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'Conflict of interest' in Late Late's Quinn deal

There was concern last night that RTE's new season Late Late Show fronted by Ryan Tubridy could face a conflict of interest in discussing the banking crisis after the station agreed a €1m-plus sponsorship deal with the Quinn Group.

Businessman Sean Quinn and his family lost over £1bn in the Anglo Irish Bank debacle. Controversy has raged about a golden circle of 10 individuals who were involved in a €451m transaction to purchase shares in Anglo Irish Bank held by Mr Quinn and his family.

There were also calls for RTE and the Late Late Show to appear before an Oireachtas communications committee to explain their rationale for accepting sponsorship from the Quinn Group.

The deal involving the Quinn Group came about as RTE is suffering badly from plummeting revenues caused by a drop in advertising. The two-year sponsorship package will link the Quinn Group with the Late Late Show which had an average audience of 663,000 last season.

Gerry McGuinness, RTE sponsorship manager, said: "We're delighted that Quinn has come on board as sponsor for the show for an agreed two-year deal. The Quinn [Group] sponsorship is a great fit for the Late Late Show. Both are established, quality Irish brands with a massive resonance for consumers and the viewing public in this country."

Quinn Group, meanwhile, said they were "delighted" to have procured the sponsorship of the Late Late Show.

"The Late Late Show is an Irish institution and we are very excited that our sponsorship coincides with a new era for the show, with Ryan Tubridy taking over as host." Colin Morgan, representing Quinn Group, said.

However, last night Prof Colum Kenny of the School of Communications at DCU, and a former member of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, said that Mr Quinn's sponsorship of the Late Late Show had the potential for conflict of interest.

"There could be extreme difficulty for the Late Late Show in discussing any issue which touches upon areas Mr Quinn or his companies are involved in," he said.

"Some of what the Late Late Show does is current affairs and certainly if some of what is under discussion touches on the interests of the sponsors, they could have a problem in establishing fairness. And even if fairness can be established you also have the problem of the perception of fairness. People have to believe they are getting a fair representation on the show."

Prof Kenny said that the bigger the sponsor and therefore the more varied the interests of the sponsor, the greater the potential difficulty. "It isn't just a matter of how individual discussions would be handled," he said, "but it could have a fundamental effect on choosing topics for discussion.

"For example, can you imagine the discomfort of a Late Late producer, with Mr Quinn as sponsor, who might be thinking of suggesting a panel debate on the motor insurance market?"

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Fine Gael's Simon Coveney, who is a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources said he thought a question about a possible conflict of interest on the show was a fair one.

"Over the next two years there will be huge social discussion taking place on pretty difficult issues, affecting families and society, and one of them is the relationship between people and banks.

"To be fair the Quinn Group got involved in Anglo as an investment which went badly wrong, but I can see some conflict of interest."

He added: "It is something we should explore with the heads of RTE in front of the committee, to get their thinking on it, rather then lambasting them at an early stage."

Mr Coveney said he could understand why RTE was looking for sponsorship when revenues were down and there was no political appetite to increase licence fees.

He said he would be asking that RTE come before the committee and he would ask RTE to include a representative from the Late Late Show on their panel.

Labour's deputy leader and spokeswoman on Finance Joan Burton expressed "surprise" and "concern" at the RTE decision. She said the Late Late Show would be keen to maintain its reputation of impartiality but that there would be "no hotter issue" than banking and finance over the next while and she wondered whether RTE had thought about that.

A top advertising executive explained last night: "RTE try to draw the line between sponsorship and editorial. However, human nature being what it is and especially in the current climate, you are going to take money where you can and any client would not be happy if RTE was taking money from them on the one hand and then generating bad publicity for them on the other.

"If a company is being told that their brand is going to be marketed in a certain way and they're going to get great publicity and that their brand will be seen in a glowing light, and then they hear that they're getting bad publicity elsewhere on RTE -- well, then that's not going to work, is it?

"In the current climate you don't want to upset the people who are giving you your biggest sponsorship deals -- and €1m is a lot of money."

Last night RTE released a statement saying: "The Late Late Show is an entertainment programme and as such, has been available for sponsorship for the last seven years.

"The Quinn Group are the third sponsor of the Late Late Show with Renault and Halifax previously enjoying fruitful relationships with RTE's flagship chat show.

"RTE do not self regulate on these matters but adheres to the BCI General Advertising Code. Section 7 of this code precludes sponsorship of 'news, current affairs and religious programmes'. Sponsorship of entertainment programmes is not precluded. The Quinn Group's two-year sponsorship of the Late Late Show, is purely a sponsorship package and is outside of any air-time deal which may currently exist or may be agreed in the future."

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