RTÉ chairwoman accused Taoiseach of ‘deliberately undermining’ broadcaster over licence fee

Tensions between RTÉ and Government revealed in letters this summer between chairwoman of board Moya Doherty and Micheál Martin

The chairwoman of RTÉ accused the Taoiseach and his Government of “deliberately undermining” the broadcaster by not committing to reforming the TV licence system.

In a series of letters to Micheál Martin, Moya Doherty complained of “persistent Government inaction” at a time when RTÉ was facing “profound” challenges.

The Government in July rejected a recommendation from the Future of Media Commission to abolish the licence fee from 2024 onwards and replace it with exchequer funding. Ministers instead agreed to overhaul how the charge is collected and establish a group, due to report shortly, to assess the licence system.

RTÉ gets some €200 million a year in income from the €160 licence fee, which is collected by An Post, but has long complained that the rate of evasion and avoidance costs it tens of millions annually. An additional €140 million of its €340 million annual budget comes from commercial activities.


‘Decision-making vacuum’

Correspondence released under Freedom of Information legislation to The Irish Times shows that Ms Doherty wrote to Mr Martin on June 14th expressing RTÉ's ongoing concern about the “failure” to publish the commission’s report, which had “created a decision-making vacuum for RTÉ” as the “outstanding matter of licence fee reform remains unaddressed”.

“As a board, our commitment is to maintain and develop RTÉ's core mission of public service broadcasting. But we are currently being hindered in this important work by the failure to publish the outcome of the work of the commission.”

On July 8th, Ms Doherty again wrote to Mr Martin following a briefing from officials in the Department of Culture, Arts and Media ahead of the publication of the report.

“It seems that the outcome of this lengthy process is that once again meaningful reforms of the funding system that underpins public media in Ireland will be avoided by Government,” she said.

“Accepting 49 of the 50 recommendations in the report as indicated by the department, but without any commitment to reform the licence fee or any firm commitment to interim funding for RTÉ or the wider media sector renders this whole process meaningless.

‘Government inaction’

“Notwithstanding public statements of support, persistent Government inaction at this point can only be understood as a deliberate undermining of what RTÉ is here to do.”

Mr Martin responded on July 11th, saying the commission’s report would be considered by the Cabinet the following day and defending not accepting the licence fee recommendation.

“This approach does not in any way diminish our support for continued public funding of media, and RTÉ in particular,” he said. “We believe that an approach which will reform and enhance collection of the TV licence, alongside continued exchequer funding, is the most sustainable means of supporting RTÉ and wider media in Ireland, while also protecting its independence.

“I also want to assure you that the approach to be adopted in no way represents ‘a deliberate undermining of what RTÉ is here to do’ but is in fact a genuine effort to ensure we have a sustainable approach to the future of Irish public service broadcasting consistent with the thrust of the commission’s recommendations.”

On September 15th, Ms Doherty wrote again to Mr Martin, saying that she welcomed commitments made in relation to interim funding arrangements, which were to be acted upon in the budget.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times