Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Questions (37)

Timmy Dooley


37. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his views on the funding crisis in RTÉ in view of the failure to provide additional funding in budget 2020. [42317/19]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Communications)

In light of the Acting Chairman's comment, I wish to point out that my question relates to RTÉ. In case there is any concern about what RTÉ stands for, it is Raidió Telefís Éireann.

The Minister will appreciate the importance of public service journalism, especially in an environment where the fake news that appears on digital platforms is a worry for those concerned with the preservation and protection of democracy. We are aware that RTÉ - the one public service journalism outlet in the State - is under severe financial pressure, having reported a deficit of €13 million last year and expecting a similar deficit this year. Nothing was identified in the budget for that organisation. Will the Minister indicate if he has any plans in the Revised Estimates to provide support for RTÉ? Rumours abound that moneys will be found in the Revised Estimates on the social protection side.

The position, as outlined to Deputy Cullinane earlier, is worth repeating. RTÉ is funded by a combination of licence fee income and commercial revenue. The only element of Exchequer funding is that which comes from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which provided an additional €8.6 million this year and €1.5 million last year. The Department has therefore contributed an additional €10 million in the past two years towards the licence fee income. This is divided, as the Deputy is aware.

One of the issues that arises is the very high evasion rate of 12.83% when it comes to people paying for television licences. The Government has accepted the recommendation of the interdepartmental working group on the future funding of public service broadcasting to put licence fee collection out to public tender. I will bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage of the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2019. The Government also accepted the recommendation of the working group to move to a device-independent broadcasting charge in the medium term.

In the first instance, it is an issue for RTÉ's board and executive to develop the optimum strategy to allow it to meet its strategic and financial challenges. RTÉ is reviewing its strategy in order to map out a sustainable future. It has engaged PwC to validate aspects of the strategy and has met representatives from the BAI. At the Department's request, NewERA is also evaluating RTÉ's position and strategy.

On the additional question posed by Deputy Dooley, no additional funding is provided for RTÉ in this year's budget.

Back to Raidió Telefís Éireann. I call Deputy Dooley.

I thank the Minister for raising the issue of the report on public service broadcasting prepared by the relevant committee. Unfortunately, the Government has kicked to touch on that. The notion of extending for five years the introduction of a device-independent broadcasting charge reeks of a failure on the part of the Government to face up to the challenge that exists in the context of public service journalism. This is a decision that will be regretted by the State in due course. It is farcical to somehow believe that we will be better able to understand technologies five years from now, particularly when one considers the rate of development and change in that regard. The question remains. Like other organisations, RTÉ is in a perilous position. However, it has presented a particular problem to the Minister and the Government. Will he confirm that consideration is being given in the Revised Estimates to providing support for RTÉ by means of moneys from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection?

Deputy Dooley will understand that the budget, which was only announced last week, was drawn up against the background of a hard Brexit. The consequence was that there was very little discretion for the Government in setting aside new moneys. It meant there was no across-the-board increase in social welfare rates. The only source of funding for RTÉ from the Exchequer comes via a contribution from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. The Deputy will understand that against a background where it was constrained in the choices it could make - and where it could not make across-the-board provision for social welfare recipients - the Government was not in a position to make provision for RTÉ in the context of an increased contribution from the latter Department. That remains the position. I have no basis for suggesting that there will be any change.

If the Minister believes in the principle of public service broadcasting, if he believes in public service journalism and if he accepts that our national broadcaster is in a perilous position, then is it not appropriate that he would try to put in place a line item in the budget in a transparent way? Would it not be better to this rather than giving the impression that the station would somehow be beholden to the Minister at a later stage or suggesting that a particular approach could be taken in the context of providing funding in the Revised Estimates. The Minister stated that the context of Brexit is important. That is certainly the case. In reality, however, the budget was framed on the basis of the moneys available. A hard Brexit was referred to in the context of how the budget was framed, but the truth is that any funds required in the event of a crash-out Brexit would have to be borrowed. It is not as if additional funds would be available to the Minister or to the State for other projects in the event of a soft or agreed Brexit.

Deputy Dooley will be aware that no provision was made for social welfare increases in last week's budget. No tax concessions were made and, insofar as possible, little or no new tax revenue was raised. A sum of €1.2 billion has been set aside to deal with the consequences of a hard Brexit. That was the framework for the budget and it remains the case. A week on, and despite the Deputy's urgings, I cannot say that there is a new reality whereby we have money for desirable causes. There are many such causes but the position remains the same. We face the threat of a hard exit. Six months ago, the Minister for Finance indicated that this was the framework against which the budget should be put together. The Minister has taken the correct approach. It leaves the Government and the Exchequer in a position to manage the consequences that might come our way.