What are the implications of a new broadcast charge?
This is a version of the an article I wrote for the January 21st edition of The Irish Times, with the headline ‘Broadcast charge plan will have huge implications’.You can see the original here.
ON THURSDAY morning, Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte appeared on Morning Ireland to answer questions on the mooted replacement of the television licence with a new universal broadcast charge. I know this because I listened back to the podcast on RTÉ’s excellent iPhone app, thereby illustrating the point Rabbitte was making: technology is rendering redundant the archaic concept that you need a radio or television set to listen to radio or watch television, or that you should require a licence for such a device.
Yes, the majority of households still have a TV set (although in some the box in the corner has already been replaced by a sleek computer monitor). But broadcast technology is increasingly being supplemented or entirely replaced by the distribution of digital content over the internet. As has been noted elsewhere, this technological shift is disrupting traditional distribution patterns, opening up possibilities for multinational services such as Netflix, iTunes and Amazon, while threatening the revenue models of TV and radio channels, both publicly funded and commercial (or, as in the case of RTÉ, both).
But it also throws open the wider question of what “content” now means. In an era when journalists in the RTÉ newsroom are writing articles for its breaking-news site, and their counterparts in The Irish Times are shooting videos for theirs, assumptions about what the old categories of “broadcasting” and “print” mean are up for grabs. What does this mean in turn for a definition of public service broadcasting? Increasingly, the regulatory and legislative structures, which are only a few years old in this area, look unfit for purpose.
It may have passed its sell-by date, but there are good arguments for the traditional licence fee. If you accept the proposition that public funding should form a part of the broadcasting landscape, the current system gives broadcasters much-needed protection against undue pressure from the government of the day. Wrapping that funding back into general exchequer spending would almost certainly undermine broadcasting independence.
However, there have been mutterings for years about decoupling the charge from the ownership of a receiving apparatus. Rabbitte’s predecessor as minister for communications, Eamon Ryan, was fond of thinking aloud on the subject. Although those thoughts never yielded anything particularly tangible, he did rightly point out that reconsideration of the licence-fee structure would inevitably need to take account of changes in the broader media landscape, and in particular of the new competitive environment in which newspapers, broadcasters and websites now find themselves competing against each other for the first time. “We need to ask ourselves how we will actually fund broadcasting and, indeed, fund newsrooms in general, because it is a real issue in the present climate,” he said last year.
So far, Rabbitte has been silent on this subject. The move to the new universal charge, which is unlikely to be implemented before 2014 at the earliest, has a relatively clear and simple rationale. Licence-fee evasion is costing up to €25 million per year, while An Post’s contract for administering the system and inspecting homes costs another €12 million.
With a process now under way to register all households in the State for property tax, the opportunity exists for the first time to eliminate evasion and also cut down significantly on administration costs. In that sense, what’s proposed is just a bit of good housekeeping, eliminating waste and maximising revenue, while being seen to move with the times. It would, however, be unwise for the Minister to ignore the fact that cutting the link between funding and traditional broadcasting brings to the fore questions that have profound implications for media diversity in Ireland into the future.
What are the definitions of “broadcasting” and “publishing” in an era when rte.ieproduces articles and irishtimes.comproduces video clips? On Morning Ireland, Rabbitte surmised that the only way in which the people who sent emails protesting the proposal to him could have heard about it so quickly was via rte.ie. It didn’t seem to occur to him that they might have picked it up from one of the other online news services in the country. He went on to say that “a huge number of the population now get their news not from sitting down and watching the nine o’clock news but accessing the arrangements that the public service broadcaster has put in place”.
Indeed they do, but the picture he paints is incomplete. The “arrangements the public service broadcaster has put in place” are in competition with and complementary to a range of other news services, including the one provided by The Irish Times.
In 2014, what will the justification be for funding only operators who use the traditional broadcasting transmission network if funding has been decoupled from the use of that network? At the moment, 7 per cent of the licence fee goes to independently produced programmes of “high quality” on subjects such as culture, heritage and media literacy. But to be eligible, those programmes must be broadcast on radio or on television, rather than distributed online. This seems nonsensical under the new funding system.
More importantly, who will set the limits to RTÉ’s online development and ensure that media diversity is maintained? The thorny and unresolved issues between RTÉ and the commercial broadcasters pale in comparison with those posed by the definition of public service and a level playing field in the emerging new media landscape. And the current division between regulatory bodies such as the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and Comreg starts to look as out of date as the licence fee itself. Rabbitte may have a bit more work to do to be ready in time for 2014.