The Irish public are “absolutely sick to the teeth” of the “damning” revelations about finance and governance practices at RTE, the Dail has heard.
Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty said that it appears “the only people who are being held to account” are those being brought to court for not paying their TV licence.
The party’s finance spokesperson urged the Government to make a decision on the future funding model for RTE, insisting that government “dithering”, “bickering” and “indecision” was making the situation “worse”.
Sinn Fein has said it would abolish the TV licence fee system and fund RTE and other public service media through direct exchequer funding.
Tanaiste Micheal Martin said he had concerns about media independence if RTE received direct government funding but said he shared Mr Doherty’s “dismay at the unfolding events within RTE” and the absence of governance at the broadcaster.
“The government shares that annoyance and anger… that said, I believe the TV licence fee should be paid. I don’t accept the protestations (that) they shouldn’t be paid.”
Speaking at Leaders’ Questions, Mr Doherty said it was “little wonder that payments of the TV licence have fallen off a cliff” in the wake of rolling controversies at the broadcaster.
“People are sick of the squandering of public money, sick of the lack of accountability with no one held to account and it seems the only people who are being held to account are the 60 people that are being brought before the courts every day for non-payment of the TV licence.
“It is allowing a very bad situation to deteriorate, and your government needs to stop dithering and needs to act.
“I know that you’ve suggested that this would impact on RTE’s editorial independence, but none of this will because the commission’s report is very clear on how to make recommendations in relation to that and how multiannual funding would be provided.
“But let’s just remember nobody suggests that (Irish language broadcaster) TG4 is being interfered with. TG4 is exchequer-funded, it is not funded by the licence fee and there is no suggestion that its editorial independence is in any way jeopardised as a result of that.”
Mr Martin said he had concerns with direct funding, arguing that there are “finite” government resources even when the economy is doing well, and said that this could be used to “squeeze” funding for the media “with a view to controlling the message”.
“I have articulated very genuine concerns about full exchequer funding to media generally because remember, and the new system of funding would not be just for RTE, it will be for all public service content in all media, including local radio and national television,” he told the Dail.
“There are two issues with it that I would identify and they haven’t actually been addressed by the commission and I spoke to the commission about it afterwards when the report was published.
“One is the question of independence and its a very legitimate question.
“It is a legitimate question that while it sounds great, we’ll pay all the bills, full exchequer funding, it means that any government into the future has a control over Irish media that – I’m clear – would not be a healthy one.”
Mr Martin also accused Sinn Fein of being “systemic in your legal actions against the media, which is having a chilling effect”.
He said this needed to be “put on the record when you’re advocating a system that, in my view, would potentially have a negative impact on media in Ireland”.
He added: “Sinn Fein’s instincts in terms of media have been fairly well demonstrated by your very serial suing of media in this country.
“And I just take a quotation: ‘The number of legal actions that have been filed by Sinn Fein members points to a coordinated campaign against the media in Ireland’.
“Those are not my words, but those of a joint letter signed by 15 individuals and international press freedom organisations, and in November 2023 these freedom of expression advocates warned (Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou) McDonald that the spate of defamation cases taken by Sinn Fein TDs is having a chilling effect on democracy.”