What are the Government’s public media funding options?
Eight choices for reforming support for Irish broadcasting in a global media business
RTÉ says that since 2009, the number of ‘no TV’ homes has grown by more than 200 per cent, resulting in ‘lost’ funding of €24 million.
Introduce household media charge
The plan examined by two former Labour communications ministers, Pat Rabbitte then Alex White, still makes sense to a lot of people including the Oireachtas communications committee, which made it the first recommendation of its report last November. The current television licence funding model is “not fit for purpose”, said chairwoman Hildegarde Naughton, and should be replaced by a household-based broadcasting charge collected by the Revenue Commissioners.
Change the definition of television
Minister for Communications Denis Naughten spent some time in 2016 and 2017 exploring the idea of expanding the definition of the devices eligible to pay (a statutory instrument from 2009 specifically exempts various devices). In the UK, people who only access the BBC through its iPlayer are eligible to pay the licence fee since 2016. RTÉ says that since 2009, the number of “no TV” homes has grown by more than 200 per cent, resulting in “lost” funding of €24 million.
‘Collect what’s due’ from licence fee
RTÉ says some €36 million could be recovered through improvements to the licence fee collection system. An Post, the collection agent, commissioned a counter-report from Accenture that suggested the rate of evasion may be lower than the Department says and that a crackdown would yield just €11 million for RTÉ. The Minister has explored the idea of putting the business out to public tender. “At the very least, they should collect what’s due,” says Screen Producers’ Ireland chief Elaine Geraghty.
Change the rate from €160
The television licence fee has been the same rate since January 2008, when it increased by €2 from €158.The Oireachtas committee advised that the level of the fee should be reviewed every two years “in light of the Consumer Price Index”. But the Minister told the Dáil his priority was to reform the current collection model and reduce the evasion rate, rather than “imposing additional charges on the public”. There have been no hints of a cut in the rate either.
Spread public media funding
RTÉ receives 86 per cent of licence fee receipts with 7 per cent put into the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s funding schemes (which can be accessed by independent television and radio producers) and the balance going to TG4 and to pay for collection costs. Other parts of the media – most vocally the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland group that represents the non-RTÉ radio sector – argue for a share of the funds to help pay for their public service content.
Increase funds in respect of free licences
The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection pays the Department of Communications a fixed amount for the free television licences given to about 430,000 households – mostly older people – as part of the Household Benefits Package. But this sum is subject to a cap and was cut during the recession. In every budget, the Government can effectively increase or decrease RTÉ’s funding by changing the cap on one department’s payment to another.
Switch to general taxation
Funding public service media through general taxation has the advantage of being fairer than a set fee that is the same for everyone eligible, regardless of their income. The argument against is that it harms the independence or perceived independence of the public service broadcaster. The centre-right Danish government recently announced it was scrapping its fee and replacing it with direct funding that will result in a 20 per cent budget cut for broadcaster DR.
Legislate to allow retransmission fees
RTÉ has asked the Government to amend the “must offer” part of broadcasting legislation that prohibits it from charging pay-TV operators for their main channels. The Oireachtas communications committee backed it on this in principle, as did the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The move is fiercely opposed by Sky, which threatened to drop RTÉ from its service, and Virgin Media Ireland, which said it would pass the cost on to its subscribers.