Jim Carroll

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Public service broadcasting fun and games

Pat Rabbitte’s plan to replace the TV licence with a public service broadcasting charge opens up a very interesting debate

Wed, Jul 24, 2013, 09:35


It seems that there may be finally an end in sight to the worst ads in the world. Pat Rabbitte’s claim that 18 per cent of Irish TV owners don’t possess a TV licence proves that those awful ads urging/threatening/cajoling/boring us to buy one just don’t work. We switch off when we hear them and that’s the end of that.

But if the Minister for Communications has his way, the days of the TV licence are nearing an end. Instead, to reflect the fact that many of us don’t use a TV set anymore to access media, Rabbitte plans to introduce a public service broadcasting charge to replace it. On the one hand, the minister obviously views this new charge as a good way around the argument that people don’t own TV sets any more. But on the other hand, it opens up a very interesting debate (or a smelly can of worms, depending on where you stand) about what to do with the cash which will now come into the coffers.

The fact that the charge has been decoupled from the TV set means that you’ve suddenly got a lot of different parties vying for their cut of the cake. Will newspapers, for instance, be eligible for some of this kitty, given some of the public service broadcasting done via audio-video content online? Could, for example, some nimble media operator make a claim for that cash based on a new online model for covering stories with a public service remit using the kind of width and depth which we once associated with RTE? Why should they be turned down if they tick all the public service broadcasting boxes?

The bigger issue has to do with the definition of what the hell is public service broadcasting in this day and age. It’s a lofty, noble, highly principled ideal, Reithian in its desire to use broadcasting to enlighten and educate the public. But one man’s public service broadcasting is another man’s Ryan Tubridy or a TV show involving “celebrities” in the loosest possible sense trying to cook a meal (also in the loosest possible sense).

Public service broadcasting has come to mean non-commercial shows and content, the stuff which doesn’t make money or attract huge audiences, but which the broadcaster feels should be aired because of the public good or because it ticks boxes needed to get the cash in the first place to keep the show on the road. Of course, given the plurality of media in 2013, there are many more media organisations than RTE who could claim to be doing that – or who would be happy to claim that cash, use some of it to produce that content and the rest of the cash for something else.

Getting the definition right is going to be great sport, but not as much as working out where the new pots of cash go. As things stand, we, the people who pay our TV licence, have a vague idea where the money goes. We know that RTE get the bulk of it and it probably pays for the more commendable and less commercial shows (DOI: as a contributer to RTE’s Arena, I probably get a slice of this). It probably doesn’t pay for Pat Kenny’s wages but, as we know from our own budgetary ins and outs, we’re not really clear how exactly the money is ring-fenced to ensure that doesn’t happen.

It might be an idea were Rabbitte to ensure that the whole process of who gets what from the new public service broadcasting charge was completely transparent and above-board. Imagine a list which was produced every quarter of who got what to do what from this new charge.

But, as we’ve seen time and time again on this ruddy little island, notions of transparency and above-board-ness work well in theory, but not so much in practice. Given how the new licence will be quickly seen as another tax, you can probably expect cynicism to reign about where the cash goes. After all, few who are paying property taxes and the other additional charges really believe those particular monies will be ring-fenced as intended and are instead intended to pay off the bigger deficits and bills.