The television licence, as regular readers will know, goes almost in its entirety to RTE, with a small amount set aside for TG4 and Irish language programming. It’s also an absolute abomination. And it seems that a lot of Irish people have come to the same conclusion:

THE “BROKEN” TV licence system is costing about €50 million in lost revenue each year, RTÉ’s television controller has said.

Adrian Lynch said there were more than a quarter of a million people who evade the licence fee and a further 140,000 households without a TV.

Why, you might ask, is it relevant to mention the 140,000 people without a television in a discussion around the television licence? Why, that’s simple.

It is because RTE would very much like the Government to start charging people who do not own a television the equivalent of a television licence, and hand it over to them.

As for the 250,000 who “evade” payment? That figure actually understates the number of people in Irish society who wouldn’t pay a TV licence. Most people don’t know this, but RTE actually gets a big annual payment every year from the Department of Social Protection, to cover the TV licenses of those who are entitled to a free one under the household benefits package. That includes, for example, everyone over the age of 70. Once you hit the big seven – oh, the state writes a cheque to RTE on your behalf. If over 70s did have to pay the licence fee themselves, then evasion rates would likely be higher.

And why wouldn’t they be?

There is no good or moral reason why the public is asked to subsidise RTE against its competitors. Virgin Media does not get a penny from the TV license, and yet manages to provide good public service news and current affairs broadcasting. In the world of radio, Newstalk, Today FM, Classic Hits, and so on all provide news and current affairs broadcasting without a cent from the taxpayer.

What’s more, it’s simply not true that RTE provides “public service broadcasting” in the first place. The point of public service broadcasting, after all, is to provide clear, factual information in an impartial manner. But that’s not what RTE does, is it? Nobody who watched a moment of their coverage of the recent US election, for example, could honestly pretend that the broadcaster was impartial.

Equally, nobody who is mildly critical of the Government’s handling of the Covid pandemic could watch RTE and say that, over the course of the year, their views have been fairly reflected. The national broadcaster is riddled with political bias, and a significant number of people are simply turning off and getting their news elsewhere.

And even if that wasn’t true, what is the argument for paying for television that you’re not watching? A Netflix subscription, for a whole year, is cheaper than the television licence. If somebody wants to sit down for an hour after work and watch television, and their preference is to watch gritty Swedish crime dramas on Netflix, why should they have to pay for that, and pay for nationwide, on RTE, which they’re not watching?

There’s a political reality, here, which is that RTE will lumber on for a while yet, mainly because it retains an aging and captive audience who simply aren’t going to change the channel after a lifetime of habit. But that audience is shrinking every year, through attrition, and it is not being replaced. Not everybody in Ireland is as devoted to not watching RTE as yours truly is, but lots and lots of people are watching it for little more than the six one news and the increasingly limited amount of sports it covers.

And with every year that the viewership figures decline, the argument for the licence fee becomes more and more immoral. Put simply: If one Irish person is watching Fair City, and another Irish person is watching Emily in Paris on Netflix, or The Mandalorian on Disney, why is the second person expected to pay for the first person’s entertainment, and not the other way around? Why are the majority expected to subsidise the viewing habits of a minority?

There might well be a case for a fund that goes towards subsidising Irish produced news and entertainment, as well as Irish language programming, but even then, why is it all reserved for one broadcaster? Imagine what Virgin Media could do, if, as the other English language Irish television station, they received half the licence fee.

The licence fee was conceived at a time when the average Irish television had two channels on it – RTE 1, and Network 2. Those days have long gone. There is no good reason to pay it any longer, and it’s very good to see that, as so often, a large portion of the population are way ahead of the Government on this one.