This article first appeared in Village magazine, April 2017 edition
The idea for a television licence decoupled from ownership of a television, proposed as early as the 2011 election campaign as a “content tax” or “public broadcasting charge” by Fine Gael “to apply to all households and applicable businesses, regardless of the device they use to access content”. has undergone several variations since then, but remains as elusive as ever, while RTÉ continues to struggle to keep its head above water in straitened financial circumstances.
In the coalition government that followed the 2011 election, Labour ministers – first Pat Rabbitte, then Alex White – took over the communications portfolio, and neither seemed over enthused at the idea of a new and more wideranging TV licence scheme, especially given the problems water charges were causing. The idea of a content tax was quietly shelved.
The idea was raised again following a Sean O’Rourke interview with RTE director general Dee Forbes on the subject of the station’s finances, during which she mentioned that the value-for money of the RTÉ TV licence.
“The licence fee is 40 cents a day. That’s what it costs the Irish viewer. I think that’s incredible value for money. Quite honestly I think it should be double that,” she told the midmorning show. “Look at the Scandinavian markets where the licence fee is double that and you see what they’re getting for that. The more money we have to play with content the more we can do. The case we’re in now is critical. We’re fighting for survival as an organisation. What I have to do, along with the team here, is ensure that we do survive.”
There followed a flurry of RTE stories, as Forbes was forced to clarify she was not saying the licence fee should be doubled, minister Denis Naughten effectively ruled out any fee increase, and the usual stories about who might take over licence collections to reducing the non-payment rate (estimated at 15 percent of households) were reheated.
The station had a €2.8 million deficit in 2015 and the 2016 figure is expected to be multiples of that figure, for reasons ranging from the expense of covering the Olympics to Brexit damping spending by UK based advertisers. In January 2017, it announced plans to sell of part of its Donnybrook campus.
A few days after Forbes’ interview, the “content tax” resurfaced, this time as a screen tax levied not just on televisions but also desktop computers, laptops, and tablets with screens larger that eleven inches – large enough to exclude most tablets (and all smartphones) on the market, while still establishing the idea of a broader tax.
Having already been put on hold once, a broad-based broadcasting tax seems unlikely to succeed a second time. Memories of the backlash against water charges are still fresh, and even with most households already paying the TV licence, the new charge could provide opposition parties with a focal point for dissent that has been missing since the new government took office. However,m the idea now seems to be institutionally embedded, and once the Irish state gets an idea into its head, it can be hard to let go. The broadcasting charge is exactly the kind of idea which is likely to rumble along in the background in various position papers and briefing documents until some minister runs with it.
Quite conceivably, after a few years and the next round of electoral musical chairs, one could foresee a Fianna Fáil (or possibly Sinn Féin) minister propose an amalgamated Home Tax, which would incorporate a broadcasting charge to finance RTÉ alongside the existing property tax, refuse charges, and perhaps even water charges. It would be marketed as an efficiency, so that harried taxpayers would only have to keep track of one tax bill instead of several.
By then, RTE may have stemmed the flow temporarily by selling off some more of the family silver and organising another round of redundancies, but it will still be caught in a downwards spiral.
Dee Forbes did have a point when she spoke about the value the station offers at “40 cents a day”. Denmark, a country with only a slightly larger population, charges €322 for a tv licence, over twice the Irish rate. In addition, the licence is not restricted to TVs, but can also apply to computer screens. The results of that greater investment can been seen on Irish TV screens, where viewers are familiar with successful exports like Borgen and The Bridge.
Everyone in Ireland benefits from a financially healthy RTE, not least because occasionally, Prime Time or This Week can spend a half hour dissecting the latest HSE omnishambles or Garda scandal, and someone has to do that work. And a financially healthier firm would also have the resources to produce two or three high quality programmes a year which it could export to other TV markets, earning additional revenue. But persuading a multitude that they need to pay more for RTE when presented with, for example, Ryan Tubridy’s annual salary, may be an uphill climb too far for Ireland’s politicians.