Thursday 24 May 2018

Minister to tell RTE boss licence fee won't increase

Funding shortfalls: New RTE director general Dee Forbes
Funding shortfalls: New RTE director general Dee Forbes
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Communications Minister Denis Naughten will this week tell the new RTE director general Dee Forbes there will be no increase in the TV licence fee, the Sunday Independent has learned.

Ms Forbes is due to meet Mr Naughten on Tuesday in the Department of Communications, where she will learn that she cannot rely on additional taxpayer funding to revive the struggling broadcaster.

The minister is also expected to discuss other revenue-generating measures with the RTE chief, such as potentially selling some or all of the station's site in Montrose, Dublin 4.

Ms Forbes has already been hit with an exodus of senior managers since her appointment and will now not be able to rely on additional financial resources to hire new talent for the station.

Ahead of his departure, former RTE director general Noel Curran issued a stark warning about the future of the station if it did not receive more State funding.

Mr Curran said RTE will have to cut back services and restructure the organisation due to massive funding shortfalls.

Last year, RTE reported losses of €2.8m as the cost of TV and radio production outweighed commercial revenue.

The licence fee generated €179m for the station last year alone.

However, Mr Naughten is understood to believe now is not the time to burden householders with more expensive licence fees, which currently stand at €160 a year.

Instead, the minister will focus on clamping down on licence fee evaders who are costing the station an estimated €40m a year.

A senior government source said the minister believes there is an "unacceptably high degree of evasion".

According to the latest figures, 13.5pc of households are not paying for a TV licence compared with 5pc in the UK.

An Post is responsible for targeting evaders and TV licence inspectors were recently given new powers to make unannounced calls in the evening when people are more likely to be home.

Inspectors have also begun working on Sundays as part of a renewed effort to catch those refusing to pay their licence fee.

There is currently 45 full-time inspectors working nationwide, along with an additional 10 who have been hired on a temporary basis.

A Department of Communications source said the minister is ruling out both a licence fee increase and the introduction of a broadcasting charge.

However, he plans to focus on measures which will "enhance the current TV licence system".

"The department is currently examining the possibility of overhauling the current technical architecture of the TV licence database to improve its usefulness to TV licence inspectors," the source said.

"Independent consultants have just completed a review and this is being analysed," the source added.

RTE is also working on a television and radio campaign with An Post aimed at increasing licence fee compliance.

An independent review of RTE's finances suggested more State funding would be needed to keep the station operating at an optimal level.

The New ERA Report also indicated that before any consideration was given to additional funding it was necessary to review both the advertising market and consider options for selling all or part of the Montrose site.

In a recent interview with the Sunday Independent, Mr Naughten revealed he had clashed with RTE ahead of the General Election over the coverage given to Independent candidates.

"I felt there was an issue in relation to some of the Independents but when I actually sat down and went through it with RTE you could see where they were coming from and part of the problem was our own failure to get our own message across to RTE," he said.

He also said he would like to see more head-to-head debates on RTE between government ministers and members of the Opposition.

However, he insisted there was no political bias or left-leaning agenda in the State broadcaster.

Since her appointment, Ms Forbes has seen the departure of head of news and deputy director general Kevin Bakhurst, managing director Glen Killane, and head of RTE2 Bill Malone.

Mr Bakhurst, who was in the running for the director general job, quit RTE soon after Ms Forbes's appointment to take up a senior position with UK television and radio regulator OfCom.

Ms Forbes, a Cork native, has held a number of senior roles with major television networks before taking up her new position. She was the managing director of Discovery Networks in northern Europe and held a number of senior roles with Turner Broadcasting, which counts the Cartoon Network, Boomerang and TCM among its channels.

She is the first female director general of the State broadcaster.

Sunday Independent

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