Snouts at the trough

An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, August-September 2013 edition

As communications minister Pat Rabbitte confirms moves to replace the television licence fee with a “public broadcasting charge” by January 2015, Gerard Cunningham looks at what some other players in the Irish media market make of the new charge, first mooted by Fine Gael during the 2011 general election.
John Purcell, chief executive of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, representing commercial radio stations, argues that a portion of the television licence fee should be set aside for commercial stations to produce news, current affairs and other items meeting a public broadcasting remit.
He cites the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) Sound+Vision scheme as a template for how this support might operate. The scheme provides funding for both radio and television producers in support of programming in the areas of Irish culture, heritage and experience, and programmes to improve adult literacy.
“We are required under our contracts to provide 20% news and current affairs,” he points out.
And he says that if the argument for public funding of the independent sector is rejected, then the logical conclusion is “there is no rational argument for putting the public service requirement in the independent radio licence.”
“People have to recognise that there is a cost to that,” he says. “The commercial sector has got a 20% public service requirement.”
“We’re not asking for any kind of special treatment,” Purcell says. “If the stations have a public service requirement similar to RTE, then they should similarly receive a share of the public broadcasting licence.”
“Sound+Vision sets out a model,” he says. “We think that a scheme along those lines is possible, but that it would be applied to general news, information, access programming, topical programming that is currently not possible.”
“Public service broadcasting on independent stations deserves to be supported. RTE has a job which it can do well, but local stations can do things better at local level than the national broadcaster can.”
He envisions that the sum involved would be roughly the equivalent of that paid into the S+V scheme, currently 7% of the licence fee revenue. With the department of communications expecting the new licence to raise up to €220 million, that could amount to a pool of over €15 million.
Irish Examiner chairman Alan Crosbie made headlines last year with a call for a share of the licence fee to be given to newspapers, arguing that public service “is not something RTÉ owns”.
“It is a public service for any organisation to devote professional people to finding out, fact checking and publishing information in the public good,” Crosbie argued, as well as describing internet-based “new media” as having the “capacity to destroy civil society and cause unimaginable suffering.”
But Frank Cullen of National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) says newspaper publishers as a whole do not take the same position.
“The best way to guarantee an independent media is financial independence,” Cullen says.
He argues that the representative body isn’t looking for funding from the new licence fee, but does advocate strongly for a stricter separation of RTE’s public service and commercial arms, in particular the cross-subsidisation of its online activities by the broadcasting arm.
As publishers struggle with the move from print to tablet and computer screens, he criticises “aggressive commercialisation by RTÉ, including cross-platform selling and the development of on-line ‘public service’ content designed less to inform and more to attract advertising – needs to be addressed.”
“We would say to the government, take the monkey off our back,” he concludes.
Mary Lennon of CRAOL, the community radio representative forum, says the group does not yet have a final position on distribution of the new licence fee.
“We are aware of the IBI response, but as a sector have not yet had an opportunity to discuss it,” she said.
“Community radio is often sidelined and not seen as being as not quite important as everyone else. We really want to look ahead and see the impact it will have on community radio.”
“I don’t think people realise how many people are involved in community radio, many of them volunteers, and the impact it has on communities.”
“It’s a hodge-podge of volunteerism, fundraising, different grants, there is no one funding source.”