Charity You're A Sham

  • 8 November 2006
  • test

The presenter and the judges on the RTÉ summer hit Charity You're A Star earned more than many of the charities involved. By Justine McCarthy

It was RTÉ's hit show of the summer. More than 680,000 viewers tuned in for the final night last August to watch former Ireland and Liverpool soccer player John Aldridge warble his way to victory with 'Lily The Pink'. The programme, which is out-rated only by The Late Late Toy Show, even spawned a hit CD recorded by Aldridge. The performers were all participating free-of-charge, the money accumulated from the fortnight's tele-voting was going to charity and the nation basked in a feel-good halo of beneficence.

In the cold light of the morning-after, however, some of the performers and their chosen charities are no longer as enthusiastic about Charity You're A Star. RTÉ has released figures showing the share-out among the 10 charities of a total of €319,275, prompting hoopla headlines about the €146,763 raised by Aldridge for Temple Street Children's Hospital. At the other end of the scale, the Variety Club of Ireland is to receive €1,089 and Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin will get €2,069, though both organisations say they are happy with that.

But a spokesperson for one of the other charities says, off the record, that its involvement in the 10-programme celebrity talent competition was more trouble than it was worth and that selling raffle tickets would have provided a better return for the investment. "We had to circulate tickets to get supporters into the venue, literally putting bums on seats because there had to be a full audience for each show," she says. "We had 400 or 500 people on a rota to turn up, staff to kit them out in our t-shirts and a huge effort to mobilise people to phone and text votes for our act."

A member of The Politicians, the cross-party quartet of Oireachtas troubadours who made €14,705 for the Irish Hospice Foundation, has criticised the lack of transparency in the figures published by RTÉ. "I'm disappointed with the amount we raised," says Green Party TD Dan Boyle. "The Irish Hospice Foundation got €29,000 from Jigs 'n' Reels [a celebrity Irish-dancing show screened by RTÉ last spring] and that had a smaller audience. That seems a bit strange.

"In the first series of Charity You're A Star, there were only eight shows and eight contestants and the contestant who came second – meaning they were knocked out in the seventh week – made about €150,000. We [The Politicians] were knocked out in the seventh week but the money we raised was far less. There are legitimate questions to be asked. If it transpires that some of the mobile-phone companies did better out of it than some of the charities, there might be a role for the premium-rate phone regulator to examine it."

Because of the dearth of financial detail supplied by RTÉ [on the grounds that such "information is confidential for contractual and commercial reasons"], it is possible only to hazard a guess at how much the phone companies and the production company, Screentime ShinAwil, benefited from the series. Asked if Screentime ShinAwil was paid a production fee for making the series, an RTÉ spokeswoman replied that "there was, of course, a production budget allocated to cover costs". She neither confirmed nor denied that a production fee was paid. Screentime ShinAwil, a subsidiary of an Australian media company, referred inquiries to its Dublin office back to RTÉ.

On the basis, according to information supplied to Village by RTÉ, that all phoned-in and texted votes were charged at a rate of 60 cent each and that more than 800,000 votes were logged, the total tele-vote income amounted to almost €480,000. That is nearly €161,000 more than the total amount distributed among the charities. There was also a dedicated "donations" line whereby viewers could make a money contribution to their chosen charities. Calls to this 1517-number were charged at €2 each. RTÉ passed its share from its rented premium-number lines on to the charities.

Unlike the first series of Charity You're A Star when all the phone companies waived their income from the votes, for the second series last August only the fixed-line companies did so. These were Phonovation, BT Ireland and Eircom. The mobile operators retained their share of the revenue raised, but just how much they kept remains a secret. The charities, the performers and the voting public are not privy to the information.

"As a high-profile company in Ireland, Vodafone is inundated with requests for support. Our corporate-response strategy is to work directly with charities," the mobile operator said in a written response to Village. "We work in partnership with various organisations and with a number of charities to provide financial support as well as skills and assistance."

The bulk of the costs incurred in making the series accrued from professional fees paid to the presenter and the panel of judges. Derek Mooney, the presenter, was paid €20,000 by ShinAwil and the three judges – Linda Martin, Louis Walsh and Brendan O'Connor – received a minimum of €1,000-per-show each, amounting to €30,000. While that is a pittance for somebody like boy-band impresario Walsh, who gets stg£500,000 for 20 editions of The X Factor on British television, that RTÉ's judges were paid at all became controversial during Charity You're A Star. On the last night of the series, John Aldridge, reacting to dismissive criticism from comedian-turned-journalist Brendan O'Connor, emphasised that the "celebrities" were giving their time free gratis, unlike the judges. We do not know how much Twink was paid for acting as the performers' coach on the series or what rent was charged for the use of the Helix as the venue.

While no fees were paid to the 15 performers constituting the 10 acts, their expenses were covered. One Dublin-based performer, the tailor Louis Copeland, says he received €1,500 expenses, which he passed onto The Variety Club of Ireland, the charity he and ex-Shamrock Rovers manager Roddy Collins represented.

"You'd like to know exactly what money was raised. What was the gross income?" says Copeland. "I assumed Roddy and I would raise the smallest amount because we were knocked out first but I'm disappointed with a thousand euro. I just wonder how much revenue the act brought in. The whole thing was very professionally run and I'm happy that the production company did a great job but I'd like to know what kind of money the phone companies made from it."

Lilian McGovern, chief executive of the Marie Keating Foundation for breast cancer (which got €6,087), agrees. "It's the not being told that's wrong," she says. "If they ask charities to take part in something I think they are duty bound to give the breakdown of where the costs went. Why not produce that? The charities themselves do.

"There's legislation in train to regularise the charity industry and there's talk about appointing a charity regulator. If a regulator was in place this is an example of where the charities could bring their concerns without fear of being accused of whingeing in public. It's hard for any charity to stand alone on an issue like this."

A spokeswoman for Temple Street Children's Hospital says the €146,763 it is due to receive from John Aldridge's efforts will go towards the purchase of a €1.2m CT scanner. Fundraising to buy the hospital's first such X-ray machine has been going on for the past year and "a few hundred thousand more euro" are needed.

Three of the 10 You're A Star charities were children's hospitals – Temple Street, Crumlin and Tallaght. Crumlin Hospital received €75,000 from Jigs 'n' Reels last April, with which it bought a mobile echo cardiac machine. Now, children, who previously had to travel to Dublin from around the country, can have their treatment locally. Crumlin plans to add the €2,000 it received from Charity You're A Star to a fund for children suffering anorexia nervosa.Charity You're A Star crowd

"We thank RTÉ, ShinAwil, Gail Kaneswaran [who sang for the hospital] and the public. We're very grateful to receive the money and we would do it again," says Suzanne Downey of Crumlin Hospital. "The Children's Medical Research Foundation has been going for 40 years. Obviously, every hospital will always want more but we absolutely welcome whatever people can do."

Some of the performers, however, regard it as scandalous that state hospitals have to rely on a charity talent show in order to buy vital medical equipment.

"I don't think it's right that the hospitals are depending on charity," says Senator Frank Feighan, a member of The Politicians. "I met the Irish Hospice Foundation two months before The Politicians represented them on the show and I was taken aback at the amount of fundraising they have to do. In the west of Ireland alone it's over a million euro a year. You'd expect that something like a CT scanner for children would be paid for by the Department of Health."

But Mary Davis, chief executive of Special Olympics Ireland (it gets €19,339) and head of the Citizenship Taskforce, says: "I don't think we can leave everything to the state. There has to be a balance between what the state can do and what the voluntary community can do. I don't think that organisations should have to fundraise for vital equipment but I do think things work best when there is a good cooperative effort."

Several of the charities claim the exposure and public awareness they gain from being associated with shows like Charity You're A Star and Jigs 'n' Reels is more valuable to them than the money. Some, who were privately disappointed with the lack of transparency in the accounting, were reluctant to say so publicly, for fear of losing out next time.