The bigger picture is the survival of an independent Irish media

It's an odity in this country that we insist on universal entitlements but bristle at universal charges, writes Gerard Howlin

The bigger picture is the survival of an independent Irish media

Notwithstanding that there are far more portraits of women than men in the history of art, portraits of women usually sell for far more.

It’s different in RTÉ. Men on air earn more than women. It’s inherited bias. Women were judged more decorative, men more authoritative.

One inherited value that won’t be happening in RTÉ is that of gentlemen standing back to allow ladies go first.

Given the finances at the station, and the imperative for equality, the sensible thing would be to level down salaries across the board.

Perfectly equal and perfect sense but impossible. What equality means in practice is levelling up. But the station is struggling financially. The bigger picture is whether it can survive at all, and if so, in what form.

RTÉ reported a net deficit after tax of €19.7m, following on from a loss of €2.8m in 2015.

They haven’t been splurging. Operational costs are now 27% lower than 2008 levels. You can see the place fraying in Montrose.

Morale isn’t good either. A once-off sale of land will bolster things a bit for a while, but the model, like that for print media, is broken. It has to change, or ultimately making the payroll and not equal pay will be the pressing issue.

About 15% of households evade the licence fee. A further 10% of households say they don’t have a TV, so they are not eligible to pay.

The former minister for communications Pat Rabbitte proposed a sensible solution, namely a universal broadcasting charge which every household would pay. That requires politically a girding of loins, so it has gone away. Ministers aren’t prepared to take flak for a station they are out of sorts with.

What they think of RTÉ is a silent, sour version of what the protesting left vigorously articulate. Pilloried as part of the establishment, those supposed to be in that establishment have little love for it.

A sense of disappointment is the closest you get to regard.

The disappointment is that supposedly sensible people in RTÉ, don’t in fact behave sensibly and broadcast accordingly. The scorn they receive from the barricades, fairly correctly, is that in RTÉ they are usually establishment sorts. It’s soft left, achingly liberal, and unmistakably middle class.

Amusingly there is little self-awareness that the legitimate pursuit of gender equality, is as much an extension of, as an antidote to the station’s insularity. More people of the same sort, albeit of different genders and receiving equal pay, isn’t a radical shake-up. That would require more difference.

What really matters for RTÉ now is not an existential crisis about values. It’s an immediate crisis about money.

If roughly half of revenue comes from the licence fee and a quarter of those who receive the content are evading the fee, or are on gizmos besides a TV which mean they are ineligible to pay it, then that leaves an enormous hole. That is not to speak of the fact that it hasn’t kept pace with inflation.

It would be €175 not €160 if it had. But the world has changed and RTÉ hasn’t changed with it. Unequal pay is one metric of that. An insular attitude is another.

Looking back at the record of the joint committee on communications, climate action and environment on July 11, the station set out its case comprehensively. Its constituent parts have something to recommend them. It will likely deliver a move-on on how the licence fee is collected, and that will hopefully reduce evasion and increase revenue. But beyond that, don’t hope for much.

It’s essentially the narrow and, incidentally, special case for RTÉ. If well researched and presented in its own terms, there isn’t a bigger picture beyond the station. There is no larger coalition and there isn’t much hope for a lot of traction politically. It is a failure of judgment and of imagination by the board of the station.

Firstly, and as already said, the universal broadcasting charge is off the table. It’s an oddity in this country that we insist on universal entitlements but bristle at universal charges.

Ministers might say we have been overly influenced by RTÉ’s coverage on water charges. The issue of a charge on other devices used to access content, was floated at government and shot down.

So that leaves the loadstone of them all; re-transmission charges. Essentially RTÉ is free to air and companies like Virgin and Sky, where most of us access most of our television content, are obliged to carry it as part of their basic package.

RTÉ argues with justification that its content, created 50% with licence fee money, bestows considerable value on Sky, Virgin and others whose packages we then pay for. The national station wants the right to negotiate a payment for its content.

Additional value created by cable and satellite companies in the Irish market, is that technology allows them sell and insert Irish advertising into UK stations, when broadcast here.

So they are taking valuable Irish advertising to slot into British channels, while paying nothing for Irish content which bolsters the commercial value of the packages they sell to us.

The matter is complicated by the fact that, historically, the minister for RTÉ, was the minister for An Post thence the hiatus about tackling inefficient collection of the fee. The minister for RTÉ is also the minister for rural broadband, and will be loath to open war on one front with companies he is seeking a partnership with on another.

The bigger picture, the one missed by RTÉ, is that there is an essential public need for Irish content including news, investigative journalism and quality entertainment. It includes print and independent radio. Google, Facebook and Twitter are strip-mining content, leaving companies across media who generate it, teetering on the brink.

Soon an Amazon or another will enter the market, take the free broadcast content, and replicate the ongoing pillage-without- pay of print content too.

The story has moved on from Irish media in trouble to what is the future for any effective, independent Irish media at all. The appetite for content hasn’t diminished. If anything digital access has increased it.

Old insularity which is no longer justified or affordable has RTÉ in a cul-de-sac of special pleading.

What is required is not inadequate increases in a licence fee they enjoy the lion’s share of. It’s a far larger fund, RTÉ and others can ultimately do better from. Transparency about who is paid what would be required and that needs cultural change deeper than gender equality.

A public media fund, whether equally accessible to all broadcasters or to include print, would have far greater traction. In any event the issue for RTÉ is survival. The public policy issue is whether there is a future for an effective, independent Irish media at all.

It’s an oddity in this country that we insist on universal entitlements but bristle at universal charges

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