The future of Ireland’s national broadcaster, and how Ireland’s political parties view the securing of that future, is an important issue for me in this election. It is important for more reasons than the public service that RTE carries out, or the programming that it generates that I enjoy, or its many employees that are threatened by its current financial woes.
I will not get into the finer details, other than to say that someone very important in my life is employed by RTE, working in a department that is crucial to the broadcaster’s long-term success. That makes RTE’s successes and failures a bit personal for me, as it does for the parties’ opinions.
A very difficult conversation needs to be had about RTE soon. We need to decide if we want a public broadcaster. We need to decide if we are comfortable with the assets of that broadcaster being sold off piece by piece. We need to decide what future its radio stations have. We need to decide if the spectre of privatisation is as unwelcome for RTE as it is for other entities like Irish Rail. We need to decide what we actually want from RTE, and be willing to acknowledge that, whatever the answer, they may not be able to afford it. We need to decide if we are mature enough to approach the topic of the license fee and its reform – and yes, possibly its increase – without hyperbole or histrionics. Given my personal connection to the entity, take my words as you wish. But RTE is in trouble, and sacking Ryan Tubirdy isn’t going to fix its problems, anymore than you not paying your license fee is.
Are members of RTE’s staff overpaid? Is there reform the station can accomplish without outside intervention? Are aspects of RTE’s political coverage troubling? The answer is “Yes” to all three. But these are just symptoms of a larger disease. Something has to be done, and soon. What do the denizens of the Dail propose?
Fine Gael, in their manifesto, do not say word one about RTE, the license fee, or state broadcasting. Instead, they talk about the importance of Irish media in general, and propose kick-the-can ideas of commissions to look into the future of said media. They then indicate that they will lower levies on all broadcasters, essentially saying they want to make it easier for RTE’s competition to grow. The party’s response to the broadcaster’s financial woes was hardly inspiring, with the likes of Patrick O’Donovan publically stating their confusion at why RTE is unable to raise commercial revenue like other state bodies, ignoring the extremely unique position of RTE in a market that only ever gets more crowded. Fine Gael had an utterly dreadful approach to license fee reform – by ignoring the issue completely – and have done little to dispel the widely held notion that they have an outright hatred of RTE.
Fianna Fail at least approach the issue in their manifesto. In it, they acknowledge the important of independent media in a functioning democracy, and propose a new “Household Charge” to replace the license fee, with exemptions for low-income homes. The fee will remain the same as well. There is no talk of how collection of this Charge will somehow be better than the license fee, or how maintaining the fee at the current rate, while reducing the amount of people eligible to pay it, will actually improve the situation in Donnybrook. It’s typical Fianna Fail waffle in other words, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Sinn Fein, in their manifesto, propose to tackle the problem by doing the one thing that Fine Gael really didn’t want to be seen to do, and pump money into it. Their plan is to increase the fund set aside for independent production companies from 10 million to 40, and onwards to 80 in a few years, as long as those companies are making material for RTE. RTE can then use the surplus arising to make up for the shortfall from the non-payment/insufficient level of the license fee. A good idea in theory, but one suspects the math isn’t quite going to work out. Sinn Fein also nods at the idea that RTE needs to focus on improving “digital broadcasting infrastructure” – IE, RTE Player – but in a world of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+, RTE will need a bit more help doing that then what is essentially an extended grant scheme for its subsidiaries. Still, Sinn Fein’s heart appears to be in the right place.
Here is the entirety of what Labour have to say on the issue in their manifesto: “Labour will ensure that public service media, for news and current affairs, and for nonprofitable arts, culture and other material, will be financially supported. Labour will implement an
alternative to the TV licence system.” How will Labour ensure this? What alternative to the TV license system will they implement? Vote for them and find out! It’s like spinning the wheel on Winning Streak where all the segments have been covered up.
Solidarity-People Before Profit claim to support public service broadcasting in their manifesto, but their plans to fix RTE’s issues amount to cutting salaries of RTE’s top performers – a populist measure that is arguably outside of any government’s direct purview, and is a drop in the ocean of RTE’s financial problems anyway – and an intention to tax companies like Facebook to support public broadcasting. It’s idealistic and unrealistic, and is followed up by a pledge to take down Independent News and Media. Sol-PBP could never be accused of seeing the wood for the trees. I am unable to determine if Independents4Change have a different platform, but I assuming not.
The Greens do not mention RTE or the license fee in their manifesto. The latest comment on the matter I can find on their website is from 2017. It’s obviously not something they are concerned about.
The Social Democrats claim to support public broadcasting in their manifesto – but also spend more time talking about the evils of Independent News and Media – and call for urgent reform of both RTE and the legislation governing the body, like the out-of-date Defamation Act. But, unlike other policies from the Soc Dems, the detail isn’t there, just a vague committee to public broadcasting and the idea of setting up a commission to look into the matter. Not exactly rip-roaring. The licence fee is not mentioned.
Aontu left it until the Tuesday before polling to make their manifesto available, and don’t mention RTE, the licence fee or broadcasting at all in it. Peadar Toibin’s opinions on RTE seem mostly related to whining that they won’t treat him the same as Varadkar, Martin or McDonald.
It’s a bad crop of answers, and no mistake. The Greens and Aontu have nothing. Fine Gael, Labour, Solidarity-People Before Profit and the Social Democrats largely side-step the issue. Fianna Fail waffle. And Sinn Fein’s ideas are high on sounding great and low on realistic levels of detail. None of Ireland’s political parties, with Dail representation, offer me something worth even nodding at. It’s a succession of dodging, balking and ignoring.
And that is going to lead to nothing good for public broadcasting. The hard conversations are not being initiated here. What it is going to take for that to happen?