Monday 17 December 2018

Super expensive: RTE's US election costs just keep on growing

Colum Kenny

It cost €27,000 to send 12 RTE employees to America for the 'Super Tuesday' primaries. Oh no, hang on, it cost €62,000. Oh wait, actually it cost more than that. And that does not include RTE's permanent Washington correspondent, Robert Shortt.

The information emerged in response to a Freedom of Information request from retired army officer William Phillips, who was was irked by RTE presenters' comments on the cost of sending Government ministers abroad for St Patrick's Day, when the station had at least 13 staff in the US for the presidential primaries last February.

RTE first told Mr Phillips that travel, subsistence and technical costs for its coverage of 'Super Tuesday' were €20,000 for news and current affairs, and €7,000 for radio.

Pressed by Mr Phillips, RTE wrote to him to revise its estimates, this time adding on a bill for €28,000 from the European Broadcasting Union for news and technical costs, and a travel and accommodation bill of €4,000 for RTE's internet coverage. By now, said RTE, the cost was up to €62,000, and the broadcaster acknowledged that this did not include labour.

Those who crossed the Atlantic for the 'stalemate' between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were Bryan Dobson and Donogh McGrath from Six One News, Charlie Bird, Cathal Mac Coille and Paul Tanney from Morning Ireland, Fergal Keane and Myles Dungan from RTE Radio One, Fiona Hurst from Online RTE, Mark Little and Tara Peterman, and a two-person crew, from Prime Time.

Mr Philips wondered was it really necessary to send so many people for what could only be fairly superficial coverage. RTE might have arranged instead to take some colourful and interesting local material from US television stations. While it made sense to send Mark Little, a former RTE Washington correspondent, did the station's current Washington correspondent really need a dozen helpers from home?

RTE certainly thought so. It has rejected a suggestion by Mr Phillips that the Irish public only had a "passing" interest in 'Super Tuesday'.

"I believe you are mistaken in this regard", wrote RTE's Freedom of Information Officer, Peter Feeney, "These are elections to the most powerful position in the world. Irish people have always shown considerable interest in American elections."

He also suggested that, "If you were to count up flight costs and accommodation. I am sure the figure would be less than 10 per cent of the costs of sending ministers to represent Ireland on St Patrick's Day around the world".

To which Mr Phillips replied that, "a lot of benefits accrued to Irish industries" as a result of ministers travelling. He told Mr Feeney that it would be "difficult to find anybody who would say RTE's expenditure on 'Super Tuesday' was justified".

Factoring in the salaries of the 12 staff who travelled, and might have been deployed elsewhere, the cost of the US trip was at least €70,000.

Mr Phillips sought further details, including the cost of each air ticket, international and national, and the cost of accommodation while in the United States. But, despite paying a fee of €75 to have Mr Fenney's refusal reviewed within RTE, he was rebuffed. Mr Phillips had written to Tom Quinn, Group Secretary of RTE, commenting, "I am always suspicious of round figures, and feel that they are often quoted off the head".

Mr Quinn turned him down, stating that, "In my view, the breakdown of the expenditure . . . is reasonable". He claimed RTE was not obliged to go any further, telling Mr Phillips, "It is clear to me that the issue of commercial sensitivity arises in relation to the specific details of some of the costs incurred". In fact, said Mr Quinn, Mr Phillips had received more detail that required: "Technically, it would have sufficed for the Freedom of Information Officer to have given lesser detail whilst ensuring the overall figure was released".

RTE's response raises questions about the adequacy of Freedom of Information legislation and about how Irish media cover foreign stories.

RTE recently refused to disclose its payments to certain top executives, and revealed only broad pay scales. This appears to have neatly side-stepped the matter of bonuses, also paid from public monies.

In general, RTE responds courteously when it comes to Freedom of Information. But the law is weaker since Fianna Fail amended it and imposed charges for using it. In some institutions, civil servants have become adept at circumventing it, while some commercial interests employ professionals to ensure that their communications with public servants are not disclosed -- on the grounds of commercial sensitivity -- even where no significant commercial information is included.

So does Willie Phillips feel happy with the responses he got from RTE? Not really. He is now considering an appeal to the state's Freedom of Information Commissioner. But that would cost him €150.00 -- and the law as it stands might not entitle him to more detail than he already has about RTE's very own 'Super Tuesday' in the United States.

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