RTE's €55m for pensioner TV licences under threat in Budget
RTE's €55m payment from the Government to pay for free TV licences for pensioners is coming under scrutiny ahead of Budget cutbacks.
The Irish Independent understands the Department of Social Welfare is looking for the payment to be reduced in December's Budget.
The move comes as the national broadcaster was severely criticised by Fianna Fail backbenchers, with one junior minister saying the subsidy should no longer be paid.
Coalition sources admit stopping the payment completely is unlikely to happen, but signalled a cut in the price of the TV licence may be on the cards in the New Year.
RTE gets €200m from licence fees, which represents well over half of the broadcaster's income.
The current cost of a TV licence is €160, but the Government pays for free TV licences for 390,000 pensioners and some other social welfare recipients.
RTE gets the bulk of the €59m cost, after the payment of an administration fee to An Post and a 7pc payment into a fund divided between all broadcasters.
Payment for the scheme is made by the Department of Social Welfare to the Department of Communications.
The issue of the licence fee was also brought up on numerous occasions at the party meeting, with calls for it to be slashed in December's Budget.
Junior Minister Dick Roche last night described the €55m as "inappropriate" and said no money was given by the State to print media or independent broadcasters.
Mr Roche said it was a "misnomer" to call the licence given to pensioners and other social welfare recipients free.
"That €55m, there or thereabouts, is a subsidy paid from the Department of Social Welfare," he said.
"That money is paid by taxpayers to RTE. At a time when every other area is being looked at, it is inappropriate. In the current context, it has to be looked at."
Mr Roche said the Broadcasting Act could be changed so people whose licence was paid for by the State would still get it, but no subsidy would be given to RTE for it.
He was also critical of the "relentless negativity" of certain RTE programmes.
Coalition sources said that Social Welfare Minister Eamon O Cuiv's department was seeking to reduce the payment, while still providing the licence to all those entitled to it.
But Communications Minister Eamon Ryan's department is understood to be pointing out that removing the €55m would be "quite crippling".
RTE is handling the changeover to digital television, on behalf of the Government, so this would be the first project under threat if there was a cut.
The broadcaster last night defended its coverage of Fianna Fail after party TDs and senators, including Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, lashed out at the national broadcaster's treatment of the party.
RTE One's 'The Frontline' programme was singled out for particular criticism during a meeting of the FF parliamentary party earlier this week.
The station last night maintained that 'The Frontline' was a serious current affairs debate programme, allowing members of the public, representatives of interest groups, politicians and many other people to debate the issues of the day.
"Many of our programmes include a panelist representing the Government, very often from Fianna Fail. None of these representatives has ever been unfairly treated and none has ever complained to the programme afterwards about their treatment," a statement said.
Fianna Fail Limerick West TD Niall Collins said TDs should boycott the show, which he described as entertainment rather than current affairs.
Mr Collins said members of the far right would be better treated on the show than Fianna Fail members.