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Dublin: 12 °C Tuesday 15 October, 2019
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Column: I love RTÉ, but I don’t want an internet tax to pay for it

Is the ‘household broadcasting charge’ really the best we can do to support the Irish media, asks Paul Quigley.

Paul Quigley

Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte recently reiterated his commitment to the idea of a ‘household media charge’ to replace the TV licence fee and fund RTÉ. But Paul Quigley of media tracking firm newswhip.com has some concerns:

FEW WOULD DOUBT the cultural importance of RTE. As a child of the late 20th century, probably half my understanding of Ireland came through RTE’s channels. Everything from Fortycoats to Italia 90 to the Late Late Toy Show. (I know I sound nostalgic, but try to write about RTE without getting nostalgic.) It’s been our cultural repository for the last 50 years. When finally it digitises and opens up its archives, we’ll have an amazing lens to understand our nation in the 20th century.

But as people of the younger generations scrap their TVs and power up their smartphones, the Department of Communications has a bit of a pickle. RTE must be paid for. And with scamps like me taking no interest in television and hence not being eligible to be hit with a licence fee, well, something must be done. Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte said so lately in a speech. And an internet tax – possibly rebranded as a “household media charge” – is in the pipeline.

The Irish Times recently reported that ”[t]he licence fee regime is set to be reformed by the Government, with Mr Rabbitte’s department expecting that a replacement household broadcasting charge will generate higher income as a result of a more efficient collection mechanism.” It appears that having any sort of media in your home – whatever the technology – will soon cost you the price of a licence fee. Given that the only meaningful media today is internet access, it looks like we’re facing an internet tax, albeit one with a more homely sounding name.

Laptops and smartphones

I have plenty of grá for RTE, but this is a terrible idea. During the 20th century, the TV license made sense because it was levied on those who benefited from it. We needed to pay a licence so there’d actually be something in the box other than the godless BBC. The tax was logical and linked to consumption. If you thought the TV an infernal contraption, you didn’t have to pay for it. No Fortycoats for you.

Today, many of the households that don’t have TV licences have laptops and smartphones. And these devices are not for watching RTE. We use them for calls, for email, to educate ourselves, to read magazines, to read news, to work, to create, to submit our homework, to download apps to measure our sleep cycles, to communicate with all our relatives and friends who emigrated, and to figure out what song is playing. It’s how we live today. The amount of time that the average Irish smartphone spends consuming RTE content is, I’m sure, microscopic compared to everything else.

While RTE.ie has a popular news website and video player, taxing the internet to pay for RTE doesn’t fit. It’s like putting a motor tax on a sheep, because it might someday cross the road. Besides, if a media charge was divided among the media we actually consume online, the bulk would go to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, email service providers, and the BBC. According to Alexa, all of these sites are more popular in Ireland than RTE. (Also, the Irish Times and the Independent come in quite close to RTE.) But these other sites don’t need our money. And we don’t want to be charged to access them.

Falling slowly

How then to pay for RTE? Should we, even? Now I haven’t had a TV at any stage in my adult life. I’m one of those annoying people who thinks life is just too interesting. But I do love the companionship of Radio One on cold autumn nights. Some atmospheric tunes on Late Date followed by the sea areas weather forecast at five to midnight. Nothing prepares me for bed better than gliding from Malin Head to Mizen head, “falling slowly.”

So like most people, I’m grudgingly fine with a slice of the taxes that come from my pay cheque going to RTE – just like my and your taxes support the National Library, street cleaning, foreign aid, changing the bulbs in lighthouses, socks for the Gardaí, children’s allowances, and all the other bits and pieces that make up the State. Under this system, for the most part, the more you earn, the more you contribute to the kitty. That’s how we do most things, and it’s what we should do here.

A flat household internet charge is regressive and unjust. Picture a single person, living alone with an income of €25,000 and no television, who never watches RTE. He’ll have to pay a full €160. What about eight people living together with a combined income of €300,000 and ten televisions tuned to endless loops of Nationwide? They pay only €20 each.

So why is this charge even being contemplated? I reckon there’s a danger that some people think that the internet is how you access RTE through a computer. Our parliament does not have a strong representation of young people with experience outside politics. It’s disproportionately stocked with solicitors, school teachers and professional trade unionists. Many of these guys are fine people but they know more about increments than the Internet. They certainly don’t know much about the globalised lives that today’s private sector population live, and just how big a role the web plays in them. They don’t know we are fully engaged with the news, though getting it through TheJournal.ie, Broadsheet.ie, Politics.ie and other interactive platforms as much as RTE.

How we consume

Of course, eliminating the licence does raise the question of independence. A tax-funded RTE would need its income guaranteed a number of years in advance, so governments couldn’t condition its funding on favourable coverage. This can be achieved by legislating that changes in RTE’s funding need to be determined two to three years ahead. Whimsical chopping of funding wouldn’t be possible. The government has always set the licence fee anyway, so this would offer RTE more protection.

This approach allows more flexibility, too. The internet is rapidly changing how we consume video and audio media. Once we had BBC and RTE. Now we have hundreds of channels on cable, as well as millions of hours of YouTube online. US publishers are launching video channels – at low cost and all without any state support. Today, the Irish Times makes video, and other Irish online publishers won’t be far behind. (Whaddya say, TheJournal.ie? How about your own News at One?)

Perhaps the proceeds of a media tax can be spread around beyond RTE? The public service needs could be identified and other media companies could service them through the RTE platform. How about a tender for the Six One News? Perhaps the Irish Times could do it. Or it could support some grants for the investigative journalism that’s so lacking in Irish media today?

From what I’ve seen, management in RTE understand the changing landscape well, and they might even be considering these possibilities. I wish them well in figuring out a course that will see RTE thrive as a digital platform into the future. Just don’t tax my internet to pay for it!

Paul Quigley is co-founder of Newswhip.com, an Irish start-up tracking how news spreads through the social web.

Read previous columns by Paul Quigley on TheJournal.ie>

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