The Irish Times view on funding public service media: State must recognise its responsibilities

The Government is confronted with the question which it and its predecessors have studiously avoided for the last decade

Another week, another report on scandals at RTÉ. Some might be forgiven for tuning out at this stage. But the McCann Fitzgerald investigation into the handling of the departure of chief financial officer Breda O’Keefe adds further detail to the ugly picture painted by earlier revelations. It will be particularly galling for staff to see how the broadcaster’s own rules were so selectively applied.

RTÉ chair Siún Ní Raghallaigh and director general Kevin Bakhurst have promised the structural shortcomings which allowed these events to occur have been addressed. Their assurances are no doubt sincere but will be far from sufficient for RTÉ to regain the trust of the public. Further reports due to be delivered shortly to Minister for Media Catherine Martin must be followed by visible reforms of the unnecessarily opaque way in which RTÉ goes about its business.

The Government is now confronted with the question which it and its predecessors have studiously avoided for the last decade: how to support public service media into the future? Up until the publication of the recommendations of the Future of Media Commission in 2022, the choice seemed to be between retaining the licence fee or replacing it with a universal household charge. To some surprise, the commission chose instead to recommend direct funding from the exchequer.

Despite unconvincing attempts by some ministers to defend the licence fee, the debate appears to have moved on to a choice between a universal charge and direct funding. Each has its merits and its downsides. Like the licence fee, a household charge is a flat tax and therefore, some argue, socially regressive. It would also require a new collection mechanism which no State body appears keen to take on. And it could prove politically radioactive in an election year. Direct funding, meanwhile, imposes a substantial new burden on the public purse and prompts reasonable concerns about protecting the independence and integrity of public service media. Experience in other countries, however, shows that none of these objections is necessarily insuperable.


There is thinly veiled disagreement within Cabinet on the issue, with Tánaiste Micheál Martin making clear his opposition to direct funding. Catherine Martin seems more in favour, pointing out that, through its funding of TG4, its subsidy of pensioners’ licences and its current level of emergency support for RTÉ, the State already directly provides more than is coming from the licence fee for media. History suggests at least some members of the Government would like nothing more than to kick the can further down the road and past the next election. That would be a dereliction of duty; not all RTÉ's problems are of its own making. The State must recognise its responsibilities and get its own house in order too.