It seems odd that we are asked to pay a fee for a service that many of us don’t use, writes John McGuirk
I am childless, but my taxes pay for schools. I am not sick, thank God, but my taxes pay for hospitals. Ireland is not likely to be invaded any time soon, but my taxes pay for an army. We pay the government for things that we do not use ourselves, but benefit everyone, all the time, because the country is a better place for everyone if it has schools and hospitals. Also, without the state paying for them, there would be many fewer schools, and hospitals. The market will not provide.
That is not true of television. In Ireland today, you can choose from any number of packages and providers to suit your needs. Netflix, BT, Sky and Virgin all provide relatively cheap options if you want loads of original content. If you don’t feel like paying, the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5, ITV and Virgin Media are all available, and cost you nothing. Indeed, more Irish people watch these channels, and these offerings, than watch RTÉ. The national broadcaster has the largest single share of the audience, but it is a minority share, and one that is ever shrinking.
For this reason, it is, of course, losing money. Normally when companies lose money, they cut back and trim down their operations to get themselves back on track. Think, for example, of the turnaround at Aer Lingus, which was losing money hand over fist in the late 1990’s but is now a very profitable airline, having learned lessons from its competitors.
RTÉ, however, wants to go down a different road – it wants you to pay more to support it, year after year, whether you watch it or not.
This week, the Government announced that it will impose the television licence fee on people who do not own televisions. That’s right – even if you have never owned a television, you will find yourself paying the €160 (set to rise, as well) to support the national broadcaster.
It is approximately the same thing as if the Government forced people who walk on the roads to buy car insurance. Don’t drive? No matter – you should pay for an insurance policy for a medium sized family car either way. It is no different in principle than asking the taxpayer to fund my subscription to Sky Sports. You would think that was very unfair, wouldn’t you? Asking people who don’t have Sky Sports to pay so that I can watch it? Well, it’s a lot like asking people who don’t have a television to pay for a TV licence.
RTÉ is in the position it is in because the public are not watching its programmes. That is not the fault of the public. You or I are not to blame because we are not captivated by Fair City, or because we prefer Graham Norton to Ryan Tubridy. The fault for that lies solely with RTÉ.
Don’t drive? No matter – you should pay for an insurance policy for a medium sized family car either way”
RTÉ, by the way, already receives almost all the benefit from the TV license. It gets a huge chunk of money from the taxpayer that Virgin Media does not. On the radio front, Newstalk, Today FM, 4FM and your local radio stations have to struggle on without a penny from the license fee, while RTÉ Lyric FM, with far fewer listeners, is paid for by people listening to other stations.
RTÉ is sitting, in Donnybrook, on some of the most expensive land in Ireland, smack in the middle of Dublin 4. Its main competitors, Virgin Media and TG4, are based outside the M50, and in rural Galway, respectively. It is one way they manage to keep costs down compared to their subsidised competition. Is it really so unreasonable to ask RTÉ to sell its land at Donnybrook and move somewhere cheaper, like Athlone? The profits from such a move would be significant, and it would also move some badly needed jobs to rural Ireland.
RTÉ, despite its financial difficulties, has some of the highest paid journalists in Europe, let alone Ireland. It has the money to sponsor the Dublin Gay Pride parade, and the money to fund a youth parliament on climate change.
In recent years, it has embraced an aggressively liberal approach to journalism, discarding any effort to be balanced in favour of campaigning relentlessly on the liberal causes of the day. It is so unused to providing balanced coverage that when it came to report on the Government’s proposals to put a licence fee on people with no televisions, it could not even include a single voice opposed to the idea in its report.
RTÉ is not a school or a hospital. There are plenty of other channels doing the same thing, better, and for less. It has the resources and the options available to get out of its own mess.
Asking the public to pay even more, for something they don’t even watch, at a time when families across the country are struggling, is deeply immoral. The Government should think again on this one, but they will not. Do you know why?
Because our politicians are more scared of RTÉ than they are of us voters. Isn’t that some state of affairs?