Credit: Gript

No VAT paid on contributions to RTÉ Brainstorm project

RTÉ have confirmed to Gript that no VAT has been paid on financial contributions to RTÉ’s Brainstorm project. It’s unclear exactly how much money organisations have given to RTE in order to support the project, but it appears that RTÉ will receive somewhere in the region of €900,000 – €1,000,000 from contributing organisations between the start of the project in 2017 and the end of the second stage of the project in 2023.

Brainstorm is a “unique partnership between RTÉ and Irish third level institutions,” designed to give “the academic and research community” space to “contribute to public debate, reflect on what’s happening in the world around us and communicate fresh thinking on a broad range of issues.” In short, the project is a collaboration between RTÉ and organisations, mostly universities, designed to showcase material from staff at those universities.

An FOI request submitted by Dara Bradley of the Connacht Tribune showed that RTÉ, in their correspondence with NUI Galway, told the university that “RTÉ has recieved advice from its financial advisors indicating VAT is not applicable on the contributions recieved by RTE for this initiative.” Other universities involved with the project told Gript that RTÉ had made similar statements regarding VAT to them.

When questioned as to why RTÉ believed the Brainstorm project was not liable for VAT, RTÉ informed Gript that it was their view that no good or services were provided in exchange for contributions to the Brainstorm project, and that “There is no guarantee that articles/content from academics in Partner institutions will be published or promoted. As with any RTÉ editorial project, RTÉ Brainstorm operates as per RTÉ’s journalism and editorial guidelines. Partner institutions have no role in editorial decisions nor has RTÉ any editorial obligations to them. All publishing decisions are made exclusively by RTÉ.”

The situation, however, does not seem to be as clear as RTÉ have made it out to be, as the organisations which donated to the Brainstorm project secured several material advantages, including access to training, as a direct result of their financial backing of the project.

Revenue hold that advertising is liable to VAT at the standard rate, 23%, and Revenue’s advice on this issue specifically mentions “media publicity

The Partnership Proposal for Brainstorm, which RTÉ sent to parties interested in contributing to Brainstorm, states that the project will “contribute to a greater public understanding of the value of research. empirical and evidence-based argument and expertise.” This, the proposal says, is “essential for a third sector that relies on society as a whole to support and fund it.

When asked if it was appropriate to read that sentence as marketing Brainstorm to potential investors as being, in whole or in part, a promotional or marketing effort, RTÉ told Gript that such a reading was “conflating two different things; the aggregate goals of the project and the idea that Brainstorm is performing a service.” RTÉ told Gript that this text, which seems to position Brainstorm as a promotional vehicle from which Irish universities could influence public perceptions of the sector and build support for its work, did not indicate a service was being provided, but was rather “a set of editorial goals that are only achieved if the readers of  RTÉ.ie engage with and value the material published.”

Revenue hold that advertising is liable to VAT at the standard rate, 23%, and Revenue’s advice on this issue specifically mentions “media publicity” and “the promoting of a product, service, business or person” as being examples of the sorts of services that would be liable to that rate of tax.

Between 2017 and July of 2021 RTÉ staff held 139 “writing workshops, presentations and pitching sessions” for staff at contributing organisations

In April of 2020 Rory Coveney, in correspondence with NUI Galway, called Brainstorm a “key part of RTÉ’s online offer.” Coveney highlighted, at length, stats showing the reach and impact of articles on Brainstorm, and the number of radio shows and videos based on Brainstorm articles that RTÉ had hosted. He said that Brainstorm had “significantly over delivered in terms of audience reach and engagements,” and then he asked NUI Galway to increase their funding of the project from €20,000 a year to €25,000. This payment of €25,000 a year, he said, “represents very good value.” We asked RTÉ what value was being referenced here if no good or service is being provided, and they stated that it references the “aggregate audience impact and reach” of the project.

The value of the Brainstorm project was a consistent team in the responses we received from contributing universities when we asked about their involvement with Brainstorm. TU Dublin told Gript, that “Brainstorm has provided TU Dublin with a direct link to readers,” and that “Brainstorm has numerous benefits for our research community.” Ulster University described their contribution to Brainstorm as “a fee” to allow “participation in the RTÉ Brainstorm platform.” Ulster University said that they ceased contributing to Brainstorm following a review of their communications strategy “across earned, owned, and paid for media.”

Between 2017 and July of 2021 RTÉ staff held 139 “writing workshops, presentations and pitching sessions” for staff at contributing organisations. The Partnership Proposal states that “RTÉ will continue to support academics with regular on-campus training workshops in each of the Founding Partner Institutions.” That document also states that this training is to “support prospective contributors,” and it appear that this training was only offered to the universities financially contributing to Brainstorm – that is to say the training was a material advantage given only to organisations which gave money to RTÉ, and the supplying of such training was a direct result of organisations contributing funding to RTÉ.

This training could be considered to be vocational training, in which case, subject to certain conditions, it would be VAT exempt, but RTÉ are not claiming that their provision of training to contributing organisations constitutes vocational training, but rather that their provision of training to contributing organisations does not constitute a service at all. RTE told Gript that these training workshop, are “essential to ensure the flow, variety and quality of material coming from across the sector and build a relationship between writers and the editor,” and that “this is not a service; it is an essential part of the project.”

The Brainstorm site is itself set up so that articles published by staff at contributing organisations are more easily accessible than articles contributed by staff at non-contributing organisations. The ‘About’ page of the Brainstorm website contains direct links to collections of articles published by staff at various universities, but only those universities which are contributing to the project. Universities are removed from this listing once they cease paying towards Brainstorm. The site is also set up so that articles from staff at contributing organisations all contain a link which will bring you to a collection of all articles from that organisation; articles published by staff at non-contributing organisations do not contain such a link.

These two design decisions mean that one can more easily find material from contributing organisations than non-contributing organisations, which would seem to be a material advantage over competitors which is entirely contingent on organisations continuing to make financial payments to RTÉ. When asked about this RTÉ told Gript that “this option is only available for the six funding institutions.”

Organisations who were willing to fund the project to tune of €20,000 a year, later upped to €25,000, were told that they would be allowed to nominate a member of their staff to join an ‘Advisory Board’ which would “review progress, contribute to the development of the project, and give feedback.” That board also receives quarterly reports including “an operational overview by the Editors, web site metrics and financial data.” All members of the board, bar the chair, are employed by either RTÉ or an organisation which is contributing financially to the Brainstorm project.

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