Approximately ten years ago I was involved in the drafting of the Broadcasting Act. There was a great awareness then that there was an issue with the television licence fee collection system and the public service broadcasting funding model. Even then, people watching on devices rather than television was an issue, there a significant evasion rate and high collection costs in an incredibly cumbersome system where people were going to the court and to prison because they had not paid their licence. We tried to address that but we said that instead we would wait five years to work out the more fundamental changes in the TV licence and funding mechanism.
The subsequent Government started tentatively to examine that but ultimately bottled it. The commentary, which there is no reason to doubt, suggested that a Government that ran into such difficulty implementing a household charge such as the water charges decided it could not afford to open a second front in that fight and, therefore, decided to do nothing. By the time this Dáil formed, it was clear that the ongoing decrease in the commercial advertising revenue, continued evasion and the high costs of collection meant that RTÉ and, indeed, all our domestic media were in trouble. The all-party committee did good work in examining the details of this, working with stakeholders across the board, and had an innovative consultation process in Dublin Castle. Our recommendations stand up today. It beggars belief that the Department and the Minister now think that consultation is needed for another five years. This is not rocket science; this is not complex policy or politically contentious if the Government only had the bravery to act. This year, next year or tomorrow with the stroke of a pen, we could raise an additional €50 million for public service broadcasting by changing the way we collect the licence fee by moving to a household charge so that, as the Minister said, all the houses that do not have a television but are using devices are included. A mechanism whereby, for instance, Revenue collect it so that it saves all the costs of collection and evasion could be adopted. If the Government did that while also changing some of the rules relating to social welfare, thus increasing the payments to the public service broadcasters, and, as the committee examined in intense detail for years, forcing Sky to bid for transmission fees, an additional €50 million could be raised next year. That would immediately resolve a problem. We could spend the next five years examining the broader context of how to address the fundamental fact that social media companies are taking all the advertising revenue. Are there ways that we can get money from them to pay for content creation? That is complex. It might take five years, but the initial measures could, and should have, been done in recent budgets but there is no logic to delaying it for another five years, and there are real risks attached.
RTÉ management has sold the land, which we argued for five years ago, as it was lying idle.
It is not as if it has done nothing. It has also come up with a new restructuring plan, having tried a redundancy plan. Broadly, I have trust in the executive and board of RTÉ. They are doing their best in particularly difficult circumstances.
There is one thing I would do differently and both the Government and the RTÉ board and executive should look at it again. The decision to move Lyric FM from Limerick, leaving behind a part-time studio, is fundamentally wrong. It is important for the country that Limerick rise. The benefits it saw in having Lyric FM based there were not confined to the broadcasting sector. Having it based on Cornmarket Square, close to the Milk Market and a five minute walk from O'Connell Street, was one of the few examples of life being put back in to the centre of Limerick city. It is what we seek and need. It may make sense for the station to move to the university, given that the chamber orchestra is based there, but my preference is to keep it on a city centre site. We must bring life back to the centre of Limerick. As that is already starting to happen, taking Limerick out of the equation is a fundamental strategic mistake. The decision should be reversed. I hope RTÉ executives will consider doing so, although I realise they face a difficult problem. The clear voice from this House is that the decision should change.
Broadly, RTÉ has done everything it can. Having looked at the figures, my sense is that will not be enough. If the Government waits for five years, it will cripple any restructuring plan or ability to evolve, innovate and develop new services being considered, something I would welcome. This is not just about cuts to the programme as RTÉ is moving to try to address a younger audience, use events and have a closer connection with people through new and different methods. It is exactly the right move and there are good elements to the plan. It will not have a chance, however, if the Government does not provide the basic and underlying funding required to allow a transition.
Last week the Oireachtas hosted the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and 'Fake News', with which I was proud to be involved. It did interesting and important work. The committee helped us see the power of social media companies in the new media world and their ability to microtarget people. Essentially, they know everything about us. It is not just in the media, as this week we saw how Google had collected health data and how Facebook was looking to create its own currency. These companies now like to think they are becoming more powerful than the state. The big story is that these companies can generate almost €400 million here per year in scooping pretty much the entire pot of digital advertising revenue. The remaining money in this country goes on subscriptions to Sky, Netflix and cable operators. This amounts to €1.5 billion every year going out of the country, rather than to Irish content creators or media. It is why all Irish media are in such a crisis, not just RTÉ. Virgin Media laid off 65 staff in recent weeks, which demonstrates the same story. We saw it again when we considered the application to sell a local radio station to Independent News and Media. Good managers in the area have realised they are in a real crisis because they cannot attract advertising revenue in the current position where social media dominate.
It is not just about the commercial reality; we must also consider the political realities. People are living and speaking within microtargeted bubbles and the new media world is more atomised and individualised. It is private and personal media. In many ways, it is brilliant. I love being able to tweet, post photos on Instagram and share stories on Facebook. There can be substantial gains from these, but they are "private squares". In many ways, they are like a shopping mall. We need a public square for debate and a public forum for examination, critique and analysis of common stories. Some questions were asked here this week, demonising certain sections of the community. We have seen this happen in other countries where there are no public media but where people subscribe to local groups that spread conspiracy theories. We need a public square for discussion and debate to counter them.
It is not just about current affairs and news programmes; it also takes in sport, drama and entertainment. As we will not gain political support to double the licence fee to €300, we will still have to go with an advertising and licence fee model. It means that there is a need for a broad spectrum of programming, particularly young people's programming. The Government must make a political decision. Commentators may be correct in saying it has a certain sense of wounded pride as it has received a lot of flack from various parts of the media in the eight years it has been in office; therefore, it now has a chance to redress the power balance and take some power away from those producers, editors and presenters. It is, however, flawed thinking and a mistake if that is the only logic or reason behind the otherwise inexplicable approach Fine Gael is taking on this matter. In the long run the strength of the country depends on the strength of democracy which, in itself, depends on the strength and quality of public debate. At times we must cede power by accepting hard questioning or taking the rap for something, or by even being the target of unfair commentary, but I prefer living in a country with that strength. We have had strong local media for the past 50 years, in particular. If we look at the countries where they have disappeared, democracy has weakened; therefore, we need the country to have strong media. If we do not have them, we cannot say to investors and everybody else that they should come to Ireland because it is a stable, balanced, reasonable and intelligent country that is open to the world. The Government should, therefore, reverse its decision to wait for five years and instead implement immediate changes in order to raise €50 million for all public service broadcasters, not just RTÉ, as a start in supporting media in this country in a time of crisis.