People who do not have TVs but watch Irish-produced content may have to pay a charge under proposals to be examined by a new Government-established technical group.
Minister for Media Catherine Martin said this will be “one of the issues” to be examined by the new group which will look at ways to update the existing €160 TV licence amid concerns about evasion and more homes not having televisions.
The Government has rejected a recommendation from the Future of Media Commission to abolish the TV licence from 2024 and replace it with exchequer funding derived from taxation.
Instead, Ministers agreed to “overhaul” the collection of the charge and to establish the group to look at how the charge can be updated to reflect modern media consumption.
This is despite the fact the commission discounted the option of reforming the fee, saying it could lead to more court cases over evasion.
The report also warned that “it is likely that public scepticism about the TV licence approach will continue to grow over time, as it becomes clearer that the burden is being borne by fewer households year on year”.
The commission recommended the abolition of the licence fee from 2024 to be replaced by exchequer funding or more specifically an “explicit taxation approach”.
At a meeting on Tuesday morning the Cabinet approved 49 of the 50 recommendations made by the commission.
Defending the decision, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said it would be extremely costly for the exchequer to abolish the TV licence.
He welcomed the plan and said this “marks a new departure, both for public service broadcasters and for commercial and community print, online and broadcast media”.
The report recommended a reduced or zero VAT rate for newspapers and digital publications contingent on agreement at EU level. Mr Martin said the Government was examining this but that there could be issues with EU VAT directives.
The report also recommended the development of a National Counter-Disinformation Strategy to “enhance trust and protect the safety of Irish users of global content platforms”.
The report found “over the coming decade, the media sector is likely to change beyond all recognition. Yet, it seems clear that broadcast, online and print media in Ireland are just starting out on this journey of transformation”.
The commission, which was chaired by Prof Brian MacCraith, said in its report “the coming decade will be highly disruptive for Ireland’s media sector”.
“It presents both exciting opportunities and serious threats to Ireland’s media system. Technological advances, changing consumer behaviour and social needs challenge media to develop new business models and new ways to engage with audiences, or risk losing them,” the report said.
“The media system faces long-term economic challenges. These include a decisive shift in advertising revenues away from media towards the technology firms that dominate the digital advertising market, compounded, in the case of print media, by declining circulation revenues and, in the case of public service media, by the increasing unsustainability of TV licence fees as a source of public funding.”
The Government announced that a new Coimisiún na Meán will be given statutory responsibility for supporting public service content provision.
A new media fund will be set up to support schemes for print, online and broadcast media at local, regional and national level. There will also be measures to improve diversity within, and access to, the media sector.
The Government said on Tuesday morning it had decided to maintain a “direct link between media and the public they serve, and to minimise the risk of actual or perceived political interference in media independence, that the TV licence will be maintained but overhauled”.
“Work will commence immediately on setting out the legislative and administrative changes required to ensure the TV licence system is more equitable, relevant and sustainable. The reform of the TV licence will aim to align with changing viewing habits, tackle evasion, streamline the collection and payment regime, and thereby provide a more sustainable level of funding for the sector. The new funding arrangements will be accompanied by increased transparency, accountability and oversight, with an expanded role for Coimisiún na Meán and NewERA.”
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the report “will help to secure the future of public service broadcasting in Ireland”.
“The decision to maintain but overhaul the licence fee is the correct one. It guarantees a dedicated and more secure funding stream for public service broadcasting and ensures that funding for the public service is ringfenced.”
Minister for Tourism and Arts Catherine Martin said the report “provides Government with a solid basis on which we can now ensure that a sustainable framework is put in place for the next decade at least”.
In response to the report RTÉ welcomed the commitment by Government to link the licence fee to how media is now consumed.
“Over the past decade RTÉ, along with numerous stakeholders, has called for the licence fee system, which is utterly broken, to be meaningfully reformed,” director general Dee Forbes said. “The decision by Government today to align the obligation to pay the licence fee with how people consume media today is critical to ensure the future sustainability of the system.”
However, the National Union of Journalists expressed “grave disappointment” at the decision of the Government to reject key recommendations of the Future of Media Commission.
In a statement following the publication of the report Séamus Dooley, Irish secretary, warned the Government’s failure to reform the licence fee system would have significant consequences for public service broadcasting.
“This proposal has been rejected by Government without any public debate. While the Taoiseach has stressed support for 49 of the 50 recommendations of the commission, the failure to immediately act upon the proposals in relation to reform of the funding system is profoundly disappointing,” he said.
Meanwhile NewsBrands Ireland, the representative body for Ireland’s national news publishers, welcomed the report’s recommendation of a super-reduced or zero VAT rate to newspapers and digital publications: “The most significant decision that the Government can make to immediately support the news publishing industry would be to introduce a zero rate of VAT on print and digital newspapers in Budget 2023.”