Paying twice over for the health service

player piano

Player pianos, and other healthcare essentials

PLEASE allow me to bore you with the following story: A family member recently had a road accident that left him bleeding, sore, disoriented, and repeating himself even more than usual.

On our way to the nearest A&E (which is 70 miles away but that’s another story), we stopped off with the local on-call GP, mainly to get reassurance as early as possible on the brain injury front. On referral to hospital, the wounded party was immediately subjected to a brain scan, a slew of X-rays and some deft stitching by a maxillofacial surgeon, and kept overnight for observation.

The unit was so crowded that you could move around only by turning sideways, assuming turning sideways didn’t make you even wider. The nurses and doctors, their cheeks pink from overwork, were unvaryingly kind, attentive, professional and thorough.

When he was discharged next morning, I inquired about the bill, as we have neither a medical card nor health insurance. I already knew, but I wanted to be sure. The bill was €0.

Why are you telling this electrifying story, I hear you say, when there must be film people crawling all over you for the rights? It’s because of the response in some quarters to the news this week that health minister James Reilly is considering new proposals to coerce more people into buying health insurance.

If I had a euro for every person who’s sworn to me, till they’re blue in the face, that you can’t get free hospital treatment in Ireland unless you have either insurance or a medical card, I’d have enough for a suite in that private hospital in Galway, the one with the ridiculous player-piano in the lobby. (If it were even a real piano…)

Fine Gael’s election manifesto made clear that the government will not be satisfied until every last one of us is paying for the health service twice over, through taxation and through insurance. Their plan for universal health insurance is welcomed in theory by those who see it as a way of remedying the inequity of the existing system – in which everyone has access to the same (generally very high) standard of care, but some people can get to it sooner – and of thwarting chicanery and fraud.

What’s galling is that Fine Gael has presented this idea as the introduction of universal healthcare. We already have universal healthcare in this country, and the fact that so many people don’t seem to know that is very much to the government’s advantage.

Of course saying free hospital care is available to the entire population does mean playing fast and loose with the word ‘free’. An inpatient charge of €75 a night applies in most cases if you don’t have a medical card, but that’s subject to a maximum of €750 in a year. Health insurance premiums, by contrast, average about €1,000 a year. And at that, insured patients are the ones getting scalded with extra bills if they end up in the wrong bed.

Until every last one of us is fully acquainted with the system we have, there can be no useful discussion of what we stand to lose here. But in any case, Fine Gael is supposed to take two terms to see through its “universal healthcare” plan, so that’s probably the end of that.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 29 December 2013 

Celebrity editors: like celebrities but worse


The face of the New Statesman


Gwyneth Paltrow is a woman everyone seems to love to hate, for reasons I for one have never really understood. Until now, that is.

Paltrow has been speaking out in support of working mothers recently. Her comments, which come straight from the ‘You Don’t Say’ department, appear in the latest edition of Red magazine, which Paltrow is guest-editing.

Meanwhile, Kate Moss joins British Vogue next spring as a contributing editor. And the boyish (yes, you’ve guessed it, that’s a euphemism for infantile) Russell Brand has just been guest-editing the New Statesman.

All three – Paltrow, Moss and Brand – can now officially join a list of people journalists love to hate: celebrity guest editors. They leapfrog into the big chair, avoiding years and years of covering council meetings, writing court reports, attending agricultural fairs, and interviewing the sort of people who are either unable or unwilling to reveal a single interesting thought – to wit, celebrities.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 3 November 2013

Nosy neighbours


Pope Francis – accustomed to being watched at all times by a higher power

WHAT began as electrifying evidence of international espionage on America’s part is beginning to look like nothing more than plain nosiness.

An Italian news magazine reported this week that the US National Security Agency spied on the Vatican in the time leading up to the election of Pope Francis last March.

The NSA reportedly bugged the phones of bishops and cardinals before the conclave, looking for information under four headings: leadership intentions, threats to financial system, foreign policy objectives, and human rights. The agency denies it.

Of course the Vatican is full of secrets – Fatima and what have you – and who wouldn’t fancy rummaging around in there to see what really goes on? But “foreign policy objectives”? “Threats to financial system”? Would it not be a lot more instructive for the US to study those subjects closer to home?

The NSA begins to come across as a crabbed, curtain-twitching busybody, snooping around in Pope Francis’s businesses for no better reason than that it can’t stand not knowing what everyone else is up to. There’s one of these pests in every community; America is ours.

Secretary of State John Kerry hinted at this on Thursday, saying much of the surveillance was being done on “automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there”. In other words, they’re listening not for the sake of discovering anything, but because they can.

The Vatican didn’t mind in the least, as it happens. Spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi was quoted as saying the Holy See was not aware of anything about it. “In any case,” he added dismissively, “we have no concerns about it.”

Of course, citizens of Vatican City believe we are all being watched, all the time, by an entity even more powerful than the US government, which might explain the sang-froid.

Meanwhile, a 13-year-old Waterford schoolboy launched his second technology firm at this week’s Dublin Web Summit. Jordan Casey noticed that one of his teachers recorded vital information about students the old-fashioned way, in a book.

“If she lost that book all the information for the entire year was gone,” said Jordan. So he created a web-based application enabling teachers to store the data in the cloud.

Presumably Jordan is aware of this week’s news that the NSA has infiltrated the cloud. But maybe he reasons that it’s unlikely Washington would be interested in the comings and goings of a provincial Irish schoolteacher with all the appearance of power and no actual power… Someone like Enda Kenny, for instance.

Like the Vatican, Kenny has been noticeably unruffled at the prospect of being spied on. Maybe he has a proper sense of his own significance, and doesn’t believe the NSA would want to know what he’s nattering about on his Nokia. Or maybe he believes he can’t do anything about America’s actions, much as his predecessor apparently couldn’t do anything about rendition flights through Shannon, for instance.

But while Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore has grumbled about “friends not bugging friends”, Kenny has been positively docile. He might at least try to give the impression that he minds, one way or another. It would look better.

Kenny has picked only one good fight so far, with the Vatican. But battling bishops quickly pales into insignificance when you’ve allowed yourself to be seen, increasingly, as a pawn.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 3 November 2013

Rabbitte channels Reith, insults everyone


People who don’t watch RTE

TALK about adding insult to injury. You’d think Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte would realise that introducing a new tax is more than enough to get the citizens riled up, without personally offending them while you’re at it.

Announcing a consultation period (to wit, window-dressing) on the new public service broadcasting charge, Rabbitte told RTE’s Morning Ireland this week that he didn’t believe there were “cavemen” in Ireland who don’t have televisions or iPhones. At once, all the cavemen in the country whipped out their stone tablets and wrote to the papers to express their annoyance, in Ogham script, at the nerve of the man.

But even if Rabbitte hadn’t put his well-heeled foot in it, opposition to the new public service broadcasting charge would still be growing more and more vehement. Just as choosing not to ‘consume’ mass media doesn’t make you a troglodyte, complying with the law on the television licence doesn’t mean you support RTE. Even that imaginary cohort who sit glued to the Late Late every Friday, and whose water-cooler conversation runs to Fair City, must take exception to the prospect of giving more and more succour to the fatally bloated beast of Montrose.

Let’s begin, though, by calling this charge what it is. The word ‘charge’ implies a fee for an optional service, like the television licence, which you could avoid by not owning a television. This is a tax. There’s nothing discretionary about it, and once Rabbitte engages the Revenue to collect it, as he’s considering, then the money will be demanded with menaces. The property tax – even income tax – is more voluntary than this.

There is some support for it, but it is mainly to be found among those who can’t stand paying anything that others are getting away with not paying. Their sentiments are understandable, but they’re in no way a justification for making everybody pay for RTE, whether they want it, or approve of it, or not, which is what this amounts to. The delinquency rate on the television licence is some 18%; as to what proportion of that 18% are “cavemen”, and what proportion object to paying for a service they don’t use, or which they think isn’t fit for purpose, we do not know.

Rabbitte believes, of course, that public service broadcasting is a social good that everyone should pay for irrespective of need, like hospitals or schools (though not, it must be added, newspapers – anyone proposing a state-funded public-service newspaper would be laughed out of government). That idea of broadcasting as a social good has held sway globally since the era of Lord Reith, first director general of the BBC, who decided that organisation’s mission should be to “educate, inform and entertain”, in that order.

But that was the 1920s, when there was only one national broadcaster, which had to be carefully controlled; left to its own devices, it might broadcast untold trash to an impressionable populace. Now, there’s a proliferation of broadcasters – and a proliferation of trash, even on the so-called public service stations. Reith would have been the first to acknowledge that all the worthy documentaries about the customs of pre-Celtic Ireland, or the mating habits of the basking shark, will count for nothing against the latest episode of ‘America’s Got Talent’ on a rival channel. We get the television we deserve, it seems.

But even if you allow that public service broadcasting is the one true path to an enlightened society, do we not get to decide for ourselves what we mean by public service broadcasting – what it should do, and how it should do it? Are we to have no say at all? Do we just have to keep forking out 220 grand a year for Derek Mooney without a peep of protest? Can’t we reconsider?

First, there’s the cost of it – and not just the exorbitant sums RTE still pays its ‘stars’. In its latest annual report, the broadcaster announced a net deficit of €62.5m for 2012, pleading a pesky “restructuring charge” of €46m. How is that even possible, on combined revenue of €337m? Yet the minister proposes throwing even more state money at an organisation that demonstrates, year after year, that it can’t manage money.

Second, there’s the supposed ‘independence’. The whole idea of public service broadcasters is that they’re supposed to be free from commercial interference. But RTE is chasing advertising with the rest of the pack and, if its competitors are to be believed, outpacing them all with the help of its comfortable, state-funded head start.

Third, there’s the wanton misinterpretation of the very term “public service”. Take 2FM, for instance. It used to be self-funding – indeed, it used to generate enough revenue to assist Radio 1. Not any more. Your licence fee is now officially helping to prop up 2FM, which is no better than the blandest commercial radio station. Does RTE honestly think 2FM is public service broadcasting? And The Mooney Show? If so, how can we disabuse them of the notion?

Readers may recall that, until very recently, Pat Kenny was a public service broadcaster. As such he required (latterly at least) €630,000 a year of state funds, so that we could all keep on getting what was good for us. As of tomorrow morning, Kenny is officially no longer a public service broadcaster, and whatever function he fulfils at Newstalk will be supplied at no cost to the taxpayer. Kenny, presumably, has not changed (though time will tell); all that’s changed is the description of Pat Kenny as an essential state service. It’s a bit much to swallow.

Jim Jennings, Head of Radio 1, was fretting on Thursday’s Drivetime about the future of RTE, in the event that it loses more ‘stars’ to the lure of better money elsewhere. But as presenter Audrey Carville shrewdly pointed out, Morning Ireland is the most popular programme on RTE radio, yet none of its presenters is among the best-paid people in RTE.

It’s true. RTE has shown it can produce a programme that’s as brilliant and simultaneously as popular as Morning Ireland, and can do so, miraculously, without pumping its presenters full of zeroes and slapping them on the cover of the RTE Guide in Christmassy jumpers. It has shown it can produce drama, documentaries and current affairs that people want to see. RTE can do  public service broadcasting; it’s just trying to do too much else, and making a hames of it.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (as well as TV3) has called for RTE’s use of advertising to be overhauled. But that doesn’t go far enough. RTE should be pared back to a purely public service organisation, subsisting on state funding only. And if that means getting rid of RTE 2 and 2FM, all the better. If it means broadcasting for only eight hours a day, what of it? If it means a succession of documentaries about basking sharks that no one wants to watch, so be it. That’s public service broadcasting for you. At least we would be getting what we’re being asked to pay for.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 1 September 2013 

RTE: going to need a bigger boat



“HOLY shit,” said Sean Moncrieff at the start of his afternoon show on Newstalk on Thursday. He was reacting to the news that Pat Kenny was quitting RTE with immediate effect and joining the Denis O’Brien-owned station.

Moncrieff’s was a fairly typical reaction. The whole country seemed alight with the news. It was as if Enda Kenny had left Fine Gael, or Germany had departed the euro, or a rat had deserted the Titanic and leapt aboard a stealth submarine.

“Good luck to him,” said some. “Good riddance to him,” said the rest. But all the well-wishers and all the detractors agreed in one respect: this changes everything. Ireland’s little broadcasting pool was once populated by the whale that was RTE together with a shoal of commercial minnows. Now there’s a shark in the waters.

The only people not shocked at the announcement were the top brass at Newstalk and, of course, at RTE. Negotiations over Kenny’s new contract had been going on for several months, but the state broadcaster found itself unable to match the offer from Communicorp.

“Every effort was made to retain Pat’s services but unfortunately we could not come to an agreement,” said RTE director general Noel Curran. Commending Kenny for his services to RTE during his 41-year career, Curran praised him, not very effusively, as “a versatile and popular broadcaster”.

RTE was at pains to make it clear there are no hard feelings, but no one believed it for a second. This is a colossal coup by Newstalk, proving that the commercial broadcaster has the funds to match its ambition to be a serious rival to RTE.

“Just got off the phone to Plank Kenny. Turns out there were two organisations bidding for his services – Newstalk and Coillte,” tweeted Dustin the Turkey yesterday, as jokes and comments about Kenny’s shock move proliferated on the internet. In a video interview with Newstalk’s Chris O’Donoghue, Kenny was inclined to insist that money was “not the overriding factor”, whatever we might have thought.

Unlike RTE, Newstalk isn’t obliged to reveal the salaries it pays to its stars. Kenny’s RTE salary in 2011 was €630,000, down from more than €950,000 in 2008. RTE is in enough of a public relations pickle at present without paying Pat Kenny whatever it is he wanted this year, and then having to disclose the sum to a furious mob of taxpayers. Whatever eye-watering salary Newstalk has agreed to pay him – and rumours of €750,000 are being bandied about – at least it’s Newstalk that’s paying him, not us. They can pay him whatever they like; no one cares.

But consider all those years in which RTE repeatedly assured us that they had to pay top money to their top people, or they would leave. How we laughed. There’s nowhere for them to go, we scoffed, even if anyone else wanted them. Now that the fathomless depth of Denis O’Brien’s pockets has been sounded, we find out there is somewhere to go after all.

RTE is clearly disoriented by the unfamiliar landscape of competition. Noel Curran told RTE’s Drivetime yesterday evening that “reductions in presenters’ fees have brought us into the realms of the commercial market – and below”. He added that it was “not impossible” that RTE would lose more people, not now that Denis O’Brien has seen the whites of the state broadcaster’s eyes.

RTE is also certain to lose more listeners. Newstalk can look forward to a substantial spike in audiences on the morning of Monday 2 September, when Kenny takes up his new job, and in the days immediately afterwards. Whether or not it will last is another question.

Pat Kenny is very highly rated as a current affairs anchor, especially among listeners who don’t mind being talked down-to and having everything explained for them in simple terms. But the 65-year-old is a somewhat unusual choice for a station that has made such a success of targeting younger current affairs fans. Among Pat Kenny’s greatest strengths are his composure, his carefulness and his dogged moderation. Can he really be temperamentally suited to a radio station that has made a name for itself with a mix of bombast, partisanship and hilarity?

Gay Byrne was among the first to warn Kenny of the stakes involved in this gamble. “When you move to a commercial station you will be expected to be the flagship broadcaster, and if it doesn’t happen it’s an embarrassment all round,” he said, hearteningly.

Later, speaking to George Hook – or rather predictably listening, for the most part, while Hook talked about himself – Kenny said he hoped not to fail, “but if I do I want it to be honourably”.

He replaces Tom Dunne’s indifferent mid-morning programme, which has only 55,000 listeners. Kenny can surely do better than that. But he departs a programme with 328,000 listeners, a programme that – as we can hear every morning at present, with Myles Dungan at the helm during Kenny’s five-week holiday – manages just fine without him.

Nevertheless RTE is understandably worried. Short of getting Gay Byrne back – and Gay Byrne has firmly ruled out coming back – the station has now positively run out of national treasures with which to entice morning radio listeners.

A successor will be announced before the end of this month. Paddy Power is offering odds on various contenders, among them Ryan Tubridy, who can’t do current affairs; Clare Byrne, who can but is insipid; and Miriam O’Callaghan, who would be perfect if everyone wasn’t starting to tire of her already. Marian Finucane, a woman who could and should do more for her money, was 20/1 at the time of going to press. But we seem to be a dwindling few who still believe her to be a gifted broadcaster; we’re loyal, but we have no strength in numbers.

Anyway, with the way things appear to be going, who knows how many of RTE’s ‘stars’ will still be working for RTE by the end of August?

Until now, RTE’s biggest rival from 10am to 12pm was Today FM, also owned by Denis O’Brien, where Ray Darcy pulls in 235,000 listeners. If Kenny makes a success of his Newstalk slot – and it’s a big if, bearing in mind that he will have to muddle though without RTE’s generous production budgets, and without RTE’s considerably greater social clout – then Communicorp could monopolise completely Ireland’s mid-morning radio listenership. Public service broadcasting how are you?


Published in the Irish Daily Mail, Friday 1 August 2013