RTE’s costly promises won’t cure its ills

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Last Tuesday, the Communications Minister spent two hours with the RTE Authority discussing the serious breaches of the Broadcasting Act made by the infamous Mission to Prey programme.

The Chair of the RTE Authority later described the encounter with the minister as “candid”. I can only pay tribute to Mr Savage’s skills as a communicator and diplomat.

You have to wonder how candid and robust the exchanges really were when all the minister came away with was a promise of yet another report on new policies and procedures, and further quarterly progress reports.

There were no resignations. There wasn’t even a reversal of the privilege RTE claimed over its legal advice. Did the minister not even challenge the RTE Authority over this?

Shouldn’t the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) have been allowed to see the advice received from RTE’s own legal affairs department? Wasn’t that relevant to a full enquiry? It was paid for with taxpayers’ money. So will the €200,000 fine imposed by BAI. With a little over one million licence fee payers in the country, that’s 20c per household to pay the BAI for RTE’s mistakes.

Instead we get more reports. We have been here before. Remember the controversy following the 2007 High Society documentary. The RTE Authority assured us all then that it had identified and resolved the editorial shortcomings that had allowed that programme to air.

If the Sunday Independent publishes something reckless or irresponsible, not only can it be hauled over the coals by the authorities, but you — the reader — can also express your disapproval by not buying it.

This simple and immediate response has a greater impact than all the admonitions and censures of the supervisory authorities. It is a power we do not have over RTE.

Switching over to TV3 or BBC1 does not have any immediate effect on RTE’s revenue stream. The licence fee continues to pour in. You have no remedy or recourse.

The situation could soon be worse, thanks to changes being considered by RTE’s benefactor and overseer: Pat Rabbitte. If his plans to replace the TV licence with his new household broadcasting charge succeed, you will have to pay even if you don’t have a TV. This approach to RTE supervision will not remedy its problems.

Instead of looking at ways to increase RTE’s revenue streams, the minister should sit down with the Minister for Social Protection and agree that the welfare budget should no longer be used to subsidise RTE. At the moment between €55m and €60m per year is paid into RTE’s account out of the welfare budget to recompense it for the granting of free TV licences to pensioners.

The Department of Social Protection’s September 2011 Comprehensive Review of Expenditure estimated the potential saving per year of abandoning this subsidy at €59.2m. Yet we continue to pass on this subsidy against the background of a cut in the fuel allowance from 32 weeks to 26 weeks. Both payments come out of the same supplementary scheme: the Household Benefits Package.

The best solution was proposed in this newspaper years ago: abolish the need for pensioners and people in receipt of disability allowance and carer’s allowance to have a TV licence. That way the Department of Social Protection could save the almost €60m.

It is something the two ministers could resolve with a short meeting. It shouldn’t take two hours, it won’t require candid or robust exchanges and we might all have something to show for it.

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