Communications Minister Richard Bruton has warned there will be "no way" to avoid the new phone and laptops TV licence fee - even if people can prove they are not watching RTÉ or only using devices for Netflix.
Mr Bruton confirmed that the Government will impose the charge regardless of an individual's ability to prove they are not watching the State broadcaster - despite failing to explain how it will be policed.
Under controversial plans revealed in today's Irish Examiner, the Government is set to replace the existing €160 TV licence fee with a new "device" charge from 2024.
The new system, which has been recommended by an independent working group, has been put forward to address the reality that at least 10% of households are now watching TV on phones or laptops, meaning they are not obliged to pay the current fee.
At a launch of the new plan today and as interest groups lashed out at the move, Mr Bruton said the changes are needed to ensure the financial future of RTÉ.
The Broadcasting Bill will also reduce the levy independent broadcasters have to pay and establish a grant for young journalists working in local and regional radio, in a bid to address increasing financial pressures on journalists caused by falling ad revenues.
The Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2019 will also see the broadcasting levy reduced for all broadcasters, while some community broadcasters will be exempt entirely.
NewsBrands Ireland welcomed Minister Bruton's acknowledgement that independent journalism should be supported but said that it must be placed in a wider context.
It also reiterated its call for the Government to appoint a Minister for Media with responsibility for oversight of all aspects of the ever-changing media market.
"The issue of Government support for public service journalism is not a straightforward issue and requires an urgent wider debate that extends beyond the provision of bursaries for local radio journalists and addresses some of the key challenges facing Irish media, including the chilling effect our libel laws have on the media’s role as the public’s watchdog and its ability to reveal matters of important public interest," it said in a statement this evening.
"Maintaining and supporting a viable quality journalism sector should be a priority for every Government interested in supporting our democratic process - and that support should not be confined to the broadcasting sector."
The Communications Minister said that from 2024 there will be "no way" to avoid paying if a person owns a TV, phone or laptop, even if they are not watching RTÉ or only using devices to connect to streaming websites like Netflix.
However, despite the hard-line stance, Mr Bruton was unable to explain how it will be possible to police the new collection system, sparking claims that it will be unworkable without opt-in compliance from the public.
"No, you will not be able to avoid [the new charge], obviously our intent is in ensuring the evasion rate is brought down," Mr Bruton said.
This is a fundamental reform that will take time to develop, but it will future proof the funding model, taking account of changes in technology and in how content is now consumed.— Richard Bruton (@RichardbrutonTD) August 2, 2019
When asked if exemptions will be given to people who can prove they do not watch RTÉ: "No, I don't believe we should be exempting people. There is an obligation on everyone to help that content being produced.
"People, of course, are free not to watch it or use it, but I think there is a universal obligation that this is part of a public service - as the ad says it is part of living in Ireland."
Asked how the new system will be policed as the current TV licence system is based on aerial signals being identified, Mr Bruton was unable to explain how this will work with phones and laptops - saying it will be a "challenge" of new technology.
However, he rejected claims that the new system will be unworkable, saying "that remains to be seen, it can be made workable".
Mr Bruton separately confirmed on Friday that between now and 2024 the current TV licence collection system will be put up for public tender, meaning that private debt collection agencies may be able to bid for the contract currently held by An Post.
However, asked about the potential risks this poses given the Government's repeated emphasis on driving down the 12% current non-compliance rate, Mr Bruton said "criteria" will be published to protect the public from over-the-top tactics.
The "device" charge system was welcomed by RTÉ director general, Dee Forbes, who said the plan to extend the licence fee to phones and laptops is needed to ensure the future of public service broadcasting in Ireland.
However, the Irish Postmasters Union warned that any outsourcing of the existing collection system could cost post offices €3m a year and see hundreds of jobs lost.
Similarly, Irish Congress of Trade Unions general secretary, Patricia King, said the plan does not address RTÉ's current funding black hole, while Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin both claim the new plan is a "tax" on technology.
Here is everything you need to know about the new "broadcasting charge" which is set to replace the TV licence fee.
What is changing?
Under the current system, anyone with a TV is meant to pay €160 a year for a TV licence.
However, from 2024, this system will be replaced by a "device" licence which will widen the net to include anyone watching shows on their phones or laptops.
Why are they doing this?
The Government has blamed that oldest of political mudguards: a working group.
However, they also say new technology means a TV-only licence is no longer suitable and that doing nothing risks RTE's financial future.
This all sounds vaguely familiar...
It should. Former Labour communications ministers Pat Rabbitte and Alex White tried - and failed - to introduce a near identical "household charge" during the 2011-2016 Fine Gael-Labour government.
I'm already paying the TV licence, what do these changes mean for me?
Nothing. The "licence" will just be expanded to all your devices at no extra cost, at least for now.
I'm not paying the TV licence because I only watch stations and Netflix on my phone or laptop, what does this mean?
Bad news. From 2024 you will be obliged to pay the charge as the law will say the devices can access a public service station.
I only use my phone or laptop to watch non-RTÉ shows. Do I still have to pay?
Yes. Communications Minister Richard Bruton said on Friday: "I don't believe we should be exempting people".
Is there any way to avoid paying the charge?
No. If you have a TV, phone or laptop, you will have to pay.
What if I do not have a phone, laptop or TV?
You will have to be able to prove this to officials - although presumably not by text or e-mail.
We have a number of laptops and phones in my house. Do I have to pay for each one?
Mr Bruton rejected this suggestion on Friday, saying it would be "very unfair".
Realistically, how can they police the new system?
Good question. Currently, TV licence inspectors can check for aerial signals. However, this will not be possible with phones or laptops.
Mr Bruton tried to explain the "challenge" away by referencing future technologies - which all sounds a bit, well, Brexit-y.
Why the delay until 2024?
Officially, the delay will give experts time to work out details.
However, cynics have noted that it also means the current Government has kicked the issue so far down the road it becomes its successor's problem.
What happens between now and 2024?
The Government will be putting the existing TV licence system - currently run by An Post - up for public tender.
This means private firms may start collecting the fee.
That sounds like a debt collection agency.
It does. Mr Bruton said any winning bidder will have to meet set standards.
However, officials have repeatedly said they are unhappy with the 12% evasion rate.
Forget about new systems and debt collectors. If RTÉ wants more money, why don't presenters take pay cuts?
RTÉ says it has cut salaries and now will not be able to continue operating unless changes are made.
Bottom line: You're paying.
- Additional reporting by Digital Desk