Irish politicians have more in common with Tory Nadine Dorries than they think

Undermining of public media here less overt than attacks on BBC, but outcome is the same

Between headlines about "wine-time Fridays" and the charming suggestion from an unnamed Conservative that Boris Johnson would need "A Week of Machetes" to displace the blame for partygate, UK culture secretary Nadine Dorries sent her dead-cat contribution to Operation Red Meat – or was it Operation Save Big Dog? – in the form of a pre-8am Sunday tweet.

The British government’s new licence fee settlement with the BBC “will be the last”, declared Dorries, a minister who is so on top of her brief she only recently had to be corrected on her claim that Channel 4 receives public funding.

Never mind the BBC’s 100 years of broadcasting history and its remarkable centrality to British soft power, how about a spiral of decline?

Anyone with a cultural bone in their body, and a sense of perspective about the flaws in its domestic news-gathering, was understandably incensed. And though the spoofing Dorries soon rowed back on her assertion that the licence fee would be no more beyond 2027, consternation lingered in relation to the freezing of the rate at £159 (€190) for two years, followed by inflation-linked increases for four. Those Tories, eh?

This, the BBC responded, was “disappointing”, not just for audiences who would now have to suffice with lower content output as it absorbed inflation rates above 5 per cent, but for the cultural industries that “rely on the BBC”.

It’s a bind that seems to affect public service broadcasters more readily than State-owned bodies in other sectors of life: the same high rate of inflation that means their funding is declining in real terms also makes it politically less likely, given the pressure on households, that they will see a rise in that funding.

In the Republic, there hasn’t been an increase in the licence fee since January 2008, when it nudged up €2 to €160. Nor, it seems, is there likely to be one ever again. In January 2008, the BBC licence fee was £135.60. Since then, it has increased 17 per cent. So which public service broadcasting tradition is the one under attack?

RTÉ, which receives 88 per cent of Irish licence fee receipts, must contend with a rate that is €30 lower in euro terms than its British counterpart, which also enjoys more favourable economies of scale.

‘Acute’ problem

Montrose's submission to last week's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearing duly made sure to mention the "static" rate of the fee. It went on to argue that failure to keep pace with a global surge in inflation "creates an unrealistic basis on which to maintain a service" that fulfils its current remit and is "a problem which is likely to become more acute".

But so high are the odds of ever securing a licence fee increase, RTÉ is not seeking one, director-general Dee Forbes assured the PAC. Instead, it continues its push for wider reform of the licence fee mechanism to reduce the €65 million estimated to be lost each year to evasion and the growing number of "no-TV households", who are ineligible to pay even if they access RTÉ services online.

Take the swelling number of households who receive a free licence – including all over-70s – into consideration and it’s not hard to see how the proportion of households funding Irish broadcasting is quietly whittling down to a level that is massively unfair. No rate hike can take place in this situation.

The BBC, meanwhile, is happy with the licence fee itself, with chairman Richard Sharp describing it as the "least worst option". It can afford to say this because the UK evasion rate is half the Irish rate and its no-TV trend, while also running behind ours, is less material because its licence fee hasn't been dependent on television ownership since September 2016, when iPlayer users were brought into the payment loop.

At the PAC, the hostile climate to public service broadcasting "in other countries" was raised by the Green Party's Neasa Hourigan. Before giving Forbes a thorough going-over on RTÉ's poor approach to gender pay information, Hourigan noted how governments elsewhere saw State-supported media "as a target to be undermined and defunded", the only people this suiting being "populists, conspiracy theorists and the far right".

But does intention matter? While the Tories’ campaign against public media – which also takes in plans to sell Channel 4 for no good reason – is deliberate and overt, if Irish politicians are indeed “trying to reach a sustainable long-term approach for RTÉ”, as Hourigan said, they’re going an interesting way about it.

With some honourable exceptions, members of the PAC reverted to Oireachtas committee type, wondering why RTÉ wasn't, in fact, spending more of the money it doesn't have on the kind of stuff they themselves like.

Why wasn’t it making dramas like that nice (BBC) show Normal People? Why doesn’t it have a sports channel? And (my favourite one) why wasn’t RTÉ providing “more Dublin-focused content?”

How many hours have we got here?

Player ‘disgrace’

Maybe castigating RTÉ for not doing things it would dearly and clearly love to do is a waste of time, and maybe that includes telling it that the RTÉ Player is “a disgrace”. It knows. It also knows that the price of making it “fit for purpose”, as Channel 4 has done with All4, is too rich for this Government’s blood.

There may be less drama involved – literally – but RTÉ still vies with the same contradictory set of expectations as the BBC.

Its political masters want it to be as smooth and effortless as Netflix – a global business that can survive losing almost $50 billion in market value in a single day – while simultaneously being hungry for State funds and weak enough to keep in check.

They should ask themselves if they are any better than Dorries, who loves Strictly Come Dancing, but wants to gut the BBC.