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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 2, 2010 @ 11:13 pm

    What does the BBC’s Strategy Review have to tell us about the licence fee in Ireland?

    Hugh Linehan

    Maybe not a lot, but the news that the BBC is planning to cut back on its web activities, along with some of its other digital channels, signals a recognition that, in the UK, the public service broadcaster is taking seriously some of the points which are being made about the distorting effect it is having on the broader media environment. Its Strategy Review, published today, expressed the view ‘that BBC content could be more distinctive and ambitious in fulfilling its public service mission’, and ‘a concern that the BBC is not clear enough about where the boundaries are with the commercial sector,
    especially online’.

    On this side of the Irish Sea, as Adrian Weckler’s excellent post points out, the question of how RTE squares its publicly-funded service remit with its supposedly entirely commercial online activities is becoming more and more pressing. Like Adrian, I don’t believe that any newspaper has a God-given right to survive, but we do need to start talking seriously about whether public service broadcasters are really serving the public interest by using their licence-fee-funded muscle to establish a dominant position in the online news media.

    In the UK, the BBC does not compete with its domestic rivals for advertising revenue, as RTE does in Ireland. But there’s still a vigorous debate there about the impact some of its new media activities are having – on regional newspapers, for example. There have¬†also been attacks from the usual quarters (News International, Associated Newspapers etc) on the fundamental principles on which the British public service model is based.

    As always, vested interests abound, and I have as many of them as the next man, but it’s depressing that in this country the national broadcaster has failed to engage publicly with the rest of us about the best way to maintain a vigorous and diverse media into the 21st century. There’s little sign here of the experiments in sharing footage which the Beeb has undertaken, and certainly no sign of the linking out to other sites which is now promised in the UK.

    At last week’s Digital Media Awards (where modesty doesn’t prevent me from pointing out that irishtimes.com beat Morning Ireland and RTE News Now for the Best in Media award), Minister for Communications Eamon Ryan talked about the challenge of ensuring the survival of quality journalism in the future. It would be good to hear whether the Minister intends to follow up on those words with any actions, and whether RTE might move out of its habitual defensive crouch on these issues.

    • Liam says:

      Excellent post. Its one thing if the gov. want to spend taxpayers money on making Irish interest programmes but in the digital age RTE as a national vehicle is an outdated concept. Let the market decide what people want.
      Not to mention that the licence fee is a very unfair tax on low and middle income people.
      Knowledge economy how are ya!

    • Greg says:

      I might be wrong but don’t the BBC take revenue from web ads and banners etc?

    • Hugh Linehan says:

      Greg – the BBC sell ad space outside the UK, which is why you’ll see ads on their sites when you access them from Ireland.

    • Greg says:

      Okay so, that’s fair enough! Thanks for clarifying that.

    • barbera says:

      I would rather pay a licence fee to read/engage with irishtimes.com (50% of my digital media news/opinion/analysis time allowance) than to watch RTE (10% of whatever time is left). Perhaps citizens should be given the choice as to how they wish to spend an exorbitant licence fee and where to deposit it —at any bank, perhaps; and then, depending on how fees are deposited, funds might be distributed accordingly. This would at least take the RTE Mr Muscle element out of the equation/situation. Yes, and on the special fee-payment form (available from your local bank or online) when the new improved licence fee is being paid, there should be a selection of boxes to tick in order to facilitate whether the citizen/licence fee-payer wishes his/her euros to go in the direction of, for example, TV3 or RTE or irishtimes.com and in what proportion the fee should be distributed.
      I am reluctant to post this — since it probably highlights my ignorance on how this whole online digital media thing is going to pay for itself — however, I don’t think I am alone in this. (Note I am using the word “citizen” instead of “taxpayer” which is a result of my having read excellent article by Vincent Browne in Opinion section of today’s Irish Times — and which commentator reminds me also of why TV3 is such a contender –Nightly News with Vincent Browne — pity it’s not on Friday nights, also, round about 9:30).

    • Ted says:

      I’ve something of a mental hmm… about this.

      Yes RTE has been ridiculously and deliberately slow to itemise where and how its public funding is spent. But it is not RTE’s fault that it was constituted as both a public AND commercial broadcaster.

      Nor is it RTE’s fault that it has inherited valuable infrastructure. And, in a country this size, there just isn’t a viable market for numerous broadcasters providing a competitive range of original programming (including news) given that they all depend on a depleted advertising market.

      Underlying your point is the convergence of technology which is pulling traditional forms of media into competition with each other. IrishTimes.com is potentially a broadcaster – RTE.ie is a news paper delivered on screen. This raises questions like – who’s paying for these services? And, sure, is public funding distorting the market?

      One might argue that the public are paying for (or underwriting) the delivery of RTE’s services, through the license fee. But it is the ISP’s who are being paid for IrishTimes.com, and RTE.ie. Your real problem may be that you don’t share any of that revenue.

      People using Sky, NTL and other TV signal delivery systems are content to pay ‘on the double’ for their basic television service, and increasingly they are getting their phones and internet ‘bundled’ with that service.

      For sure the challenge for the traditional print media (and for good journalism) in this environment is enormous. But, I think having no revenues from the delivery system is the heart of the problem. I don’t know if newspapers anywhere own any significant holdings in ISPs but if they did they could justify providing their content through those outlets, paid for as part of the service.

      There’s been a whole lot of hoo-hah about ‘content’ in recent years, but while ‘content’ has been de-materialised (into data) revenue has diminished, piracy has grown, old sales models have been thrown out, people expect things for free, and data pipelines (the infrastructure) have become hugely profitable. Only a fly on the wall in Rupert Murdoch’s office knows where it’s all going.

    • tony says:

      RTE are just a PR agency for the government. Most news items are just a resume of he latest release from a government spin doctor.They give a free ride to government ministers day after day with leading questions when the minister runs out of steam. They even harangue the opposition with long dissertations on government policy. If all else fails they will cut them off or damage a recording. The public service that RTE is supposed to be giving is a farce.

    • dealga says:

      The BBC’s decision is entirely as a result of its complete failure to stand up for itself in the face of repeated assaults by the likes of Messrs Murdoch and Dacre.

      It should use its income from the licence fee as a form of quality assurance and guaranteed standards for its ‘customers’ not cede ground to the lowest common denominator populism chased by all of the strong commercial media conglomerates in the UK.

    • Aidan says:

      I once saw a district court judge fine a string of mothers from a local authority housing estate in Cork for not having a TV licences. A direct conversion of human misery into cash in Pat Kenny’s pocket.

      Of course the media only focus on it when things becomes a problem for them as advertising revenue becomes a scarce resource.

    • Liam James says:

      Am over at the other side of the water at the moment, and paying a hefty sum for BBC services. But the service is just sooo good, that I can’t really complain.

      RTE could go for a split model, with online News and Sports with no advertising (in Ireland) and a number of “quality broadcasting slots”, where important TV content, e.g. news, reports, RTE documentaries, art-film, etc. are not subject to advertisements.

      And where is the RTE iPlayer already? Instead of that 56k dial-up video we are used to? As I am not paying an RTE license, being out of the country, I have no grounds to complain as such, just make suggestions.

    • Fin says:

      Peter Kirwan has a great post in the Press Gazette on the BBC report – http://blogs.pressgazette.co.uk/mediamoney/2010/03/02/mr-thompson-plays-a-blinder-outrage-over-bbc-cuts-spells-trouble-for-the-tories/ – in which he points out that the BBC has a 77% approval rating.

      The gist of this latest report is that the Beeb has offered up a sacrificial limb or three. The loud response from its fans, especially those of BBC 6 Music, should raise doubts as to whether any of these ‘cuts’ will see the light of day.

      I don’t know what RTE’s approval rating is, but I doubt it’s that high. Regardless, its hybrid funding model muddies the water somewhat for the purposes of any comparison with the BBC. It is very difficult to argue against a supposedly public-service broadcaster engaging in commercial sidelines, such as RTE.ie/news, when the status quo is that more of the public service activities are paid for by advertising than by the licence fee.
      As for Adrian Weckler’s post, which you reference, it definitely raises some interesting questions, but his statement that “it is RTE’s commercial spin-offs, more than any other entity, that are behind the demise of newspapers’ potential survival” ignores years of underinvestment and lack of imaginative management by newspapers in Ireland and worldwide, ignores the decamping of classified advertising to free sites such as craigslist and gumtree — nothing to do with RTE or BBC — and rather hyperbolically overstates the importance of RTE in the Irish media ecosystem. If “free” online news sites were that threatening to commercial media interests in Ireland, it would make it profitable for somebody to fill the gap even if RTE vacated it. A similar situation exists in the UK – the Guardian has committed itself to staying outside a paywall because it does not want to “close off journalistic options”, despite how many other outfits follow Rupert Murdoch’s lead.
      The second problem I have with Adrian’s argument is that he suggests that RTE.ie is an entirely separate commercial body, but doesn’t clarify where its profits go. If someone on the Authority is pocketing them, that’s one thing. If they reduce the burden on the licence fee payer of paying for RTE’s actual public service commitments, what’s the problem? The RTE Guide has long existed as a profit-making entity separate to RTE’s core public service duties yet never seemed to be regarded as this much of a threat.
      As an aside, Adrian’s post also raises the point that RTE’s website news staff are paid less than those who work in the TV and radio newsrooms. If memory serves, a similar split long existed between employees of ireland.com and those Irish Times journalists who worked in D’Olier Street. It has certainly been an unfortunate fact of life on this side of the channel. Can Adrian confirm that no Thomas Crosbie Media holding enforces such a sliding salary scale for its web-only employees?
      There is certainly an interesting public service argument to be had here, but it will be much more beneficial to the diversity and future of Irish media if the vested interests you refer to — purely profit-driven companies, such as Adrian’s employer, and effectively charitable enterprises, such as the Irish Times Trust — put their cards on the table.
      I completely agree with you that RTE has failed to engage publicly about the best way to maintain a vigorous and diverse media into the 21st century and would love to see them experiment more along the lines of BBC, with iPlayer and Project Canvas. I think it would benefit every media outlet in Ireland to be able to repurpose and repackage RTE’s current and archived material. But for Irish media in general to “move out of its habitual defensive crouch on these issues” the Times, TCH, the Independent and the rest are going to have to meet RTE a little closer to halfway.

    • Hugh Linehan says:

      Fin – agree completely. Of course the BBC is engaging in sophisticated pre-election politics. But that’s because the subject of public service broadcasting is a live political issue in the UK, which is largely due to the requirement for renewal of the BBC Charter every few years. Strikes me that something similar here would be a good way to bring these changing issues into public domain – they are ultimately political questions after all. Agree also on your point on Adrian’s post. Public service broadcasters only form one part of the problems (many self-inflicted) faced by newspapers in a converging media landscape, and I’m certianly not going to pretend they’re the root cause.

    • 'QC' says:

      @9 Aidan: I’m not sure what your point is here…are you saying that those on low incomes/benefit should not have to pay a license fee?
      I don’t know how much it is in Ireland…it’s about ¬£145.00 here, less if you pay online/direct debit etc.
      However the TV Licensing Authority cannot recoup the lost revenue…many non payers are serial offenders (sorry!) and know this, the fine is relative to income, with that and credit for pleading guilty, it pays not to pay…
      Most of those appearing before the Courts for non payment here are women too simply because they, just a nod to the day that’s in it…
      Unbeknownst to many who appear unrepresented, legal aid is available, there is a technical defence, however the Authority are rarely put to proof…
      The issue of payment for online services should not arise but I’ll let the domestic lawyers advise you on that one…after all have to protect my own fee’s…
      Happy IWD!

    • 'QC' says:

      Following on from my last point..that pold attention deficit disorder again!)
      The Fines would not go to the Broadcaster in any event, these are due to the Court and the costs, if any,as they are in the discretion of the Court and usually awarded according to the offenders means, to the Licensing Authority. In the UK this is a separate body to the Broadcaster…
      Ergo, although it may appear that ‘human misery is being converted to cash in Pat Kenny’s pocket’ as you put it, it is not in fact the case! But don’t let the facts get in the way of a punchy punchline!

    • peter says:

      Abolish the license fee or else give us a choice of giving our license fee to the BBC instead of RTE. Who wants to watch RTE’s recycling of BBC soaps, when we can already get them on the BBC without ads? (Shocked? … we’re ALEADY paying for BBC through Sky, NTL etc).

      The BBC has gone more “tabloid” in the last couple of decades, but it is still a world class organisation, and probably the best broadcaster on the planet. RTE cannot hold a candle to the BBC for homegrown drama, dazzling high-budget nature programs, and the small proportion of Open University programs that are still being made.

      Ok, RTE couldn’t hope to compete given the smaller revenue base. But then why pretend? It still manages to produce a small amount of quality programming, including its TG4 and Lyric FM broadcasts. Rein it in, focus on its public service offerings, slash the license fee by 75% and right-size RTE. It can’t pretend to be a BBC. We already pay extra for that.

    • Dave says:

      “but we do need to start talking seriously about whether public service broadcasters are really serving the public interest by using their licence-fee-funded muscle to establish a dominant position in the online news media.”

      Does it, though? I can’t speak for anybody else, and I don’t have the statistics, but I’d never dream of going to RTE for news. I thought RTE mainly just re-posted wire stories and wrote few of their own.

    • BragFontaine says:

      “Let the market decide”?… please…

      Let people like Rupert Murdoch decide we need more TV3 AND 3e? I don’t know how many television sets I’ve destroyed in biblical rage at Xpose.

      The market…. piss off!

    • Fiona says:

      RTE have a fantastic iPlayer. It’s even accessible from overseas.

    • praxidike says:

      @17 “The market … piss off!”

      I assume you are responding to Liam @ 1
      who wrote “Let the market decide”.
      Perhaps I am mistaken but I think Liam is referring to the consumer market — as in, consumer choice will determine the shape of things to come (i.e. all things media) rather than Rupert Murdoch being the DETERMINATOR

    • Brag Fontaine says:

      Yes yes, consumer choice… But if the choice is between horseshit and a kick in the balls … well having a choice isn’t much use.

    • Ted says:

      Hi Hugh, this link arrived in my inbox today, reminded me of your post …

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