Thursday, 7 November 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
I would like to begin by referring to something Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710, and the sentiment of which is even more relevant today in the context of false media and false news: "Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect." I mention this in the context of the need for a vibrant and independent media. All of the elements of public service broadcasting, as an ethos, are important parts of this equation that are sometimes taken for granted, particularly by the Government. We read late last night that RTÉ plans to save €60 million over the next three years by imposing a range of cuts, including 200 staff redundancies. That is not good enough, and it would not be good enough for anybody in any organisation, that those redundancies were notified to staff through media leaks late last night. RTÉ is under substantial financial pressure as a result of reduced advertising income, changes in viewership patterns, online trends and global changes. There has been a substantial lack of engagement from the Government about RTÉ's funding model and about licence fee evasion. Rather than dealing with the challenges faced by RTÉ, the Government is constantly trying to kick the can down the road.
Ireland's licence fee evasion rate of 14% is the highest in Europe. It results in a loss of approximately €25 million a year. Another 11% of households do not pay the licence at all, which accounts for a further €20 million. The Tánaiste is familiar with this information. It is not new to the Government. The members of the Government and its predecessor have stuck their heads in the sand. They have discussed the proposed broadcasting charge lengthways and sideways without making a decision, in the full knowledge of the challenges being faced by our entire media industry. They have said they will make a decision in five years' time. The Government has been procrastinating on changing this country's defamation laws, which are regularly described by outside independent experts as having a chilling effect on the way Irish print and broadcasting media do their work. As a result of the Government's inertia, inaction and head-in-the-sand approach, RTÉ has announced that there will be 200 redundancies, its presence in Limerick will be downgraded, some of its assets will be sold, the pay of all staff will be frozen indefinitely and the pay of top earners will be reduced by 15%. I have read in the past few minutes that the Government is focusing on cutting the pay of top presenters while ignoring the 200 redundancies and the indefinite pay freezes that are to be imposed on those on the lowest incomes.
The cuts in RTÉ are in addition to those in other media organisations. Virgin Media announced 60 cuts last week. All of our newspaper groups are announcing regular job cuts. The independent broadcasting sector is operating on a shoestring because of the lack of a coherent and cohesive Government policy that would defend the media as it faces the challenges I have mentioned and would defend public service broadcasting in general. We must defend an independent media that asks hard questions and provides information. We want such a media, but we will not pay for it. When was the Government informed about RTÉ's plans? Has the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, met RTÉ management and board members? Is the Tánaiste interested in preserving and promoting an independent media, with public service broadcasting as a key part of it, or will he continue to keep his head in the sand while the media industry dies?