The controversial civil servant Robert Watt said the use of public funds to sponsor the RTÉ hit show Operation Transformation was “questionable” and that he had “grave reservations” about continuing to support it.
However, he was told pulling out of the deal at the eleventh hour would be “extremely bad faith” and would force the makers of the show to re-record parts of the programme at late notice.
Mr Watt had been asked to approve expenditure of €282,900 in Department of Health funding for the popular weight loss programme but raised red flags over why it was even happening in the first place.
In an email to a colleague, Robert Watt wrote: “I have great difficulty in supporting this given the sums involved. If we don’t provide funding, what happens? The programme goes ahead with or without some other sponsor.
“What are risks to us of saying ‘no’ now? Please advise me on this. I think using public funds in this manner is questionable and as accounting officer, I have grave reservations.”
In the internal discussion in late 2021, the possibility of giving just €100,000 in sponsorship instead was floated instead of the near €300,000 annual figure that had previously been agreed.
Mr Watt, who himself earns €292,000 annually, then sought a detailed submission on the background to the arrangement and how the Department of Health had ended up sponsoring the programme.
That submission, released under FOI, said there was a “verbal agreement” in place for the department to sponsor the coming series of the show.
It said they had told RTÉ the sponsorship would continue and that this had been “effectively executed” by already working with the producers on the show.
The submission said: “The programme will go ahead if we pull out, possibly with a corporate sponsor.
“This means that instead of being pointed to [our] Healthy Ireland’s trusted information, the circa 500,000 viewers each week will be pointed to the corporate sponsor’s online material, or not pointed anywhere.”
The submission said there were “reputational risks” associated with pulling out of the sponsorship deal after it had been verbally agreed.
“It would represent extremely bad faith, given the show is starting in five weeks,” it said.
“The material recorded for the first episode would be unusable and would require re-recording and bringing the participants (parents and children from various sports clubs etc.) back to Croke Park, where we recorded a piece for the Ireland Lights Up element of the show.”