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Government pay inquiry into all RTE broadcasters
06 Aug 1998 :

Government Ministers are to probe the earnings of all broadcasters at RTE. The request for information was prompted by Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy after receiving the 1997 RTE annual report, which the government must process for publication. The report indicated that staff costs rose by some 3.3 million. This would translate into large increases for the stations special correspondents and questions about the level of remuneration to contract broadcasters. The Minister wants to know how such increases can be justified given that the report, which the Cabinet considered last Tuesday and was released last Friday, showed that the station had a surplus of 6.07m last year, but a massive deficit of nearly 3.5m. Current projections for 1998 indicate a deficit of 1.5m.

A spokesperson for the Minister for Arts, Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Sile deValera, who was asked to get the information on the broadcasters' earnings was quoted in the Sunday Independent as saying "no names, or numbers were mentioned" at the Cabinet's meeting and pointed out that RTE was being asked to supply a comprehensive list of the earning of all broadcasters to the Department as they wanted "a good read of all the earnings at the station".

The Cabinet's decision is thought be aimed mainly at the stations top 20 broadcasters. In 1996, the then RTE Director General, Joe Barry revealed that the stations top 10 earned an average of 120,000 each a year, but it is generally believed that the top four - Byrne, Ryan, Kenny and Finnucane - earn 1.25m between them. It is those contract broadcasters earning more than the Director General who will attract the most attention. The permanent staff at RTE, including the DG, like staff in other public sector organisations, are generally paid in accordance with published guidelines from Government. The Government takes the view that all salaries at RTE should be a matter of public record. The request for information must be addressed by the station before the next cabinet meeting in early September.

RTE's arguments for non-disclosure are two-fold: first, its contracts with top broadcasters include a confidentiality clause; second, information sought is "commercially sensitive". The Government argues that confidentiality clauses should not be attached to the pay packages of Semi-State employees. RTE argue that if TV3 were in a position to know of the financial packages involved they would be in a position to counter bid for RTE staff.. RTE also argues that the high ratings achieved by certain programmes brings in a high level of advertising which justifies the fees paid to those presenters.

There is also concern in the Department of Finance that the pay deal negotiated with the National Union of Journalists breached the terms of the Partnership 2000 and the previous deal the Programme for Competitiveness and Work. Twenty Nine Journalists are set to benefit form the agreement sealed on June 29. The Government is taking threats to Partnership 2000 seriously after the Garda pay deal and threats from primary teachers, firemen and other groups with 'special claims' that could undermine the current boom which is built on social partnership and underpinned by Partnership 2000 agreement. If it collapses so could Ireland's stunning economic performance in recent years.

The agreement with the staff correspondents provides that their minimum salary rises from 23,000 to 28,900 - a 25.65 % increase - and the maximum goes up from 31,000 to 37,000 an increase of 19.35% . The increases come with an additional payment of 750 per year for agreeing to speak at public functions, and there is a once off lump sum of 1000 in lieu of back money.

One of the consequences of the boom and increased competition is that talented staff are harder to come by and therefore cost more. But there is a question of whether some of RTE's presenters are being paid way above the mark for their level of talent. There is also the point made by Muiris Mac Conghail in the Irish Times who suspects that "the inquires are not motivated by pure public-spiritedness. The disclosure of Gay Byrnes salary would certainly be tabloid fodder and would in the minds of some politicians, have the virtue of putting their own salaries in context". The truth of the matter I suspect lies in a combination of all the above.

Michael McMahon 6/8/98



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