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Why it's time for RTE to slash the salaries of its top three earners

This being the height of the silly season, it's practically obligatory for politicians of all hues, and especially those in the ruling parties, to start flying a few colourful kites in order to distract the public's attention away from the real, pressing problems of the day.

A favourite ploy is to take aim at the inflated salaries of RTE's top earners on television and radio. In previous years, I'd have been inclined to take the usual outraged outbursts with rather more than a pinch of salt. Say, a whole drum of Saxa.


The common conception that working in television and radio is easy. A doddle. The kind of thing that any one of us could do, if given the chance -- and probably do far better than the overpaid, over-privileged nitwits we see clogging up our television screens from one end of the year to the other.

The reality is a little different. Okay, so fronting a television show is not brain surgery or rocket science, but the ability to do it -- and more importantly, to do it well -- is not a talent all of us possess. If it was, well... we'd all be doing it, wouldn't we?

Yet this year, with the global economy apparently teetering on the brink of collapse (I'm no more an economist than I am a broadcaster, so I'll have to defer to the wisdom of my betters on this one) and the country, to borrow a word once used by Gay Byrne back in the Eighties, banjaxed, I'm inclined to take Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte's comments a little more seriously.

Rabbitte labelled the salaries of RTE's top earners -- notably Pat Kenny, Ryan Tubridy (who's currently standing in for Graham Norton on BBC Radio 2 on Saturday mornings and, judging by comments from UK reviewers, doing a very good job of it) and Marian Finucane -- "excessive", and signalled that he wanted them trimmed to reflect the amount of advertising revenue their programmes generate.

RTE is continuing to haemorrhage revenue. The State broadcaster spent €7.4m more last year than it took in in revenue.


"RTE can't go on incurring the kind of annual deficit that it is incurring and their costs simply have to be brought under control," the minister said. "We can't have a situation where RTE is allowed to run up a big deficit every year, and I've told the director general to get it under control."

This is no knee-jerk reaction on Rabbitte's part. While a deficit of this size is rather less serious than the €16.5m the State broadcaster lost in 2009, €7.4m is still a hell a lot of money to be letting slip through the cracks at a time when advertising revenue has dropped through a trapdoor and RTE, which serves a substantially smaller audience than the BBC or many other European broadcasters, is facing stiffer competition from satellite channels and newer media than ever before.

It's hard to ignore the realities when you look at the cold, hard figures. Pat Kenny was paid €950,976 in 2008. Ryan Tubridy earns €533,000. Most outrageously of all, Marian Finucane, whose total output on radio (she doesn't do any television any more) pockets an incredible €570,000 salary for presenting two programmes at the weekend.

You don't have to be a maths genius to work out that if you were to add up those three salaries and then subtract the total from the disparity between RTE's advertising earnings and its outlay, that's a sizeable hole punched in that deficit already.

I'm not for a moment suggesting RTE ditch its best broadcasters, or even pay them derisory salaries. In an ideal world, you want the best people on the airwaves you can get. But the world at the moment is far from perfect and massive pay packets like those enjoyed by RTE's top three reflect a burgeoning Ireland that's not coming back any time soon.