..back to home                                                                        2 January 2003, last update
£50 more, or £70 less?
(or, Why Pay for Propaganda?)


the licence fee increase

(Ed note: Emphasis added)                                                             17 January 2002

Licence fee inches upward

"Workers' friend", by Emily O'Reilly
In an astonishing piece in the Sunday Business Post, 6 May 2001, Emily O'Reilly reveals what must have been known to the journalistic fraternity for the last 20 years, but has been all but unknown to the general public.  That is, the matter of the alleged agenda of affiliates of a particular political party in some of the output of the public service broadcaster, RTE.

It all makes further mock of Minister de Valera's assertion in the Seanad (20 February 2001), that "for the most part, people are mature viewers and listeners who are capable of making their own decisions", by which we presume, she means that viewers and listeners can see through distortion and lack of balance.  This they may well be able to do, if it is done crudely enough, or if one maintains a constantly suspicious attitude in one's viewing and listening.

But these people are experts at their job.  The Minister was rejecting the suggestion that RTE should have to face sanctions for breaking the law, which does not obtain at present.

Returning to O'Reilly, read her article.  It will open your eyes.


7 May 2001

Is RTÉ an instrument of Government policy, or is Government an instrument of RTÉ policy?

In setting up the proposed new RTÉ authority in 1960, then Taoiseach Sean Lemass stated that RTE would be "an instrument of Government policy".

In the days of Radio Moscow abroad, and a more pluralist media scene at home, this did not seem too contentious.  And, of course, governments could be elected and de-elected.

So, how have things changed in the last 40 years?


See recently published book Maverick by Bob Quinn, former RTE Authority Member for some interesting insights into public service broadcasting in general and RTE in particular.  Published by Brandon, E20.30

14 January 2002

Put emphasis on quality, says Senator Feargal Quinn
Feargal Quinn's piece on "Public Service Broadcasting" is one of a number of essays on current political issues on his useful website.

Amongst other points he suggests that RTE's growth has been what Americans call a "no-brainer".  "In order to grow an organisation," he says, " just stand back.  It will grow of its own accord".

He suggests that RTE should not be in competition with other stations for advertising revenue.  It should manage entirely within its licence fee.

(IMR comment:

100%  funding from licence fee is without doubt desirable, all other things being equal.

However, there is at present a very serious problem about accountability.  Public funds are being given to what is in effect a private broadcasting organisation.  As things stand, no case exists for making any donation from the public purse.

The prospects for change do not look good.  In the course of the passage of the recent Broadcasting Bill, passed in February, 2001, the Minister resolutely rejected any idea of specifying a sanction for breaking the law by RTE.  (RTE is under a legal obligation to be fair, objective and impartial in its broadcast treatment of news and current affairs, but there are no sanctions for breaches, eg as found by the High Court in 1999 and confrimed by the Supreme Court in early 2000)

Unless there is major reform, both within RTE and externally, the granting of public funds is an anomaly that must be ended.)

Senator Quinn's website is at: http://www.feargalquinn.ie/st/broadcasting.htm


7 May 2001

Full accountability on licence fee demanded by Senator Shane Ross

In February, 2001, the Broadcasting Bill was discussed by the Seanad.  During the lengthy debate, Senator Shane Ross said: (emphasis added)

" We should look again at the question of public service broadcasting because it it open to political abuse and abuse by those who believe they are right. That is happening in RTE.

I have no doubt that RTE was responsible for the passage of the divorce referendum because people there have a certain view on that.  Every programme that I have listened to over the past ten years on the issue has been biased in favour of divorce.  Is that fair?  Of course not.  But the culture of RTE is pro-dvorce, pro-liberal and pro what they term politically correct.  That has now become public service broadcasting.

We must ask if that sort of culture is something we should support with the licence fee.  It is an insoluble question but one we shold continually ask.  At the moment, this licence fee comes under the control of very few people who use it to push their own views and minority interests on the people.  We should have full accountability on the licence fee."

(Senate debates 15 February 2001)


7 May 2001


"RTÉ's" public service remit
RTÉ argues for an increase in the licence fee on the basis of a continuance of what it calls "its" "public service remit".

The necessity for this kind of arrangement in broadcasting in current day circumstances is debatable, and should be reviewed.

If it is indeed decided that a "public service remit" (whatever that actually means) is required, is it not time that the contract, worth a net £44m per annum, is treated as such and put out to competitive public tender, as with most other public contracts?


15 March 2001

Where does your licence fee go?
1.  The licence fee is currently £70 and raises, coincidentally, £70m.

2.  The fee is collected by An Post, for which it charges a reported 9% for its costs of collection (down from the 12% reported in RTE's Response to the Government Green Paper, 1995).

3.  It has recently been reported that one in ten householders do not pay the licence fee.  This loss must be carried by those paying.

4.  RTE carries the cost of two national orchestras and other performing groups, which, arguably, should not be a charge on the national radio/tv station.  This element should then be deemed a prior charge on the licence fee.  Almost 170 people are employed at a cost of £7.5m (RTE's figures).   This means some £7.50 of the licence fee goes towards the cost of these orchestras.

5.  In regard to TG4, RTE carries the cost of the deficit, after state grant (1997 = £10m), of probably £6m, ie £6 of the licence fee.

6.  Beyond that point, the published accounts give no costing data on RTE's activities.

The Directorate of News, employing some 80 reporters and 30 other staff in the newsroom, is probably the most significant charge on the licence fee.

7.  It must be remembered that, as has already been pointed out, RTE stated in early 2000 that public service goes across all its programming.    It is now saying that "not a penny" will be spent on (non-public service) programming.

(Comment: Will this mean a cut-back on non-public service programming, or will it mean some deft accounting?)
8.  What we (IMR) can account for so far is as follows:
Total (current) licence fee           £70

Collection costs                  £6
Non-payers                        £7
National orchestras (say)  £7
TG4                                   £6

Sub-total non-RTE                £26

Nett available to RTE             £44
            (Total £44m)

This illustrates that, as well as RTE, there are other areas that also need to be looked at.

We are a long way from justification for the increase sought, or indeed for the retention of the existing fee, on which more anon.


26 February 2001

RTÉ: Why you should pay £70 less
1.  It is not written in stone anywhere that a licence fee is payable for the ownership of a television set.

The state itself does not provide any service for this tax, as it does in relation to other taxes.

In the US, freedom of the airwaves is little different from freedom of the press: the airwaves are open to all.  Regulation is at a minimum, and there is no licence fee.  The quality of material may be lower, but there is freedom of expression.

2.  "Public service remit" is an excuse, now threadbare, for holding on to a "soft" £44m per annum.3

3.  RTE is an over-inflated organisation, in urgent need of downsizing.  It employs around 1,800 staff at a cost of almost £200m per annum.  This was a job Maurice Gorham used to do virtually on his own.

4.  Local radio and TV3 would, and do, argue that they, too, provide programmes of a public service character, for which they do not receive (and are not seeking) public funding.

5.  The present taxed revenue of £44m per annum (net of prior charges) gives rise to unfair competition vis a vis local radio and TV3.

6. Under the guise of preserving our culture, RTE is instead destroying it.

7.  Although in receipt of public money, those running RTE (at all levels) are unelected and unaccountable.

It is the contention of this site that, over the years, there has been an absence of commitment to equality and impartiality by RTE.  This is evidenced by a lack of adequate management systems to monitor, measure and report, and a lack of clear sanctions for breaches of the law.   Externally, there is no one with the authority to see that these things happen.

The Supreme Court judgment in the Coughlan case (unfairness in certain broadcasts on the Divorce referendum), merely confirmed what many already knew.  It would be uncontentious to suggest that, but for RTE, the divorce referendum would not have been carried.

A proposal to give the Broadcasting Complaints Commission teeth has just been rejected by the Minister.  RTE claims for itself the title of "public service broadcaster": it should not be allowed to take the money and disregard the rules.

RTE may well have a brief to entertain and inform us.  They have not been given a brief to change us.  Yet, along with some worthy work, this is what is happening.

8. What reason, then, can there be for granting public funds for what is, in effect, a private broadcasting organisation with its own agenda for change?

End the subvention now!

1.  See "The Media in Ireland: The search for diversity" Addresses by Prof Joe Lee and by Damien Kiberd.  Open Air Publications 1997, c£5
2.  See Ursula Halligan on RTE, Cleraun Media Conference, 1999.
3.  The commitment to public service is closely connected to the easy money it brings in many similar European organisations: see European Broadcasting Union site (cookie required, also latest browser).
4. See if you are convinced by RTE's own arguments (extracts from RTE's response to 1995 Green Paper).
5. Not all the licence fee would be saved by ending the subvention to RTE.  As pointed out in  the article "Where does your licence fee go?", £7 goes to national orchestras, and £6 to TG4.

5 March 2001

RTÉ: Why you should pay £50 more
(Minor revisions 26 February2001)


RTE has applied to the Government for an increase in the licence fee of £50, raising it to £120.
RTE's case:


Circular to "influencers":

RTÉ set out its case for the proposed increase in a letter and leaflets to 1,000 "key influencers" in November 2000 from the Director General, Mr Bob Collins.

Mr Collins makes the following points:

1.  He says RTÉ believes public service broadcasting in Ireland1 is "standing at a crossroads", and that "we operate in a highly competitive environment".

2.  RTE wants to ensure, he says, that "the values" of public service broadcasting are protected.  He regards these values as including the right mix of entertainment and information.

"We believe", he says, "we have to serve the public's right to be entertained by music, drama and sport; to be informed by news and current affairs that is independent, authoritative, and fair; to be inspired by the links with our traditions and heritage …"

3.  Further, he says, "we believe strongly that public service broadcasting is grounded in the democratic values that underpin our society.  Those values have been compared to the water that comes from our kitchen taps: it is too easy to take them for granted, and impossible to survive without them if the tap ever runs dry.  And public service broadcasting is one of the guarantors of those values.  Without it, without the kind of programming that public service broadcasting alone can provide, the free flow of information and ideas that support and strengthen our democratic values is under threat."

4.  In the two accompanying leaflets, Collins reiterates that "RTE has served Ireland well and to the best of its ability".

5.  Why the increase, and why now?

1. Virtually2 no increase in fee over the last 14 years.  The failure to increase has "cost" RTE £126m over those years.

2. "Even after the increase is granted," the licence fee will be significantly below the European average.

3. RTE is dependent on commercial income to a far greater extent than other public service broadcasters in Europe.3

4. Better programmes and access to a wider range of channels when digital comes on-stream.

6.  We are assured that RTE has made "a great many changes" to accommodate the rapid pace of change in the communications world, and that they have taken "all the necessary steps" to be able to compete, and to do so without compromising quality or value.

7.  The pleasant faces of well-known presenters further assure us of their commitment to the best traditions of public service broadcasting, to two-way communication, to fair and honest presentation of information, to the challenging of secrecy, to quality choice, and to access for all, "irrespective of where you come from".  Three of the seven presenters said that "people trust RTE".  One of them said, plainly, "we need the cash".


TV3 interview 28 January 2001:
Mr Bob Collins was interviewed by David McWilliams on "Agenda" on TV3 on Sunday, 28 January 2001 on the subject of the increase.

The interview was reported under the heading "Greater RTE transparency is pledged as licence fee soars" in a report by Michelle Warren in the Sunday Business Post on 4 February.

(Comment: This was probably the first time in 40 years that anyone from RTE faced some prolonged questioning, and not on home ground).

Mr Collins made the following points:

1. With the exception of the UK, in every other country in Europe, the public service broadcaster is funded jointly [by advertising, etc, and licence fee].

2. Due largely to sale of Cablelink for £100m RTE is in a strong financial position.  (Comment: But this was a sale of a capital asset, and should properly only be applied for other capital purposes, such as digital technology investment).

3. Staff numbers are being reduced by 330, and work practices are being made more efficient.

4. Amongst the applications of the proposed new revenue, there would be more spent on childrens drama and other childrens programmes.

5. Collins was adamant that "not a penny" would go in acquisition of [non-public service type] programmes.

6. Collins was also adamant that, in relation to where the licence fee was going, RTE would be "dramatically more open and transparent".  RTE would tell where the licence money is going.

(Comment:  This is not what I heard the RTE delegation tell the Dáil Committee earlier last year.  What  I understood RTE to say was that the public service remit goes through all the programmes.  Therefore, he said, he would not be supplying the Minister with any reports of the application of the licence fee, as is proposed in s.32 of the Broadcasting Bill, 1999.

If "transparency" is a virtue of such importance for public organisastions, why was it not available to us from RTÉ all along, and why are we now being asked to pay £50m for it?)

Sunday Business Post interview 18 February 2001:
In an interview with the Sunday Business Post, reported by Maol Muire Tynan on 18 February 2001, Mr Cathal Goan, Director of RTE television made the following points:

1. A decision on the licence fee is anticipated within the next six weeks, ie, by 1 April (!).

2. A "radical decline" will be visible from autumn 2002, if there is no increase.

3. To reduce [RTE's request] to an economic equation is to "fail to address its cultural and societal functions".  "The Irish public is the shareholder", he says.

4.  "Do we want services that reflect Irish views and Ireland and the world?" he asks.

5.  Illustrating the cost impact of purchasing foreign programmes, Mr Goan said RTE took a "massive hit" of £4 million in exchange rate losses relating to the purchase of foreign soaps, sport and movies last year, he said.

6.  Drama and entertainment are his immediate priorities.

7.  Responding to criticism, much of it stated to be from younger women, that RTE's recent programme on lap dancing in a Dublin club lacked any critical analysis, had no moral context and was unnecessarily graphic, he acknowledged he personally felt uncomfortable watching it, but that did not mean we should not "confront" what is happening in the Ireland we live in.

"We got an extraordinary insight into the way Ireland is changing...RTE is reflecting that change," was his view.

More at http://www.sbpost.ie/story.jsp?story=WCContent;id-15702


1. RTE's response to the Government Green Paper on Broadcasting contains extensive views on public service broadcasting.  Links are to extracts.  RTE's full report is worth getting.

2. The licence fee was increased in 1997 by 13% from £62 to £70.  The amount realised was stated to have been "fully absorbed" by the cost of TG4.

3. Advertising revenue is stated to be currently 63% [of total income], as against 50% ten years ago.



1.  The above is how RTÉ sees things.

2.  Questions:

1.  Is £50 enough?  Is it too much?

2.  The joys of digital choice must be paid for.  What further increases are foreseeable?  Do we have the whole story?

3.  Instead of £50 more, should you be paying £70 less?
Or, how badly do we need this empire?

See also "Is RTÉ playing fair?"  (RTÉ's track record)

4.  Further comment will follow.  In the meantime read Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death"  (Methuen, c£8) and "Prague Winter" (letter)


26 February 2001