Ireland’s Future of Media Commission report was published this week after a long delay. It sets out recommendations to sustain and transform the future of the media sector in Ireland, including how the national public media organisation should be financed.

The 284-page report published on Tuesday, sets out a framework for enabling the sustainable future of Ireland’s media sector. The Government confirmed that it will adopt all, but one of the 50 key recommendations contained in the report: it has rejected the suggestion to replace the TV licence that part-finances public broadcaster RTÉ with funding from general taxation.

Instead, the Government announced its decision to “maintain but overhaul” the current annual €160 licence fee system on the grounds that it would maintain the vital link between the public and the public broadcaster, and to avoid actual or perceived misperceptions of political interference within RTÉ. Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, said that the decision “guarantees a dedicated and more secure funding stream for public service broadcasting and ensures that funding for the public service is ring-fenced.”

The announcement comes despite concerns about the country’s high licence fee evasion rate (among the highest in Europe) and ineffective collection system, and calls for it to be reformed. However, additional public funding for RTÉ on an interim basis was recommended by the Commission to support the organisation while reforms to the licence fee system were being examined.

Read more: RTÉ: A public broadcaster in crisis?

Read more: Ireland: RTÉ pushing for changes to funding

The Commission rejected introducing alternative public media funding models such as a device-independent levy, which other European countries have adopted. It explained that “the practical realities of implementing an effective model in the Irish context are extremely challenging”, citing public opposition and the high costs of developing and implementing the mechanisms that underpin such systems in Germany and Switzerland.

The Commission agreed that a taxation-based approach would be the “best and preferred option” to replace the fee and one that would gain the most public support for fairly and equally raising the required funds to future-proof RTÉ. This could be a stand-alone media tax or an integrated tax.

Other recommendations made in the report include increasing the transparency and oversight of public media; establishing a local democracy reporting scheme; establishing a new media fund to support online, print and broadcast media; abolishing the VAT rate on news and digital publishers; improving inclusion and diversity across the sector; tackling disinformation; and conducting an assessment of the EU Copyright Directive’s impact on rebalancing power between news publishers and online platforms.

“We will engage with the proposed working group as to the scope of legislative and system changes that are required, and we trust reforms will be decided upon and implemented quickly.” – RTÉ Director General, Dee Forbes

The Commission was established by the Government in September 2020 to investigate and address the challenges facing RTÉ and other media outlets in Ireland as a way of protecting the viability of Ireland’s media sector. The Government received the Commission’s report last year but has been criticised for not publishing it sooner, with Irish Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, Seamus Dooley, calling the lack of urgency “yet another failure to grasp the concept of public service funding”.

Modernising the licence fee

According to RTÉ, a technical working group will now be established to explore how to modernise the licence fee system. This will include looking into the collection system, and how to charge those who consume media on non-traditional platforms. The group will report back to the government in November.

RTÉ welcomed the publication of the Commission report and stated that “the unique role of national public service media has also been affirmed in the report.” It said that “The commitment by Government today to link the licence fee to how media is now consumed is to be welcomed. This is critical given how much media consumption habits have been changed by the internet in the last decade.”

RTÉ Director General, Dee Forbes, emphasised that the current licence fee system is “utterly broken” and needs to be “meaningfully reformed”. She added that RTÉ will “engage with the proposed working group as to the scope of legislative and system changes that are required, and we trust reforms will be decided upon and implemented quickly.”

PMA Analysis

Globally, we are witnessing the increased establishment of working groups tasked with exploring how to protect and transform the future of trusted media in an era of rapid technological change and growing financial pressures. There are few public media organisations operating unscathed by these challenges, which is why it is essential to understand how other PSMs are navigating them and how national audiences might react to major changes.

Reflecting on our global membership, PMA agrees that the licence fee is currently the most effective way of maintaining the link between the public and a public broadcaster to ensure trust and accountability. But such mechanisms must be modernised to remain relevant and reflect rapidly changing audience habits. We therefore welcome the political will to address the unsustainable funding system for RTÉ. Such debates and decisions must be enacted efficiently, in consultation with the public and public broadcaster, and always with the involvement of expert insight and analysis. Above all else, any reform must include adequate protections to ensure and maintain the independence of public service media.

Header image: RTÉ HQ building, Cork. Credit: William Murphy/Creative Commons