Monday 18 November 2019

Taoiseach pledges RTÉ support after broadcaster's 'toxic' meeting with staff

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Melanie Finn and Hugh O'Connell

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said the Government would be prepared to put more money into RTÉ but has warned that it must restructure and reform.

Mr Varadkar was speaking after a turbulent day for the broadcaster, which plans to cut 200 jobs - a proposal that was met with anger by staff at a "toxic" meeting with senior RTÉ executives in Montrose yesterday.

He said Government funding alone would not solve RTÉ's problems given its deficit had grown despite increased revenue from the licence fee in recent years.

But asked whether the Government would put more money into RTÉ, he said: "Yes. But obviously, the amount and the timing is the matter for discussion. We have put in more money, we did last year, through the social welfare contributions, the licence fee, and the income from the licence fee has increased. But... this is a State company, it's a public service broadcaster, we want it to survive, we want it to do well."

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Mr Varadkar declined to be drawn on whether it was appropriate for RTÉ presenters to earn more than he does after Business Minister Heather Humphreys earlier said it was not viable for the broadcaster to pay some presenters more than the Taoiseach, who earns €200,000 a year.

"RTÉ obviously has a system where it wants to attract various different presenters, and it has set those salaries itself and it's up to it to decide if that model is viable into the future," Ms Humphreys said.

"Really, as far as I'm concerned, it's a matter for RTÉ if they think that model is viable, I don't personally think it's viable.

"I think that's something they're going to have to look at."

Meanwhile, members of RTÉ's executive board were heckled and jeered at a "toxic" meeting with the company's staff.

Tensions were high at the meeting where staff gathered in a packed Studio 1 to hear proposals for the future of the company amid plans for 200 job cuts, the closure of its digital stations and the sale of the 'RTÉ Guide' magazine.

The entire meeting was also played around the Montrose campus on monitors to update staff who could not attend on all developments.

RTÉ employs 1,800 people at present and the restructuring measures are seen as a bid to reduce costs by €60m over the next three years amid a deficit last year of €13m.

Staff accused management of letting them down and failing to adequately tackle the Government over its pledge for additional financial support to help it fulfil its public service broadcasting remit.

The board was criticised for its "lack of engagement with the Government to get things done".

"There's no point in your standing here and saying, 'Oh well, we've talked to the Government'. Actions speak louder than words," one staff member said.

Another worker said that the current proposals for the closure of the Limerick office were "perplexing" and it also felt like a "shakedown" of Lyric FM staff members. The issue of the sale of the 'RTÉ Guide' magazine was also addressed and support was expressed for staff members there. RTÉ representatives said that "under no circumstances will we let these people be hung out to dry".

Addressing the board, one worker said: "You had a great vehicle there promoting our own products, making a profit and it's gone."

Defending the recent measures, one senior board executive said the whole media sector was in an "existential crisis" and RTÉ was not unique in its position amid a changing media landscape.

Another senior executive said that it was "the job of 1,800 people to save RTÉ, not nine people", referring to the executive board.

Dee Forbes also questioned why the media had "picked up on Lyric FM moving", referring to its proposed move from its Limerick base to Dublin and Cork.

In a bid to quell fears, she told staff that they were "not giving up on Lyric". But the mood in the room was described as "toxic" by the end.

"There is a lot of frustration among workers and people feel very let down by management," a source told the Irish Independent.

"Staff have lost faith in the executive board and are furious at what they see is the management's inaction to adequately deal with the financial crisis."

The chair of the NUJ Dublin Broadcasting branch has said that RTÉ's proposals were "short-sighted and ill judged".

Emma O'Kelly said members would oppose any attempts to cut the pay of ordinary workers in RTÉ and oppose any compulsory redundancies.

Irish Independent

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