Thursday, 2 March 2000
Dáil Eireann Debate
2. Mr. Kenny asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage Gaeltacht and the Islands the reason for her recent statement concerning changes in the Broadcasting Bill, 1999, as published; her views on whether the Select Committee on Heritage and the Irish Language has spent several months considering this Bill under wrong assumptions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [6538/00]
Miss de Valera: I refer the Deputy to the Adjournment debate of 23 February 2000 on newspaper reports relating to RTE's involvement in the new digital transmission entity during which the Minister of State, Éamon Ó Cuív, indicated that no fundamental change in policy has been proposed to Government. Nevertheless, as the Minister of State pointed out, certain difficulties have arisen in the structuring of the transaction and I am consulting with Cabinet colleagues as to the most appropriate way forward following which I may bring the matter to Government for decision.
Mr. Kenny: I was disappointed that a priority question on another matter was not taken by the Minister, even if only she was to tell me it was the responsibility of another Department. The Minister could not be contacted in Los Angeles yet the Minister of State could read a statement from her regarding a fundamental change to the Broadcasting Bill. Will the Minister explain what is going on? This Bill was published last May – public statements were made and it was discussed on Second Stage, during Question Time and when dealing with the Estimates. It was stated that RTE would have a 40% shareholding in Digico, the company which will operate the new  digital terrestrial television network. On the steps of the aeroplane, the Minister shone some light on the matter and she made a statement, which she clarified later, that a newspaper report was 70% true. Why has the Select Committee on Heritage and the Irish Language spent months dealing with this Bill under the false assumption that the national broadcaster would have a 40% share in Digico? Will the Minister explain to the House and her party colleagues on the committee what is going on?
Miss de Valera: Before I left for Los Angeles, I said that certain difficulties regarding RTE's involvement in the digital infrastructure had arisen during the discussions, particularly those relating to the project management group. I said I was examining these issues and that when I had done so and consulted my Cabinet colleagues I would make a statement. I did not confirm or deny the statements made in some of the daily newspapers. I wish to take this opportunity to categorically state that on 22 July 1998 the Government decided that arrangements would be made for the introduction of digital terrestrial television and the separation of the existing transmission function from RTE. The subsequent entity, in which RTE would retain a stake, would be mandated to construct and operate the DTT infrastructure and promote the development of multi-media services and the information society.
This decision also provided that the manner of the sale – the selection of the purchaser and the criteria for such-would be decided by the project management group, which is headed by my Department and also includes the Department of Finance, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of Public Enterprise and RTE. In parallel with the publication of the Broadcasting Bill and its completion of Second Stage, the project management group has begun separating the transmission network from RTE and selecting the investor in the digital transmission entity envisaged by the Government decision. Given the importance and complexity of this task, the group selected a consortium of advisers, led by AIB, to manage the project to its conclusion under the direction of the group.
An informative memorandum has been prepared and arrangements are being made to ensure the decisions of the project management group will be informed by the concerns of the staff of RTE who are likely to be transferred to the new digital transmission entity. The development of a transaction process which satisfies all the requirements of the project management group and the Government objectives to introduce digital terrestrial television has proved difficult and complex.
With the advice of the project management group, I am now considering the best way forward to establish a DTT platform and have sought the observations of my Cabinet colleagues. I hope to meet the RTE Authority tomorrow morning and following those dis cussions, I will put the proposals to Cabinet and the decision of Cabinet will be made public.
Mr. Kenny: That is an extraordinarily long reply by the Minister in view of the arrangements for priority questions. The Minister did not confirm or deny the statement she made on the steps of the plane taking her to Los Angeles, which appeared in the newspapers. The Taoiseach, in response to questions from me twice in succession on the Order of Business, said that the Minister was making observations and having consultations and that, after her meeting with the RTE Authority next week, she might bring proposals to Government. He said that no fundamental change was being considered by Government at that stage. Will the Minister now confirm or deny a few simple matters? Will she confirm or deny—
Mr. Kenny: Will the Minister confirm or deny that RTE will retain a 40% shareholding in the new company to be set up? Will she confirm or deny that her proposals to Government will include clarity of an income stream for RTE to fulfil its public service broadcasting remit? Will she confirm or deny that her proposals to Government will include an income stream for TG4 to allow it achieve statutory independence and fulfil its service broadcasting remit? Finally, will she confirm or deny that she intends to privatise not only the television mast sites but also the airwaves? Does she intend to privatise the airwaves which are public property and which should be retained in public hands?
Miss de Valera: I would like the opportunity to answer those questions. The Deputy has shown great ignorance in that he does not seem to understand the difference between transmission and programming. Obviously there is a huge difference in the approach to both. The public service broadcasting is of extreme importance to me. That is the reason we have taken the opportunity once again to highlight the importance of public service broadcasting in the Bill—
Miss de Valera: That is the reason it has been outlined clearly in the Bill. With regard to the difficulties that have arisen, I will talk to the Deputy and the other Members about these details once a decision has been taken by Cabinet on whether changes are necessary.
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