The idea for a television licence decoupled from ownership of a television, proposed by Fine Gael as long ago as the 2011 election campaign as a “content tax” or “public broadcasting charge to apply to all households and applicable businesses, regardless of the device they use to access content” has undergone several iterations since, but is not on the agenda of anyone realistic about Irish politics. Meanwhile RTÉ continues to struggle financially to keep its head above water.
In the coalition government that followed the 2011 election, Labour ministers – Pat Rabbitte then Alex White – took over the communications portfolio, and neither seemed enthusiastic about a new and more wide-ranging TV licence scheme, especially given the problems water charges were causing. The idea of a content tax was quietly shelved.
The idea was raised again following a Sean O’Rourke interview with RTÉ director general Dee Forbes on the subject of the station’s finances, during which she mentioned the fabulous value-for money of the RTÉ TV licence.
“The licence fee [€160] is 40 cents a day. That’s what it costs the Irish viewer. I think that’s incredible value for money. Quite honestly I think it should be double that”, she told the mid-morning show. “Look at the Scandinavian markets where the licence fee is double that and you see what they’re getting for that. The more money we have to play with content the more we can do. The case we’re in now is critical. We’re fighting for survival as an organisation. What I have to do, along with the team here, is ensure that we do survive”.
There followed a flurry of RTÉ stories, as Forbes was forced to clarify she was not saying the licence fee should be doubled, minister Denis Naughten effectively ruled out any fee increase, and the usual stories about who might take over licence collections to reducing the non-payment rate (estimated at 15 percent of the 92% of households that have a TV) were reheated.
The station had a €2.8m deficit in 2015 and the 2016 figure is expected to be multiples of that figure, for reasons ranging from the expense of covering the Olympics to the decline in UK-based advertisers due to Brexit. In January 2017, it announced plans to sell off part of its prime Donnybrook campus.
A few days after Forbes’ interview, the “content tax” on all screens larger that eleven inches resurfaced.
Having already been put on hold once, a broad-based broadcasting tax seems unlikely to succeed a second time. Memories of the backlash against water charges are still fresh. However, the idea now seems to be institutionally embedded.
Quite conceivably, after a few years and the next round of electoral musical chairs, one could foresee a Fianna Fáil (or possibly Sinn Féin) minister propose an amalgamated Home Tax, which would incorporate a broadcasting charge to finance RTÉ alongside the existing property tax, refuse charges, and perhaps even water charges. It would be marketed as an efficiency, so that harried taxpayers would only have to keep track of one tax bill instead of several. Italy, Greece, and Portugal take their fees as part of household electricity bills.
By then, RTÉ may have stemmed the flow temporarily by selling off some of the family silver and organising another round of redundancies, but it will still be caught in a downward spiral as advertising migrates to the behemoths of Google and Facebook.
Of the fee, approximately 85% goes to RTÉ to carry it out its Public Service Media commitments. A further 7% is paid to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland for the operation of the Broadcasting Funding Scheme, TG4 also receives €9.24m per annum and An Post is paid approximately 6% of the fee in respect of TV licence collection activities.
Dee Forbes did have a point when she spoke about the value the station offers at “40 cents a day”. Denmark, a country with only a slightly larger population, charges €322 for a TV licence, over twice the Irish rate. In addition, the licence is not restricted to TVs, but can also apply to computer screens. The results of that greater investment can be been seen on Irish TV and other screens, where viewers are familiar with successful exports like ‘Borgen’ and ‘The Bridge’.
Everyone in Ireland benefits from a financially healthy RTE, not least because occasionally ‘Prime Time’ or ‘This Week’ can spend half an hour dissecting the latest HSE or Garda omnishambles, and someone has to do that work. And a financially healthier firm would also have the resources to produce two or three high-quality programmes a year which it could export to other TV markets, earning additional revenue. But persuading the multitude that they need to pay more for RTÉ when presented with, for example, Ryan Tubridy’s annual salary, may be an uphill climb too far for Ireland’s politicians.
Written by Gerard Cunningham