Broadcasting Bill, 1999: Second Stage (Resumed).

Wednesday, 7 February 2001

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 165 No. 1

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Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Mr. Mooney: Information on Paschal Canice Mooney  Zoom on Paschal Canice Mooney  Before the debate on the Bill was adjourned I was referring to the need to properly resource public service broadcasting if we, as a nation, wish to have such broadcasting. Public service broadcasting is a cherished concept in Ireland and throughout Europe and the Minister referred to the protocol in the Amsterdam Treaty in this regard. Cultural values and the ethos and reflection of a society's view of itself are important elements of public service broadcasting. Unless we adequately resource such broadcasting in a competitive environment RTÉ might as well shut up shop and dumb down. Without a properly resourced budget, RTÉ will have no choice but to follow that agenda.

In an environment where, at the touch of a button, viewers can access every subject under the sun – or should I say satellite – who is to say that the RTÉ we have come to know, love and hate in equal measures will not be subsumed into an ocean of mediocrity and eventually sold off by a future Government? That is not beyond the bounds of possibility. That Government could be populated by a new generation of politicians raised on a diet of quiz shows, soap operas, sex comedies, parading as social commentary in many cases, and, horror of horrors, Graham Norton wannabees. For Senators who do not watch Channel 4 or ITV I will not explain who Graham Norton is.

[93] I have an insatiable interest in radio and television. I have been a radio junky since I was big enough to twiddle the knobs on an old Bush radio in our kitchen which opened a channel to a wider world outside small town Ireland. Hospital dramas, US cop shows and costume dramas are among my favourite television preferences. However, I do not watch “Eastenders”, “Coronation Street” or “Fair City” because, like many colleagues, my lifestyle means I keep missing episodes. I rely on my 11 year old daughter who is interested in Irish and Australian soaps to keep me informed of the gory details.

I support RTÉ's policy of buying such programmes which bring immense pleasure to many people. However, there is a problem with geographic coverage. The loss, if I can use that word, of “Coronation Street” by RTÉ to TV3 has meant that people in peripheral regions cannot see the programme, much to their disappointment. My wife comes from Castletownbere and almost all of the Beara peninsula has gone dark as a result of the loss of “Coronation Street” from RTÉ to TV3 as the latter is not available on the peninsula. This sometimes reminds me of my own part of the country as people in this region feel neglected and disadvantaged but I am not sure if the Minister can do anything about this problem.

The first director general of the BBC, Lord Reith, was not a man one would invite to a pyjama party as he was a dour Scot. He defined the concept of public service broadcasting as an obligation to inform, educate and entertain, a definition which was liberally sprinkled in the debate in the Dáil. Some argue that, for much of its existence, RTÉ sought to achieve the first two at the expense of the third.

Noel Andrews, a brother of the late Eamonn Andrews, was one of my first colleagues in broadcasting and taught me a great deal when I first joined RTÉ. He told me that when he started in the early 1950s there was a philosophy among RTÉ middle management that one did not allow crooners such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra on the sacred airwaves of Radio Éireann. For many years the station did not have such records in its library until an inventive librarian began to surreptitiously include them in the purchasing orders. This gives an indication of the Civil Service, bureaucratic or “granny” view that crooners were not good for ordinary listeners.

I wish to refer to my relationship with the authorities in RTÉ which has at times been fraught with difficulties in a career which stretches back over 20 years. Even before I started broadcasting, RTÉ had a weekly country music show hosted by Noel Andrews which was my first break in radio. I will be eternally grateful to many people in RTÉ, sadly most of whom are retired or moved on, who gave me the break I needed. My overall relationship with those with whom I worked and continue to work in RTÉ is excellent. I pay tribute to the professionalism and high standards of programming, particularly in radio sport and a [94] wide variety of programmes on Radio 1. That is no reflection on Lyric FM or 2FM.

I acknowledge the popularity of 2FM or Radio 2 as it was when I started. However, will the Minister consider whether, after 21 years of wall-to-wall pop music, there is a need to examine the public service remit as it applies to 2FM? This issue regularly comes up in conversation. Vested interests in local radio often raise this issue because they believe 2FM does not discharge its obligation to provide 20% news and current affairs programming. However, they operate under a different legislative model.

When I started in Radio 2, and for the first five years of its existence, the evening schedule included a diverse range of programmes offering traditional Irish music, jazz, big band and country music. However, in the mid-1980s the authorities took the decision to revamp Radio 2, change its name to 2FM and turn it into a wall-to-wall pop music station. I have often questioned why that decision was taken as the station was offering the perfect balance in the national broadcasting family. In the absence of an alternative music channel, the station was a dedicated music channel offering pop music at peak listening times between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., responding to the needs of young people, while the evening and late night schedules were devoted to minority tastes.

It is sad that this mix was allowed to change. Due to its very restricted scheduling, Radio 1 cannot be all things to all people. This has been part of the difficulty and the criticism of Radio 1 because it tends to try to please everyone but falls between too many stools. Without going into the technicalities, it is a bit like government in that every hour of the day has its own constituency, each of which jealousy guards its turf. This might help explain why some programmes end 15 minutes before or after the hour. News and current affairs, agriculture, light entertainment and so on traditionally occupied blocks of time. This is what I mean by a very restricted structure.

The new commission might offer an opportunity to review this decision. I am not attacking 2FM which is doing a wonderful job within its remit. However, it might review and expand its schedule. I have always believed that the 1979 legislation which established the station did not fulfil the complete needs of the radio listening public. It responded to the popularity of pop pirate radio stations. It set up an all music station which catered for 30% of the listening audience. That is the figure to which Radio 1 would admit. What about the other 70%? It does not have an alternative music channel. If one looks at the plethora of new stations which have come on stream, it is difficult to find what might be called the more moderate form of music or an alternative music style.

The Minister has stated her support for public service broadcasting and has asked consultants to forensically investigate RTÉ's current licence fee application. I fully agree with this approach. It poses fundamental and relevant questions. For [95] what will the money be used? What specific areas of programming will benefit? Will consideration be given to setting up a programme policy unit to brainstorm the next generation of programmes which, the Minister has stated, will operate to a strong public service remit and will provide schedules of quality and diversity which cater for minority and mainstream tastes?

I am not telling tales out of school when I suggest that there may be a widespread perception that there is a fund of creativity in RTÉ which is bursting to get out. In my experience a lot of the ideas and inventiveness come from outside in rather than from inside out. That is not to cast aspersions on those creative people within the station who have been producing and continue to produce excellent programming. However, there have been occasions when there have been extreme valleys of inactivity in terms of creativity and inventiveness. The Minister addressed this in other aspects of the legislation in relation to TG4 when she set up advisory councils and so on. It may not be within the Minister's brief but perhaps the commission might be nudged in the direction of doing something in the interests of listeners and viewers.

The challenge facing Ireland's national broadcaster is as I have outlined. Those within the station would say they are carrying out that remit successfully. However, some viewers and listeners would argue otherwise. RTÉ's executives are currently undertaking a nationwide tour of public meetings where they are seeking feedback from the public. I welcome this initiative, although anecdotal evidence suggests it is getting a rough ride at the meetings so far. I hope this is not a cosmetic exercise to flatter the Minister in sanctioning a fee increase. I am afraid I sometimes belong to the school of conspiracies.

Mr. Ryan:  Never.

Mr. Mooney: Information on Paschal Canice Mooney  Zoom on Paschal Canice Mooney  I am afraid I am a sinner. It seems coincidental that RTÉ is embarking on this nationwide consultation process at a time when it is looking for an increase in its licence fee and when we are debating the Broadcasting Bill. However, I hope these meetings produce a positive result and that proposals and ideas emanating from the public will not be confined to the file marked “pending”.

The biggest single criticism levelled at RTÉ in all my years of broadcasting is that it will not listen, that when it is wrong it will not admit it and that when it finds a successful programme formula it takes it off. A joke circulated around RTÉ during the period of the Jacobs Awards to the effect that if one won a Jacobs Award for being associated with an RTÉ programme, the chances were his or her contract would be terminated shortly afterwards. It is as if the decision-makers within RTÉ are afraid of creating stars, of nurturing the talent it creates and of being defensive about the success of its front of house [96] people. It is a strange phenomenon, unique to Ireland, unlike our British colleagues who continue to create minor and major celebrities, thus ensuring a wide diversity of programme styles which is what creative talent brings to broadcasting. I sound like I am being defensive all the time but if one looks at the new talent emerging from a station with a monopoly, one must question its structures or attitudes.

I hope the Minister will also consider the radio dimension. While one of the sections provides for transmission of existing RTÉ and local stations, one section seems to indicate that it may allow more digital stations in radio. Digital radio has the capacity to ensure consistent quality across all terrains. That is an important dimension where Ireland's topography is concerned. Digital radio will also provide studio quality transmission which will be a boom to those music lovers among us. It will also provide unlimited diversity of programme choice. I have been a firm supporter of full radio deregulation. Why, for example, should the business of Government be to limit the choices which technology allows? Limiting the number of radio stations smacks of a culture that mother knows best. Such diversity of programme choice would recognise the public service remit.

I am also conscious of the extra demands that would be placed on existing providers, particularly local radio stations located in the more dispersed areas of Ireland. In common with my colleagues in the other House and on all sides of this House, I take this opportunity to acknowledge the outstanding contribution which local radio has made and continues to make to the quality of life in Ireland. The Minister will remember that one Deputy likened the arrival of local radio in 1990 to the arrival of rural electrification 25 years ago. It was an apt comparison because it is an indication of the tremendous impact local radio has made on life in Ireland. It may seem like hyperbole but he was not too wide of the mark. As a broadcaster on the national station who lives in rural Ireland, I constantly cast envious eyes at the standard of professionalism in broadcasting at local level and at the response of local radio to the needs of the people it serves. Long may it continue.

I do not hold any brief for the carve up of the Dublin region as a result of the 1988 Act which was deeply flawed in this regard. This happened long before the Minister took over and it is not within her brief. It is appalling that a city of more than one million people should have had only two radio stations, both of which abandoned any pretence at reflecting a public service remit, including a spurious contempt for the 20% news and current affairs obligation. They are now what they always intended to be, namely, wall to wall pop. They are two of the greatest cash cows ever produced in this country as a result of legislation. The stations 98FM and TodayFM have consistently refused to encourage local ethnic talent and have slavishly followed the agenda of the multi[97] national record companies in their attempt at the globalisation of music. I am delighted the Independent Radio and Television Commission has finally woken up to this appalling uniformity of radio broadcasting in our capital city and sought greater diversity of choice not only for Dublin but for the wider Dublin region which has within its area two thirds of the population of Ireland. I wish every success to the new players in the Dublin market, Lite FM, the new dance music station for young people which will come on air shortly and the successful bidders for the next special interest licence which will be decided in the coming weeks.

It is a matter of some regret that the decision to provide a pop station in Dublin in 1979, which responded to the then pirate station mania, ignored the other 70% of the population who would have welcomed an alternative music station along the lines of Britain's most widely listened to radio, BBC Radio 2. It says its core audience is aged 50 plus. It was a missed opportunity and placed an intolerable burden on the existing structure of Radio 1 which has barely changed since the days about which I spoke earlier.

The provision of a third national channel is a matter for the Minister and the Independent Radio and Television Commission. With the honourable exception of Eamon Dunphy's, “The Last Word”, Today FM is not much different from the path transmitted by the existing Dublin pop stations. Worse still, at least the Dublin stations know they are local, while the Today FM presenters believe they are local rather than national. They do not seem to have any real knowledge or feel for the Ireland outside the pale.

I welcome the establishment of a fund to provide transmission infrastructure to local and community stations. The abolition of the local radio levy has been welcomed by all the radio operators. The amendment to the 1993 Act obliging RTÉ to make a specific sum available for independent production in line with the consumer price index is also welcome. That will be £20 million this year. I would like to think that at some stage the Minister might consider moving it away from the consumer price index. The cost of production is rising at such an enormous rate I am not sure that linking it to the consumer price index and the modest increase that will generate will address the creative nugget, the independent sector. RTÉ has commissioned some marvellous programmes from the independent sector since this initiative was introduced. It is a question of resources. I know it has been fixed since this initiative was introduced but perhaps the Minister might review it at some stage. Rather than linking it to the consumer price index, she might consider giving a specific sum of money which would be in keeping with current costs. While the increases are welcome, they are modest.

I fully acknowledge the huge cost of producing one hour of television drama. I ask RTÉ to com[98] mission more drama, both historical and contemporary. Ireland has a rich heritage of drama and there is at least one, if not more, amateur dramatic society in every county. It should be a condition of any new licence increase that RTÉ television's output of drama be significantly increased. The country is full of themes and it saddens me that some of our best stories have yet to be dramatised while others, such as the recent co-production, “Rebel Heart”, were a grave disappointment. I share David Trimble's views that the series was flawed, but for entirely different reasons. I do not know what he had to worry about. I thought it was boring and out of context. Indeed, I feel sorry for British viewers, many of whom were exposed for the first time to one of the most traumatic periods in our history and who were left with more questions than answers. It is not the first time that momentous events in Irish history have received such treatment, usually at the hands of non-Irish broadcasters, and in one famous case, film makers. I hope RTÉ takes a more hands-on approach to sensitive themes such as those portrayed in “Rebel Heart”, at least to ensure historical accuracy and to explain in so far as one can within the confines of television drama the exact context so the viewer can best understand and enjoy it.

I welcome the Minister's wonderful initiative in reserving one of the six proposed multiplexes for terrestrial broadcasting in Northern Ireland, and I hope our British friends will quickly produce reciprocal arrangements for the carriage of their platform of broadcasters established on this side. It is vitally important that we talk to each other as frequently as possible and in as many ways as possible and what better way than through the medium of television?

In this context I must express disappointment at a recent report by a group of non-governmental agencies which was published in the media in the past two days tending to portray this part of the island as intolerant and lacking an understanding of the Unionist-Orange position. What particularly saddened me was the highlighting of the Angelus on television and the presence of religious symbols in schools and hospitals as being somewhat divisive and creating a sense of discomfort for non-Catholics who visit Ireland. As someone who has had the marvellous privilege and opportunity as a legislator to visit many different countries and cultures, especially in the Muslim world, it would never occur to me to comment on the religious practice or symbols of the majority of the population of such countries. Have we gone down the road of political correctness to such an extent that we are now being asked to apologise for what and who we are? I have no wish to question the bona fides of the groups who prepared this report, but they have done a grave disservice and probably have done more to contribute to the further divisiveness of Irish society than to the healing of it.

I grew up in a Border county and most of my mother's family and relations come from counties [99] Fermanagh and Tyrone. Since I was a small child I have been a frequent visitor across the Border. I was always conscious of the second class citizenship of Catholics in Northern Ireland, but I was fortunate to grow up in a small town in County Leitrim where there were significant numbers of Protestant friends and neighbours. I grew up in a warm and loving environment and in an atmosphere that was free of prejudice, ignorance and intolerance on both sides, an atmosphere which I am very happy to say remains to this day – I live 30 miles from the Border.

However, if the report is saying what I believe it is, namely, that we are intolerant of the Unionist tradition, then what better way of breaking down the barriers of divisiveness, ignorance and prejudice on both sides than through the medium of television? Therefore, I commend the Minister for her initiative in the Bill and hope that technology will achieve for a future generation tolerance, understanding and equal respect, irrespective of class, creed or colour. That is how I and the vast majority of people in the South and on the island have been brought up.

I welcome the section which will oblige the commission to make rules in order to promote the enjoyment of broadcast services by people who are deaf, hard of hearing and those who are blind or partially blind. These are the little things that sometimes slip through. As a radio broadcaster I have been conscious since I started broadcasting of the great enjoyment radio brings to those who are blind or partially blind and of the denial of such enjoyment to those who are deaf or hard of hearing. In this respect I would welcome the extension of subtitled programmes to all parts of the schedules.

The Minister in her reply on Second Stage in the Dáil responded to several criticisms of RTÉ programmes by deflecting responsibility for actual programming to the RTÉ Authority. I fully understand from where the Minister is coming – she is only repeating what previous Ministers have said in this regard. I know she has addressed the issue of competence, obligation and responsibility, but surely if the authority is not discharging its public service remit in the spirit and language of the Bill, then the Minister has a duty to investigate. Who decides if RTÉ is discharging its public service broadcasting remit? How can it be evaluated if the programming schedules, which are exclusively decided by RTÉ management for the most part and not by the authority which in my experience tends to rubberstamp the decisions of its line managers, are ignored? I suggest there is insufficient transparency and accountability in RTÉ. There is no mechanism to allow somebody say a programme is rubbish and should be ended, or to ask why other programmes are not being featured. In nearly all cases the radio and television management operates in a sheltered and protected environment. If they were employed in the private sector they would be subject to performance evaluation, as are all the local and com[100] mercial stations. As my colleague, Senator Quinn, would say, he bases his business on performance evaluation; he would not last otherwise.

To put it simply – I have often argued this in real terms – because of RTÉ's unique position in broadcasting, whether there is one person or one million people listening to or viewing a particular RTÉ programme, I suggest – it may sound harsh – the people who make the decisions on those programmes continue to draw their salary at the end of the week and in nearly all cases will work at the station long enough in a variety of different roles to draw their pension. I am not aware of any RTÉ executive or manager responsible for bad programming who has been fired for that reason or who has had their contract terminated. I pay tribute to Helen Shaw who has certainly adopted a very radical approach and has shaken up what might have been a somewhat lethargic football team, and I wish her continued success. Directors are appointed for a specific period under contract and when the period is up it is either renewed or, as happens in many cases, the executive is relocated to another part of the organisation. I have no difficulty whatsoever with this, because they are good people and I am not saying there is anything wrong with them. Rather I am talking about institutional structures.

I wish to emphasise that all those under whom I served and those with whom I have been familiar in their respective management roles in radio and television have discharged their duties and responsibilities to the best of their ability. I am only questioning the Minister's responsibility in the context of discharging the public broadcasting remit. One would argue strongly that the Minister has a responsibility to programming, especially in the proposed highly competitive environment where public service broadcasting will be the exception rather than the rule. For example, does the Minister believe that the current scheduling on Network 2 is discharging a public service remit? Why, for example, does it not devote even one night of its programming to documentaries or to programming from which people of all ages could learn instead of an endless diet of imported American comedies and movies? Why, for example, is a night not dedicated exclusively to Irish programming on Network 2 in the same way that there are dedicated nights for American soaps and comedy? Similarly on 2FM why is there not at least one news type programme per day which would report on issues which would be relevant to its target audience, namely, young people, which would inform and educate as well as entertain? We are all talking about the young vote yet the national broadcaster to which people are tuned in in huge numbers has no actual news, features or civics programme. It should be noted that BBC Radio 1 has regularly been broadcasting such programmes for its young audience.

The tendency worldwide is for the dumbing down of radio and television programmes. That is why the oasis that is public service broadcasting is protected under the protocol in the Amsterdam [101] Treaty, among others. Is RTÉ's traditional record of programming excellence, as well as that of the BBC on these islands, which has generated a warm affection for the institutions despite our criticisms of content, to be threatened? I understand the decision to change the style of Network 2 was taken by a non-national who has since left the station, which figures. This is not a rant against non-nationals involved in our media. In fact, Irishmen and women have made a major contribution to the development of British broadcasting, and I am proud of them all including Graham Norton from Tipperary. There is a distinct difference between British and Irish culture, although one would not believe that looking at some of the cross-fertilisation of that culture in certain parts of Ireland through the following of Premiership football as well as the goings on of a community in the north-west of England and the east end of London. I know what the reaction would be if a non-national was appointed head of English, German or Italian television, so why should it be any different here?

This is extremely important legislation and in a sense is a watershed. We are moving into an entirely new technological environment and I wish the legislation well. The Minister has argued her case very well and, like her, I will be very interested to see how the debate unfolds. I commend the Bill to the House.

Mr. Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn  Zoom on Fergal Quinn  I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome the Bill. They say that on the stage one should never follow an animal or a child. In debating broadcasting one should never follow Senator Mooney. His knowledge, foresight and background show so many years of experience he is difficult to follow. There are a number of points I want to make. In the fifties, even before Senator Mooney was involved in radio—

Mr. Mooney: Information on Paschal Canice Mooney  Zoom on Paschal Canice Mooney  Actively involved.

Mr. Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn  Zoom on Fergal Quinn  —I was involved with Radio Luxemburg. My father's holiday camp in Skerries had a 15 minute programme every Sunday. I also had the pleasure of appearing on Granada Television for the same holiday camp in the 1950s.

This Bill has challenged me because when I looked at it I had to remove the commercial deregulation hat that I normally wear. I had not thought through the benefits, success and objectives of public service broadcasting. With the arrival of digital broadcasting, the way we structure our broadcasting faces radical challenges. I had never understood them. At home we recently acquired an array of television stations and we have an array of radio stations.

The nature of competition in broadcasting has radically changed. We are approaching a situation where it will be possible for the customer not simply to receive a few channels, as Senator Mooney and others have said, but scores or even hun[102] dreds. This change will end the era of massive audiences for any one programme, even “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” which the whole country seems to watch as it once watched “The Late Late Show.” The days when the whole country switched on the same television or radio programme are numbered. Viewing in the future may become an individual activity rather than a collective one.

A second change is that the scale of costs of setting up the technology for digital broadcasting puts it outside the public sector, especially when commercial forces will be ready to provide this investment. We need a structure like the one in this Bill. I have no problems with the route the Minister proposes. I leave it to others to examine the Bill in detail. My concern – and I know it is shared by the Minister – is that in the new digital era, public service broadcasting should not only survive but thrive. There is no doubt that digitalisation of television will also bring increased commercialisation. The vast number of channels on offer will be commercial, supported by advertising or sponsorship, and underpinned by the basic commercial objective of selling goods or services.

The State can impose basic rules of behaviour and the Bill provides for codes for programming which will be laid down by the Broadcasting Commission. However, this activity is essentially negative. The codes will, rightly, only tell broadcasters what they may not do. They will not tell them what they must or should do. The codes will put reasonable boundaries on commercial activity.

That is not the end of the story. In addition to commercial broadcasters, we must always have public service broadcasting. If it is to survive we must recognise that it faces new conditions. Section 28 of the Bill defines public service broadcasting from a legal point of view. It is a simple matter of why broadcasting takes place at all. Commercial broadcasting may inform, entertain and educate but the basic reason underlying its activity is to make money through selling goods or services. All else is a means to this end. In public service broadcasting, these means are ends in themselves. A public service broadcaster sets out to inform, entertain and educate for its own sake.

This a profound and very worthwhile difference. There should be room for both and we must create a structure for this. If we consider the history of broadcasting, we appreciate the enormity of the change public service broadcasting faces. Radio began here as a public service. The BBC was the world leader. In America it was the other way. Broadcasting was commercial in its rationale and ethos and is still so. Public service broadcasting is small. In Europe public service broadcasting was dominant, but in more recent years it has existed side by side with commercial. Public service broadcasting remained a giant while being part of a duopoly or a triopoly but was still a big player.

[103] In the digital era, it is important to realise that public service broadcasting will be a much smaller player. Its national importance will not be reduced but its relative size will. Therefore we should make it as important as possible. It must not go down the slippery slope of trying to compete in size terms.

For the public service ethos to survive and thrive in the digital era, we must accept the distinction between importance and size. We should seek to divest our public service broadcasting of anything which interferes with its basic ethos and focus on what only it can do. We must replace an emphasis on quantity with an emphasis on quality.

I want to see something happen that is very difficult to achieve. It is the opposite of empire building. One of the leading British business people spoke at a Marketing Institute function last night about the globalisation of business and the notion of the bigger eating the smaller, giving little chance to the small one to survive. However he believes this is not true. In business the faster is eating the slower. The hare is surviving when the dinosaur is not. It is not a question of size but quality rather than quantity. We have such an exaggerated respect for growth that we fail to realise that growing an organisation is what the Americans call a “no-brainer”. In order to grow an organisation, just stand back – it will grow of its own accord. With each passing year it will extend its tentacles into every place they can reach. All of a sudden there is an empire.

In the commercial world there is a limit to it because there is a corrective mechanism which stops that. It is called the market. Failure in the marketplace often forces companies to retrench – to retreat to what they are good at – otherwise they do not survive. Failure often compels them to rediscover the reason they came into existence in the first place. This applies to a commercial organisation in any business anywhere in the world.

Public service broadcasting does not have that corrective mechanism. It just continues to grow. Public service broadcasters, here and elsewhere, are notorious empire builders. It happens almost everywhere. The further they reach out their tentacles, the looser their grip becomes on the reason they are there in the first place.

For many years I have known people who were employed at RTÉ. They did not necessarily work at RTÉ. Perhaps that is unfair.

Mr. Ryan:  They say that about us too.

Mr. Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn  Zoom on Fergal Quinn  I am very aware of that. I have known people who have worked at RTÉ at many levels. The bigger the RTÉ empire became, the unhappier its people became; the bigger the empire became the more the organisation spent its energy looking inwards on itself rather than outwards towards its customers. This is the first time I have used the word customer on this [104] occasion. I am not talking about commercial customers but rather public service broadcasting customers.

The bigger the empire became, the less central became the focus on its ultimate reason for being in existence – the making of programmes. Programmes became just an element in a wider corporate web. We have often heard that hospitals would be great if it were not for those patients. The same is true in my own business. What a great business it would be if it were not for all those customers. That seems to happen in every organisation as it gets bigger.

The arrival of the digital era offers our public service broadcasting a rare chance – perhaps its very last chance – to reinvent itself and rediscover its roots. Will it take this opportunity? I do not know. However, it will be influenced by the legislative framework that we provide and this will affect the outcome.

There are three connected items that may point us in the right direction. The digital era removes from public service broadcasting the need to be all things to all men. The contributions earlier by the Minister, Senator Coghlan and Senator Mooney confirmed this. It also removes the need to deliver massive audiences. The very nature of digital broadcasting means that those monolithic audiences will become a thing of the past. Each broadcaster is not one of a handful but one of scores or maybe hundreds eventually, which will compete for audiences.

Leading on from that is a further conclusion that I believe is inescapable. Public service broadcasting in the new era must turn its back on advertising and commercial sponsorship. It cannot serve two masters and market forces always win out in the end. When there was only one television service it was an acceptable solution to mix public service and commercial broadcasting in one channel. Even with two perhaps it was possible. When there are hundreds, it will be fatal to undermine the basic public service rationale by contaminating it with commercial factors.

I am arguing that RTÉ should stop taking advertisements and rely for its revenue only on its licence fee. I note that the EU Competition Commissioner believes it is unacceptable for publicly funded broadcasters to compete for advertising with broadcasters who do not get anything from the licence fee. We might find ourselves forced into this approach by Europe, whether we like it or not. I believe it would be a good thing.

What of RTÉ's argument that it would need to more than double the licence if it were to forgo its revenue from advertising? The answer is very simple: roll back the empire. Forget about being all things to all men. Focus on producing a small number of high quality programmes. There are many talented people who could provide excellent public service broadcasting on a budget far smaller than the yield from the licence fee.

I welcome the Bill and I wish the Minister well. I ask her and the House to bear in mind that the structure we create in this legislation will largely [105] determine the quality of our public service broadcasting in the future or whether indeed the concept will survive at all.

Senator Mooney addressed the issue of funds allocated to independent television producers. The Minister has allocated £20 million to independent television producers. This is a fixed sum rather than a percentage of the broadcasters' television budget. Is it the Minister's intention that the £20 million correspond to 20% of RTÉ's programme budget? Is this within the spirit and, intentions of the Broadcasting Act, 1999? I have no ulterior motive in asking this. Is it her intention to keep a watching brief and will she undertake to review this system if the sector begins to fall below 20%? Should we use this system at all? If we could remove advertising totally from RTÉ and say its function and objective were different, then maybe this would force it to reduce the size of its empire and would focus its attention on the objectives of public service broadcasting.

I welcome the Minister's Bill and I welcome this debate.

Labhrás Ó Murchú: Information on Labhrás Ó Murchú  Zoom on Labhrás Ó Murchú  I dtosach is mian liom a rá go bhfuil an Bille Craolacháin seo thar a bheith tráthúil. Tá sé soiléir freisin go bhfuil an Bille an-uilghabhálach ar fad. Tugaim faoi ndeara go raibh an tAire cúramach chun dul i gcomhairle le an-chuid daoine a bhí páirteach nó ag saothrú i gcúrsaí craolacháin. Tá sin thar a bheith tábhachtach. Cé go ndúirt an Freasúra inniu go raibh meascán de smaointí sa Bhille ní hé sin atá ann ar chor ar bith ach gur éist an tAire le daoine a bhí ag obair ar an talamh. Tá sé an-shoiléir d'éinne a thuigeann cúrsaí craolacháin go bhfuil sin tábhachtach.

Many people have referred to the importance of public service broadcasting. It is an exceptionally powerfully medium and while it has huge potential, it also carries huge responsibility. It is not simply a matter of enabling people to provide a service, or transmitting that service to a general population.

We can look back on 75 years of public service broadcasting represented by RTÉ. I was fortunate to have dealt with virtually every director-general of RTÉ television since it came into existence. The role we played during that period was to get the message home to RTÉ executives that they were the servants of the people, not owners of the service. All the great debates on urban councils, county councils, community councils and newspapers happened because people believed that they were the owners of the service. They were not consumers but citizens being served, and that service was provided through Government funding. RTÉ did an exceptional job as the pioneer in public service broadcasting, and while many of us were critical, we were quick to praise when RTÉ did something particularly good in response to the needs of the people. It was from that period that RTÉ provided a service second to none.

[106] I would not fully agree with Senator Mooney's response to the recent series “Rebel Heart”. I watched virtually every episode of that programme and, while I could see flaws from a dramatic point of view, I thought it was challenging from a historical point of view, especially in relation to the situation on this island today. People from outside Ireland might have a less jaundiced view of the Irish because we tend to be our biggest critics in most matters.

Many RTÉ programmes reflected what was happening in the world outside. The consultative process which RTÉ is currently undertaking is similar to the process undertaken when Joe Barry was director-general. I attended quite a few of those consultative sessions, and I liked them. Those present were in a fighting mood and did not attend just to feel happy or to pat somebody on the back. They came because they felt passionately about the broadcasting service. When RTÉ provided people with the opportunity to give their views, they argued for improvements in areas felt to be inadequate or not representative.

RTÉ was the pioneer of local radio. Its members travelled the country with an outside broadcast unit before local or community radio existed. The station provided that OB unit to various towns so they could put on local radio for one week and I participated in my home town of Cashel. I remember local sportsmen coming forward with reminiscences and the local drama society putting on a serialised version of Knocknagow for that week. It was the first time that people had a taste of what it meant to be involved in broadcasting and to have an opportunity to control that powerful medium. In some ways RTÉ set up rival competition for itself, but it sowed the seeds of local radio and indicated to communities what could be achieved.

There is occasional criticism of RTÉ, particularly in the area of public affairs. There are times when it is felt there are personalised agendas within RTÉ, and that is not part of the duty of a public service broadcaster. The approach to the various referenda is an example, and one always gets the feeling that the approach to debates is not neutral. Whatever RTÉ personnel feel, they should ensure there is balance in what they do. A lack of balance irritates people, whether it affects a minority or a majority view. I am glad the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy de Valera, is endeavouring to ensure balance is achieved.

The word “standard” has been used and that word could represent the different viewpoints. It could apply to the various programmes as well. Viewers and listeners do not all have to feel happy with the views expressed on a current affairs programme, but if RTÉ is seen to be acting as a political instrument in its own right, and with its own agenda, that will do it no good. It will detract from the talent it has and its good reputation.

I would be disappointed if the status and role of RTÉ was diminished because we have com[107] mercial stations in competition with it. The average citizen might think that the only comment they can make on commercial television is to turn over to another channel. In the case of public service broadcasting, they see it in totally different way. They do not accept the glib advice that was given some years ago that they can always turn the knob. That was a simplistic response from people who held responsible positions. RTÉ has to listen to what is being said and to the letters it receives. One letter to RTÉ is the equivalent of 500 people holding a similar view, it is said. If 1,000 people wrote in, one can work out the mathematics for oneself. RTÉ did not always react as it might on hearing public opinion.

We had a debate in this Chamber about an episode of “The Late Late Show” to which I took personal exception. I was watching television in a family environment, when a comedian appeared on the show and made a joke about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It was the most horrifying, offensive piece of broadcasting I had ever seen. Gay Byrne aired an apology for what happened the following week, and that was the correct approach. If, as a broadcasting service, RTÉ has stepped out of line in a major way and it realises that the community has been offended or not serviced or reflected in a proper manner, it should come out, not with a formal apology, but to acknowledge the fact that a mistake has been made. I would see absolutely nothing wrong with that on an ongoing basis. I certainly do not expect it from commercial broadcasting, but I am saying that as a friend and supporter of RTÉ.

I would like to see RTÉ funded in a manner in which it can maintain the status, role and service which it is capable of providing. It is no longer sufficient to say that viewers get what they want. I remember, at least 25 or 30 years ago, sitting down with the then director-general of RTÉ. At the time I did not understand what satellite broadcasting might mean for the future, but I knew we would not remain in an isolated situation where television was concerned. I remember making the point then that it would make a lot of sense for RTÉ to develop the loyalty of its listeners and viewers. That loyalty could have been developed by instilling in them a sense of pride in what they are, the attributes and talents they have and their distinctiveness. RTÉ could have been cultivating those things in a very subtle manner. Had it done so it would have an exclusive audience because outside stations would not be at the source of their talents and strengths. To some extent RTÉ did respond to that, but not as much as it might have, and it is now paying for the fact that it did not develop that loyalty at a time when it had less competition.

TG4 provides an example of what I am saying and I am delighted to see that it is intended to constitute the station as a statutory corporate body. Apart altogether from the Irish language which is a very important aspect of this issue, TG4 has the opportunity to revisit where RTÉ [108] was in years gone by. It has an opportunity to benefit from that same environment. If it does so and does not become overly worried about trying to increase its audience figures too quickly, it can establish itself as a quality station. The viewer numbers are increasing and one reason for this is that the people responsible for TG4 can see quite clearly that they have to think professionally. They must be tuned into the younger generation because if they are not they will miss out on a major part of the market and will not cultivate that market for the future.

In the short time that TG4 has been in existence it is clear that whatever mistakes it made in the early stages have been corrected very quickly. Standards are now predominant in that service which has a very good young professional face. I do not know how one weighs value for money in matters of this kind, but it should not all be weighed in a commercial sense. I would like to think that where funding is required for a service of that kind, it will be helped in every possible way because the competition is so great.

As always, the Minister has been sensitive and aware when it comes to attitudes to Irish culture generally, both in the context of the Irish and English languages and the cultural perception of a broadcasting service. Bearing in mind our cultural contexts past and present, there is more goodwill now for the Irish language and culture than there was 25 years ago. One need only look at the polls on attitudes to the Irish language coming from parents and young people to see that it is able to score up to 70% or 75% support. That would not have been the case in the days of the LFM when there was antagonism towards the language and people saw it as a political football or an obstacle to their careers. We must respond to those changed attitudes in all our public services.

I am always proud to quote the major survey on the living arts in Ireland, which included what might have been regarded as ancient music. The survey, which dealt with all the living arts, showed that Irish traditional music was the premier pursuit of all ages, classes and geographic locations in the country. That is not take away from the other living arts that were also surveyed, including classical and pop music, but traditional music came out on top. That would not have been the case 25 or 30 years ago. If we do not reflect those changes within the broadcasting service, not only are we not being fair to our own people but also we not being very commercially minded either. There is a market in the culture itself which has to be reflected.

One might say that the issue of Northern Ireland is more political than broadcasting, and it is. At times it can be difficult to understand that on a small island such as ours there are areas in the North of Ireland which do not have access to RTÉ, yet they can receive other television signals from all over the world. Nothing is more important than people listening to other people's points of view and we in the Republic have been [109] very mature in that regard. From the early stages no obstacles were placed to outside views coming in. There is a certain degree of that in the North and it came home to me in a recent conversation. I would like to mention the person's name but I will not because it involved a private conversation when I was in the company of a well known loyalist politician and his wife. In a very low key discussion we made reference to Clare, but the politician's wife said she had never heard of that county. It is unbelievable that a person living up the road had come through an education system which deprived her of knowing the geography of the Republic of Ireland. She also came through a broadcasting system that, back in those years, for some reason or other, secured her against knowing such details. That frightened me. We are talking about various policies which will develop harmony on the island. She was apologetic about it and was not in any way acrimonious. The particular meeting to which I am referring was a very friendly one.

Above all else broadcasting, and particularly television, has a very important role to play in harmonising views on the island, bringing people together and making us realise that we share many of the same aspirations, challenges and difficulties. It is a pity, however, that we seem only to be able to do it through megaphone diplomacy which is usually a knee-jerk reaction to some recent incident and does not allow for the imparting of information. I hope that any development in that sphere will take place quickly.

I wish to make a case for local radio which serves people well. It reflects what people are doing and has a constituency with a definite focus. Such diversity is not always possible in bigger areas. There is a fear of instability among independent broadcasters, although I am sure that is not the Minister's intention. Standards have to be maintained and obviously there can be no question of an automatic renewal of licences. At the same time, however, one would like to think that the Broadcasting Commission will ensure that those who have a track record of high standards and who reflect what is happening in the community, would be recognised for what they have done. Community is not only about geography, it is also about specialist interests and we should see community radio in that context.

The words “Irish quality” have been used. It would be very sad in Ireland, where we have a very educated, discerning and highly confident young population, if we in some way took from them the very thing which made them distinctive and inspired them and their parents on to success and put it into some plastic environment as far as broadcasting is concerned. I do not think they will thank us in the years to come when their children have been deprived of that influence. I hope the idea of Irish quality will be kept to the fore.

In regard to the idea of directing the broadcasting service at young children in particular by using the type of advertising which can only be [110] described as exploitation, with very often no constraints whatsoever, it is very important that the Minister's intention is fully followed in that area. I know the Minister intends to take that matter further. I have always been dismayed at the fact that young people are so vulnerable to that type of advertising and that pressure is put on parents to respond to it. We have let that develop over the years and I hope something be done in that regard.

I am delighted to hear that the likes of religious newspapers and so on can be advertised. I still remember the argument in regard to The Irish Catholic when it sought to advertise on radio but was refused. On the same day a book of very disreputable standing, containing very salacious type material, was advertised on that station, yet The Irish Catholic could not be advertised. If I interpret the legislation correctly, there will be a relaxation in that regard. I thank the Minister and look forward to the next Stages of the Bill.

Mr. Ryan:  Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Is comhartha mhaith é go bhfuil sí fós i láthair agus é comh déanach, agus go bhfuil sí ag éisteacht go foighneach agus go haireach go dtí seo.

My good friend, Bob Quinn, formerly of RTÉ, was one of the people who educated me about language and its use. He pointed out to me, for instance, that it is illegal to have political advertising. If one puts an advertisement telling people to buy Nestlé products, that is legitimate advertising. However, one cannot put an advertisement telling people not to buy Nestlé products because it exploits women in developing countries by trying to persuade them to use milk substitutes rather than breast feed their children, which is much healthier, because that is political advertising. One can put an advertisement persuading people to buy something because that is not political advertising, but one cannot put an advertisement persuading people not to buy something because that is political advertising. That is clearly wrong. We have to think through our vision of things.

Huge multinationals have resources to persuade us and there is subtlety in a lot of their suggestions. The image they portray of themselves is vastly more benevolent than the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The reality of the human experience of their operations is quite different, yet it is impossible for organisations which would campaign against these people to use the media, even if they had the money, because we do not allow political advertising. Advertising which increases the prestige of major commercial organisations is political advertising, as is advertising which tries to persuade people that these companies are not worthy of our respect. It is one thing if they advertise their products but when they advertise themselves, whether it is the ESB with its wonderful self-serving of itself or Iarnród Éireann, these are political advertisements.

As I get older, I get more left wing in the sense that if I am asked to state my political position, I [111] think I am increasingly of the anarchist tendency on the left because I am profoundly suspicious of all authority. I am not aware of any authority that has not been abused. Therefore, when I say I am tired of hearing talk about communications revolutions, it is not because I have tired of revolution but because I have tired of the illusion of revolution, in particular the talk about broadcasting revolutions.

There were two communications revolutions, the first was film, because of its portability, and the second was radio, because it was long distance. I think television was simply a refinement of radio. I know all the differences, but the real change was the instantaneous communication that radio made available. The other real change was film which made moving images available. Everything after that was a refinement.

I was vigorously of the opinion, for instance, that the Internet was an interesting and exciting new concept but was not the revolution many people thought it was, and the marketplaces of the world have come to a similar conclusion at last. The reason is that we are not isolated creatures living in boxes who will stay at home all day clicking on a mouse buying items. An element of what we do in life is social. In the same way, it was predicted that cinemas would close down because of the video revolution, but the opposite has happened. People have asserted that there is something extra to a film than watching it at home, and the extra is the social nature. We are social creatures. The idea of some of these revolutions is, to say the least, overstated.

I could go on forever about the function of television and I am sure Senator Mooney could as well, and I suspect Senator Ó Murchú could if he had time. We are all wonderful on the rhetoric. The words “inform”, “entertain”, “educate”, “challenge” and “stretch” are all fine rhetoric and we all believe in these things. One of our functions and that of the Minister is to ensure all those things continue to be part of television because if we left it to the marketplace, much as I admire Senator Quinn, we would not have all those things because the market does not work nearly as efficiently as its advocates suggest. It is a wonderful method of creating wealth but it is a very poor way of creating diversity. The market does not create diversity because entry costs are too high in many cases and much gets left behind.

The crude reality of what many people would make of television is what I read by an American commentator whose name I cannot remember. The commentator said that television, as a medium, has a primary function, that is, to sell audiences to advertisers. It sounds awful but if one thinks of the function of mainstream television in the United States, that is what drives it, that is, the selling of audiences to advertisers. What happens in between only has a purpose to the degree to which it sells audiences to advertisers. I do not believe that is what television or broadcasting is about because I do not think that [112] is what human beings are about. We look around for other ways to communicate and when we do that, we end up with an inevitable decline, as has happened in many countries in terms of the proportion of the population that watches television. That is one of the problems they are having in the United States where the numbers of people watching television is dropping and they cannot figure out the reason. I have a totally unscientific view as to the reason – they are taking away from people the sense of involvement and they are making them feel like they are simply the ham in the sandwich between advertisers on the one side and audiences on the other. The audience is only part of a manipulation to sell.

The most important quality future broadcasting must offer is diversity and pluralism. I strongly agree with Senator Ó Murchú in that pluralism is not just Catholics tolerating vigorously the rights of others to be different, it is also others accepting that Catholics have values that are equally entitled to be cherished and respected. I say this as one who has been on a different side on virtually every controversy over the last 20 years from the official Catholic Church. I have no patience with a reversed intolerance which flips over from the horrible anti-tolerist culture when I was a young person to a different kind of anti-tolerism which simply says “we now have a whole new set of values which we will not allow to be articulated without being mocked”. RTÉ does not do that very well.

RTÉ is the most provincial station one could imagine except that its province is Dublin. It is an incredibly provincial station with a set of values which are based in Dublin. I shall give an example I have quoted in the House before. The alleged expert on sport on 2FM commented once, and Senator Mooney will probably remember this, that the Waterford hurling team were down to ten men because they had a man put off. We should not have people dealing with sport on our national broadcasting service whose instincts are so far from the understanding of life of ordinary people. It is not a question of censorship, it is a question of competence. 2FM has an obsession with the sports of the minority in the State. As the GAA will say, it is difficult for Gaelic games to get serious attention on 2FM. British soccer is one thing but to suggest there is a huge audience dying to hear who won between Longford Town and Bray Wanderers defies all reality, given the audiences they have.

I am a great believer in diversity but I will not be manipulated by a Dublin based, Dublin focused, Dublin obsessed broadcasting station into believing these are the values of the nation at large. I still believe in public service broadcasting because so long as we have a public service broadcasting company I can work to change its vision but I cannot do so if it is not there. That is why I support passionately public service broadcasting and the right of myself and Senators Ó Murchú and Mooney and anybody else to tell [113] them where they are wrong, because they are profoundly wrong.

I remember another genius on 2FM asking somebody why he was up early on a Sunday morning. Of course it would be impossible on RTÉ to point out that perhaps 60% to 70% of its listening audience was up early on a Sunday morning because they happen to be going to Mass. One does not talk about that on RTÉ any more. There are a whole series of values, one of which disappoints me. That nearly 40% of the population still vote for Fianna Fáil is difficult for RTÉ to comprehend, as it is for me, but that is a different issue. There is a succession of facts about Irish life – that nearly 70% of the population go to church every Sunday, that the dominant sporting organisation of free choice of the Irish people is the GAA, that 40% of the people vote for Fianna Fáil – that RTÉ, because of its incredible Dublin focus, has a difficulty with. That affects all of us because it makes it impossible to have the dialogue with ourselves that we ought to have about what we are doing with Irish life. I still believe in public service broadcasting and believe strongly in RTÉ.

On the topic of its Dublin obsession I shall quote a couple of figures. I had a row with “Questions and Answers” and because of this I have not been on it for about seven years. However, that is a separate issue and I enjoy things like that. I did a quick check because I was annoyed. In a period of about 15 months from the beginning of 1998 I went through all the non-politician panels to find that almost 90% of them were Dublin based. There are three universities outside Dublin. There are newspapers outside Dublin. Yet 90% of the people “Questions and Answers” think have something worthwhile to say about Irish life were based in Dublin. I say this to politicians: if one takes out frontbench spokespersons and the Ministers, the vast majority of the politicians it has on are Dublin based. The young Deputies chosen to speak to the nation are based in Dublin. I think it is an incredibly provincial view of Ireland. People in Cork, before my time and for a while afterwards, were accused of having this extraordinary belief that the community of people who live in Dublin were representative of Ireland at large. They are part of Ireland and are an important strand of it but they are not Ireland in a whole series of dimensions and it is a great pity. This is being bitchy, but it is late and I am entitled to be so – the eminent Senators from Trinity, behind me here, are permanent fixtures on many of RTÉ's programmes, whereas mere representatives of three times as many graduates like myself and Senator Quinn are not in such a privileged position. RTÉ is riddled with this Dublin elitism. I was supposed to meet it today but I had something else to do so I did not. This extends to all sorts of things.

[114] Senator Ó Murchú mentioned The Irish Catholic. We should have radio stations which are run by religious groups, subject to the same laws as everybody else. I have no idea why one of the most church-going countries in the world is probably the only one that does not have legitimate, mainstream, legalised religious broadcasting. There is an incredible prissiness about what we allow and I agree with Senator Mooney. There is much room for diversity. To the extent that technology allows, the limit of the number of radio stations here should be the limit of the number of people who are prepared to do something different. I do not want us to open up 100 radio stations all doing the same thing. Anybody who is prepared to put money into broadcasting, particularly in radio which is becoming a low cost media, and do something different, whether it be dance music, world music, all talk shows with the gay and lesbian society or whatever is within the laws of the land, should be allowed do so, otherwise we are saying we are afraid of ideas.

If one switches on the radio after 6 o'clock it is difficult to believe there is much diversity available apart from what RTÉ does with its various channels. I am glad the Minister is looking at the issue of children's advertising. Because of the amendments I hope to table, I will give her some encouragement in that matter. I said at a meeting this morning that we like to look back at 100 years ago or 50 years ago and wonder at the things that were tolerated – 150 years ago children of nine and ten years of age would be at work. I believe that in 100 years' time people will look back and wonder how civilised societies, such as those of western Europe and North America, allowed their children to be bombarded with such a range of manipulative advertising, based on the assumption that children were open to manipulation. It should be banned. There is no other way. It is ironic that secular pagan Sweden would be the most enthusiastic advocate of this rather than the countries which would strike poses about their concern for children but not be able to face the commercial reality. The famous phrase that is attributed to an executive in a private television channel is quite simple, ban advertising to children and we drop children's programmes. There are regulatory ways of dealing with that. It is inherently wrong.

A number of radio stations opening around the country are defining themselves as very narrowly focused. That does not bother me. They are youth stations for the 15 to 25 age group, in particular. Any radio station which has as part of its target audience people who are under 18 should not be allowed to have any advertising related to alcohol. That means that all these radio stations will probably close down because they are not there to provide a service but to sell that audience to advertisers. The idea that one could have a radio station which specifically says part of its audience is under 18 and which would be driven to a large [115] extent either directly or by sponsorship, breweries in particular, is profoundly wrong. I do not worry about young people in terms of drug taking, but I worry about their scale of drinking.

Debate adjourned.


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