially justifiable, then how come RTE's competitors cannot compete with the public service broadcaster when it comes to retaining the services of people such as Ryan Tubridy or Pat Kenny?
Do the station's old hands such as Joe Duffy and George Hamilton stay in Donnybrook just because it is familiar and convenient?
Or is RTE binding them with golden handcuffs, paid for by money that is not available to TV3 or to other Irish competitors?
Most people would not mind having their pay cut by 30 or 40 per cent if they still had the kind of income that RTE's top people have. They may not have done as much harm as bankers, but they are paid like them.
Ryan Tubridy will this year pocket €495,000 for presenting The Late Late Show and his radio programme, which is down from €723,500 in 2011. Pat Kenny got €630,000 last year.
Joe Duffy will this year be paid a mere €300,000 to keep in touch with the common man and woman through Liveline. On an income like that, it must be hard work grasping just how the other 99 per cent live.
And is the Sunday Independent's Brendan O'Connor really worth €158,400 for the undoubtedly excellent bit of work that he is doing for RTE during 2012-13? Of course he is.
Marian Finucane presents a couple of radio programmes each weekend. It is not rocket science but she is likeable and popular, and good at what she does. For which she will receive this year €295,000. Nice money if you can get it for sitting in a studio.
Begrudgery is no reason to slash the pay of broadcasters. And RTE appears to have delivered on its promise of reducing the income of its top 10 earners by about one in three euro since 2008.
But where else would these people go if RTE did not employ them? Would they really take to some other broadcaster all those listeners and viewers who now follow them on RTE? That is the fear that lies behind the gift of golden handcuffs in Donnybrook.
If RTE's stars are really worth their weight in audiences, then why have RTE's private-sector competitors not made the same calculation and offered them through their agents just a few more bob than RTE does? It should be worth it.
Part of the reason is that other stations cannot afford to gamble. The recession is hitting them really hard. And they resent the fact that RTE seems free to up the ante to pay whatever it takes to retain such stars in the face of any other offer.
But these old hands at RTE also like the feel and familiarity of Donnybrook and suspect that what they could do elsewhere might not have the same status or impact.
And the RTE brand also enhances their value when they or their agents are in the market for private gigs, for a little extra work on the side.
It is not known how much money RTE's stars make on the side from speeches and openings and other activities. Most of them are free to do so.
Nor is it clear when or how often items or guests on their RTE programmes are associated with them or their agents commercially outside RTE, in ways that might give rise to a perceived conflict of interest. It would take new legislation to oblige broadcasters to maintain a fully transparent register of the interests of their presenters and producers, but this would be a public good.
RTE's payment of relatively big money to its star presenters is not unique among broadcasters. Both in Ireland and abroad, the drawing power of household names on radio and television is highly valued and traded. But this has special implications for any public service broadcasters.
If RTE's main presenters such as Miriam O'Callaghan (€211,167 this year) or Derek Mooney (€220,063 last year) are getting big money, and moving in golden circles because of their prestige and influence, how likely are they to have their fingers on the pulse of popular resentment at a time of crisis and recession? How motivated are RTE's big stars to roll up their sleeves and get down on the ground to do some dirty digging of their own?
Most of RTE's top presenters earned their spurs in the days before we spoke of them as "stars", and when few broadcasters had agents or received remarkable payments. They developed the common touch through hard work, and that is evident when they are at their best.
But those long-honed skills also make it too easy for them to skate across major topics, depending on studio chat and carried along by their undoubted professional skills. They can sleepwalk through mediocre but adequate programmes after years of steering the ship in the same direction.
RTE has notably ignored the Michael Lowry story in recent weeks. But its schedule in general is too often sleepy and superficial.
Reducing the income of its stars any further is not the main challenge for RTE. The cutting of people's incomes generally has become a populist national alternative to both fundamental change and accountability for past errors in contemporary Ireland.
RTE has a more basic problem when it comes to people such as Pat, Joe and Marian. The station cannot forever employ its old dogs on the hard road that is competitive broadcasting. But having come to depend on them for so long, it will find it hard to discover new voices that carry the same conviction.