Lessons from the month of June

It’s midsummer! And you know what that means – we’re going to look back on the month that was and share what we’ve learned from some of the biggest stories in business news.

1. The RTÉ crisis

Leaked earlier this month by Irish media was a pretty damning report of undisclosed payments made to star presenter Ryan Tubridy over the past few years. Published via external review, the repercussions at the time of writing have seen people sacked, others protest and many more lose trust in the national broadcaster.

The undisclosed payments in question centre around the figure of €345,000 made between 2017 and 2022, a number which has prompted the Government to order an external review into governance and culture at the broadcaster, while RTÉ executives are due before two parliamentary committees last week to answer questions from TDs and senators. Notably, former RTÉ Director General Dee Forbes has shared that she won’t attend the committees due to illness, saying that the payments made in 2020-2022 were a result of honouring contractual obligations after the pandemic hit, but was unaware of other payments made between 2017-2019. She said that she led negotiations between senior RTÉ executives with Tubridy’s agent, the final deal aimed to deliver savings for RTÉ and that she did not “act contrary to any advice” at any stage.

The situation is particularly damning given the exorbitant pay packets RTÉ’s so-called ‘élite’ already take home, and the growing cost of living crisis – two things that have spurred on disdain from myriad members of the public. Former managing director of Bord na Móna, Gabriel D’Arcy, too has warned there needs to be greater clarity and transparency by the board of RTÉ. Speaking on Today with Claire Byrne show, he said: “There’s a lot at stake here in terms of the confidence and the trust that has traditionally and hopefully continues to be placed in RTÉ. This issue is an issue of transparency. From a corporate governance perspective, there are very, very significant guidelines for corporate governance within state bodies.

“There’s a code of conduct. It’s very, very detailed, and there is a number of provisions within this that all play into some of the key judgment calls that were made here in regards to some of the issues that we’ve heard. Under the oversight role, the management of the State body has a duty to provide the board with all necessary information to enable the board to perform their duties to a high standard, so the management had a duty to provide the board with full information. It was not an option, he said. It was a duty.”

2. How and why is one in 10 pharmacies now losing money?

A report for the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) prepared by Fitzgerald Power noted that 10% of Irish pharmacies are now losing money by way of community drug scheme payments, with rural chemists affected worst of all. According to the report, for the average pharmacy, 57% of turnover comes from community drug scheme payments. For independent pharmacies, the percentage is even higher. That said, core income from community drug schemes has fallen by 29% over the past 14 years. Over the same period, the costs associated with dispensing medicines have jumped by 23%

Covid-19 vaccinations – which amounted to revenue of nearly €26 million for pharmacies last year – masked the impact of the underlying fall in sales during the pandemic, the industry says. However, there are now concerns that with the demand for vaccinations falling away, pressure on pharmacists will become more critical.

Overall, the report calls for an increase in the dispensing fee and steps to ease pressure on labour costs, (In 2009, pharmacists received a fee of €6 for every medicine they dispensed. During the financial crisis, this was cut to €4.58 and has been frozen at this level over the past 14 years.) The report concludes that if personnel costs increase as expected in the coming years, “a large number of pharmacies would go out of business under the current fee structure”. It suggests the dispensing fee should now rise to €6.50 per item. The IPU says such an increase would “safeguard the future viability of pharmacies”.

“It would allow pharmacy owners to continue to meet increasing wage demands while also investing in expanding services,” says IPU interim secretary general Derek Reilly. “Failure to support the sector will have dire and potentially irreversible consequences.”

3. The Happy Pear Twins add crowdfunding to the menu

Ireland’s arguably most prominent vegans, Happy Pear twins David and Stephen Flynn, have reached their crowdfunding target of €2.5 million, which they intend to use to expand their brand at home and abroad.

The plant-based pair (known by Irish Twitter as ‘Hummus Jedward’) launched the campaign with €1.5m in reservations, asking fans of the business to support by contributing at least €500 apiece. They reached their target by the end of June. As reported by the Irish Times, the shares are being issued to a trust called “STAK The Happy Pear” within a crowd-investing platform aptly called Broccoli. Following a two-year “time lock”, Happy Pear shareholders can sell their stakes to other investors on the platform. The Happy Pear has said that 75% of the funds would go towards expanding into new markets, and 25% would be spent on expanding the international awareness and delivery of their new mobile app.

Speaking on a promotional podcast, Stephen of the Happy Pear insisted that their crowdfunding “isn’t about money. This is about social change,” adding that such a method of money collection “is a lot more congruent with our philosophy” than the likes of venture capital or private equity funds. The twins also said that anyone who can’t afford to buy shares is welcome to pitch in on the Flynns’ four-acre organic farm in Wicklow.

4. AI–should we be wary or welcoming?

Is an AI affair cheating? That’s what’s being discussed at the Guardian this week. “Can A.I. give voice to the ocean?” made the front page of the Independent late last month. The publisher of German tabloid, Axel Springer, recently said in an email to all staff that it would “unfortunately be parting ways with colleagues who have tasks that in the digital world are performed by AI and/or automated processes”. And fan-favourite Wimbledon has teamed up with IBM to introduce generative AI video commentary and highlight clips to share “the unique language of tennis,” to anyone who can’t make it to the All-England Tennis Club this year.

Yes indeed, tennis fans will have access to “innovative video packages” on the Wimbledon app or official website, for the times when pundits aren’t available to commit to commentary. In these instances, AI-powered technology is expected to step in and produce captions for some videos.

“I see AI as very much complementing the human element, rather than replacing,” IBM’s Kevin Farrar said. “You can’t replace John McEnroe doing commentary. That human element always needs to be there. It’s very much supplementing and complementing.”

Last month, the French Open used AI in an effort to create a better experience for athletes and fans. “We see what happened in the French Open and what IBM is doing at Wimbledon has really been great uses of AI to make the fan experience richer,” GameOn Technology CEO Alex Beckman, an expert in the AI space shared. Richer, creepier or something we can see ourselves grooving to? You decide.

Overall impressions? A mixed bag, one neither filled with brown envelopes nor vegan sandwiches for the average Joe. It seems the best idea for right now is to make like half of RTÉ and shout about it. That said, will any of this make a difference? The optimist in me hopes yes, but the sadist in me simply loves watching our national broadcaster report on its own scandal, like that pointing Spiderman meme, except with more sweating and rage. For now, we’ll trust the only things we can trust: Love Island, suncream and packing a ‘just-in-case’ Mac in a Sack for every journey we take outside. Worse comes to worst, we won’t be the only ones left high and dry.

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