Treatment of RTE a national betrayal

21st November 2001

IS THERE any point in Ireland being independent? If there is, a large part of it must be the freedom for Irish people to express ourselves.

In theory we have this freedom – in practice, it requires money.

The great communication device of our age is the television. Not even the great Internet comes anywhere near the power of TV in our culture. More or less it’s a case of ‘if it’s not on telly – it isn’t happening’.

TV is so omnipresent that, statistically, there is a television in every home in Ireland. So it’s that important. Now consider Ireland’s position.

We are the meat in the sandwich of Britain and the US. And we’re not that much meat. Britain is home to some 55 million English speakers. North America is home to some 300 million English speakers. Ireland has a measly five million.

Not only that but the British and US media has huge power and markets far beyond the English-speaking world. Some of these companies are actually as big as the Irish economy itself.

Fox, for example, is worth $20 billion. Then there’s Murdoch’s News International, CNN, BBC and so forth. There’s rakes of them.

Ireland is just a little side market for these giants. We’re just a little morsel, a little gravy, a little after-dinner mint. By the time programmes get to Ireland, the costs of making them have long been paid for. Basically, Ireland is a place for dumping programmes to earn an extra few hassle-free bob.

That’s not to say that the programmes are bad. On the contrary many of them are superb, involving the investment of millions of pounds, the best scriptwriters and researchers and the latest technology. They are hugely popular in Ireland. And that’s grand.

The problem for us is that Ireland never appears in these programmes and movies. And when it does it can be iffy (‘Far and Away’ and ‘Derby O’Gill’ spring to mind.) If you think of something of the quality of ‘Michael Collins’ then you must remember that Irish box office takings only came to about a quarter of what it cost to make the movie, even though it was hugely popular here.

Meanwhile, Irish young people have a better grasp of youth culture in New York than in Galway or Derry. It almost seems comical to mention the fact. Some young people probably think that our civil war was between the Grey Coats and the Blue Coats.

The problem is one of economy of scale. The cost of making programmes for the Irish market will never be met for the Irish market. If we want our dramatists and programme makers to develop Irish output then we are going to have to pay for it.

Which brings me to RTE. The total public investment in RTE through the licence fee is some £120 million. This is so laughably small it almost isn’t funny. In an economy of £70,000,000,000 we can only afford to spend 0.15 per cent of it on the most powerful cultural medium ever known.

And all because of a petty argument over the TV licence.

RTE is going bust. They plan to sell off their outside broadcast units to make ends meet. Freelancers are to be sacked and current RTE programmes are to be axed. The transmission system is to be sold off. This is a scandal which near enough amounts to treason on the part of the current Government.

The background to this is the current fanaticism for free-market economics. It extends from the Irish cabinet into the European Commission. No level of common sense is allowed to interfere with the current orthodoxy.

This is a disaster for Ireland. Our national desire to stop emigration doesn’t extend to broadcasters. In a world all about communications we’re watching the pennies.

As well as that…

Scrap the licence

RTE is well entitled to a licence increase. Or, at least, they are entitled to the dosh. But the TV licence is not the way to get the cash. For a start, it isn’t fair.

Myself and the better half are both wage earners. So the famed 23p a day only works out at 11.5p each. The same as an unemployed family, or a single parent, or a pensioner. That can’t be right.

Not only that but it costs £7m to collect.

It would be better if it were financed from the exchequer. (By some independent mechanism. All right, Sile?)

Someone’s not paying …

AN POST sold 1,057,296 TV licences last year. The CSO says there are 1,250,000 or so households. RTE says over 98 per cent of households have TVs.

Mmmmm. Something iffy there.

And someone’s not paying enough…

THERE are some 8,000 black and white TV licences bought every year.

Perhaps some people really mind their old tellies. Perhaps somebody is importing B&W TVs. Perhaps the colour switch has failed on many colour TVs. Perhaps.

It couldn’t be because a B&W licence is twenty quid cheaper, could it?