MATT COOPER: We need public service broadcasting but others must get their fair share

THE phrase “can’t pay, won’t pay” is one that we are hearing more often in public discourse and which we can expect to hear far more often over the next year as property and water taxes and the broadcasting charge are added to the rank of annual payments expected of citizens.

The “broadcasting charge” is not a new one, unlike the hated new incoming property and water taxes, but merely a renaming of the TV licence. Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte has indicated that it won’t be any more expensive than the existing €160 annual levy, so it shouldn’t have an adverse effect on the majority of people.

That won’t make it any more acceptable to some people though. Nor will the reason for its implementation: to ensure funds for the provision of public service broadcasting. The argument at present is that enough money is not being collected. It’s reckoned that about 19% of eligible households don’t pay the charge. In some cases it is a case of “can’t pay” but in many it may be a case of “won’t pay”.

After all, it is believed that many of those who refuse to pay are quite happy to pay about €60 at least to a cable or satellite provider for a wide range of services. Many of the rest made the necessary payments to saorview, or bought a new television in the last year to facilitate the digital switchover.

There’s a tech savvy generation too that watch loads of television but not on a traditional set. They download material to their PCs, laptops, tablets or mobiles, and while they are quite happy to pay providers for wifi or mobile charges they don’t want to pay for the content that they are enjoying.

People come out with all sorts of excuses to justify their non-payment of the money due. The most common runs along the lines of “I don’t watch or listen to RTÉ, so why should I pay for it, especially the big fat salaries for its stars?”

Rabbitte, by contrast, believes that everybody, even those without a set, benefits from “publicly-funded, public service broadcasting” and that “the cost should be borne by society as a whole”.

There may be people who chose not to watch the news or Prime Time (though it won’t stop them complaining about things or saying that nobody told them), who have no interest in watching Ireland compete in international sports events or who feel that watching the Late Late Show is a sign of a social failure on a Friday night. There may be people who do watch and who complain things are not up to the standard they demand or cost too much.

And that’s fine. But the principle of public service broadcasting is a good one and allowing content to be dictated solely by the market would not necessarily be healthy for society. However, that does not mean there are not problems with the way things are done.

RTÉ is not the only provider of public service broadcasting. (I host a radio programme on a commercial station that claims to be in that space). And RTÉ does a hell of a lot that could not claim to be anything other than commercially driven, serving no public service interest at all.

But for all its faults, RTÉ is essential to the nation. We are much better off with it than without it. The arguments should be about improving it, while also not nobbling its competition.

RTÉ doesn’t get all of the money raised by the licence fee, about €180m in a year, down from over €204m in 2009. RTÉ gets 88% of net licence fee revenue, with 5% going to TG4 and the remainder to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to fund public-service programmes, although much of that goes to programmes that end up back on RTÉ and some now is earmarked for movie making.

The Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI), which represents 34 national and local commercial radio stations, recently called for a public subsidy to be made available to them from the proceeds of the proposed household broadcasting charge.

While IBI members get little or nothing of the available public funding they knew this when they applied for their licences. But it is also true that they did not foresee a 40% fall in commercial revenue. This is the more important point. It is not subsidy from the State that they need but a level playing field when it comes to seeking commercial revenue. The real issue is how RTÉ allegedly uses its dual funding to undercut rivals in securing advertising revenue and to buy or make programming that other stations cannot afford.

TV3 has been most vocal in this regard. (Conflict of interest declaration on my part: I have presented GAA programmes on the channel for the last five years). It went to the Competition Authority claiming that RTÉ abused its dominant position in the advertising market and won. However, it has claimed since that a new discount scheme offered by RTÉ is a further breach. It commissioned analysis from outside experts who claimed that the cost of television advertising in Ireland is 35% below the European average. “No other broadcaster in the EU has close to RTÉ’s share of the ad market, and the average is less than half RTÉ’s 55% share,” he told an interviewer last year.

RTÉ, as a group, has been allowed to run up four years of substantial deficits, even though it is not allowed to do this according to the legislation that governs it. Parts of it are heavily loss-making and continuing in that way distorts the market. RTÉ 2 is reckoned to run double digit losses each year and radio station 2FM is also heavily loss-making. Yet the TV channel continues to hoover up sports rights and big American series.

It is hoped that a successful public broadcasting charge, as a replacement to the TV licence, would bring in significantly more revenue, possibly up to €30m more if the present level of evasion can be eliminated. But can the money be collected and if so then how should it be allocated?

Rabbitte has said that any direct subsidy of commercial radio stations might fall foul of European state aid rules. He has also argued that “spreading the butter so thinly” would have an impact on RTÉ’s ability to fulfil its mandate. But does RTÉ need to do less, with a more focused brief, but just do it better? Does it need to move away from the commercial space, to allow others who should not access public funding, a fairer chance to gain their revenues through advertising? That of course doesn’t solve the problems of the print media, suffering from a decline in circulation revenue (perhaps due more than is often given credit to people having less disposable income than a migration to the web) and an even bigger fall in advertising revenue. But Rabbitte has said he won’t divert revenue from the new broadcasting charge to the traditional print media. It is easy to see why he wouldn’t.

Who would decide what newspaper gets how much? What influence would it give governments over newspapers or associated online content? Would it be fair to save newspapers, and not other media or non- media businesses, from collapse? But should RTÉ be allowed to generate commercial income that subsidises RTÉ’s online content when the print media has no such buffer? Many of these arguments may be moot though if the Government does not come up with a means to ensure that those who don’t pay do.

In France there is a public service broadcasting levy. It is collected along with the property tax by their equivalent of the Revenue Commissioners. Somehow I doubt this would be a route the Government will employ given the public fuss it would cause.

- The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.


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