Broadcasting charge is wrong - what's needed is reform of RTE
Communications Minister Alex White has quietly dropped plans for a broadcasting charge - despite insisting the new fee will still be introduced.
Speaking to the Irish Independent on Saturday, Mr White was adamant that the Government had "not abandoned a public sector broadcasting charge".
However, in the next breath, he said the charge would not be introduced this year and proposals would be brought before the Cabinet in 2016 to "prepare the ground" for the new levy.
Who is going to break the news to Mr White that, even if the Government does manage to survive this year, the last possible date it can remain in office is March 8, 2016?
Does anyone seriously think that, come next January - in the teeth of a general election campaign in which both Coalition parties are predicted to lose at least half of their TDs - the Government will announce plans for a new charge? The Government is not exactly renowned for its political acuity, but even it is not deranged enough to try that.
Consequently, this column can confidently predict that ministers will not be preparing the ground for a broadcasting fee next year. Instead, they will be preparing the ground to save their own skins.
Mr White's claims that the broadcasting charge will go ahead are simply an attempt to save face and avoid accusations that the Government is performing yet another U-turn on another policy - one that has been touted since way back in January 2012.
In fact, it would be interesting to know just how much money has already been wasted on the scheme. In 2013, the Department of Communications conducted a value-for-money review of the charge while a public consultation process was also carried out.
In March 2014, former Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte told the Dail "the Programme for Government commits to transforming the TV licence into a household-based public broadcasting charge". He said he intended to bring proposals to Government "in due course".
Now, we are expected to believe that plans to "prepare the ground" for the broadcasting charge will not be ready until 2016, despite the fact that the charge has been sold all along as simply a replacement of the TV licence.
Perhaps someone in the Department finally realised that simply rebranding the TV licence as something else wouldn't make people more inclined to pay.
While Mr Rabbitte and Mr White complain about the numbers who evade paying the existing charge, what they don't say is that the number of prosecutions for non-payment of a TV licence has nearly tripled since 2008 - suggesting that, since the economic crash, more and more people simply can't afford to pay the fee.
Back then, 5,786 cases were brought to court and 49 people were imprisoned. Last year, 14,307 people appeared in court, with 411 of these people jailed. Why does anyone think that renaming the TV licence a broadcasting charge would make these people more likely to cough up when the threat of a legal action hasn't worked?
Even if this wasn't a glaring hole in the reasoning underpinning the charge, the notion of paying a household broadcasting charge is flawed.
Why should people who don't have a TV be forced to pay for RTE's programming - on top of their broadband charge, if they do have a computer? If these people have taken a decision not to have a TV in order to escape the charge, then why should they be compelled to pay simply because the State is running out of ways to wring money out of people?
Currently, RTE receives the vast bulk of licence fee receipts - with a portion also going to An Post for the cost of collecting the fee and a risible 7pc allocated to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, which dispenses it among a number of broadcasters.
Mr Rabbitte said this is necessary because "we can't live in a society that is watching Tallafornia" - but he's clearly never heard of Fade Street, an equally egregious reality show that was aired on RTE.
Therein lies the problem. If RTE exclusively made public service programming, then the charge would not be objectionable, but it doesn't. Yet, it is given a huge commercial advantage over its rivals by being allowed to advertise while also collecting the bulk of the licence fee money.
Instead of wasting time pretending to introduce a broadcasting charge, why doesn't the Government give serious consideration to reforming RTE so people can be assured their licence fee money is going to the creation of public service programming and not simply being used to pay salaries for its stars or to outbid its rivals for sporting rights.
It should also be noted that if a broadcasting charge is ever introduced, RTE won't just be in competition with TV3 and UTV. Every media company that creates public service content for its website will be looking for a slice.