A public good
The public consultation process embarked upon by Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte over broadcasting charges is little more than window dressing. Most of the important decisions have been taken and interested parties are being invited to nibble around the edges. Nevertheless, it is important to identify potential inequities and, as far as possible, deal openly with influential opponents before the scheme is introduced in 2015.
Few would deny the importance of public service broadcasting. In a world of satellite TV and concentration of media ownership, independence from purely commercial considerations and various forms of interference is vital. RTÉ has charted the changing nature of Irish society; contributed to informed public debate; encouraged social and cultural activities and exposed illegal and improper behaviour. It made mistakes. But the balance sheet is strongly in its favour.
The Minister’s priority has been to establish a stable funding base for the national broadcaster. The television licence evasion rate has grown from 12 per cent in 2010 to more than seventeen per cent today. The decline in this income stream, along with falling advertising revenue, has seriously affected RTÉ. The Programme for Government promised a new broadcasting charge that would apply to householders, rather than to homeowners, and to micro, medium and other businesses, no matter what technology was used to access content. Since then, Mr Rabbitte has indicated there will be no increase in the current charge; pensioners will not be affected and holiday homes will be exempt.
TV3 and national newspapers have accused the station of engaging in unfair commercial practices. Last month, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland recommended that additional licence revenue should be balanced by restrictions on RTÉ’s commercial activities. That may happen. These complex issues will create political difficulties. They should not, however, undermine RTÉ’s role as a public broadcaster.