Monday 17 June 2019

Everyone is talking about presenters' salaries, so why has RTE gone quiet?

There has been an odd silence on the airwaves about RTE wages, but this is the topic that licence fee payers want to hear about, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

‘Had word come down from on high that RTE wages are not to be discussed?’
‘Had word come down from on high that RTE wages are not to be discussed?’

Eilis O'Hanlon

It was Sherlock Holmes who, investigating a tricky case, drew attention to the "curious incident of the dog in the night time".

"The dog did no thing in the night time," he was informed.

"That," Holmes replied, "was the curious incident."

It wouldn't take a great detective to figure out the mystery of why RTE was equally tight-lipped all last week about one of the biggest stories of recent days. It's because that story concerns itself.

Since the near simultaneous publications of the RTE and BBC annual reports a couple of weeks ago, the subject of presenters' pay has attracted a huge amount of comment, both for the inflated salaries being paid to certain individuals, and because of the disparity between the wages of male and female members of staff.

Two thirds of those earning more than £150,000 at the BBC are men, with the highest paid man, Radio 2 presenter Chris Evans (£2.2m-£2.49m), taking home more than four times as much as the highest paid woman, Strictly Come Dancing host Claudia Winkleman (£450,000-£499,999)

Similarly, only two of the 10 highest earners at RTE in 2014 (the last year for which figures are available) were women, namely Marian Finucane and Miriam O'Callaghan.

This disparity, decades after the passing of equal pay legislation, has still not been adequately explained, but it's certainly a stretch to imagine that the market rate for some of the male names on the rich list is really that much higher than that of female colleagues who didn't make it into the top 10.

RTE has promised to unveil the results of a review of the gender pay gap across the organisation. Its findings will be eagerly awaited, not least by Sharon Ni Bheolain - who confirmed to the Sunday Independent's Niamh Horan last weekend that she has at times earned up to €80,000 less than her Six One News co-anchor Bryan Dobson, and that her salary is "still considerably less" - and Martina Fitzgerald, the station's political correspondent, who also broke ranks last week to demand more transparency.

The implicit criticism of their own employer by two such high profile women in the media would be big news in any week, but one would scarcely think that it was an issue at all by listening to RTE radio over the past seven days.

The vow of silence began on Sunday's Marian Finucane Show on Radio One, where Marian herself (recipient of a €295,000 salary, according to those 2014 figures) could be heard talking to panellist George Lee, RTE's agriculture and environment correspondent (€179,031 in 2014), about the big news stories of the day.

Both found plenty of time to express scepticism at a Sunday Independent poll revealing that Irish voters now want tax cuts. The panel also discussed at length which plastic bottles can be recycled. But on a story which was generating column inches across the print media? Tumbleweed. Part of the headline was read out but that was all.

Had word come down from on high that the subject of RTE wages was not to be discussed? Had an element of self-censorship kicked in? Or really was it just too boring? Whatever the reason, it's a pattern which was to continue all week.

News At One and Drivetime did both carry isolated new items on Monday about the row in RTE, but Morning Ireland, which is supposed to be the country's foremost radio news show, with more than 400,000 listeners a day, did not follow suit. Aside from a few passing mentions in the regular What It Says In The Papers segment, RTE's woes went unremarked.

If coverage on news programmes was notable by its absence, the silence on shows devoted to comment and analysis was even more pronounced. Today With Sean O'Rourke, home of the fourth highest paid presenter in 2014 (O'Rourke's salary back then was a hardly negligible €290,096), did not deem the story worthy of discussion on Monday at all.

On Tuesday, it seemed that the stopper would finally be pulled out of this particular bottle, as the subject of pay disparity did come up for debate; but aside from a cursory introductory reference to RTE, the item concentrated mainly on whether all companies should be forced to publish details of gender differentials in pay.

A trade unionist and business leader battled that one out. It was another opportunity missed.

It wasn't until Friday morning's regular "Gathering" slot that the mid-morning show finally acknowledged the story that dare not speak its name. "I've been on to Gary Lineker [the BBC's second highest earner (£1.75m-£1.799m)], he's lent me his tin helmet, we're going into… dangerous territory," chuckled O'Rourke.

In the event, it wasn't that dangerous. Sean even prefaced the discussion by wondering whether there'd be all this fuss about gender equality if Niamh Horan had interviewed Prime Time's David McCullagh last weekend and he'd revealed that he was earning half as much as Miriam O'Callaghan.

He then added: "I checked upstairs. I don't think management accepts that there is necessarily a gender pay gap."

It was left to Ingrid Miley, RTE's industry and employment correspondent, to pick her way carefully through the minefield.

"I'm not here to speak for RTE," she began by saying, "I'm not here to speak for myself as a staff member of RTE, and I'm not here to speak for the staff of RTE."

She then outlined the difficulties of making accurate salary comparisons; but the week as a whole did little to correct the impression that RTE would rather leave this particular story well alone.

A National Union of Journalists meeting at RTE midweek also heard from one presenter who claimed she had been barred from speaking to the media about contentious pay issues. However RTE has denied that any presenter was barred from speaking but the NUJ has called for an "atmosphere of openness".

Even Liveline, which would have provided the perfect chance to throw the phone lines open and let listeners sound off about presenters' pay, thereby allowing RTE to cover its back from criticism, didn't, in fact, cover the topic. When Liveline has been challenged for not featuring certain stories in the past, the answer is invariably that the show can only deal with issues which the listeners themselves have raised. If there are no calls, then a story, however important, can't be covered. So despite the massive public debate, it is amazing that no one or not enough people called in all week to talk about RTE salaries?

One would have thought this was an issue on which licence fee payers would have strong views, one way or another. If they're not airing them on a station that they pay for directly, what does public service broadcasting mean?

No organisation likes its dirty laundry to be washed publicly. The issue is obviously awkward for RTE, not least because the presenters covering the story may themselves be central players in it. But that doesn't make the lack of accountability any less troubling.

When Stephen Nolan of Radio Ulster came under fire after his name appeared on a list of the BBC's top 10 earners, he solved the problem by allowing himself to be quizzed on his own show by an independent interviewer.

Similarly imaginative solutions may have to be found when RTE publishes its latest list of top earners in the next couple of weeks.

Ignoring the story and hoping it goes away not only erodes respect for RTE's impartiality, it's also bad business. Everyone else is talking about salaries. RTE should be too.

Sunday Independent

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