Government dodges row on household TV charge
Backbenchers prefer revenue loss to a complex clampdown on TV spongers, says Colum Kenny
It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry listening to Irish Government ministers kick for touch.
Laughter was in order last week as Labour's Alex White parked talk of a household broadcasting charge until after the General Election.
But tears seemed appropriate when he was caught in the crossfire between RTE and its competitors on where the annual TV licence fee should go. No politician wants to offend either local radio or RTE.
Two years ago, then Minister for Communications and Labour TD Pat Rabbitte said that a new broadcasting charge would be in place by the end of 2014.
Last week on Morning Ireland, the current Minister for Communications, Alex White, described this proposed charge, now five months overdue, as "a new idea".
The charge would replace the TV licence fee, costing nothing extra for those people NOT evading the present TV fee of €160. It would be a more efficient and fair way of funding Irish productions.
But backbench deputies do not fancy having to explain it on doorsteps, especially after the shambles of water charges and when facing the ticking time bomb of septic tank inspections. If nothing else, TV licence evaders might not vote for them.
Minister White contradicted Fianna Fail, quoting it as saying that "this would be a new charge facing hard-pressed families," and adding, "of course it would not be".
Part of the idea of the charge is also to ensure that nobody can escape the TV licence by not owning a TV set while watching TV instead on a computer, phone or other hand-held device.
Whether or not the charge should apply to those who claim never to watch TV on ANY device at home is a sensitive point. This could be hard to prove. Such people do not need a TV licence at present.
Defending the idea of a broadcasting charge in 2013, Minister Rabbitte notably expressed scepticism that such people existed: "I don't believe that we have cavemen in the country… I don't believe that there are people who don't watch television and don't access content on their iPhone or iPad or whatever". He then closed his computer provided to him by the taxpayer, presumably, and went home.
Rabbitte envisaged using the property tax register as a basis for billing people with the broadcasting charge. White suggests now that the Government may arrange legally to use the lists of those who are customers of cable and satellite TV companies.
There are, after all, Irish TV licence evaders who happily pay a multiple of it for foreign movie and sports channels.
The idea of a charge has drifted for years, in that dead sea where so many Irish political promises float. The Government is now using a tried and tested way to put off any decision again. By promising more research. No doubt, at a thousand euro or more per day.
Last week, Minister White also addressed the perennial issue of where the TV licence fee should go. Is RTE entitled to get "the vast bulk" of it, as Morning Ireland asked him?
And do local radio stations and other privately-owned broadcasters not also provide a public service? Oh, said the minister quickly, "I am a strong supporter of local radio. Many of the stations around the country do an absolutely terrific job."
But White, a former employee of RTE, had no clear definition of public service broadcasting to offer and his flailing efforts on Morning Ireland to praise all broadcasters simply underlined a continuing fact of public life. RTE seems to have it both ways.
And, in fairness to Morning Ireland, it pursued the minister. He has just published yet another report on broadcasting from consultants. This one welcomes efficiencies at RTE but also makes the point that RTE provides some services that others could provide privately. "So has the time come to sell 2FM?" the minister was asked. He prevaricated.
A portion of the TV licence fee is already kept back from RTE and is distributed by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland through its Sound and Vision Fund to a variety of private producers. White made a valid economic point when he said that to spread the whole licence fund too thinly might not be in the best interest of the viewer or listener.
He went on to make RTE's case for it, this basically being that RTE uses any revenue generated to make less profitable programmes. It is a strategy that creates an ethos in which some star employees are overpaid and in which management may favour commercial criteria over more challenging public service agendas.
The constant lack of vision for Irish broadcasting at Government level over the years has been depressing. Since the foundation of the State, we have been behind the curve, reacting to developments abroad and coming too late to DTT. It took TV3 a decade to get on air because of political confusion, and a cap on RTE finances at that point was no help to any broadcaster in the Republic of Ireland.
The TV licence fee pays for a range of Irish radio and TV channels and is not unduly high by international standards. It is wrong that some citizens get away with evading it when others pay it. Devising a more efficient means of collecting what is due is hardly rocket science, and it is a symptom of the continuing failure to reform Irish public life that the issue again has been kicked to touch.