Despite all the focus on RTÉ, there is disappointingly little political will to decide on a new funding model

Some of the issues raised by politicians one hundred years ago about public service broadcasting still haven’t been satisfactorily answered

Right from the start, politicians were tetchy about Irish public service broadcasting and uncertain of their role in relation to it. One hundred years ago, the Dáil debated the structures and financing of a possible broadcasting service for the new Free State. Given the ongoing storm over the status, funding and governance of RTÉ, it is worth considering what was deemed to be at stake in 1924. The debate then was prompted by the deliberations of a special committee established by the Dáil to examine the radio broadcasting options; it met 37 times between January and March 1924.

There were both financial and cultural aspects to this issue. Historian Johannah Duffy suggests that while “ostensibly it was concerned with the mechanisms for establishing a broadcasting service, in reality it broadened out to address wider issues of broadcast policy and its relationship to cultural identity. In particular, the debate was concerned with the potential of broadcasting to mediate and promote notions of national consciousness as well as its power to disseminate cultural expression and values from outside.”

Such a focus was inevitable during an era of nation-building and what was regarded as the imperative of cultural self-sufficiency in the fledgling State. But what also mattered was the perilous state of the national finances. In late 1923, the White Paper on broadcasting suggested a new station should be run along commercial lines rather than becoming a burden on the exchequer.

That contention divided political opinion. In 1924, Labour Party TD Patrick Hogan was adamant that “if we let control of this popular and extensive means of cultivating our national distinctiveness pass from our hands into private institutions, we will find that these private institutions will be more interested in producing dividends than in doing any good for the life of the nation”. The postmaster-general, JJ Walsh, asserted that “the question of finance enters very largely into the control of broadcasting” and insisted the state would pay a very heavy price for controlling it, as “it cannot possibly get the same value for its money as a private firm”. Who would pay a licence, he wondered, given that what most people wanted from broadcasting was “amusement” rather than “enlightenment”? Walsh estimated there were about 25,000 wireless receivers in the State by the end of 1926, but that only 5,000 licences had been taken out. Ultimately, it was decided it would be a state service.


In the early 1950s, when it came to the possibility of Irish television, the Department of Finance was hostile to the idea of the State taking responsibility for such a service, believing it, in the words of John Bowman, to be “a luxury service and capable of distorting the balance of payments”. León Ó Broin, the secretary of the department of Posts and Telegraphs, who did more than anyone to advance a domestic television service, was disturbed at the idea of allowing “private commercial interests to take over”. A commission set up by minister for finance James Ryan in 1958 favoured a commercial service, a recommendation that was rejected.

Oireachtas committees have become adept at grilling, but where is the political appetite to act on those reports which are the product of even more grilling?

Contemporary versions of these debates should now be centre stage but are being sidelined. It is widely accepted that the TV licence fee model is outdated, and the 269-page report of the Future of Media Commission (FMC), eventually published by the Government in July 2022, a year after it was completed, described the licence fee as regressive, recommending instead direct funding from the exchequer. The report notes that exchequer funding in 2010 accounted for 37 per cent of public service media funding, which had increased to 43 per cent by 2020, and that direct sale of TV licences “are not sufficient even to fund RTÉ on an annual basis”.

There is much political will to excavate RTÉ finances and misgovernance, but very little, it seems, to decide on a new funding model. Oireachtas committees have become adept at grilling, but where is the political appetite to act on those reports which are the product of even more grilling? The FMC report notes “its formal public consultation process resulted in more than 800 written submissions, while its series of six online Thematic Dialogues saw more than 1,000 members of the public and 50 expert panellists engage in detailed discussions and debate on a broad range of matters pertinent to the Commission’s deliberations... The Commission also engaged directly with industry stakeholders and policymakers and sought the views of national and international media experts.”

What we have been witnessing since last summer is not just an RTÉ problem but another chapter of a very old book composed of multiple themes. If, a century ago, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the State could be excused for not having a clear vision for public service broadcasting and being uncertain about its own role, it can hardly be excused now.