OPINION: Irish broadcasting revolution is good example for BBC charter

Until now Terry Wogan has been the most famous product of the Irish broadcasting system, with fellow broadcaster Gay Byrne following behind in his wake.

But the Irish government has just decided to revolutionise the country's broadcasting industry - with a few ideas that could be considered over here.

The Irish gave a committee, the Broadcasting Forum, just a few months to look at the state of public service broadcasting, and with the help of a public hearing came up with recommendations.

The results, out last week, are certainly dramatic. RTE, the public service broadcaster, is to get a rise in the licence fee of 40%, taking it to 150 euros (£96) a year. Until now Ireland has had the greatest dependency on ad revenue of any public broadcaster in Europe - 64%.

Rather like the BBC, the Irish national broadcaster will have to justify itself with greater efficiencies and broadcasting commitments against which it can be judged. This will be particularly true when it exercises its right to ask for annual licence fee rises up to the rate of inflation.

It still ought to be a happy Christmas round at RTE. So far so good.

But the Irish have gone one stage further. With the minimum of fuss they have created a single content regulator, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, responsible for both RTE and the commercial sector.

The public service broadcaster will become a commercial state company with its own board of directors.

Here the government has no intention of listening to widespread pleas that the BBC should be brought fully under the wing of Ofcom. A deal has been done between the BBC and the Prime Minister and that is that. Logic or sense simply do not come into it.

The argument should figure prominently when the debate over the BBC's Royal Charter is begins around January 1. Before deciding on the issue either way we will be able to see how Ofcom is working and how they are getting on with a single content regulator in Ireland.

It is clear that the Royal Charter debate should be rather wider than just deciding how much more money the Corporation should get. It should also be about purpose and regulatory structures. Apart from proposing special commercial arrangements for licensed premises for the first time, the Irish have come up with another neat idea. This is a variant on the old gambit that the BBC should not get all the licence fee, but the money should be available to anyone making public service programmes.

Giving large sums of money over to quangos to dispense to programme-makers is a bad idea. The Irish, however, are setting aside around 7 million euros (£4.5m) of the licence fee for any Irish broadcaster to compete for.

Perhaps some of the BBC's extra digital money could in future be diverted in such a direction.

All-in-all not a bad piece of work by Dermot Ahern, minister for communications, marine and natural resources. It only remains to appoint Terry Wogan chairman of the new Broadcasting Authority.


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