Friday 7 July 2017, Hibernia Conference Centre, Dublin Castle
The opportunity to discuss the funding of 'public service broadcasting' and its future is both timely and welcome.
I'd like to extend my thanks to Deputy Hildegarde Naughton and to the members of the Committee for hosting this event and for your commitment since October of last year when I wrote to you asking you to examine this issue.
The financial situation for Irish media organisations is now extremely serious. We need to make choices.
Most of us here are aware of the challenges facing the sector. New services, devices and providers have transformed the market. New advertising streams are undermining traditional revenue opportunities.
Audiences expect to be able to view or listen to whatever they want, whenever they want and usually at no extra cost. Increasing use of mobile data and improving broadband continues to drive greater choice for consumers.
Meanwhile, traditional media organisations are struggling to keep up and are facing significant commercial pressures.
I don't think I am the first to suggest that we have now reached something of a 'tipping point'. We need to consider very carefully what we want our future media environment to look like and how it is to be funded. We need to commit to supporting certain services if they are to survive.
As an integral part of this, we need to consider what public broadcasting means to Irish people. What services should our broadcasters be delivering five or ten years from now? How are these services to be funded? What do we expect in return?
If we can start to build a consensus on some of these points, we can consider what steps must be taken to achieve the results we want.
Public Service Media
I believe that Irish audiences need and value strong, independent public service media.
In return for public funding, there are various standards that we expect, including high quality broadcasting and editorial independence.
All of us as politicians and citizens expect a fair hearing on the issues which matter to us and, in an age where fake news can often inform public debate as much as hard facts, audiences demand and deserve trusted sources of information, with balanced, evidence-based comment and opinion.
Despite the challenges they face, we expect our broadcasters to provide high quality programming that reflects our common experience and provides an Irish perspective on events and current affairs.
RTÉ as a public service broadcaster plays a central role in raising public awareness, disseminating news and in helping to provide our society with a sense of culture and identity. The success of the 2016 commemorative programme and more recently Cruinniú na Cásca over the Easter period show how RTÉ is engaging with the public beyond its traditional role.
Having celebrated its 20th birthday last year, TG4 continues to provide huge support for the development of the independent production sector and the promotion and development of the Irish language in particular. The channel also provides a worldwide Irish language service through the TG4 Player and online services.
Given the real and urgent pressures faced by public service broadcasters, my priority has been to bring forward amendments to the existing regime. I want to be realistic and believe that amendments to the existing TV licence regime provide the best chance of stabilising funding in the short term.
Next week, the Committee will consider legislative proposals I have submitted which would allow for the appointment of a TV licence collection agent by public tender. Experience in the UK has shown that this can significantly reduce evasion.
I believe that the licence fee remains the most appropriate way of funding these services - for now at least. Obviously, there are issues. Evasion is high and the existing licence doesn't take account of the new ways audiences are choosing to access public service media.
Commercial & Community Broadcasters
Of course, commercial and community broadcasters are facing many of the same challenges.
The independent radio sector and community radio stations have been raising important questions about how we define public service broadcasting and about how, in its widest sense, it might be supported in the longer term.
As a rural TD, I know the important public service contribution that commercial and community radio stations play in communities around the country. The local news they provide maintains the fabric of rural society.
However, the changing marketplace, alongside levy payments and the cost of news and current affairs obligations, places the longer term viability of some of these services at risk.
In recent years, the Sound & Vision scheme has provided a degree of support. To assist further, I secured Government approval for my plan that would see the BAI allocated public funding from the TV licence receipts towards meeting its operating expenses. The extent of this public funding will be contingent on the level of licence fee revenues received, but will lead to a welcome reduction in levy payments for all broadcasters.
The BAI would be given greater scope to grant exemptions, deferrals or reductions in the levy for individual broadcasters or classes of broadcaster of up to 50%.
I have also secured Government approval for the creation of a new funding scheme that would provide bursaries to journalists working in local or community radio stations who produce content with a real public service value.
This would be administered by the BAI much like the current Sound & Vision scheme.
At a time when they need to transition and adapt to the new realities, our public service broadcasters are struggling to meet their objectives under the Broadcasting Act. The BAI's funding reviews make this clear. Failure to act and provide a secure and reliable funding stream will only bring a further decline in the relevance, audiences and viability of our broadcasters.
We need to provide a meaningful commitment to our public broadcasters. They need adequate funding if they are to compete and to commission Irish programming and help build a successful independent production sector.
I have proposed amending the existing TV licence system to maximise the revenue available from the current system.
Longer term, the current system will not be able to provide adequate funding to sustain viable public service media.
Therefore, through my engagement with the Committee, I hope to broaden the discussion about where we want our public service media to be in five – ten years, and how it will be funded. Irish audiences need to be at the heart of our thinking.
Some of you will be familiar with the Creative Ireland Programme, which states that: 'Culture and creativity are the greatest assets of any society. It is our duty to do everything we can to unleash the full creative potential of our people.'
The same Programme notes the significant opportunity for Ireland to be an international leader in media production. Because of their importance in the audiovisual sector, the public service broadcasters will have a central role in making this opportunity a reality. We need to ensure, however, that the resources are there to allow that to happen.
Finally, I'd like to thank you all for participating today and for contributing to the debate – a debate that is crucial to the future direction of media in Ireland.
I'd also like to wish the Committee well with their work today and look forward to hearing your views and insights.