By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — RTE has jealously guarded details about what it pays its top stars, but the long-running row about disclosure will come to head this month as the public service broadcasting company came under the remit of the Freedom of Information Act for the first time on Monday.
Since the mid 1990s, the powerful Oireachtas Committee on State-sponsored Bodies have unsuccessfully sought details of the salaries of the likes of Gay Byrne, Pat Kenny, Gerry Ryan and Marion Finucane.
Irritated by open discussion on the airwaves of their own salaries and perks, TDs argued that, as a state company, RTE should also disclose its pay rates.
The politicians denied it was a tit-for-tat exercise and argued that it was the committee’s job to undertake value-for-money investigations on behalf of the public.
The station divulged in 1997 that £1.5 million was paid to its top three stars but said a breakdown of the details was commercially sensitive. It is expected to maintain that line now.
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When the extension of the Freedom of Information Act was announced by Junior Minister at Finance Martin Cullen last year, he said tens of thousands of salaries of people paid from the public purse would be open to public scrutiny and RTE would be no exception.
"In other countries when the public broadcasting companies do come under FofI it hasn’t presented any problem with salaries being disclosed," he said.
From this week on, people can apply for information about broadcasting affairs dating back to April 1998.
The new extension of the Act is substantial and covers bodies like the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, ESB, universities, the Arts Council, the FAS job training company and the electricity and telecommunications regulators.
In April 1998, when the Act first came into force, the curtain of secrecy surrounding the decisions of faceless civil servants was drawn back.
In October 1998, similar right of access was extended to information held by local authorities and health boards.
In theory, the legislation means that people should be able to find out almost anything the public sector thinks about them and why they took decisions about them — but there are quite a wide number of exclusions.
The Act draws on similar legislation in Australia, Canada and New Zealand and information about security, defense and law enforcement remain off limits.
One of the most important provisions is to allow individuals to have inaccuracies about them in files corrected. There is also a statutory right they be given the reasons for administrative decisions.