19 June 2021

Irish Media Commission considers alternative funding for public media

On Wednesday, the Oireachtas Media Committee heard proposals to move away from the “outdated” licence fee model that funds RTÉ and replace it with alternative funding methods such as a household levy. 

In the parliamentary meeting, Gillian Doyle, Professor of Media Economics at the University of Glasgow and member of Ireland’s Future of Media Commission, declared that the Commission was considering scrapping the device-dependent licence fee, which she described as “outdated” and “regressive”. In its place would be an alternative funding method such as a household levy, like the one that Germany adopted in 2013. This way, households would pay according to their combined incomes.

While Doyle acknowledged that the licence fee mechanism was important for maintaining the tie between the public and the public broadcaster, and for protecting its editorial independence, she said that the licence fee mechanism no longer served much purpose at a time when audiences are increasingly consuming content across multiple devices – some continue to watch RTÉ content via the RTÉ Player, regardless of TV ownership. She also referred to several other European countries that have already opted out of a licence fee model in recent years.

RTÉ Director-General, Dee Forbes, who was also present at the meeting, reiterated that RTÉ receives the “lion’s share” of the licence fee, which currently costs €160 a year – the equivalent of €0.44 per day – and emphasised its value for money for audiences. But in recent years, the public broadcaster has experienced high licence fee evasion rates and collection fees. According to the Irish Independent, ‘tens of thousands’ of viewers did not pay the fee last year and COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult for collection agency, An Post, to ‘catch evaders’. RTÉ management have already made proposals to help reduce costs and improve efficiency, including pay cuts and a ‘Voluntary Exit Scheme’ but ultimately, changes to the licence fee system are necessary to avoid reducing the number of services it can provide.

RTE HQ building, Cork. Credit: William Murphy/Creative Commons

The organisation’s financial difficulties were heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic with declining advertising revenue (which usually helps to bridge RTÉ’s funding gap that cannot be covered by the licence fee), hence why the Commission is discouraged from recommending a greater reliance on commercial revenue.

The Commission is, however, considering how public media could receive direct funding from the Government in the future. But such steps would require a more detailed review to ensure that it wouldn’t come under political interference. Redistributed revenue from large tech companies, not too dissimilar to the reforms that are taking place in Australia, is another possible avenue.

The Future of the Media Commission was set up by the Government in September 2020 to investigate and help respond to the challenges facing the public service broadcaster, commercial broadcasters, and other media outlets in Ireland. The commission is expected to produce a report and recommendations this Summer.