Priority Questions - Broadcasting Sector.

Wednesday, 5 July 2006

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 623 No. 86

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  18.  Mr. Broughan  Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan   asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources  Information on Noel Dempsey  Zoom on Noel Dempsey   if he intends for RTE to play a lead role in driving digital take-up here; if he has mandated RTE to begin a process of review and renewal to ensure, as the organisation itself has noted, that public service broadcasting will survive in the current competitive environment; his views on whether there is a need to review the structure of the television licence fee with the increasing preponderance of non-traditional television set technologies for receiving television services; if he will request [718]RTE to offer new public broadcasting services in view of its continued success and profitability and the high earnings of its presenters and management; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26679/06]

Mr. N. Dempsey: Information on Noel Dempsey  Zoom on Noel Dempsey  My core policy objectives for the development of the broadcasting sector including RTE are detailed in my Department’s Statement of Strategy 2005-2007.

These objectives are to create an environment that encourages the maintenance of high quality Irish radio and television services by commercial, community and public service broadcasters; to seek to retain access to a range of high quality programming in analogue and digital form, on a universal and free-to-air basis; and to secure a viable future for high quality public service broadcasting.

My key priorities for achieving these objectives include developing the regulatory framework by bringing forward a Bill to provide for the establishment of a single content regulator for both public and private broadcasters and the restructuring of RTE from a corporate point of view, ensuring adequate public funding for RTE and TG4 so they can deliver on their statutory mandate, building on progress made in maximising the effectiveness of television licence fee collection and facilitating the successful establishment of a digital terrestrial television platform on a pilot basis in 2006.

The purpose of the digital terrestrial television pilot is to help inform my decision on the roll out of DTT and the transition to digital broadcasting. In addition, the pilot will generate awareness and discussion among interested parties about a full national roll out of digital terrestrial television.

A number of the issues raised by the Deputy, including the public service broadcasting remit of RTE and the operation of the television licence regime, are currently being considered in the context of the development of the legislative proposals that will form the basis of the forthcoming broadcasting Bill.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  I thank the Minister for his reply. In the context of his objectives for public service broadcasting and RTE, is he concerned that currently there seems to be an atmosphere of fear and loathing in Donnybrook, Dublin 4, as some of the newspapers have characterised it? There has been a night of the long knives and there is blood on the tracks. Is the Minister concerned that recent events in Radio One have resulted in the removal or shunting to the graveyard shift of three of the jewels of public service broadcasting? Programmes removed include the major arts programme, “Rattlebag”, fronted by Myles Dungan, which provided a number of years of distinguished broadcasting, and the eclectic music programme presented so brilliantly by [719]John Kelly, “Mystery Train”. The easygoing and affable broadcaster, John Creedon was moved first to the afternoon and then to the graveyard shift. Is the Minister concerned by what is happening in public service broadcasting, given the profitability of RTE and the huge salaries being paid to broadcasters? The leading broadcaster, Pat Kenny, earns almost €900,000 per annum, Mr. Gerry Ryan earns almost €500,000, Mr. Joe Duffy earns almost €300,000 and the director general earns €400,000 per annum. Is it possible that additional programming could be made available to encompass some of the programmes which have been shafted? Is RTE management trying to create a type of Radio Five in BBC terms to take on the new national talk broadcaster? We may need both a Radio Four and a Radio Five. Will the Minister ask for additional services? Is there the possibility of a 24-hour news programme? Both I and the Deputies opposite have asked many times for a Parliament programme which would cover Parliament, the county councils and all the other activities of politics, along the lines of the BBC programme.

The Minister was unclear in a reply to my colleague, Deputy Shortall, last April about other devices for receiving television such as a 3G phone or a computer linked to an LCD screen. Do such devices require a television licence according to current legislation? Will the Minister address this gap, if it exists, in the broadcasting Bill? Who will collect the licence now that An Post is not interested in doing so?

The Minister has trotted out once again an account of his belated conversion to digital broadcasting in the last days of this Government. He attended a conference a few weeks ago at which a member of the European Commission stated that the digital switchover should be well advanced by 2010 in all member states, with a final deadline of early 2012. Will he agree there is no chance that Ireland will be so advanced? The NTL-Chorus report published yesterday showed the bulk of cable television subscribers are still analogue subscribers. Just like the situation with broadband, the Government has been dilatory and it needs to take strong action. The RTE report on digital broadcasting states that analogue reception on the east coast will by 2008 be seriously affected by the UK digital roll out which is now well advanced for 2009 to 2010. The Minister needs to take strong and early action to encourage digital roll out and use RTE as the flagship.

Mr. N. Dempsey: Information on Noel Dempsey  Zoom on Noel Dempsey  In answer to the Deputy’s first question, I do not believe everything I read in the newspapers. I have read different versions of the so-called fear and loathing in Dublin 4. I am not worried by something reported in a newspaper. I agree with the Deputy with regard to the [720]radio programmes. I listen to the radio when I am travelling and the programmes referred to by the Deputy are three excellent and enjoyable programmes. I heard a discussion about the reasons for “Rattlebag” being moved. The explanation given by the head of radio at that stage was not unreasonable.

It is good for RTE to challenge itself, and it is good for programmes to be moved around. I will not get involved in how individual programmes should be managed or the daily running of RTE. The Deputy would be the first to challenge me if I did. The concept of shaking up the schedule, being innovative, changing programmes around and trying to hold people’s interests is not a bad principle, especially in broadcasting as it gets even more competitive.

As somebody who always resented the inference that I was not earning the salary I was being paid out of the public purse, I will not comment on the salaries some of the people are being paid in RTE. The information is available and somebody clearly thinks the personnel are worth their salary. The issue would be subject to negotiation and I am sure RTE management is as good a negotiator as anybody else. Some of the salaries are based on returns coming back to the station relating to advertising. I do not know the details of the matter. We all feel that we earn our salaries. I will not comment on anybody else’s salary.

There is merit in the Deputy’s comments on Parliament programming. I recently met a person who has put forward a suggestion that there be a public service broadcasting station devoted entirely to parliamentary and political affairs. It would cover this House and the Seanad, along with the European Parliament and county councils etc. I am aware of another approach we are involved with which proposes to webcast the meeting of at least one county council. Such a development would be positive.

If the Deputy is telling me that this is of interest to the Labour Party, I would be delighted to convey that to the person concerned. It would be of interest to our party and the Deputies in Opposition. I will go back to the relevant person and convey that to him.

Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  We will get even more exposure.

Mr. N. Dempsey: Information on Noel Dempsey  Zoom on Noel Dempsey  On the issue of licences, the Deputy is correct in that I did not give a very specific answer to the question he raised. In the context of the broadcasting Bill, the issue will need to be considered.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  Will the equipment I mentioned need a licence? Will a computer linked to an LCD screen require a licence, for example?

Mr. N. Dempsey: Information on Noel Dempsey  Zoom on Noel Dempsey  This is a debate which must be addressed in the broadcasting Bill. There needs to be anticipation, as God knows what will [721]happen in the next six or 12 months as all the platforms come together. The question must be addressed, and it will be with the broadcasting Bill.

On the matter of An Post, the Deputy may be one step ahead of me. An Post indicated at one stage that it was not interested in continuing to collect licence fees. That was approximately 18 months ago. I raised the matter when we had a meeting with An Post. As it was not interested, I indicated we would put it to tender. I was told at that stage that An Post was interested and thinking the matter over again. More recently, with the retirement of the chief executive of An Post, it was stated by the outgoing chief executive that this was not an area in which An Post was interested. That is not the official information I have from An Post.

The Deputy may be aware that we have moved responsibility for the collection of the licence fee from the Department to RTE which clearly has a vested interest in maximising the take. From that point of view, I know the licence fee will be collected by An Post for the coming year. After that, if An Post indicates it is not interested in continuing collection, it will be open to others.

On the subject of digital terrestrial television, I am firmly set on the current course. We started on DTT in 2000, provided for it in 2001 and advertised at that time. We got no response from the commercial market. We started drawing up a trial run for the Department itself for DTT, which will begin in the autumn. The pilot scheme will be in place for a maximum of two years. We will move the platform from that.

We will be well within the 2012 target which the Commission has set for DTT and switching to digital. The Deputy is correct in that certain parts of the UK are rolling the system out over a period of three or four years. Wales is scheduled to have it around 2010. That will affect analogue television reception of BBC and HTV programmes. We should look after our own.

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