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Reynolds case an opportunity for a wider debate on regulation and funding of public service broadcasting

The Independent Broadcasters of Ireland has said that the recent defamation against Fr. Reynolds by RTE has highlighted the need for wider debate on the regulation and funding of the public service broadcaster.

“The flawed manner in which the state owned broadcaster has responded to what must stand as one of the worst defamations in the history of Irish broadcasting must now permit a closer look at how RTE is regulated and funded”, said Tim Collins, Board member of the IBI and CEO of OceanFM in Sligo.

“RTE enjoys extraordinary and unfair financial and legal privileges.  These privileges are not just unfair on independent broadcasters.  They undermine the interest of the audience which all broadcasters are licensed to serve”,

Mr. Collins said that Ireland’s broadcasting legislation is clearly creating an uneven and unfair playing pitch between independent broadcasters and RTE.  He pointed out that Independent commercial broadcasters work within a highly regulated environment but that in many respects these onerous conditions did not all apply effectively to RTE.

“Unlike RTE, independent broadcasting licences are issued for 10 year periods by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI).     We operate to very detailed codes and policy statements that are monitored and policed by the BAI on behalf of the general public. Our track records are scrutinized and taken into account when we apply for a new licence and the good opinion of the Authority is literally a life or death issue.

“By contrast, under the 2009 Broadcasting Act, while RTE submits to oversight of many aspects of its operations by the BAI, it does not have to reapply for its licence and is not subject to the same level of scrutiny by the regulator.  It says a lot about the arms length nature of much of the regulation of RTE that it took a request from the Minister to initiate such action against RTE.”.

Mr. Collins said that the situation was exacerbated by the manner in which RTE is funded.  “At the root of the problem is the rather naked commercial mandate given to RTE by Section 108 of the 2009 Act. This gives RTE carte blanche to pursue every last scrap of revenue available in the market using the considerable armory of its multimedia platforms with no reference as to the impact it has on independent broadcasters.

“Approximately half of RTE’s €400m annual budget comes from commercial revenues and the remainder from the licence fee.  Independent broadcasters are solely reliant on advertising and commercial revenue and compete with RTE for this revenue.  Because these stations are completely dependent on advertising revenue, the vital service they provide is now under significant threat.

“The Broadcasting Act 2009 failed to accept that every licensed broadcaster worthy to hold a license is truly a public broadcaster regardless of whether it is owned by the state or not.  It is time that the public service broadcasting by independent radio stations is recognized and supported just as we have rightfully supported RTE over all these years”.

Mr. Collins said that RTE’s reputation for high quality programming has up to now prevented any meaningful and balanced debate about how RTE is regulated and how it’s commercial activities impact on independent broadcasters.

“Whenever these issues are raised, the response of Ministers and public officials has always been that RTE does a fine job and must be protected. The 34 independent national, multicity, regional and local stations command the lions share of radio listening in Ireland far outstripping the share of RTE owned stations.  The strength and popularity of local radio in Ireland has been an extraordinary success story.   In the wake of the Fr. Reynolds case, the Minister for Communications must now accept the need for changes in how public service broadcasting is both financed and regulated to ensure that we have a competitive broadcasting sector with the public interest at its core”.

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