BAI defends rise in funding for public service broadcasting
Coillins denies claim by Oireachtas committee that BAI is a ‘mudguard’ for RTE
Broadcasting Authority of Ireland chairman Bob Collins told a committee today: “We are not here to prop up RTÉ. RTÉ is capable of propping itself up.”
The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has stood over its decision to recommend an increase in State funding for RTÉ in its five year review of public funding for public service broadcasting.
The chair of the BAI Bob Collins and its chief executive Michael O’Keeffe attended a meeting of the Oireachtas committee on communications this morning to discuss its review and outline why it made some of its key recommendations.
The recommendation that attracted most attention from committee members was for additional funding to be made available to RTÉ for an increased level of public service broadcasting.
The BAI decision on this issue was taken despite a recommendation against any increase in funding made by the consultants Crowe Howarth, who had been commissioned by the authority.
Mr Collins said that the BAI had recommended no increase in funding for RTÉ at present and no increase either if its current level of public service output was maintained.
However, he went on to say that the authority took the view that that level of output was inadequate for a public service broadcaster, now and into the future.
“To to secure that and in receipt of a specific plan, we think there is a strong argument for saying that the level of [public service] broadcasting for Irish audiences needs greater investment coupled with tight control of RTÉ’s costs.”
He said that an increase in public monies for public service broadcasts (including news and current affairs) would be balanced by new restrictions and limits on RTÉ’s when it came to advertising and commercial opportunities. Those limits would make more commercial revenue potentially available to its rivals including TV3.
He described this rebalancing as a “radical move”
Mr Collins and Mr O’Keeffe were asked by several committee members why the BAI had not adopted the findings of a report commissioned by them. Mr Collins replied if it accepted all the findings there would not be a need for a BAI but as the statutory and regulatory body it had an obligation to arrive at its own view.
Several TDs, notably Patrick O’Donovan of Fine Gael and independent TD Michael Healy Rae, also contended that the BAI were more favourable to RTÉ than to commerical rivals. Mr O’Donovan claimed the BAI had come in “with the mantra of propping up RTÉ”. Mr Healy Rae that Mr Collins was saying “RTÉ was not living within its budget, it needs more money and you want to give it more money”.
He also asseRTÉd that Mr Collins had said four times that local radio stations were profitable and was suggesting they were fine “paddling away on their own canoe”.
Mr Collins said that was a caricature and to characterise the BAI”s careful proposals to the Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte in that manner was “inaccurate and wrong and unfair and inappropriate”.
Many members of the committee referred to the quality of public service broadcasting that was being done by independent local radio without the type of State assistance afforded to RTÉ and TG4. Mr Collins and Mr O’Keeffe said that each of the stations had a licence that gave it exclusivity in its own area, pointed to the profitable operations of many, and also said they had recourse to the sound and vision fund. Several TDs including Mr Healy Rae and Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley said that efficiencies made by the local stations during the recession had ensured no loss, but had also a negative impact on the breadth of local coverage of news, sports and community events.
Asked by committee chairman John O’Mahony (Fine Gael) of the recent announcement by UTV that it would enter the television market in the Republic, Mr Collins said he welcomed the move which would increase competition. But he said UTV would apply for the licence under a section of broadcasting legislation that imposed fewer obligations on than on TV3, TG4 and RTÉ. He described this as anomalous.
“Independent broadcasters are providing as good a public broadcasting service. Would it be better for licence funding to be dispersed to to those as well to to make sure those independent stations have a future,” he said.
Mr O’Donovan argued that the BAI should not be a “safety net or mudguard for RTÉ” and questioned the recommendation for an increase in public funding in the future when it already had a “bloated level of expenditure”. Like his colleague Paudie Coffey, he pointed to what he claimed were exorbitant salaries of some presenters, several multiples more than that of the Taoiseach.
Mr Colllins responded: “We are not here to prop up RTÉ. RTÉ is capable of propping itself up.
“We are looking at how RTÉ discharges its obligations in terms of the money it gets. We are looking at how its schedule serves the Irish audience present and future, and what conditions will apply.”
He said the BAI had specifically said there should be no additional funding for RTÉ at present or under its present plans.
He again said he believed the RTÉ schedule was not sufficient to meet the needs of an Irish audience for public service programming and it was in that context of increased output that more State funding would be sought.