Catherine Martin accused of being ‘hands-off’ on ‘depressing soap opera’ at RTE

The media minister has been accused of adopting a “hands-off” approach to the “depressing soap opera” at RTE.

Catherine Martin responded to criticism by saying that RTE did not formally record that the remuneration board had signed off on an exit package for an RTE executive.

Opposition politicians called the minister “naive” for not expecting a question on having confidence in the chairwoman of the RTE board Siun Ni Raghallaigh during an interview on RTE Prime Time.

The minister had told the programme on Thursday she would answer a question about having received incorrect information from the former chairwoman earlier in the week.

Ms Ni Raghallaigh admitted she had forgotten to tell the minister that the remuneration committee of the RTE board had approved an exit package for former chief financial officer Richard Collins in October.

Asked whether she had confidence in Ms Ni Raghallaigh, Ms Martin failed to express confidence in her during the live TV interview.

Ms Ni Raghallaigh resigned several hours later after what Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty said was “tantamount to a public humiliation of a public servant who has served this state for many years”.

“What you did in effect was ensure that she was pushed over the cliff,” he said.

Referring to the minister’s statement that she did not expect to be asked about having confidence in Ms Ni Raghallaigh during the Prime Time interview, he said: “There is nobody in this house that would be so naive to swallow that guff.”

Sinn Fein TD Imelda Munster told Ms Martin that “instead of steadying the ship, you threw a grenade in”.

Ms Munster said: “You can’t be an effective minister by ignoring parts of your brief that are tricky. I’ve lost count of the amount of times and ways I’ve tried to raise bogus self employment (at RTE) with you.

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Pearse Doherty described Catherine Martin as ‘naive’ (Liam McBurney/PA)

“Both the public and the staff at RTE deserve a hell of a lot better than what they’re getting from you at the moment.”

Labour TD Alan Kelly accused Ms Martin of being a “hands-off minister” in relation to the RTE crisis.

He said it was not “credible” that her officials did not know about sign-off requirements for RTE exit packages.

“You’ve basically poured petrol on the fire to a degree we haven’t seen since the Ryan Tubridy appearances in committees. This is now really, really unprecedented, but it’s of your own making.”

Referring to department officials being in committee when it was stated that new board oversight rules had come into force on September 26 for exit packages, Mr Kelly said “it’s not credible that they didn’t know”.

“I worry deeply, minister, about your relationship with your officials.”

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Peadar Toibin said trust with the public was being damaged (Liam McBurney/PA)

He added: “You were nearly out the gap and you’ve decided to put yourself in the middle of it. By putting yourself into the middle of it, you have now put yourself in a situation where it’s either you or the future of RTE, and that’s very, very unfortunate.”

Aontu TD Peadar Toibin said the affair was “a depressing soap opera” that was affecting morale among RTE staff and damaging trust with the public.

Independent TD for Laois-Offaly Carol Nolan said that the institutional reputation of RTE has never been so low and the situation was “now a full blown omnishambles”.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy said it was “incredible” that Ms Martin was not expecting a question on confidence in Ms Ni Raghallaigh during the Prime Time interview.

Ms Murphy said: “It seems that you’re unable to initiate actions until reports are produced, even when there are obvious changes needed in real time.

“I certainly get the impression that you’re taking an ‘arm’s length’ approach rather than a ‘sleeves up’, which is absolutely what’s necessary.”

Responding to TDs, Ms Martin repeated that she needs to rely on accurate information from the chair.

“I was being told that the former chair ‘imagined’ that she had said something in a phone call.

“So I certainly wasn’t only going to have a phone call with the former chair and I also believed it was significant enough that it required a face-to-face meeting.”

She said she did everything in her power not to say she had no confidence on Prime Time.

The media minister also specifically mentioned direct exchequer funding among the models that should be considered to fund RTE in the future.

She said that concerns about political interference “exist in all models”, including the current model where politicians set what amount the TV licence fee should be at.

“My understanding was that the severance package agreed in relation to Richard Collins was signed off at executive level and this is the important point: at no point was it clear to me or my officials that the board, through the RTE chair’s role on the remuneration committee, had a role in approving the Richard Collins’ exit package.

“The receipt of incomplete documentation in very early September, passing comments in an Oireachtas committee on 12 October after a three-month process comes to an end, or the receipt of a further 19 corporate documents in December, does not change that fundamental point.

“At no point did RTE make any attempt to bring to my attention, in the appropriate formal channel, that the new system had applied to Richard Collins.

“So while there may be differing recollections as to what it might have been said in a telephone conversation, what might have been ‘imagined’ to have been said, it is clear that RTE did not at any point, put on the record that the remuneration board had signed off on the exit package.”