Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Transparency & lack of opportunity behind public anger at media salaries

There has been much talk recently about salaries in the media and how much our top TV stars earn, particularly in RTE. This is not surprising when the public are facing reduced incomes and higher TV Licence bills. Still, a job is a job and deserves to be paid accordingly so its understandable that top TV and radio personnel are pushing to earn the best salary they can get, they have families too and a duty to maximise their potential.

So why is it such a bugbear? Is it just begrudgery? Sadly its not. There are very real problems in how the media organises itself and this lack of transparency plays a significant role in the public anger. The first problem is with general media debate. Now, it’s rare to find a rabid right winger determined to eradicate all welfare entitlements, and talking about fraud, who is themselves surviving on welfare. Equally it’s difficult to find a radical left winger believing in higher taxes for the wealthy among high earners. Ideology is often just a comfort blanket we wrap around ourselves to disguise a very primal instinct, protect what we have. The problem in the media is that during a tough recession a presenter who has never experienced long periods of unemployment or particular hardship is bound to find it difficult to empathise with those who are now suffering. If you truly understood what they were coping with then drawing a salary of hundreds of thousands becomes a very difficult thing to do when those same people pay for it.

We all criticise politicians and they too have issues about their pay level. Mind you, even our top politicians earn far less than our top media stars. There are plenty of columnists earning a similar living to a TD. The problem is that questioning the earnings level of a politician or a Taoiseach is almost impossible for someone that earns far in excess of that amount themselves. Questioning public servants pay levels is equally impossible and unfair.

However, let’s be honest each job is a difficult one and involves very special and rare talents. Presenting on TV certainly looks easy but it requires a presence of mind, personality, professionalism and level of organisation and research that very few have the right mix of skills to deliver. These people are highly talented, we should not overlook that. The same goes for radio presenters and newspaper columnists. Most people recognise this and readily admit they could not do the job, so then surely that’s the end of the matter? The pay isn’t ideal for questioning others but it is deserved? No, that’s where the transparency issue comes into things.

Hardly anybody in the public is able to see how such persons gain their job in the media. They are used to seeing the same faces presenting the same things and rightly question if it’s all just a closed shop. We have almost half a million people unemployed in this country. Some of those are young graduates from the top media courses in our colleges. Many have written for papers, presented college radio shows and made show reels and yet they remain on the dole or at best hoping to get a job making coffee somewhere close to the action. The absence of open transparent screen tests in our media is a problem that is inexcusable. The top media stars need to realise this. How can we tell if the salaries are justified if there is no opportunity, particularly for young graduates, to challenge for a post or for new emerging talent to be uncovered? How can we say this is the best presenter when we have never even given an off air test to others? For all we know our stars may be worth twice what they get, or equally there may be people out there currently unemployed who could do the job better for half the salary. We really don’t know. Even within organisations there is a problem. There is an abundance of reporters or researchers looking for an opportunity, yet if someone is off on holiday or a stand in is needed for a night what do we do? We go out and find some retired politician living off a good pension to stand in. Perhaps we ask some well paid Newspaper columnist to take over the reins for a while. Now I’m not suggesting that our media should send out people who may freeze up and are completely untried but they must establish a system that people can access to showcase their ability off air so that when or if an opportunity arises the stations can ask them if they would like the chance if it thinks they have potential.

This may all seem a bit unimportant. But in a time of deep recession with so many unemployed, with lower level staff in the media suffering deep income cuts and struggling, it is immoral for us not to at least be trying to uncover new talent. It is equally immoral for any of us, in my opinion, to take up two or three roles and several income streams where one is more than sufficient and where we are denying others an opportunity. We have too many young people whose talent is being wasted to justify such practices.

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