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Funding RTÉ looks likely to remain a big challenge

John McGee


Stock image. Picture by Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

Stock image. Picture by Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

Stock image. Picture by Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

Over the coming weeks, and possibly even months, the seemingly never-ending debate about how public service media in Ireland should be funded will acquire a new intensity.

Much of the debate will flow from the contents of a report drawn up by the Future of Media Commission (FOMC) which was tasked with coming up with a report on, well, the future of media and how public service media, particularly RTÉ, should be funded while future-proofing it  for the streaming age..

The FOMC’s report has been submitted to both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Five Departments & Media, Catherine Martin but it has yet to be officially approved or rejected by the Cabinet. Unofficially, however, one of the report’s key recommendations – the abolition of the existing TV licence fee and its replacement with some form of exchequer funding – looks like it is already dead in the water if the reaction of certain ministers and senior civil servants is anything to go by.

At this stage, I should point out the FOMC’s report has yet to be published and to focus on just one of what is likely to be numerous observations and recommendations is probably doing it a complete disservice. But if this turns out to be one of the main recommendations it makes, then it might also be the dumbest.

Let’s begin with the optics of such a move. At a time when the country is still in the throes of a major pandemic, it faces significant financial challenges in areas like health, education, housing and infrastructure. All of these will require significant investment over the coming years so bankrolling RTÉ is the last thing any government needs at this time. Even if any proposed funding is channelled through the soon-to-be-formed Media Commission – giving the semblance of an arm’s length transaction – it’s still a daft idea.

Notwithstanding the optics and in the interest of accountability and independence, no one government, minister or department should be allowed to meddle in the affairs of RTÉ or have any undue influence on setting its annual budgetary allocation. If this happened, there is a strong possibility that RTÉ would be used as a political football every year around Budget time. The whole idea behind a good public service broadcaster is that it serves the people, not the government of the day.

But it’s the government of the day which will ultimately decide how we fund RTÉ into the future and while time is not on its side, it is also running out of options. The alternatives to a direct subvention – a household media charge, possibly linked to income and collected by the Revenue Commissioners – or the existing status quo with TV licence are, realistically, the only ones that are worth considering.

But we have been down this road before over the last 20 years and numerous independent reports, Joint Oireachtas Committee debates, member-sponsored private bills and various other discussion documents have all tried in vain to come up with a solution. While most of them have been well-meaning, it has been all talk and no action. RTÉ, meanwhile, continues to hurtle towards a financial abyss, some of which is of its own making.

As it is in most countries, public service media is far from perfect and, in the case of RTÉ, there is always room for improvement on a number of fronts. But to its credit, it also gets a lot of things right and it plays an important and much-needed public service role in society. Without it, the social and cultural fabric of Ireland would suffer immeasurably. In addition, numerous studies have shown there are strong correlations between the strength of a democracy, and political stability in general, and the strength of public service media in countries around the world.

While it’s important that we acknowledge this from time to time,  it doesn’t pay the bills in Montrose. The reality is that whatever route or mechanism the government chooses to put RTÉ on a firmer financial footing, none of them will be palatable .It should also be  pointed out that where governments have reformed  or done away with licence regimes in other EU countries, unpalatable trade-offs like downsizing are often made. In the case of RTÉ, this seems like an inevitability.

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Irish consumers appear to be losing interest in Black Friday, the global pre-Christmas shopping splurge that originated in the US. According to a survey of Irish consumers by the digital experience platform Sitecore, only 51pc of us are planning to shop on Black Friday which this year takes place on November 26. A further 39pc believe the event doesn’t actually have genuine deals or offers while 48pc of consumers believe it is associated with over-consumption.

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