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Land Sale second act in RTÉ Drama

The Government is implementing a long-term plan to shrink the state broadcaster and to directly fund private media corporations

Part of newspaper front page
Front page of Evening Herald, 12 July 2023.

In July 2023, the media engaged in a weeks-long frenzy in response to the RTÉ hidden payments affair, this has continued relentlessly ever since. It was revealed that a secret account was established to pay extra funds to a star presenter, Ryan Tubridy. However, the response to the saga shows that the sale of the RTÉ Donnybrook campus itself, which has been in the planning stage since 2015, is one of the main policy goals behind this manufactured hysteria.

Much of the exultant reporting over the payment scandal was fronted by RTE media rivals, these would benefit from any action on the part of the Government to shrink the state broadcaster's predominant market base. In a radical policy change in 2019, Fine Gael stated that a share of the new broadcasting charge would be provided to private media outlets, not only the national broadcaster.

The new Director-General immediately raised a long-standing plan to offload part or all of the Donnybrook headquarters. This 'revival' of a moribund plan to sell the Montrose facility strongly suggests prior consultation with the Government on operational guidelines for divestment. In fact, the sale or “land-swap” of Montrose was Government policy from 2015 onwards, seemingly regardless of cost.

Woman being filmed by TV camera
RTÉ's media rivals stand to gain financially from the current crisis

The question also remains as to why another expensive headquarters should be provided for RTE at Donnybrook or elsewhere, rented or otherwise, when the alleged concern is RTE overspending. This issue was also noted by RTE management in 2021.

In 2014, a National Treasury Management Agency inventory of the broadcaster's assets asserted about the RTÉ headquarters that 40% of the Donnybrook site was either undeveloped was or used as a car park and recommended that "various options concerning the site should be developed with robust analysis of costs and benefits - all options should be considered, from no sale of the site, partial sale of the site, full sale/land swap." The NTMA stated that RTÉ could consider selling the site in its entirety to move to a new location as 'there is no imperative, in our view, that it need remain in Donnybrook."

The station recorded a small €1.1 million surplus in 2013, indicating some recovery from the 2008 recession. Nonetheless, an RTÉ working group began examining the possibility of selling a portion of the site and reported to the minister in 2015. The review failed to explain why the lands are not simply retained for future broadcasting use (since the infrastructure exists on Montrose), nor did the report consider making Donnybrook a centre for national film and media production more generally.

The reduction or elimination of state broadcasting services, has in fact been flagged by Fine Gael since 2019. A report in the Irish Times stated that there would be no licence fee increase without unspecified ‘reform’.

What this reform entails is speculation, but some issues have been raised, again by RTE's media rivals - the same rivals who were were prominent in broadcasting the RTE crisis throughout June and July. This also worked to erase more politically destructive scandals for the Government. These private media organisations are also busy circulating details about the RTE crisis and its ongoing consequences.

In 2015, in a briefing document prepared for the then-communications Minister Denis Naughten, it was stated that RTE had severe “financial challenges” which included further losses of licence fees and advertising. The review noted the option of introducing a broadcasting charge instead of the licence fee due to high evasion rates, this option remains on hold.

Minister Naughten in foreground of image.
Minister Denis Naughten in 2016. EU2016 SK on

Also in 2015, the Irish Independent - another commercial rival of RTE - reported that the Government was considering linking any funding changes to a board approved land sale and that the RTE board should consider selling its Donnybrook headquarters. "Work on this area is on hold pending any policy commitments that may arise in the context of the new programme for government,” says the briefing from "top [Communications] department officials."

In 2016, a Government policy briefing indicated that, with regard to RTE's land portfolio, the 30-acre Donnybrook campus is worth "many millions of euro." The briefing asserted that if Donnybrook was sold it could go far towards to meeting future funding demands.

However, the operational policy New-ERA review (2014) clearly indicated that capital spending and revenue from a proposed land sale should be regarded as separate. The demand that sale of the Donnybrook headquarters is index-linked to future funding would therefore seem to be political rhetoric - at the least - given that Fine Gael propose to fund private media organisations via the proposed broadcasting charge.

In 2015, then-communications Minister Alex White published a review of the broadcaster's finances and assets in the wake of a fall in advertising revenue since the 2008 recession. This review indicated that RTE had substantially recovered from its losses at that point.

In 2016, a Department of Communications briefing on future public broadcasting policy, then-Communications Minister Denis Naughten declared that the existing problem was "to address the long-term, sustainable funding of the Irish broadcasting sector and, in particular, the position of public sector broadcasting".

What "sustainable funding" of the state broadcaster is, the Government notably chooses not to explain. The Government has ample resources to fund RTÉ. The RTÉ executive board appointed Director-Generals had Governmental approval. The current incumbent promptly reappointed the old executive board as an interim 'team.' The question should be whether this is under departmental instruction.

The mandate to implement the Government's pre-determined land sale is clear. This effort to privatise and divest the state broadcasting centre to a bloated and dysfunctional property industry is the real scandal in RTÉ.

Next: more on RTÉ including the role of RTÉ's rival media organisations in creating the "crisis".

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