Some weeks you might be casting about for anything interesting to read about in the news. Then, other times, it feels like you're a golden retriever in front of a tennis ball shooting machine. The kind Columbo's adversaries used to show how rich and inhuman they were while he asked them crumpled questions. So, let's take a quick glance at a few of this week's bouncing newsballs together.
RTE's Fortycoats Finances
I've written before that the question of the salaries of RTE's main presenters is a distraction from the real issues around how to fund public service broadcasting in Ireland. And, I suppose, that's still true after we discovered that RTÉ has been quietly paying its top presenter, Ryan Tubridy, scads more than it had publicly admitted. Only now, instead of the distraction being something to try to ignore, we can safely say there is no chance of having the substantive discussion for the foreseeable future.
It seems that, like Fortycoats, the corporate governance of RTÉ has a lot of layers. As the original denizen of the Flying Trick-Shop used to exclaim, "by me Forty Coats and my Fifty Pockets", the national broadcaster seems to have kept substantial chunks of change in some of its many pockets without the other layers knowing about them. So, for example, while RTÉ was cutting the pay of its lower-paid workers, Tubridy's top-ups were paid from a pocket in the Commercial section called "The Barter Account", which was not within the purview of the "Financial Function".
The Director General of RTÉ was then announced to have been suspended and the previous Chairwomen issued a curious statement on the payments. Now, we've no way of knowing if the Chairwomen did or didn't know about the payments to Tubridy that RTÉ's new board publicised this week. But what we can say is that the statement she issued didn't deny that she was aware the station's top star was receiving this money, a fact that seemed to be missed by most reports on it.
What her statement repeatedly said was that she didn't know there was an issue with them.
"At no time during my tenure as chair of the RTÉ Board did I, or other members of the board, have knowledge of any issue relating to certain payments and the profoundly serious lack of transparency involved.... Up until I concluded my term as chair in November, 2022, I was not made aware of the issue relating to these payments...The issue did not emerge until after an audit of the 2022 accounts." (emphasis added)
Anyone who has had a disagreement with a housemate over some disputed domestic habit, be it leaving the toilet seat up or storing unwashed plates in the oven, will recognise that being told there was never an issue about it before is not the same as a denial of the existence of the plates.
The Cook, The Thief...
Russia's Ukrainian war turned domestic this week. The Russian mercenary army, the Wagner Group, led by a man who looks like a bullet, Yevgeny Prigozhin, seized control of the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and declared his mercenary army was at war with the Russian Ministry of Defence.
We were treated to the sight of Russian tanks invading Russia, not one of the manoeuvres traditionally considered to come prior to a major Russian military victory.
Putin then went on TV to declare that his former favourite restaurateur (one of Prigozhin's early Putin-connected businesses) had committed an act of treason. It has been said that the golden age of the Celebrity Chef was past, but we may be seeing the greatest impact made by one one since Nigella Lawson told people to cook their hams in Coke.
More than the failure of the Russian army to capture Kyiv in the planned three days, or of the grinding death and destruction the subsequent war has created, this challenge hits at the heart of the Putin state.
Prigozhin's empire has been a privatised espionage and military force, carefully grown as the Russian President's extra-state arm. His heavily edited Wikipedia page says that, after spending 9 years in prison for running gangs of teenage thieves he started a new business selling what are presumably highly euphemistic 'hot dogs' on the streets of Saint Petersberg. Soon, according to a quote from the New York Times profile of him "the rubles were piling up faster than his mother could count them in the kitchen of their modest apartment." This being the usual fate of hot-dog cart owners. First you get the hot-dogs, then you get the money, then you get the power, as the old saying goes.
He then went into casinos and restaurants, famously the kind of cash businesses that 'hot dog tycoons' who have more cash than they can count like to get involved with.
It was while working on the former that he encountered Putin, who was then the state official in charge of casinos and gambling. Fast forward to the last decade and past an FBI indictment for interfering with the 2016 election which saw Trump take the White House. His Wagner Group has been recruiting criminals from Russian jails to hurl at Ukrainian fighters for months.
Now, it seems, a decades-long partnership has broken down between the Russian President and his own Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler. While it does appear that an open conflict between the two can only end in another Dibbler business failure, the brittleness of an authoritarian system means that the consequences of this open conflict are simply impossible to predict.