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No plans for TV licence payment moratorium during Covid-19 crisis

RTÉ announced yesterday that it will be availing of the wage subsidy scheme.

TDs have called for government to support struggling local and national media outlets.
TDs have called for government to support struggling local and national media outlets.
Image: Shutterstock/Brian A Jackson

GIVEN THE IMPORTANCE of public service broadcasting, Communications Minister Richard Bruton has said he does not intend to seek a moratorium on TV licence payments during the Covid-19 crisis.

Yesterday, the national broadcaster announced that it will be availing of the government’s wage subsidy scheme. 

In a statement yesterday, the national broadcaster confirmed that like many national and local media outlets, it has been impacted by the public health emergency.

It stated that RTÉ is seeing significant declines in TV licence fee revenue as well as commercial income.

“RTÉ was already implementing cost-cutting measures as part of our revised strategy, so these declines have put further pressure on finances at a time when the need to provide vital news, information and entertainment to the public is more crucial than ever.

“RTÉ will avail of the Government’s Covid-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme, and is engaged in a dialogue with Government on a range of issues at present including the public health crisis, additional emergency measures and longer term structural reforms necessary to sustain public broadcasting beyond this crisis.”

It is understood workers earning up to €78,000 in RTÉ received communication from management that they will be placed on the wage subsidy scheme. It is understood that up to 1,800 workers are impacted. 

Director General Dee Forbes is understood to have told staff members that the national broadcaster has been very badly hit by a sharp reduction in advertising spend, particularly in television. 

Advertising revenue is understood to have fallen by 25%-35%, which could account for €85-€118 million.

Moratorium

TD for Dublin West Paul Donnolly recently asked the minister in a parliamentary question if consideration had been given to asking An Post to provide a moratorium on the payments for the duration of the public health emergency.

Bruton said in response that the public health emergency “highlights more than ever the importance of public service broadcasting to our society”.

“It is vital that the Irish public have a readily available, reliable source of information on Covid-19 and the measures being put in place to tackle the crisis.

“Equally as important are the sources of funding that make it possible for public service
broadcasting to operate. At a time when advertising revenues are falling, the Covid-19
crisis is putting considerable strain on the resources of all broadcasters,” he said.

Last year, Director General of RTÉ Dee Forbes argued for reforms to the €160 annual licence fee and criticised the fact that 13% of households are evading the fee.

RTÉ was given an additional €10 million in funding per year after the Government announced the establishment of a Commission on the Future of Public Service Broadcasting at the end of last year. 

“Licence fee receipts are therefore essential to maintaining the service provided by public service broadcasters such as RTÉ,” said Bruton.

He added that the Sound and Vision Fund will provide the funding for a special Covid-19 round of €2.5 million for commercial radio. The BAI will also run a special round under Sound and Vision for community radio of €750,000.

Fake news

In recent correspondence with the minister, chairman of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, Professor Pauric Travers, said that in the current climate of disinformation and “fake news”’, stable and sustainable public service broadcasting is viewed as being more necessary than ever.

He recommended a funding increase of €5.557 million for TG4 and an increase of more than €12 million for RTÉ.

National and local media have been hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis, with advertising revenue experiencing a significant downfall. 

A number of pay cuts have rolled out in national and local newspapers and radio stations, as well as job losses and newspaper closures in some cases. 

Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher suggested that social media platforms and other digital publishers must either voluntarily dip into their pockets or be required by the State to support local media and journalism.

“The Covid-19 crisis has really hit our local newspapers and radio stations. Many across the country have stopped printing as their print advertising has simply dried up and they can’t afford to print every week,” said Kelleher.

He added:

Yet, the level of digital advertising taking place across the internet has never been greater. In addition, more and more of us are now turning to sites such as Facebook and Twitter to get our news. ­
While there are great benefits to these instantaneous and global news updates, they do not go through the same rigorous, and expensive, fact checking that takes place in newsrooms across the country and cannot replace deep investigative journalism or the importance of truly local reporting.

Kelleher said the Australian government has introduced a new mandatory code for digital giants that will require them to share revenue with struggling newspapers and radio stations.

“The importance of quality journalism has never been more evident. Yet, unfortunately, it is getting harder and harder to sustain it based on traditional newspaper sales. Of course, digital subscriptions can help, but it is nowhere near what is needed to keep our local newspapers and radio stations operating,” he said.

While he said he would prefer to see the digital and social media companies voluntarily coming up with their own proposals to help their traditional media colleagues, if they don’t he said the next Irish government should develop mandatory requirements.

He said he has written to his party colleagues Michael McGrath and Jack Chambers to request that the issue be raised while negotiating the next Programme for Government. 

“Independent journalism has never been needed as much as it is today. Independent journalism costs money, and here’s a way of levelling the playing field and mitigating the distortion created by the rise of digital media,” said Kelleher.

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane and Fianna Fáil TD Éamon Ó Cuív recently asked Minister Bruton if the government plans to provide support to print and online media during the Covid-19 pandemic because of the reduction in commercial income.

Bruton said he has no statutory function in relation to non-broadcast media other than in relation to media mergers.

“My Department does not have any exchequer funding in respect of the media that could be extended to online or print media,” he said. 

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