Wednesday 18 September 2019

TJ McIntyre: 'Plans will spark resistance - and fresh calls to channel the funding in new direction'

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TJ McIntyre

Today's announcement of plans to introduce a household broadcasting charge is, in the finest tradition of television, a rerun of an old favourite.

As far back as 2011, the Fine Gael/Labour Programme for Government included a commitment to transform the TV licence into a "public broadcasting charge" which would apply to all households.

This was planned to take effect in 2015 but following the water charges rebellion it was, unsurprisingly, quietly shelved.

While any new charge will be unpopular, some reform of the TV licence system is undeniably needed.

The case for change was made in a 2017 Oireachtas report which argued that the existing system was being eroded from two directions.

Changing viewing habits - a shift towards devices such as tablets and laptops and greater use of on-demand services such as Netflix and RTÉ Player - meant that approximately 130,000 households were exempt from paying the licence fee.

Of the households who were obliged to have a licence, approximately 14pc didn't - resulting in a loss of roughly €35m-€40m.

In light of this, today's proposal for a blanket household charge has a blunt pragmatic appeal.

By doing away with the need to prove that a person owns a TV set it promises to make enforcement significantly cheaper and easier, reducing evasion while doing away with the need for an intrusive system of inspectors visiting homes and a register of individuals buying televisions.

Similarly, it addresses the argument that it is unfair that a person should pay to watch RTÉ on a TV but not on a tablet, while avoiding the clunky and privacy invasive approach taken in the UK where you must now have a licence and register your personal details to be able to view the BBC iPlayer.

Best of all, from the Government's perspective, the household charge won't take effect for five years - making any public protests someone else's problem.

The proposal does, however, raise some significant issues.

There will probably be resistance.

While the existing free TV licence social welfare scheme will be kept, those who have chosen not to have a TV will not be happy.

This will disproportionately affect third-level students who are a large part of the 130,000 or so households who will be brought into the net despite using tablets or laptops instead of traditional TVs.

The household charge is also likely to exacerbate a growing view of broadcasting as a consumer product, with individuals arguing that they should be able to choose whether they pay for RTÉ in the same way as they choose to pay for other stations or services such as Netflix.

The role of a public broadcaster is under challenge internationally, as viewers peel off to other services, and Ireland is no different.

Perhaps more interesting than how the TV licence is collected, however, is what reform might mean for how it is spent.

The structure of the TV licence is a historical accident, but in its modern Irish form it has become a means of promoting public service broadcasting and guaranteeing a degree of independence from government.

This funding overwhelmingly goes to RTÉ and TG4, with a small percentage going to a competitive Sound & Vision Scheme which is open to the independent sector as well.

Critics of this model have argued that the public service broadcasters are not the only ones producing public service content, and that licence fee funding should also go to other broadcasters producing news and current affairs programmes, or even to internet platforms that produce similar audiovisual content.

The current proposals go in this direction to a limited extent by providing for greater funding for independent producers and commercial broadcasters, but reform of the TV licence creates an obvious opportunity to revisit this issue.

Dr TJ McIntyre is an Associate Professor in the UCD Sutherland School of Law, chair of Digital Rights Ireland and consultant with FP Logue Solicitors

Irish Independent

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