Staff angry at farewell party photos, writes Amy Molloy
RTÉ staff are “furious” after some of the top earners at the broadcaster ignored social distancing guidelines and posed for photos without masks at a retirement gathering.
A review is to be conducted next week into “all the circumstances” which led to the breach of regulations after an internal backlash.
Senior employees who weren’t in attendance have hit out at the “silly lapse in judgment”, while Liveline presenter Joe Duffy said his colleagues’ mistake had “sent shockwaves” through the organisation.
Other staff feel their hard work throughout the pandemic has now been undermined.
“We can’t talk to each other at our desks, we can’t go for coffee or share birthday cake, we’re in every day exposing ourselves and putting ourselves at risk and working to serve the public and then this goes and undoes it all,” one RTÉ journalist told the Irish Independent.
Around 100 members of the public contacted RTÉ yesterday to lodge their disgust.
On an embarrassing day, News At One presenter Bryan Dobson, Six One News co-anchor David McCullagh and Nine News presenter Eileen Dunne all issued on-air apologies to their colleagues, listeners and viewers.
Prime Time’s Miriam O’Callaghan, political correspondent Paul Cunningham and Nationwide presenter Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh were also pictured at the gathering.
Staff working on-site at RTÉ were urged via a morning news conference on Zoom last Thursday to attend a presentation for reception supervisor Phil Collins, who was retiring after 35 years at Montrose.
A reminder was also sent out on RTÉ’s internal news-gathering system ahead of the event on November 12.
While RTÉ insisted the indoor gathering was “impromptu”, the reception area was decorated with
balloons and a customised banner.
The broadcaster’s in-house newsletter for staff – which has since been deleted – claimed “it never looked
Family members of Ms Collins were invited along to mark the occasion. Despite this, RTÉ bosses are understood to be unhappy with the characterisation of the event as a “party” or a “bash” as there was no alcohol or finger food served.
Those in attendance said social distancing was largely observed but photographs show some people weren’t wearing masks and disregarded social distancing guidelines to pose alongside their colleague.
A number of employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Irish Independent that the event had caused huge disquiet among staff.
RTÉ has remained open to a limited number of staff through the Covid crisis as it is considered an essential
One source said: “People have worked so hard to be compliant and now it feels like we are all going to be cast in this light. What happened is outrageous.”
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has criticised the event, saying it “shouldn’t have happened”.
But NUJ secretary Seamus Dooley said: “The anger felt by the public is nothing compared to the anger felt by RTÉ employees.”
In some of the photos, presenters and staff are standing on the bright yellow Covid signs which read: “Please observe social distancing – keep at least two metres’
RTÉ chiefs said they were compliant with Covid guidelines for the most part, but apologised for the lapse in judgment with the photoshoot.
They said the presentation was “well-intentioned”.
As part of the farewell, Ms Collins was gifted with flowers, wine and her own special version of the RTÉ Guide.
“Roscommon Rossie gets warm reception as she ditches the switch,” the cover read.
Kieron Hogan, manager of security and reception services, made a speech recalling fond memories of his colleague while RTÉ staff watched on from the stairs.
Although they were spread out on the steps, only three of the seven – including Bryan Dobson – were wearing a mask.
The speeches lasted around 10 minutes, according to one attendee, and “overall social distancing was observed, but things became a bit more relaxed after a while”.
One RTÉ employee said staff “feel really bad” for Ms Collins due to the negativity generated by the event.
“There was no harm meant by it and I’m sure she never would have thought her retirement would have made headlines,” they said.
Staff working in news organisations are often presented with their own personalised front page when leaving for pastures new.
A line on the RTÉ Guide tribute read: “First lady & Vice President blow years budget on Xmas party”.
The gathering was not the send-off envisaged for an employee who had dedicated 35 years to the national broadcaster. RTÉ confirmed the recent breaches of regulations in the organisation will be reviewed by the standing Covid-19 group next week.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin described it as “very disappointing” as people in the public eye should be “leading by example”.
In response to a series of questions from the Irish Independent last night, RTÉ said that it would be “reviewing all the circumstances which led to the gathering in question, our public health measures and the communications with our staff to ensure an incident like this does not happen again”.
While presenting the News at One, Mr Dobson said: “I’m sorry to everyone who has sacrificed so much in recent months and lost loved ones. To those that are living with the after-effects of the infection and to those who have lost their jobs, livelihoods or businesses, and to those who have been isolated from family and friends. I’d be very concerned if any actions of mine undermined that vital lifesaving public health advice.”
RTÉ’s Head of News, Jon Williams, who was also pictured at the gathering, apologised to newsroom staff in a message circulated internally: “I’m particularly sorry that, after so many people have worked so hard across news and current affairs – and throughout RTÉ – during the pandemic, we’re making news for the wrong reasons.”
Speaking on the Six One News, presenter David McCullagh said he was “very sorry for failing to do the right thing”.
“It was an error of judgment I deeply regret and I unreservedly apologise to you, our audience.
“None of us can afford to let down our guard for a moment and I am very sorry I failed to do the right thing.”
Miriam O’Callaghan said: “I am so sorry and deeply regret an error of judgment on my part.”
Political correspondent Paul Cunningham said: "Everyone should make every effort to abide by the Covid-19 guidelines. I want to apologise unreservedly for not observing those measures fully when posing for a photograph with a colleague. It shouldn't have happened".