Sunday 17 December 2017

Why harass licence fee dodgers, let's cut RTE's handout instead

Pat Rabbitte
Pat Rabbitte

PLANS have been approved by soon-to-be-former Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte to allow An Post, which collects the TV licence fee, access to the subscription records of UPC and Sky.

Communications regulator Comreg estimates that 73pc of Irish households have a cable TV subscription.

With TV licence evasion rates running at about 15pc, giving An Post access to Sky and UPC customer records would go a long way to plugging the hole which costs RTE €25m-€30m a year in lost revenue.

So An Post gets access to the cable companies' customer records, RTE gets the extra revenue and we all live happily ever after.

Hit pause there for a minute.

Apart from the injustice of having one section of the media subsidised by a special tax - how would most people respond to the notion of "public service newspaper publishing" rather than the "public service broadcasting" - the fact is that changing technology and viewing habits have rendered the TV licence largely obsolete.

In an era of the internet and Netflix, more and more of us are doing our viewing online on our laptops, tablets and mobiles.


The licence fee is a relic of a bygone age when most of the country had access to just one TV channel and what we watched was dictated by the man from the department in Dublin.

Under the law as it stands, anyone who owns a TV must pay an annual licence fee of €160.

This of course begs the question: what exactly is a TV?

Technological advances mean that what were previously distinct devices are now rapidly converging. TV programmes can now be viewed on a multiplicity of devices rather than just on the traditional box in the corner.

Last year the Government published plans to replace the existing TV licence with a new public service broadcasting charge, which would be levied on every household regardless of whether or not it owned a TV.

The new "charge" was to be set at the same level as the TV licence - €160 a year - and was due to come into force at the beginning of next year.

However, since announcing a "consultation" process last October, nothing has been heard of the new charge.

With Mr Rabbitte off to spend more time at his gardening, now is a good time to look again at the whole question of the TV licence in its current form.

With 411 people having been jailed for non-payment of the licence last year, a 50pc increase on the 2012 figure, it is clear that the so-called TV licence, in reality a tax, enjoys very little public acceptance.

So is replacing the TV licence with the even more wide-ranging public service broadcasting charge the way to go?

Almost certainly not. Unless the Government wants to preside over the jailing of even more people in the run-up to the next general election, it is time for a serious rethink.

As things stand, the €220m raised every year from the TV licence fee goes to fund three TV channels, three radio stations, a couple of orchestras and various other "worthy" cultural causes.

While this might have been just about bearable during the boom-time Celtic Tiger years, it is intolerably extravagant now.

The first item on the agenda of Mr Rabbitte's successor should be a serious trimming of this extravagance - rather than harassing hard-pressed householders.

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