Thursday 22 August 2019

Where are the defenders of the broadcast charge? (OK, I'll try)

The likes of RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes need to argue their case for a subsidy
The likes of RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes need to argue their case for a subsidy
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

I have a half-dozen technical questions around the Government's new plan to replace the €160 TV licence with a new broadcasting charge. Could it be legally possible to opt out (like it is now)? Will it be collected through new automated ways, such as a bolt-on to a utility bill (as suggested by RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes last week)?

Most importantly, how on earth will a smartphone or laptop be detected in an era of GDPR?

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No one in the Department of Communications really has answers to these questions. In fact, my bet is that there won't be answers to some of them, leading to the reframing of the fee as a flat household charge.

But leave all of the technical questions aside for one second.

There is one nagging, underlying issue that isn't being flushed out in any satisfactory detail. It's a question that is fundamental to the entire debate.

Should Ireland continue to have a TV licence, or any state-supported media?

In an era when so many get their news and entertainment from ever-diverse stations and platforms, is RTÉ worth as much in public funding as it has traditionally been?

As a journalist working in the private sector - where we arguably have to battle harder to survive than much of RTÉ - I can think of lots of valid reasons why a €200m annual media subsidy should be split more diversely.

And beware of dipping your finger into the cauldron of social media on this question: a thousand different sores will bubble up through the rage-tweets of opposition to 'another tax'.

But should that be the extent of the debate? Micko29996LFC declaring that RTÉ "is sh**e" and Dude991 confirming that he "hasn't watched TV in years"?

Sorry, but the debate deserves more consideration than this.

Whatever my (structurally biased) views or those of my (structurally biased) colleagues, there are undeniably cogent reasons why Ireland, like the UK, created a public service broadcasting system in the first place. Overall, it hasn't served either country badly.

If we accept this to be true, why is there virtually no one making the argument for it with any passion? Yes, Richard Bruton and most other politicians will say, in a general way, that they support the idea of public service broadcasting. And so will a handful of people working in the industry, like the successful Shinawil producer Larry Bass.

But generally, the meekness and reluctance of many who support a State or taxpayer-funded public service broadcast media to make their case is a bit baffling.

It stands in contrast to the invective of those who believe strongly that it should be scrapped.

And it also creates a problem for the Government in reforming the TV licence. If no one will make the case properly, why should the 160,000 homes estimated to be newly liable for the broadcasting charge feel anything but resentment for the scheme?

It really isn't my place to defend a public subsidy that, in some ways, makes competitive life for those of us in the private sector harder. But I'm sorely tempted to play devil's advocate for two minutes on this, if only to get beyond the name-calling.

If I was Bruton or Forbes or someone else with skin in the game, these are some of the arguments I'd make.

1. A moderating influence

Have you seen Fox News lately? The US is the pre-eminent example of a major western country without a significantly funded public sector broadcasting system.

Up until a decade ago, this was largely fine, with largely trusted TV and radio news values. Today, it's a platform for shock jocks, provocateurs and comedians.

Any notion of objectivity or impartiality has not just withered away, it's mocked.

Play it down the middle and you're either an unpatriotic traitor (Fox News) or an oppressive, establishment flunkie (MSNBC, CNN). Where CBS, NBC and ABC were the go-to outlets, now it is increasingly the louder, bolder cable outlets.

Maybe it's social media pushing them, maybe it's simply commercial fragmentation. But a pro-public broadcasting advocate might argue that countries with public service broadcasting ecosystems don't suffer the same extremes of polarisation as those without. (Yes, you can argue that the UK is polarised, but it has chronic class issues and is still nowhere near as bad as the US in TV or radio terms.)

In other words, public service broadcasting can be a moderating influence that prevents the worst of dangerous underlying social currents from fuelling the rise of ultra-divisive media platforms.

2. The overall media cake may actually be bigger because of it

The dual death stars of Facebook and Google - and all of their constituent brands - have decimated the commercial media landscape.

There is an argument to be made that having a substantial anchor player which, while also affected, is a little less vulnerable to whatever remaining ads are being sucked out of the ecosystem by the digital giants, is a bulwark of sorts for the rest of the industry.

Ad agencies stay engaged with 'traditional' media platforms because of the size of the incumbent player.

That helps innovative rivals. (There is also a counter argument that whatever's left of the ad revenue for private sector media is unfairly pounced upon by a state-funded rival.)

Obviously, I have plenty of opposing arguments to my devil's advocacy. But let's at least have a debate about this.

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