TERRY PRONE: Dragged up with the forgotten shopping trolleys and rusty bicycles

The whole Freedom of Information process is a bit like scallop dredging.

You drag the bucket along the bottom of the sea, then bring it up to the surface to see if there’s a scallop or two in there, among the tyres and wellies and other detritus. Every now and again, you may get lucky and bring up a whale (like John O’Donoghue). On the other hand, if you over-fish a particular area, you just end up with forgotten shopping trolleys and bicycles.

Today, I can exclusively reveal that I am the rusty bicycle dragged up by the latest FOI. Fianna Fáil’s inestimable Deputy Éamon O’Cuív has evidently decided to tow a bucket behind his trawler through RTÉ. I know this because I received a letter from RTÉ’s Head of Compliance, telling me that Mr O’Cuív had sent them an FOI request.

“Specifically he wants information about ‘non-RTÉ journalists’ who appear as contributors on RTÉ programmes in the years 2009 — 2011,” said the letter. He wants to know what the top 10 contributors trousered in the way of fees in those years. I got just over €3,000 in 2009, and just over €2,000 the following year. I thought of objecting to the release of this information as invasion of privacy, but more importantly as a way of snookering possible future income from that source. If you were the highest paid of the 10, next thing you’d have people describing you as Martin McCaughey, the businessman cleared of assaulting a burglar, was described: middle-class and wealthy.

That, fortunately, isn’t going to happen to me. A little discreet nosing around suggests I made the Top Ten by the skin of my teeth. I’m probably close to the bottom of the earners. God help anyone who’s lower than me on the list. But, since I made the sum total of €2,010 last year mainly by pitching up on Pat Kenny’s show, anyone can check how many times I appeared, divide that into the payment total, and work out how much they give me any time I get a go on their roundabout. I’m not saying it’s small, but I won’t get out of negative equity any time soon on it. Once I’ve paid the income tax and household levy, I blow the remaining half on frivolities like petrol, spuds and light bulbs.

The RTÉ fees going down by a third between 2009 and 2010 results, in part, from them reducing all outgoing dosh because the national broadcaster is skint. Which would explain a 20% drop. But not a 30% fall. It looks as if RTÉ went off me, just a little. Until Dev Óg drew my unwilling attention to it, I was happy out. Now that I know I’m as popular as a spavined mule at a horse fair, my self-esteem is dragging its wrists on the floor.

Dev Óg drawing attention to my earnings, sad though they are, is worrying. One of the eternal verities within RTÉ is that freelances must be kept in their place and not allowed to become overexposed or dangerously rich. It has always been so, since the inception of Radió Éireann. Freelances always walk a narrow line between being in demand, being in too much demand, and being in no demand at all because of having recently been in too much demand. The Freedom of Information request, by setting out to identify the top 10 earners, may make every producer in News and Current Affairs twitchy about using any of the Freelance Ten. Impaled on our own success, we are.

Now, of course, the other nine impalees may decide to — and I sincerely hope they do — invoke invasion of privacy and tell RTÉ it must under no circumstances divulge their nixer money to a less-than-slavering public. Me, I’m doing pre-emptive financial self-outing. Eamon the Impaler wants to know what I earn from RTÉ current affairs? I’ll raise him a Claire Byrne/Dáithí Ó Sé afternoon TV programme or two. I’ve made appearances there, too, and I’m pretty sure they threw a few quid at me afterwards. Plus Brendan O’Connor let me onto his show and may even have caused money to come my way as a result. If the Impaler’s going to have the full picture, he should add those two sums to the figure mentioned earlier.

But a full picture of WHAT, exactly? What on earth is the man at? If he keeps at it, either he’ll get none of the Freelance Ten (other than me) to tell him anything, or he’ll find stuff like Fergus Finlay giving what he earns on radio to Barnardos, which makes the rest of us look like muck.

A cynical friend speculated that Dev Óg is getting his own back.

“It’s all been one way,” this friend points out. “It’s been journalists pointing the finger at politicians for expenses and perks. He’s found a way to turn the pointing finger back at the hacks.”

Now, I do not believe this for an instant. Because there’s no comparison between the large sums known to have gone to politicians in allowances, increments, expenses and pensions, over and above their salaries, and the cheques going to the Freelance Ten. Do the math. Our average is around €3,000 in a given year.

In fairness, when the urge to impale the Freelance Ten came over Éamon, he may have believed we get a lot more, and when he got the figures, IF he got the figures, he would have decently buried them and taken the issue no further. After all, who knows how many FOI’s die quietly on the vine when they fail to out a scandal?

From the taxpayer’s point of view, however, the point is this. The minute the Impaler’s FOI arrived in RTÉ, whole corridors in the station would have sprung into action as departments were asked to figure out who were their top 10 earners. This information would then have gone to the accounts people for checking so that the Head of Compliance could the write to each of the Freelance Ten with their individual earnings and the request to permit their issuance to Mr O’Cuív or come up — within a week — with a good reason by they should not be issued to him.

Then RTÉ would have to correspond with each of the Freelance Ten, which might get complicated if one or more of them said: “Tell Éamon to go impale someone else, I’m not in the mood.” Such a message, from even one of them, would create issues involving every one of the others and possibly the Data Commissioner, turning the original FOI into a snowball gathering more and more costly snow.

The reality is that this single exercise of the invaluable Freedom of Information mechanism has and will cost RTÉ enormous amounts of human hours and money. At a time when they’re practically begging in the street, they’re so broke.

But I’m sure there’s a good reason behind it. There has to be. Doesn’t there?


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