'RTÉ is in a truly critical place,' Forbes claims

RTE's Dee Forbes

Gordon Deegan

The director general of RTÉ told Communications Minister Denis Naughten that "RTÉ is in a truly critical place", at a recent meeting.

Dee Forbes highlighted to Mr Naughten "that the situation was much worse than the last time she met with the minister", during a meeting at Leinster House.

Ms Forbes stated RTÉ was in a critical place due to a number of factors, including the TV licence regime and impacts of external factors on its commercial income including Brexit.

According to the department's note of the meeting, made available in response to a Freedom of Information request, Ms Forbes said restructuring of the organisation was required but that no restructuring could take place without the land sale at Donnybrook.

RTÉ is hoping to make €75m from the sale of the 10-acre site. At the meeting, Ms Forbes made reference to the €14m disparity between the amount of licences that are distributed by the Department of Social Protection as part of the Household Benefit Package and the amount the department pays into the licence fee.

Ms Forbes told the minister there was never a more important time to have a national public service broadcaster, which could provide a voice and a platform for Ireland at home and abroad.

This week, Mr Naughten announced he would be putting out the task of collecting the TV licence monies to tender.

In a briefing document for the minister for the February meeting, it stated that the current cost of collecting the licence fee is €12m a year, or 5pc of the total licence revenues.

The brief stated that this "is expensive in comparison to other countries such as the UK where the cost of collecting the licence fee in 2014 was 2.7pc".

"It is considered that the costs of the agency role could be reduced substantially and the effectiveness of TV licence fee collection improved if the role of TV licence agent was put to tender," the brief added.

An Post currently collects the TV licence and the note stated that "in recognition of the important role of the post office network in rural areas, any tender would also contain a requirement that the network continues to be used as an outlet for the sale of TV licences".

"As recommended by the 2014 NewERA review, proceeds of the (Montrose) sale will not be used for current expenditure purposes but rather capital investment such as digital infrastructure and organisational restructuring," it said.

The brief stated that RTÉ has experienced cuts totalling €18m arising from the 2011 decision to cap Department of Social Protection contributions for 'free licences'; a further cut of €5m imposed in 2014; and the decision to use €9.245m of licence fee income to part-fund TG4.

It said that the €18m in cuts was partially rectified by a 2017 budget measure of restoring €6m in central funding to RTÉ.

The TV licence fee evasion levels rate are at 13.75pc and are regarded as high, according to the note.

It described the sale of the 10 acres at Montrose as "not a quick fix and needs to balance maximising possible receipts with retaining a credible broadcasting facility".

The brief pointed out that RTÉ is worth €550m to the economy, while its commercial funding has dropped €100m since 2009.

It said that in response to the cuts, licence evasion and drop in commercial funding, RTÉ has reduced its operating costs by 30pc, staff costs by 25pc and staff numbers by 21pc - or 500 - between 2008 and 2013.

The spend by RTÉ on independently produced commissions has fallen from more than €70m in 2008 to €40m in 2014.