Tuesday, 12 April 1994
Dáil Éireann Debate
17. Miss Quill asked the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht if he has satisfied himself that the national interest is being well served by the decision on the part of the Government not to renew the order under section 31 of the Broadcasting Act; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
32. Mr. Cullen asked the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht if he has satisfied himself that the national interest is being well served by the decision on the part of the Government, not to renew the order under section 31 of the Broadcasting Act; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Miss Quill: Will the Minister accept that the lifting of the broadcasting ban has made no contribution to the advancement of the peace process? On the contrary, it has given a huge advantage to spokespersons for violence, murder and mayhem and, cannot, therefore, be seen to be in the national interest. Is he further concerned about the amount of time being given to spokespersons from Sinn Féin in the last ten weeks? Finally, is he concerned that RTE is now accepting spokespersons who are not elected members? Will the Minister accept that RTE would not do that for constitutional politicians? If, for example, the Minister wanted a county councillor from his own party to act as a spokesperson on an issue, RTE would seek a Dáil Deputy. Despite that, as late as last week a gentleman called Doherty, a non-elected person, acted as a spokesperson for Sinn Féin. Is  it the Minister's intention to speak to RTE on this matter and seek at least to have these matters corrected?
Mr. M. Higgins: Let me repeat what I have said on a number of occasions in the House since I began answering Dáil questions on the subject of the order under section 31. My review of this matter was always from the perspective of the right to information. I never saw any recommendation I made to Government in terms of reward or punishment. From the time the Attorney General answered questions on behalf of the Government on Article 19 in relation to the right to information. I saw this as an issue of the right to information, of censorship of news and current affairs, of broadcasting practice, of the public's right to know. I did not say at any stage that I was locating my proposal to Government in terms of reward or punishment for reaction to initiatives later or sooner. What Deputy Quill has asked represents a certain confusion. Under the Broadcasting Acts the Minister with responsibility for broadcasting is required to take certain responsibilities. Also enshrined in the Broadcasting Acts — and in the latest amendment which I introduced last year — are further distances in relation to reports that have come to this House rather than to the Minister. The position is simply that the Minister does not interfere. I made my recommendation to the Government on the basis that the public had a right to know, that the RTE Authority had the right to be an authority, that journalists could be journalists and that the public would exercise their judgment. I also believed that beyond the order under section 31, section 18 (1) (a) of the Broadcasting Act was sufficient, if people are unhappy with its operation they can make a complaint to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.
As to Deputy Quill's question on whether I propose to initiate an inquiry with RTE about the interviewing of a named individual, I am happy that the recommendation I made to Government was correct. I am happy that it respects  the integrity of the public's right to know and the practice of broadcasters. I am also happy that procedures have been put in place under section 18 (1) (a) and that the Broadcasting Complaints Commission is in existence. If individuals are aggrieved there are ample mechanisms for them to act on.
Proinsias De Rossa: I supported the decision to remove the ban under section 31 as it was the correct one. It has revealed Sinn Féin as the simplistic, antidemocratic grouping that it is. Do the Minister and the Department have any role in monitoring the operation of the guidelines in place both by RTE and the Independent Radio and Television Commission as regards the protection of the security of the State?
Mr. M. Higgins: The legislation places responsibility for the guidelines which the Deputy was interested in, in the case of RTE, on the Authority. In the case of the independent sector under the 1988 legislation the guidelines are clearly the responsibility of the Independent Radio and Television Commission.
Mr. M. Higgins: When the Independent Radio and Television Commission report to me, under the 1988 legislation, and RTE, under the 1960 legislation which has been revised on a number of occasions. I review the operation of the guidelines. I am happy that the provisions of the legislation in each case are adequate. When this matter was raised by way of motion in Private Members' time last February I said at column 234, Volume 438 of the Official Report:
I should also make it clear that I do not see myself as some kind of watchdog vetting every news and current  affairs programme to search out possible abuses of these new freedoms. The RTE Authority and the Independent Radio and Television Commission have been established by Acts of the Oireachtas as the custodians of the airways on behalf of the nation. They have been given statutory responsibilities and duties and are autonomous in these areas. They, in their wisdom, have drawn up guidelines on the operation of the relevant legislative provisions. It is the responsibility of both organisations to monitor and ensure adherence to their guidelines. It will also be their responsibility to amend or revise them if they consider it necessary to do so in the light of experience.
The Broadcasting Complaints Commission is charged with the investigation of complaints of alleged breaches of the legislation and it is important to stress this point — the commission will investigate alleged breaches of legislation rather than guidelines. The kernel of the matter is that, in a democracy, the Government should not have to intervene in the detail of broadcast programmes, particularly news and current affairs programmes.
Mr. Bradford: While I accept the Minister's point that he is not a watchdog, as the Minister who opened the trap door, from the point of view of seeking a balance in broadcasting, is he concerned that a party with 5 per cent electoral support can sometimes command between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of air time in television interviews, news and current affairs programmes? This was illustrated in a survey carried recently by a Sunday newspaper. This does not represent fair or balanced broadcasting from the point of view of highlighting the views held by the majority of people. Does the Minister have any role in ensuring that this disproportionate coverage is brought to an end?
Mr. M. Higgins: The legislation for  which I have responsibility is adequate for the task. The mechanisms I described are also adequate if individuals wish to complain. As a Member who is interested in bringing to an end the appalling events in Northern Ireland, a longer sustained interest and critical view of events in Northern Ireland is now possible because of the changes brought about as a result of the recommendation I made to the Government. It was not an easy discussion; I remember it being debated in the House and I accept the sincerity of those who offered views but on reflection I am convinced it was the correct recommendation to make to the Government.
Mr. Molloy: The Minister stated in reply to Deputy Quill that the non-renewal of the order under section 31 was in the national interest. Is he expressing a personal view or is it the considered view of the Cabinet just over three months after this decision was implemented? Is there a commitment to keep this question under review and are we to take it from the Minister's response to Deputy Quill that the Government has come to the conclusion that this decision was in the national interest?
Mr. M. Higgins: I am not sure what Cabinet practice the Deputy is recalling but when I made a recommendation to the Government it was perfectly happy to accept it. It is known, in relation to this and other broadcasting matters, that as the responsible Minister, I am keeping the matter under review. I have given as much information as possible. The decision was the correct one. My actions so far and the recommendations I made enjoy the full support of the Government.
Mr. Shatter: Is the Minister serious when telling this House that because of the changes he has introduced or, as he put it, a longer sustained interest and critical view of events in Northern Ireland, the violence, mayhem and murder perpetrated by the IRA in Northern Ireland during the past few months has been deemed more repugnant by  ordinary people here than it was prior to last December? If so, I suggest he is living in cloud cuckoo land. Will the Minister indicate whether the Cabinet has considered to date the implications, in the current environment, of the ban under section 31 remaining removed? Does the Minister believe that the ordinary people of this country will regard it as acceptable in the run up to the European elections that at 9.25 p.m. we will have a soft focus party political broadcast by Sinn Féin perhaps immediately following a report in the 9 o'clock news on the latest atrocity committed by the IRA in Northern Ireland?
Mr. Shatter: In what way does the Minister deem that to be in the national interest? Is it intended to review the action he has taken in advance of the European elections given, in the context of the current violent climate, that the IRA, through Sinn Féin, will have access to party political broadcasts for the first time since the establishment of RTE to sell soft focus violence to the electorate and to use democracy to continue to subvert democratic values? In what way is this in the national interest?
Mr. Shatter: The Minister's response to this issue displays outrageous complacency. While people are dying in Northern Ireland the Minister tells us that it is satisfactory and that it has brought about a dramatic change.
Mr. M. Higgins: I would like to have an opportunity to reply to his question, even to my constituency colleague. The decision on the renewal or non-renewal of the order under section 31 was recommended to the Government on the basis of criteria I described, the right to information, what should an order under broadcasting legislation seek to do and what effect it has in practice. I do not believe there is a whit of evidence that suggests that my recommendation to Government to end the ban under section 31 has increased either violence or support for violence. I very much resent those who quite clearly know better but have sought to blur the suggestion. Deputy Shatter has suggested that one of the effects of my recommendation to Government would be to sell soft-focus violence. To attribute such a motivation when he knows well the background to the change in the order is outrageous.
Mr. Kavanagh: Do Members of the Oireachtas realise that their concerns about RTE can be referred to the Joint  Committee on State-sponsored Bodies, which has responsibility for the operation of all semi-State bodies? Nobody has raised such concerns with me as chairman of that committee or has made complaints about the operation of RTE. I suggest that Members should take up their concerns with the appropriate body of the House.
Mr. M. Higgins: I am grateful to Deputy Kavanagh for making that point, as it is another mechanism available to the Members. I should like to tell Members who wish to find out about the reaction to the dropping of the order under section 31 that there have been no complaints to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.
Proinsias De Rossa: I agree with the Minister's intention of not wishing to interfere with the detail of broadcasting on RTE but I remind him that he retains, under the broadcasting Act, the power to oblige RTE to broadcast anything the Government wishes to have broadcast which is very much a power to intervene in the detail of broadcasting. Is the Minister, who said he is satisfied with the lifting of the ban, monitoring the operation of the guidelines by the Independent Radio and Television Commission and RTE, and if not how does he come to the conclusion that the lifting of the ban is satisfactory? If the Minister is not monitoring the operation of these guidelines, as he is obliged to do in order to ensure that the law is complied with, how can he proceed to ensure that the guidelines are operating in a way that protects the public interest?
Mr. M. Higgins: I am grateful to Deputy De Rossa for his approach to this matter. I know he was supportive of my recommendation on the non-renewal of the order under section 31 and I appreciate that. Effectively, under section 18 (1)  (a) of the broadcasting legislation, the guidelines are the work of the Authority and the Authority's autonomy is crucially dependent on it having the right to compose such guidelines. It would obviously be a matter beyond RTE's competence if there were clear breaches of section 18 and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission could deal with them and there are other mechanisms by which people could raise this issue. If I felt there was a regular breach of a section of the broadcasting legislation it would certainly be my concern as the Minister with overall responsibility for broadcasting. It is very important to understand that everything for which one has responsibility is governed by statute and in the case of RTE the autonomy of the RTE Authority and the Independent Radio and Television Commission has to be respected. It is managed by a review of the operation of the statute rather than by interference and that is the difference between it and other regimes.
Miss Quill: Does the Minister accept, as Deputy Bradford put it so succinctly, that he is the person who opened the traps and that it was on his considered judgment the Government made the decision not to renew the ban under section 31 of the broadcasting Act? He is seen by the citizens as having some responsibility for the operation of broadcasting following the lifting of that ban and, whatever about the niceties of the procedure he outlined to the House, the procedures that apply to nomal law abiding citizens and not seen to apply to spokespersons for terrorist organisations. The Minister must take from this debate that he has some responsibility for the future operation of broadcasting in the absence of the ban. He must take some interest in monitoring broadcasting in the absence of the ban. He must take some interest in monitoring broadcasting in the absence of the ban because it is being said up and down the country that an undue amount of time is being given to spokespersons for Sinn Féin since the ban was lifted——
Mr. M. Higgins: When the order was in place Members had the option to table a motion calling for it to be extended. They decided not to do that. I decided to review the matter over a year in the light of the criteria I mentioned and to come to a conclusion. I did that and I made a recommendation. I absolutely reject the suggestion that it was in any sense incitement or whatever. I stress that under section 18 it is an offence to invite people to commit a crime, not to speak of an invitation to commit terrorism. Many of those who have sought to whip up needless fears on this matter have, in fact, chosen to ignore that there are proscribed organisations and that it would be an offence to invite persons to commit a crime. Extending beyond that under other legislation it is a crime to incite people to commit acts of hatred and so on.
There are those, including myself, who trust the maturity of the public and the integrity of journalists and there are those who believe that the public is not up to making a judgment. I choose to differ from Deputy Quill in this matter.
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