THE “regressive” and “outdated” television licence fee could be replaced by a household charge based on a person’s ability to pay, a member of the Future of Media Commission has said.
Professor Gillian Doyle told the Oireachtas Media Committee on Wednesday that the commission was considering alternatives to the “device-specific” licence fee which has been replaced in other countries in recent years.
She said a compulsory licence fee, which currently stands at €160 per year in Ireland, used to be very prevalent in many countries but a number of them have moved in away from it in recent years, including the likes of Netherlands, Denmark and Finland.
“There's still a very visible, social contract between those that are paying for the fee and the provider,” she said.
“But I think we all recognise that in this era where people are consuming content from devices other than the television set, that a device-specific charge is looking very outdated.”
While acknowledging the licence fee approach had “merits because it safeguards autonomy and editorial independence of public service media” she said it was “regressive”.
“It charges a certain amount whether you're rich or you're poor, and another issue in the Irish context that we've heard, is that there are very high collections costs and there are very high evasion rates,” she said.
Fewer than one million people paid the TV licence fee last year as An Post's efforts to catch evaders were hit by Covid-19 restrictions, the Sunday Independent reported in February.
Professor Doyle told TDs and Senators that the commission had examined alternative models and that one which would “make sense” would be a household levy or charge.
Responding to questions from Sinn Féin TD Imelda Munster, she said that it would be a universal charge but bring in more revenue if the cost was spread differently by including businesses, as well as taking account of household’s ability to pay. She said this switch was made in Germany in 2013 and that “in the Irish context it could provide an opportunity to create a larger fund”.
In response to questions later in the session from Sinn Féin Senator Fintan Warfield, Professor Doyle said the commission had looked at whether there could be more reliance on commercial revenues, but that the overall expenditure on television advertising is in decline and this money is migrating to the internet.
The professor of media economics at the Centre for Cultural Policy Research at the University of Glasgow said the idea of voluntary subscriptions from citizens had also been examined but there were questions about whether it could raise enough money in an Irish context.
She said another possibility to replace the licence fee was a government grant or direct exchequer funding. “It's an approach that would remove evasion, promote universality, it has the advantage of making income more stable and predictable,” she said.
However, the academic said said the “snag” was the risk of political interference and said there would be a need for safeguards to ensure the government of the day could not adjust the funding. “We’ve looked at all of those and we're considering them,” Professor Doyle told the committee of the various options to replace the licence fee.
The commission’s chair, Professor Brian MacCraith, earlier declined to discuss its conclusions and recommendations ahead of submitting its final report to Government.