herald

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Funding a state broadcaster need not be the same as funding RTE

Minister Alex White
Minister Alex White

The Minister for Communications Alex White has indicated that the broadcasting charge will not come in until "public understanding" had been built.

Strangely, it will take until after the next election for that to happen.

Clearly the experience with water charges has taught this Government that new fees for things we already fund are not popular. Hence it is being kicked into the stands.

Of course in this instance, the charge is not quite new. It's the TV licence by a new name.

At this point, we should all say "boo" and "hiss" and get vitriolic about RTE sucking up state funds while the rest of us have to earn it by the sweat of our brows. But that would be a mistake.

dull We need a state broadcaster. Not for the arts and orchestras (they're like the national theatre: things to entertain the rich that the rest of us all pay for) but for the dull and expensive end of news and current affairs.

In the modern world state-funded broadcasters have a massive funding advantage when it comes to affording the number of staff needed to do investigative journalism and maintain sectoral correspondents and analysts.

Every decent broadcaster can do good current affairs programmes. But few without state support can afford the resources to provide correspondents and editors dedicated to fixing a constant lens on health, social affairs, politics, justice, legal affairs, Brussels, London, Washington and so forth.

That is not to say that RTE does that well or badly, but rather that it needs to be done by some entity. The US experience of polarized commercial news and current affairs (and the impact that had on society and political dialogue) is not one we should emulate.

When Alex White begins the process of creating 'public understanding' after the next election, there's a few critical things he should factor into his pitch - we need to fund independent, professional, high-quality broadcast news and current affairs.

We need to accept that it must be broadcast on a channel which juxtaposes such journalism with programmes sufficiently compelling to retain an audience (you can't inform and educate if you spend most of your time boring the a*** off your viewers).

Funding such a state broadcaster is not necessarily synonymous with funding RTE.

Neither should the fee be synonymous with funding general 'public service broadcasting', which now includes hundreds of thousands of euro paid to the independent sector to make worthy programmes which are watched by few.

What Alex White needs to explain is what range of journalism and programming needs state support and why, and what is the best vehicle to provide such output.

If that is well enough explained, his Cabinet colleagues may decide that regardless of who provides it, it requires direct state funding, like any other state service, not funding which is a throwback to the 1950s.

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