New broadcast charge should fund print media too

Total licence fee revenue is €220m a year and of that, €189.1 million (86 per cent) was received by RTÉ. The remaining licence fee income, €31.9 million, was used to pay An Post collection costs and related charges, to provide funding for the BAI Sound & Vision Fund and to part-fund TG4. The fee also funds Radio Na Gaeltactha, Lyric FM and two national orchestras.

With fee evasion running at 14% and changing patterns in audience use, the government has been looking at a review of the revenue model. Many people do not even watch free to air tv anymore but instead consume their media through podcasts and streaming platforms.

‘Why should I pay a licence fee, when I don’t even watch RTE?’, is the common refrain. Take that position to its logical conclusion by abolishing the fee will see the collapse of RTE. It needs funding through the licence fee.

Another argument against the licence fee funding RTE is that it is unfair on commercial stations because RTE is charging for advertisements too. It is true that unlike the BBC, which benefits from the licence fee, RTE do have significant adverstising revenue. Ireland is less than ten percent the size of the UK but the cost of producing media is similar, so a balance in revenue between licence fee and adverts is required.

RTE pay their top stars too much and that is why the fee should be abolished’. It is another argument but the licence fee terms are reviewed every five years, so the way to influence this is politically, when the government engages the national broadcaster over the terms of its licence.

I believe there is a case to explore in relation to the pay of top ‘stars’ at RTE but overall I also believe we get good value from our annual fee of €160. The pay of top ‘stars’ is on occasion double what the state pays to An Taoiseach. Aside from these perennial objections and the pay of top stars is the elephant in the room, a new examination of our media landscape is needed.

Media is changing and politicians must be cognisant of that. Many people do not believe the state has a role in media but left to the market, we will see the continuing trend of newspaper closures and soon enough more broadcast outlets closing. Until recently, the internet was a real threat to print but less so to broadcasting. However podcasting and streaming is fragmenting existing audience. Children are growing up not watching TV or listening to radio but watching and listening to youtube and entertained through gaming.

At my dad’s retirement in 1996 as a journalist, the Evening Herald he wrote for had a daily sale of 140,000 and the Irish Independent was significantly higher than that. Today, the Herald sells 30,000 a day and the Independent is at 80,000 copies a day, while the Irish Times is hovering in and around 60,000, down from 100,000 ten years ago.

‘The media are just propaganda outlets and if they go bust, so what’. This is another view on the predicament of media today. Throughout much of the 1990s and early naughties mainstream media outlets developed their brands focussed on the celebrity of their presenters or writers and not their presentation of media production. The quality of content in the Sunday Independent becamse no more substantial than the quality of the Sun. Celebritisiation of media became the group think both in broadcast and print.

The utilisation of the internet made news easier to provide, so the role of columnists and personalities became more important. Mainsteam media looked increasingly to the internet to increase their presence. With declining sales, they provided content for free online in the expectation that they could increase advertising revenue.

The role of google and facebook however usurped this strategy and print outlets in particular have faced into checkmate scenario. Mainstream media outlets have found themselves having to posts boosts on facebook in order to get an audience for their content. The end game is in sight for the print media and the same outcome is in the long grass for broadcast.

With not only 24 hr news but the rise of streaming content, broadcasters can no longer command the mass audience for its prime time slots. We need public service print and broadcast media. Many of Ireland’s regions have quality local papers with a number of journalists employed. However many have been cut to the bones that their content is little more than copied and pasted press release. The same situation exists for national media as they are on a more intense schedule for production.

My six year old watches cartoons from the USSR on youtube as well as Pink Panther, Pencill Mission and others more familiar. While it is true that people can now engage with media on their own terms, if the audience and revenue generated from content is so small, the qaulity of productions will be poor.

Positive signs

Subscriptions for newspapers increased hugely in the aftermath of the Trump election. Likewise, while contemporary understanding led most outlets to employ celebrities to boost sales, the best increases my own dad remembers from journalism were from the stories he told. The Evening Herald sales increased hugely when his reports from the war in Biafra were published. Ordinary people engaged with the content and bought the paper and donated to its fundraising appeals. Likewise, they did the same for Ethiopia in 1974 and 1984.

People bought the paper for the news in years gone by. Today, these outlets need to provide a reason for people to engage with their content.

The review of the licence fee is likely to bring into being a household media charge. Without public funding, media in Ireland would be worse than it is at present. With the increased revenue that would be generated through a household charge, I believe both national and local print and broadcast media should be brought in to benefit.

There are models through Europe to look to for funding media but in Ireland, I think measures could make a significant different. Under the new funding model, it would be possible to fund full time journalism in every local authority. The new model should encourage development of specialist journalism. After years of relentless drive on costs,journalists who are now doing a bit of courts, health, politics and news have suffered in their ability to produce valuable insights.

While it is popular to bash RTE and thus the licence fee, the value of something indigineous to Ireland should not be lost. Even with fragmenting audiences, the case for public broadcasting and print journalism is strong. Someone needs to keep those in power to account. The national story in sport, politics, community needs to be told.

Netflix or Prime will not show GAA matches or show the musicians of the Fleadh. They will not report on our politicians or public services. We need public service media both broadcast, print, online and podcast.

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