Analysis: Broadcasting charge finally shelved after five years

Broadcasters seek urgent improvements to ‘inefficient’ television licence fee system

After five years, two governments and three ministers for communications, the public service broadcasting charge has finally been laid to rest.

Few were shocked by Denis Naughten’s announcement that the proposed replacement for the TV licence had no chance of being approved by the current Dáil, and that the Government would therefore not introduce the necessary enabling legislation.

Surprisingly, RTÉ, which stood to benefit most from the new charge, welcomed the announcement, as did the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, which represents the commercial radio sector. Along with other interested parties such as Screen Producers Ireland, they have accommodated themselves to the inescapable political reality. While there may be significant differences between them over how any money should be allocated, they all believe that improvements to the licence fee and to how it is collected are now urgently needed.

“RTÉ very much welcomes the department’s recognition of the challenges facing the existing licence fee system – in particular the high evasion rate – and we look forward to discussing the range of options available,” the broadcaster said yesterday.

But the reality is the broadcasting charge was a rational, equitable modernising proposal which became collateral damage in the toxic fiasco of Irish Water. In its absence, public service broadcasting in Ireland now faces a bleak future unless Naughten and his colleagues in Government are prepared to make a few hard decisions.

The logic of the charge was laid out concisely in the programme for government agreed in 2011 by Fine Gael and Labour: "We will examine the role, and collection of, the TV licence fee in light of existing and projected convergence of broadcasting technologies, transform the TV licence into a household-based Public Broadcasting Charge applied to all households and applicable businesses, regardless of the device they use to access content."

No less persuasive

Five and a half years later, that logic is no less persuasive. It’s less and less necessary to have a television set to watch TV, while our high levels of evasion are getting worse. A universal charge would have addressed these issues and most law-abiding citizens would have suffered no financial penalty.

In 2013, the then minister, Pat Rabbitte, said exemptions to the new charge would not apply. "I don't believe that we have cavemen in the country," he said. Rabbitte's natural ebullience – or arrogance – would soon be tempered by the popular revolt against water charges, accompanied by a collapse in support for his party at the 2014 local and European elections. The chances of pushing through another new universal charge waned, and the proposal was deferred until "after the next election" by new minister Alex White.

Rabbitte was right, though, when he said the current funding model was "not sustainable in the long run." On his departure as director general of RTÉ two months ago, Noel Curran said the regulation of public service broadcasting in Ireland was "broken". Funding had been cut by more than €15 million since 2010, and three consecutive recommendations by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) that RTÉ's public funding should be increased had been ignored, he said.

Conflict

Now that the broadcasting charge is off the table, Naughten will be faced quite quickly with a conflict between two semi-State companies which report to his department. In correspondence with the Department of Communications, RTÉ has been highly critical of An Post’s performance in collecting the licence fee.

An Post

says its targets are set each year by the department, which in turn blames the reduction in collection on a decrease in television sets in homes.

And that, unfortunately, is pretty much where we came in five and a half years ago.