Wednesday, 28 May 2008
Seanad Eireann Debate
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kelleher, to the House. When I spoke previously, I referred to RTE and other broadcasters providing periods of children’s programming free from advertising. Advertising to children works and is considered lucrative within the business, with top advertising agencies introducing children’s divisions. Children of less than 12 years of age may not be able to recognise traditional advertising compared to normal programming or its sales promoting nature. The influence of advertising on children’s lives may include incidents of pester power, for example, repetitive requests for junk foods high in fat and salt, a matter referred to in the Bill, that force parents to buy what they might otherwise not, resulting in obesity. The copying of behaviour is common, thereby affecting attitudes. Television advertising in particular is believed to have a profound effect on children.
In Austria, there is no advertising during children’s programmes. In Norway, there is no advertising in connection with children’s programmes. In Sweden, advertising targeted at children under 12 years of age is not allowed. Those countries believe that it is not morally acceptable to use television, a powerful advertising medium, as a means of targeting children and that advertising on television is used to cheat young children who are unable to understand exactly what is occurring. Ireland has no such ban, but should it? It is inappropriate to target children with advertising, particularly in respect of fast food-type products where copied behaviour in an imperfectly controlled environment — for example, families in which both parents work — may result in obesity.
However, the argument is not only concerned with obesity and junk food, which are referred to in the Bill. It may be about toys, computers, clothes, etc. Children, particularly those under the age of 12 years, should have commercial-free periods of television viewing in their homes. A policy response that requires broadcasters to provide a number of hours per day of commercial-free children’s television programming is a small fight against what Sweden refers to as the morally unacceptable. Will the Minister of State consider my suggestions? The Labour Party will consider whether it will table amendments to extend the ban into areas other than junk foods. As Senator O’Reilly stated, it is disappointing that no restriction will be placed on alcohol advertising.
Senator Alex White: I welcome the Bill’s publication. As the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources stated last week, it is detailed and comprehensive legislation that proposes to amend and repeal broadcasting legislation dating back more than 50 years. It is a significant and unprecedented achievement and I congratulate the Minister and his officials on putting together in one Bill all of these initiatives and regulations in respect of the independent and public broadcasting sectors.
I agree that the listener and the viewer should be central to the debate and our broadcasting regime, an aspect of the Bill that the Minister emphasised. It must not be a matter of the promotion of individual interests, including those of public or private sector broadcasters. I will revert to this issue when I address the sound and vision fund referred to in the Bill. It is a question of putting the listener and the viewer centre stage in determining what type of broadcasting regime we desire.
The Bill contains a number of welcome innovative provisions. For example, section 8 proposes to involve the joint committee in the appointment of members of the authority’s board and the RTE board. The Minister stated that some Members — he seemed to refer to Fine Gael Members, but they can speak for themselves — may have favoured a procedure for vetting proposed board members as opposed to a formal proposing role. He indicated his preference for the latter, in respect of which I support him. The committee should have a more proactive role in the appointment of board members of the authority and RTE and its involvement should have substance.
As well as addressing the broad sweep of requirements in a broadcasting regime, the legislation maintains RTE and TG4 but deals with them separately. The relevant sections seem faithfully to repeat what has gone before while also seeking to modernise and streamline many of the provisions relating to public broadcasters.
The legislation includes several significant and innovative changes. The Minister referred to the introduction of an Oireachtas channel. This is something we have raised in the House on previous occasions. It is an important development and I hope it will be operational sooner rather than later. There was a suggestion that it would be launched next year. I urge the Minister to do what he can to expedite it.
The Minister said that one of his objectives in bringing forward this legislation is to shift the legislative basis of the television licence regime from wireless telegraphy to broadcasting legislation. One may wonder what that means. For many years, we have had an anachronistic approach to broadcasting, although there has been some change in this regard in the last ten or 20 years. For a long time, however, the attitude of the Government, Civil Service and of many politicians was proprietorial. It is not so long ago that the Taoiseach’s hero, Mr. Seán Lemass, declared that RTE had been set up by legislation as an instrument of public policy and, as such, was responsible to the Government. He further stated that the Government rejected the view that “RTE should be, either in general or in regard to its current affairs and news programmes, completely independent of Government supervision”.
Mr. Lemass made that statement in the 1960s in reference to the 1960 legislation which will be repealed by this Bill. There are echoes of this attitude from time to time in this Chamber when Members are upset by something they see on RTE. However, in general, the view put forward by Mr. Lemass is no longer part of our culture. It is important that we have put our view of broadcasting onto a new plane, one that is more intelligent and more faithful to the purpose of broadcasting. Public service broadcasting should not be an instrument of public policy — and especially not of Government policy — but rather a vital aspect of our democratic system and culture in the broadest possible sense.
Colleagues have referred to the provision which maintains the sound and vision fund, which was established under the 2003 legislation, whereby 5% of the proceeds of the licence fee is given over to independent productions. While RTE itself can benefit from this fund, it has a broader application. We must be cautious in terms of any proposal to change this. There is no such proposal in the Bill. Some of my colleagues expressed disappointment that this is so.  Section 5 of the Broadcasting (Funding) Act 2003, which will be repealed by this legislation, provided that a review of the fund should be undertaken within three years. The Minister of State, Deputy Kelleher, may correct me if I am wrong but it is my understanding that this review has not taken place. There was little public debate in 2003 on the implications of establishing this fund. I recall reports, whether accurate or otherwise, that there was some resistance in the higher echelons of the Department in this regard. Nevertheless, that legislation was enacted in late 2003.
We can see the advantages that have accrued in recent years as a consequence of this provision. One of the positives is the promotion and fostering of creative diversity. Nobody can fairly argue that all creativity and knowledge repose in RTE in respect of what television and radio production ought to be. On the other hand, there is an important debate to be had in regard to the protection of the public realm in broadcasting. If we go down the road of dividing the licence fee among all the players, for which some have argued, it would have the inevitable consequence of eroding the funding base RTE requires in order to provide a comprehensive service. Ultimately, this might seriously undermine the job we require RTE to do, which is to provide a public broadcasting service.
It is strange, for example, that this fund can be availed of by independent broadcasters which are financed by private equity funding. It is extraordinary that such entities do not have to match the funding they receive. There must be a review of the fund before there is any suggestion of change. The basis upon which independent companies can avail of it without having to match the funding should be one aspect of such a review. How the fund is managed is important in terms of accountability. The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland has had problems to contend with in regard to accountability. That should also be part of any review.
I have heard the suggestion that this is about jobs and that the fund must be increased to favour job creation. I respectfully suggest that it is not simply a question of jobs but is also of securing the best mix for broadcasting, both public and independent. RTE already plays an important role in terms of support for the independent sector. It is required to do so rather than doing so through any sense of charity. That should continue. However, RTE’s position as the public service broadcaster should not be undermined through an erosion of its funding. My party expressed reservations in 2003 about the establishment of this fund. I have serious reservations about any suggestion of an increase in this fund beyond its current capacity without first undertaking the type of review we were promised in 2003 but which has not yet taken place.
Senator Dan Boyle: The production of such a detailed Bill, with 181 sections, is a testament to the work of the Minister and his officials. All Members take seriously their responsibilities when a Bill is introduced in this House. The Bill provides an opportunity to undertake an overview of broadcasting as it currently operates. I do not consider myself as other than young middle aged but I recall a time, before I could vote, when broadcasting in this State consisted of no more than one radio station and one television station. The radio station commenced broadcasting at 7.30 a.m. and the television station at 5.30 p.m., and both went off the air at 11 p.m. In the decades since, we have seen the emergence of a panoply of new broadcast providers, as well as rapidly emerging new technologies. This Bill is an attempt to address those changes. No legislation, no matter how well drafted and how quickly provided, can keep pace with the speed of technological changes in the area of broadcasting. It is an issue that the Department and we in this House will have to address again in the near future.
The Bill includes several innovative measures. The early sections relate to the introduction of a new body to replace both the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Given that the taskforce on public service reform has only begun its deliberations, as a useful first step, we should encourage the formation of new bodies composed of existing bodies that have complementary remits. That is the first welcome reform in this Bill.
Senator Alex White spoke about the second innovation, the selection procedures for board members of the new broadcasting authority and the RTE Authority and the role the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources will play in that regard. We should welcome this. The system of public appointments has been a grey area in the past and we should work towards opening it up in so far as we can. The greater involvement of elected representatives, particularly Oireachtas committees, in assessing the merits of and recommending people for appointment to public bodies on the basis of their experience and abilities should be given maximum encouragement.
Part 3 of the Bill relates to duties, codes and rules and has been the subject of much comment during this debate. Some Members believe that the explicit references to speech and news content might go too far in the context of allowing broadcasters the space to broadcast freely. Unfortunately, however, we have seen, particularly with local radio stations and the commercial considerations that guide them, that we have created stations that are bland and devoid of personality. The necessity for speech content and a particular local news feature helps those stations. This is a general comment; I am aware there are some excellent local stations. However, in the Dublin metropolitan area local radio is represented purely by music stations that are devoid of personality. We must have, at least in legislation, a direction to encourage people down a different road.
The opposite could be the case in terms of the regulations that might follow regarding codes, particularly in the area of advertising. The Minister has already clearly stated that advertising directed at children must be strictly controlled. I believe there is a large consensus in the House in support of that. Other Members have mentioned that such a system already exists elsewhere in the world. If we can convey that agreed consensus, I am satisfied that the regulations that will follow will be what is required.
The area of public service broadcasting and the specific identification and enhancement of the roles of RTE and TG4 are welcome. However, the debate on the Bill and its eventual passage should not indicate that commercial companies, both television and radio, are acceptable in terms of their current public service remit. Public service broadcasting needs to be encouraged among those broadcasters. In general, their public service content is poor. The new radio station, Newstalk 106, is a welcome additional talk radio station but other radio broadcasters and, indeed, the new entrants into the television market have tended to opt for crass commercialism over public information. It is a balance we must always get right in our broadcasting services and should not be an onus imposed solely on RTE and TG4, despite the excellence of TG4, in particular, in view of the short time it has been in existence.
The Bill seeks to prepare the sector for the onset of digital broadcasting and the end of analogue broadcasting after 2012. I am satisfied the Department has been doing the necessary fieldwork to ensure this happens, although we might be a year or two behind other jurisdictions in this regard. In the UK, for example, digital channels have been up and running for up to five years and are becoming very popular. When the stations are eventually on-stream, watching television using digital compatible televisions will change the experience and make it similar to the experience of listening to radio. People already experience this with satellite television. It means turning a dial and having hundreds of stations available rather than settling down to watch a particular programme on a particular station for a given length of time. That will affect the way people watch television.
On satellite television the phenomenon of dedicated stations, sometimes to the most ridiculous subjects, has existed for many years. There are stations dedicated to tarot card readings, for example, while football clubs have specialist stations. While some people might sneer at the concept of a dedicated parliamentary station on digital television, there are far worse examples already on satellite television of how people’s attention is being diverted. There are also good examples of parliamentary broadcasting, such as the BBC Parliament channel and C-SPAN in the United States. If we can achieve that level of excellence in our parliamentary broadcasting, we might encourage more people to take an interest in public affairs.
Senator Alex White made some comments about the fund for the independent sector. I am not sure that I share his perspective. The multiplicity of broadcasting stations, both television and radio, has been matched by an increase in the number of people in the independent sector who make programmes that can be sold to broadcasting outlets. That should be encouraged. I am not opposed to the existence of the fund but I am also not opposed to a review of the fund. However, given that there have been inflationary pressures, an increase in the fund is justified. The Bill is a little vague, and might be open to amendment, where it appears to give greater emphasis to independent producers in the television area and less to independent producers in radio. The Minister should be encouraged to review this aspect of the Bill and accept necessary amendments.
The section relating to the television licence is one on which I am probably in disagreement with the Minister. I accept that, given the economic situation, the type of changes we must put in place with the television licence probably cannot be done for several years. The licence is a source of revenue and if the revenue is not provided through a direct licensing system, it would have to be provided from general taxation. However, there is a difficulty in applying the concept of a television licence to advancing technology. In this Bill we are changing the legislative aspect of the licence from a wireless licence to a broadcasting licence. At the same time, however, the receipt of television programmes is possible on all types of technology that are not television set receivers. It is possible to receive television programmes through the Internet and on mobile telephones, for example, and the likelihood is that people will increasingly receive television programmes in that manner rather than in the traditional way. That raises the question of why a licensing system exists and why we have the associated administrative costs. I accept the issue cannot be dealt with in this Bill but I believe that within the next decade, the existence of a television licence and how we administer the costs relating to public service broadcasting will have to be addressed. I am confident the Minister is open to that type of thinking.
I believe I have covered most aspects of the legislation. This is an important, detailed Bill that covers most of the requirements in the sector. Despite its size, I consider it a contribution to an ongoing debate on broadcasting. I am aware the Minister would like to have the opportunity to introduce further legislation in this area, especially with regard to new technology, how we can check the revenue streams and the need to have codes that apply to that technology as they currently apply to terrestrial services. When we have that wider debate we will be better informed as a result of having updated and amended this legislation and put better legislation in place.
Senator Paudie Coffey: I welcome the Minister and this debate on the Broadcasting Bill. Like previous speakers, I welcome the general thrust of the Bill. It is a comprehensive and far-reaching measure, and its introduction is timely. I am one of the Members old enough to remember when there was only one television channel in this country, Telefís Éireann. In the south east — Senator Walsh will remember this too — we used to have fuzzy reception of some channels from the west coast of England and Wales. That was back in the late 1970s. Traditional broadcasting is experiencing new challenges which will remain in future, including the advent of broadband, Internet access and satellite channels. Digital recording and playback technology is being introduced in many areas too. These changes create revenue-raising challenges for broadcasters. It seems users play what they want to see and fast forward through the advertisements. The technology exists although many people may not realise this. Advertising in general will be significantly affected with the advent of these new technologies.
I spoke on the Order of Business last week about the advertisement of junk food, especially during children’s programmes on television. Speaking as the father of young children — and I know many others would agree — the advertising of junk food needs to be restricted. We are storing up significant problems for the future with the promotion of such foodstuffs. Significant pressure is coming on families to purchase goods that are marketed extensively on children’s programmes. I see a problem here. I do not know what the remit of the broadcasting authority will be in this regard. If we restrict advertising on the national airwaves and radio stations, how do we control the satellite channels that are received in almost every living room and bedroom throughout the country? The Kid’s Channel on the Sky network, for example, broadcasts almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with significant advertising time devoted to junk food, toys and so on. Perhaps the Minister of State can clarify what the remit of the authority is and what control it will have on such advertising given that it can restrict the national broadcaster? There is a circle to be squared and I am interested to hear how this can be done.
The establishment of the broadcasting authority of Ireland is welcome. It will take responsibility for the existing functions of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Fine Gael welcomes the Bill but one criticism is that the political response to changes in the broadcasting sector has been too slow, while technology is moving so quickly. This legislation will have to be reviewed, even before the end of the present Government term, owing to advances in technology. It is something that will have to be constantly reviewed. The Minister said in previous statements to the House on this matter that the national transmission roll-out would take place by September 2012. I wish to see how this process can be tracked and how we can monitor its progress and costings. This should be of interest to the House and the wider public.
On the appointments of board members to the new authority — this may be an item of contention — Fine Gael is of the view that while we welcome the thrust of the new Bill which allows the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to have a role in the appointment of new members, the party considers that members of any board should have the proper qualifications and competencies. We suggest that the relevant committee has a significant role to play in vetting — if that is the correct term — and ensuring all board appointees have the necessary competencies. This will allow board members to play a proper role. This is the only fair and transparent system of making Government appointees to boards and is something for which the public is crying out. Government appointments to the boards of State organisations are sometimes used as a political football by both the Government and the media. It is important the Oireachtas can stand over the appointments and ensure such people are competent and able for the job.
Fine Gael also welcomes the broadcasting codes governing the standards and practices the authority will oversee. All broadcasters have responsibilities and certain standards to maintain. This legislation will ensure broadcasters keep to a high standard and that they are balanced, impartial and objective in reporting. The legislation contains a fine system of sanctions that will ensure where a broadcaster is out of line or attacks a person’s reputation unnecessarily, it will be fined or brought to book.
On licensing and the collection of licence fees, there is a good deal of evasion of payment of television licences. An Post has done good work in the past but the rate of payment of licence fees leaves much to be desired. We are told it costs €12 million to collect €200 million in fees. We must examine this revenue collecting exercise to see where we can introduce efficiencies and a more systematic approach to collecting fees. We hear advertisements threatening those who do not have a valid licence with a knock on the door from an inspector. Such advertisements are fine but there should be a more systematic, efficient approach. We need to examine the way An Post operates in this regard. We could operate with other organisations such as the ESB, for example, which has a sizeable database, the meter point reference number database, with specific addresses for each dwelling place in the country. There may be an opportunity for the Government and An Post to liaise with the ESB using that system and such a collaboration may result in a more systematic licence fee collection system. Is it possible to collect licence fees in the way motor tax is collected, namely, on-line? Many people would welcome this option as it would save time, prove accessible and be easier for people to renew their licences this way.
I, along with Senator Boyle, have spoken previously about digital technologies. Not only is there a satellite television channel broadcasting tarot cards and so on, there are also gaming, gambling and shopping channels. These channels are broadcast into the living rooms of homes in the country. Has the authority any remit in this sector? The advent of these channels brings new challenges to the way we control what is broadcast. Every broadcaster using satellite has direct access to every living room in the country.
On the public broadcasting service, I compliment RTE on its tradition in promoting Irish film, documentaries, the Irish language and especially the development of TG4. Since its introduction it has played a significant role in promoting the Irish language, heritage and culture. The “All-Ireland Gold” series tapped into a niche in the market of viewers wishing to see the sporting archives. RTE also deserves credit for the “Reeling in the Years” programme. It is remarkable how the public broadcasting archives are of interest to citizens.
I would welcome a public interest channel which would broadcast the workings of the Houses of the Oireachtas. The citizens of the country need to know more about what happens in the Upper and Lower Houses and the local authorities, which are at the coalface of democracy. Such a public service channel could broadcast much of what happens at local authority meetings throughout the country as well as EU meetings. I wish to criticise RTE slightly for the “Oireachtas Report” programme. It broadcasts the programme very late; it was on at 12.45 a.m. last night. Someone is quoted as saying the programme is for insomniacs or people starting the night shift and having breakfast. The treatment of this House by RTE is very poor, with minimum coverage using only the sound bite or celebrity. However, many important issues are discussed here and there is room for improvement in the present format of “Oireachtas Report” and perhaps the new channel will address this.
The Irish film channel will be beneficial to the production and promotion of Irish films. In my constituency of Waterford, the Waterford Institute of Technology is offering a higher diploma in television production in a co-operative arrangement with Údarás na Gaeltachta and a private company called Nemeton Television. The course will train young producers to make Irish films and documentaries. These producers will be able to take advantage of the Irish film channel, so I compliment the Minister on providing for that in the Bill. However, the question arises of how the channel will be funded.
Senator Jim Walsh: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, Deputy Mansergh, go dtí an Teach. Bhí sé mar Bhall den Teach sa Seanad deireanach. Gan amhras, déanfaidh sé a dhícheall ar son an Rialtais, ar son an Teach seo agus ar son na Dála. The Minister of State was an eminent Member of the last Seanad and I have no doubt that he will bring distinction to the high office he now holds.
I welcome the Broadcasting Bill 2008 which, as several speakers have noted, is an important and comprehensive legislative development. Credit is due to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and his officials for the hard work they have done on the Bill. It is welcome that listeners and viewers will be central to this area.
Broadcasting is a powerful medium for moulding public opinion and it often reflects the core values of our society. The remit of the broadcasting authority of Ireland should be to ensure that it acts as a force for good because that is not always the case. I welcome the amalgamation of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Reference is frequently made in these Houses to the plethora of quangos that have been established, so it is sensible to rationalise their number. The BAI will have a remit across a wide spectrum of issues. Its compliance committee will prepare a set of rules for broadcasters and set a strategic direction for broadcasting.
Section 33 provides for the collection of a levy to fund the BAI. A levy of up to 3% of turnover, which was abolished in 2002, is being reintroduced. It is imperative, however, that the levies imposed are fair and reasonable. Where public bodies are involved, the accounting system for income and expenditure does not always ensure efficiency and cost effectiveness. I hope the Minister will consider this issue. I support the suggestion that the BAI should be required to submit three or five year business plans which clearly set out targets and annual budgets. In the interest of transparency and accountability, the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources could play a role in scrutinising these business plans before a levy is approved. If independent radio stations and broadcasters have to make a contribution, it would be reasonable to allow them representation on the BAI. The phrase “no taxation without representation” should apply.
The Bill makes an innovative proposal on involving the Parliament in making appointments to the BAI, RTE and TG4. That may become a template for future legislation. For some time, there has been a need for appointees to various bodies to be vetted by the appropriate Oireachtas committees to ensure they are both qualified and representative of public opinion. That has not always been the case, particularly among socially focused bodies, which have a tremendous influence on policy formulation.
In regard to restrictions on advertisements aimed at children, which probably emanated from an EU directive, while I concur with the Bill’s aims a number of English and other foreign channels are received in this jurisdiction. It is important that we do not put our industry at a disadvantage. Members of the drinks industry have argued that if our unilateral decisions are not replicated by foreign channels, we will distort trade. I would like to see restrictions on advertisements for drinks and betting, which may be an even greater problem than alcohol, but these should be introduced on a European basis. The fact that the provisions in the Bill have their genesis in an EU directive may ensure action at a European level.
The BAI will supervise the length of advertisement breaks. There may be a need, however, for flexibility in this area. I understand that radio stations have a cap of ten minutes of advertisements per hour. An eminently sensible suggestion has been made to me that averaging the figure over a two hour period would allow for flexibility in programming. I do not oppose a strict regulatory system but flexibility should be allowed in regard to commercial needs.
The provisions on complaints and the right to reply are innovative. We have held tortuous discussions over the past 12 months on the Defamation Bill 2006 and, while some of us were not particularly happy with aspects of that Bill, I welcomed its provision of a right to reply. It is common sense that a radio station will be able to make statements of correction without prejudicing its defence in future court cases. A similarly sensible approach is made in the application of sanctions of up to €250,000, to which the broadcaster can agree without incurring court costs.
Section 67 relates to licensing. The making of an application is expensive. Ten-year licences will be granted to successful applicants. I welcome the new fast-track system that will operate in circumstances where there is one applicant. If the renewal of a licence remains at the shorter period of five years, a type of bogus competition might emerge in order to trigger a ten-year licence. Consideration should be given to that matter. The role of the BAI in respect of ownership and licensing and the fact that a licence might become the main asset of a company should also be examined. Those in the industry might not agree with me but I am of the view that instead of five or ten years, a licence should last for seven years.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I welcome the Minister. I also welcome the Bill. I wish to declare that I have an interest in that I have an investment in Channel 6. It is not a very successful investment but I feel I should declare it.
I welcome the fact that one authority will assume responsibility for the various areas to which the Bill relates. It deals concisely with that matter but it is, nevertheless, a lengthy item of legislation. I was surprised with regard to the number of areas it covers.
Of the nine members who will sit on the board, five — the majority — will be appointed by the Minister. The latter will also appoint the other four while having regard to the advice of the joint Oireachtas committee. I am delighted that the relevant committee will be involved. Effectively, however, what is proposed will mean that the Minister of the day will exercise proxy control over an important part of what should be an independent, opinion-forming body. Will it be possible to broaden the appointment system? Why not allow the Arts Council, the IFA, the unions or whomever to have a say in who is appointed? I accept that these bodies may be able to have their say through the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. However, I am of the view that what is proposed could be improved. The making of appointments to boards is such a contentious issue and we need to give greater consideration to it.
I welcome the concept of financial sanctions. To date, if a broadcaster was seen to be in the wrong, the only course available was to take the draconian step of suspending its licence to broadcast. What is proposed in the Bill is an excellent innovation. It will allow sanctions of differing degrees of severity — depending on the seriousness of what was done — to be imposed and these will impact upon the financial resources and audience numbers of the transgressor. I am delighted that this measure, which is similar to the sin bin that operates in rugby, is being introduced. In the past, if a player misbehaved on the rugby field he was sent off and the match was thereby probably ruined as a contest. The introduction of the sin bin, whereby players are sent off for ten minutes, improved matters no end because a referee is now able to impose a penalty on the offending team without ending the game as a contest. From that point of view, the introduction of financial sanctions is a good move.
I am somewhat concerned with regard to new technology. We simply do not know what new technology will appear in the broadcasting field in the future. Digital audio broadcasting seems to be the flavour of the moment. However, people who live outside the main population centres can be offered a service via digital radio mondial, DRM. Should we offer coverage only to those who live in larger centres or on the plains? I do not believe so. In addition, I do not know what is coming next. I am not sure the Bill is sufficiently flexible to allow for rapid reaction to changing marketplace realities.
In 1910, Thomas Edison wrote to his son and stated that the latter would not believe how the world had changed in his lifetime. The same words were used by King Frederick in 1640, by which time America had been discovered, the printing press had been invented and the Reformation had taken place. The world changes so quickly. In 1905, the head of the copyright office in America stated that there would be no need for that office to exist after 1910 because he believed that everything which could be invented was probably already in existence. Technology changes rapidly and I am concerned as to whether we are giving ourselves room to adjust. Finland and Sweden both turned down the opportunity to put in place digital audio broadcasting. In that context, I hope we are going in the right direction in respect of this matter.
Senator Walsh and others referred to advertising. The legislation will effectively impose a ban on junk food advertising at times when younger people and children are most likely to comprise the audience. I applaud this move. I was involved, through my company, in introducing a ban on sweets being sold at checkouts. This was hugely applauded by parents because they stated that it freed them from what they termed the “whinge” factor and gave them a greater say in their children’s diets. However, I would propose the introduction of a further advertising ban. As with tobacco, why not introduce such a ban in respect of gambling, alcohol and other products?
There is little or no difference as regards the arguments that can be put forward in respect of this matter but I do not know how we could do what I propose in a competitive marketplace. Senator Walsh and others referred to this matter. Broadcasting and media outlets are all in competition with interests we cannot control from outside the State. The ban on tobacco advertising is almost Europe-wide. However, I have seen posters advertising tobacco in certain European countries. There must be a way to solve the problem to which I refer by either imposing a ban at European level or putting in place a tax that would relate to advertisements which come from outside the EU. I accept that this would be a challenge. However, it is too easy to say that we should impose a ban on certain types of advertising when we know full well that broadcasters are in competition with interests from abroad.
The legislation offers a right of reply to those who feel they have been maligned by a broadcaster. I am concerned that this could be used to hobble serious investigative journalism. Our law is based on the premise that one is innocent until proven guilty. This should surely apply to a broadcasting organisation as much as to an individual. I accept that there is no easy answer in respect of this issue. The Minister will not be aware that in the 1960s I was maligned by the Irish News in Belfast when I attempted to fly across the Irish Sea in a balloon in order to create publicity. The newspaper referred to me as “ex-IRA man Feargal Quinn”. I was upset by this and discovered that those at the Irish News had confused me with a distant relative from a previous generation. I contacted the newspaper and asked if it might publish a correction. The story was corrected but almost to the other extreme. It was stated that not only was I not an ex-IRA man but also that I was extremely opposed to what that organisation was then doing. The correction almost described me as a strong and staunch Unionist. I refer to my experience because there is a definite need for a right to reply and I am sure the broadcasting authority of Ireland — even if the position is not strictly the same as that which applies in respect of the press — will find a way to establish it.
Those involved in the area of broadcasting are increasingly in competition with broadcasting interests from outside the State. The latter are not subject to our legislation in any meaningful way. They are subject to European legislation but there is not much of this. We must be careful not to deliver audiences to out-of-State organisations by imposing regulations in respect of minority groups. It may make excellent moral or political sense to impose such regulations but they are not audience-attractive and could lead to viewers being lost. There is a tightrope to be walked between the notions of what is populist and what is ethical. This quandary will be redefined on a day-by-day and issue-by-issue basis. It would be nice to believe that we might be able to legislate for good taste and common decency. However, I would be satisfied to leave responsibility for such matters to the new body.
I have been extremely impressed by the introduction of C-SPAN in the United States. This system appears to work extremely well. I am not sure about the level of audience participation with it but those who have the system pay attention to it.
With regard to the proposed licensing fee, I made a proposal last year on a broadcasting Bill which, as a former chairman of An Post, I say with a little guilt. There must be a better way to collect the licence fee. I made the suggestion last year that it should be considered as part of the ESB bill, as better opportunities exist there. That would present problems for An Post, which does its best in that area, but it should be considered.
Section 177 deals with accounts. Since I came into the House I have argued that every Bill establishing a new body should put forward deadlines for publication of accounts. I do not see a date in that respect outlined in the Bill, although it refers to “as soon as may be expected”. We should insert a deadline in that regard.
Some years ago, when I looked for RTE accounts in January I was told they had not yet been published for the year before the previous year, in other words, for a period of 13 months from the time in question. Accounts should be published within three months. I know when I have put down amendments in this regard, Ministers have often accepted them. The period in question does not have to be three months, it could be six months. Every authority should have a report deadline.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I welcome the Bill and consider it an honour and privilege that it is printed in my name to present for the consideration and approval of Seanad Éireann. As someone who was a Member of the Seanad in 1988 and 1989, when the last Bill on broadcasting was considered, we have come a long way and achieved much with regard to licensed and unlicensed broadcasting, as it was at the time.
The success of local radio has been incredible and I congratulate everyone associated with the creation and building up of local radio to what we all know today. The strength of local radio is in the meaning of “local”. These stations provide an interesting service to local areas and that is the reason they are so successful. In terms of the down side of local radio, I can say honestly it was never our intention as legislators in 1988 and 1989 to make millionaires out of the many people who sold on licences given to them by the people and the Legislature. Perhaps this Bill will stop that practice. I like to see people and industry progressing, as local radio has, but the ethos of staying local is of the utmost importance, particularly with regard to news bulletins.
Before the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, leaves us, I congratulate him on his appointment. It was one of the most uplifting appointments in the new Cabinet and I know many people are looking forward to his stewardship and ministry for the next four years, and perhaps longer. I wish him well for all he has done for Ireland until now and I know what he will do as a member of the new Cabinet. I welcome our near neighbour and colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, from County Kildare. I also congratulate him on his appointment. I had the great distinction and honour of serving with his father, a Minister, in the Houses many years ago.
To return to local radio, our duty of meeting the need and creating the local radio experience has been an enormous success. I wholeheartedly congratulate everybody associated with the issue. Since we introduced that Bill, TG4 has been created. That station is a credit to Cathal Goan, who has gone on to become Director General of RTE. He played a major role in setting up TG4, as it formed part of his vision and commitment to Ireland. He is a great Irishman with foresight that has given us the success of TG4. It is an outstanding station and it is tremendous to watch an Irish station giving the Irish people what the majority wish to see on their televisions.
The appointment of an authority must be welcomed, particularly with the input from a committee of the Houses. I am a member of that committee and look forward to playing a further part in this area. I was a vice chairman of the committee on broadcasting services. As Senator Quinn has stated, we can take much from the success of the C-SPAN example in America. I look forward to working with the new person with responsibility on this matter.
Professionals who know the industry and know the wares to put in the shop window to sell to the public should be allowed become members of the board. These would include members of the Irish Film Board and those who make their living in the film industry. The great ambassadors for our country should be included on the board, as well as those involved in the Irish music industry. I am thinking specifically of our great success stories, such as Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, U2 and the Cranberries. We have had great ambassadors all over the world selling the new Ireland. These people are leaders in their fields and should be members of this board. I would like the Minister to consider what I have proposed.
One issue I wish to emphasise is the setting up of a new Oireachtas channel. I am convinced the spirit of the people would be uplifted if they were to see the good work and hear the uplifting contributions being made here — especially in Seanad Éireann — by people who have enormous experience and who have given their life’s blood to other industries before coming in here. Members of the public would be delighted to hear debates on the merits of a Bill, statements on topical issues or other contributions made in Seanad Éireann. I look forward to the channel being set up and I know it will also show the proceedings of the Dáil in the light it deserves.
We are thankful for the snapshot every night provided to us by “Oireachtas Report”. Live broadcasting of the Order of Business in the Seanad, followed by the business of the Dáil and the important issues discussed in depth by the committees would attract a large public audience, potentially 10% of the population. Our young people, whether in primary school, second level or third level could watch the affairs of the Houses that would be of interest to them. We should consider how to broaden the constituency viewership and the interest in politics in general by showing the deliberations of Members and the scrutiny of Parliament when legislation is processed on matters that impact on the daily lives of our people. The good work being done by Members in the national interest would be then seen by the general public, hopefully in unedited form. The Irish people can look forward to this service. I assure the House that I will do anything I can as Leader of Seanad Éireann to ensure the Oireachtas channel is brought on-line. It is disheartening when Members spend two to three hours preparing 20 to 30 minute contributions for delivery in the Dáil or Seanad and they do not get a mention on radio, television or in the print media. Such work is generally done in consultation with Library assistants and the secretariat.
We must encourage young people to become Members of the Oireachtas and we should show our appreciation to them. Those of us who have been Members of the Oireachtas for some time and who have experience in reviewing the challenges facing new and young Members must encourage the setting up of this channel as fast as possible.
The Bill is a review of the 1988 legislation, which takes us into the new technological era of the 21st century. This is certainly a great challenge and I appreciate the Minister taking it into the Seanad first in order that we can express our opinions on it. I am pleased the Bill was printed in my name for presentation to the House. I welcome the Bill and look forward to its safe passage through the House.
Senator Paul Coghlan: I, too, welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, to the House. I congratulate him on his appointment and wish him well in his new responsibilities. I saw him perform with distinction the other day in Killorglin in my home county where he chaired proceedings and gave his blessing to the joint venture involving Texaco and Bord Gáis. I also compliment the Minister, Deputy Ryan, on his initiative in bringing forward this comprehensive Bill containing 181 sections and running to 165 pages.
Before proceeding I should declare a small interest, of which Senator Cassidy’s contribution reminded me when he said that local radio should be local, a view to which I subscribe. I am a founding member of and shareholder in Radio Kerry whose credo is that it is a local station. It operates for every member of every community who wishes to avail of it, either by ringing in to offer a view or whatever. It is not for me to be critical but the print media appear to be invading local radio, although I am sure I do not have to comment on that as the Members are aware of developments in that field.
The main purpose of the Bill is the setting up of the broadcasting authority of Ireland. It will have nine board members, five appointed by the Government and four to be recommended by the relevant Oireachtas committee, and two statutory committees: the contracts awards committee and the compliance committee. I agree with my esteemed and learned colleague, Senator O’Reilly, who spoke on the Bill at length last week, that these proposals are a welcome departure from normal Government practice heretofore in that the Minister has indicated he will consult the relevant Oireachtas committee and take on its view regarding four of the members of the board. We are all in favour of broad consultation and I compliment the Minister on that.
As Senator O’Reilly and others have mentioned, the Bill may need further refinement, so to speak, and those of us on this side of the House would be keen that all the appointments would be open to a questioning and vetting procedure by the committee. Senator O’Reilly and others will have tabled amendments and if I am not anticipating the Minister inaccurately, he will have an open mind regarding some of those matters.
The Bill does not legislate for any form of restrictive measures regarding alcohol advertising. We believe that issue must be addressed and I am sure amendments will be tabled in that regard. Members have spoken continually in the House of the dangers of alcohol advertising and the way it misleads so many of our young people. They have outlined also some of the sad events we are witnessing in towns and villages throughout the country, especially at weekends.
The Bill provides for two new channels to be funded publicly, one of which will be a Houses of the Oireachtas channel to cover proceedings of the Oireachtas, local authorities, implementation bodies, European Union, United Nations and Council of Europe bodies, legislatures in other states and other bodies as the Commission of the Houses of the Oireachtas sees fit. I take it the Houses of the Oireachtas will have discretion regarding the way the channel will be run. Like other speakers I welcome the prospect of this development. Some of us who are members of the joint administration committee were in London recently and saw how well the BBC parliament channel is run. We also looked at Sky television but that is for further consideration on this side of the House.
The establishment of a parliamentary television channel has been under discussion in the Houses of the Oireachtas for some considerable time and there are differing views on the matter. Murray Consultants, which was hired by the Houses, had doubts while Members believed that a parliamentary channel would do much to promote the Houses of the Oireachtas and generate greater interest in the work of public representatives and politics generally. I hold that view, as I am sure do most Members on both sides. There is some evidence to support that view.
The three core issues regarding the development of a parliamentary channel are: who will run the channel, how will a signal be carried and how will the content and production be organised? I gather the Taoiseach is of the view that RTE should run the parliamentary channel from its existing licence fee revenue as it has a public service broadcasting obligation. That would mirror the situation in the United Kingdom where the BBC provides a dedicated digital parliamentary channel from its licence revenue. In its discussions with the joint committee, however, RTE made no commitments in that regard. An alternative to RTE would be to expand the Oireachtas broadcasting unit by buying in the required technology and production expertise. Many of the facilities, such as the cameras and so on, are installed in both Houses and in the committee rooms.
A key question is the way the content and production will be organised. The content and production aspects are interesting because they raise the issue of editorial control, which clearly has major implications in a parliamentary context. Content and production would need careful consideration and once decisions have been taken, clear operational guidelines would have to be devised. There are two main options regarding content and production. First is the transmission of live or pre-recorded items with no added value, and second is the production of value added programmes with commentary and captions. In addition, some journalistic input via analysis and interviews could be considered.
A further issue is getting sufficient content to fill the broadcasting time available. Given the limited sitting hours and long recess periods, other forms of content would be required such as content from the Northern Ireland Assembly, which I am sure Members would welcome, or perhaps some from the UK House of Commons or House of Lords, the Forum on Europe and local authorities.
The development of a parliamentary channel should be preceded by a comprehensive feasibility study that would examine the demand for a channel and assess the various delivery options having regard to financial, technical, policy and organisational considerations. It would need to examine also the role of webcasting and the way the Houses of the Oireachtas can take advantage of the convergence of communications technologies to determine parliamentary proceedings. I am aware from my work as a member of the joint administration committee, as are other Members, that test broadcasts up to the parliamentary recess and the digital platform are in being. Tenders have been issued for a feasibility study. Those are due in mid-June and the study should be completed by October.
Money and resources are key issues if the channel is established, as is the way it is operated. It will have to be operated very professionally because it will be compared with other channels. The Houses of the Oireachtas will have to consider the way we do our business because we will have to have regard for issues such as the sos, recesses and committees going into private session. That will necessitate some change, as I am sure Members can imagine.
It is proposed also that the Irish Film Board set up and operate an Irish film channel to showcase and promote Irish films. That is another welcome development. I would like to hear from the Minister the long-term plans for this channel. Is it envisaged that the number of films broadcast each day will eventually form just three? How was that figure arrived at in the first place? It is hoped that the broadcasting content under the remit of the new authority will reflect the increasing diversity of all aspects of Irish society and cater for a wide range of tastes.
With regard to television licences, it is important the licence fee is affordable to all and takes into account any extra costs for the consumer that will arise from the introduction of digital terrestrial television. The licence fee should also be realistic with respect to how it is applied to premises with more than one receiver. It is also important that the current ratio of home-produced to bought-in programmes broadcast on RTE be maintained, with a view to increasing the number of home-produced material over time. When he spoke to the Joint Committee on Communications in February, the director general of RTE, Mr. Cathal Goan, stated that RTE’s broadcasts are currently 45% home-produced with 55% being bought-in programmes.
In the matter of digital terrestrial television an exact date for analog switch-off should be set as soon as possible. Coverage of 100% for DTT must be ensured so that nobody will be adversely affected by the switchover, particularly in the more rural areas of the country. It is important that customers, especially older people, are educated about new technology of this kind that enters the home. The Minister’s proposal last week in this House to bring forward provisions in the Bill that would tighten regulations in the area of premium rate services and bring Regtel under the remit of COMREG is welcome. The legislative framework set out in the Broadcasting Bill should be flexible enough to cater for ongoing advances in technology rather than place us in a position where we are forced to play catch-up with other countries.
The initiative for RTE to commission independently made radio programmes is also a very welcome development. This has the potential to become one of the greatest success stories in Irish broadcasting. There is a fear, however, that the Bill does not provide adequate funding for the growth of the independent radio production sector. Section 116 requires RTE to commission specified levels of television and radio programming from the independent production sector. Independent radio is guaranteed only 1.25% of the moneys while independent television has a fully guaranteed 95%. The remaining 3.75% is at the discretion of RTE. This equates to just €500,000 for independent radio productions. Leaving 3.75% at the discretion of RTE is a recipe for ongoing confusion and division. The lion’s share of that balance will be absorbed by the larger and more developed independent television sector. A more realistic target for independent radio production should be set and, if necessary, be reached incrementally over a five-year period.
Senators O’Reilly and Boyle are among several who have spoken cogently and in a focused way on this matter. I have no doubt that the Minister of State will bear in mind their amendments on Committee Stage.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Go raibh maith agat. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Tréaslaím leis de bharr a cheapacháin mar Aire Stáit. Tááthas orm bheith in ann labhairt ar an mBille seo inniu. Níl aon amhras faoi ná gur reachtaíocht an-bhunúsach atá i gceist anseo. Beidh béim ag an reachtaíocht seo ar ghnáth-saol gach duine ar an oileán. Is rud réabhlóideach é, i slí, ós rud é go gcruthaíonn sé na hathruithe atá tagtha ar chúrsaí chraolacháin ó aimsir 2RN. Is dócha nach bhfuil an reachtaíocht seo ag teacht ró-luath, i ndáiríre. Bhí géarghá leis le tamall. Tá súil agam go mbeidh an Bille in ann an seirbhís agus an struchtúr ceart a thabhairt dúinn maidir le cúrsaí craolacháin ar an oileán.
There is no doubt that this is exceptionally comprehensive legislation. In many ways it responds to the fundamental changes which have taken place in Irish broadcasting since the days of 2RN. Perhaps none of us in the House is old enough to remember 2RN but we certainly hear reference made to it by older people who tell us that they spoke on that station or played music on it. They were very simple days and there was a unique partnership at that time between the public broadcasting service, limited though it was, and the general public or community at large. That partnership was very important to the growth of Irish broadcasting and to its success. As broadcasting develops and as competition grows it is important that we do not lose that rapport. Loyalty to any particular service comes from that rapport. In competition terms, the Irish broadcasting service will be competing with the global service. There are perhaps two ways of ensuring that customer loyalty continues, one being to give people the feeling that they have ownership of that service. I do not mean “ownership” in any statutory way but as a sense of belonging, so that people feel that their aspirations, beliefs and ambitions are being reflected by the service.
I wish to reflect, briefly, on whence we have come. It is only right that we should pay tribute to RTE. We have seen it grow from a fledgling service to the very professional one it is now. I remember talking to people from the BBC after the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland. BBC technicians and cameramen came to support and complement the RTE service because of the multi-faceted nature of the visit and the number of locations that had to be covered. The BBC representatives said they had seldom witnessed organisational ability such as they had seen from RTE on that occasion. That comment came from a service outside the country.
A good effort has been made to reflect the Irish ethos, even as it has become multi-cultural in recent times, particularly so on RTE Radio 1. Those of us who listen regularly to that station as we drive have an affinity with what is broadcast. I do not believe this is because we fit into any particular age group. It is important that we do not think of everything in an empty, superficial or an instantaneous manner. If future generations do not wish to engage in anything of depth, it will not be their fault, rather that of the diet on which they will have been raised, their broadcasting environment. We must always guard against that.
Local radio was a spin-off from RTE. I can recall the early days of experimental community radio when RTE sent its outside broadcasting unit to many towns, including Cashel. We were given an opportunity to dip a toe in the water and run a community radio station for a week, with RTE’s assistance. In Cashel, which has a population of 3,000 people, an archive was created during that week, a social, cultural and sporting archive which will be very important in years to come. We produced one of the first soap operas on radio when we took Charles J. Kickham’s “Knocknagow” and divided it into subsections as a serial over seven days. Everybody was waiting for the conclusion. Community radio would not have been there but for RTE. At one stage I thought that as local radio developed there would be an interaction with RTE whereby we would have access to its archives, services and expertise, rather than having to put those structures together ourselves. It did not happen in that way.
To its credit we must point to TG4. Mr. Cathal Goan was mentioned as its pioneer and he did an excellent job there. Prior to that there was Raidió na Gaeltachta. Professionalism and the presence of young people were hallmarks of both stations. People might have associated the Irish language with members of an older generation and they might also have had a perception that, of necessity, such a television station might have been amateurish. It is neither amateurish nor is it monopolised by older people. Even those who might have no interest in the language will readily admit that they tune into TG4 every so often. Having tuned in for the sport initially, they are now viewing other programmes. I am glad TG4 is being recognised as an entity in its own right in the legislation. Given its actions alone, it deserves this. We hope it will be always resourced properly so it can continue with its work.
I have been concerned for some time over the development of monopolies in local radio. In the print media, Scottish Radio Holdings has been mopping up one local newspaper after another. In my area, I can point to the Tipperary Star, the Clonmel Nationalist and the Kilkenny People. One can add to the list, which suggests there is a huge monopoly developing. A similar one is developing in the world of local radio. If this occurs, it will be totally at variance with what was intended for local radio.
Local radio was intended to reflect the local community, including its aspirations, talents and desire for knowledge. In that regard, local radio has done magnificent work. One need only look at the ratings to determine how successful some local stations have been. The success very often attracts the investment vultures and we must be always on the alert. We must ensure there is a legislative base to prevent a monopoly from developing.
I cannot think of any phenomenon more potent in energising the local community than local radio. Many of the hang-ups and agendas that have developed in the national broadcasting service, very often because of there being a limited number of people with total control of the service, must not arise in local radio. We must, therefore, be particularly careful.
I stated on a number of occasions in the House that I could never understand why religious broadcasting was not allowed on the national radio stations. In the main, whatever group the advertising came from——
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: If one studies the phenomenon, one will note that those involved in religious groups and churches have a positive outlook and their advertising could serve as an antidote to some forms of anti-social behaviour. Will the Minister of State consider seriously the question of why we cannot have religious advertising, particularly when one considers that some talk shows are very anti-religious in content? I watched a comedian one night on “The Late Late Show” making jokes about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Will somebody tell me how this can be justified? Can one imagine the hurt such totally unnecessary irreverence must have caused to so many people? I complained and, in fairness to the then host, Gay Byrne, there was an apology on the show the following week. It should not have been necessary to raise the matter in the House nor to seek an apology. It is absolutely vital that what I propose form part and parcel of what we are.
In the area of broadcasting, the system has been abused time and again. I refer to the manner in which vulnerable people, incapable of replying, have been ridiculed and offended unnecessarily. I hope the right of reply, which is contained in this legislation, is not a cosmetic exercise. It must be strong and unequivocal. Broadcasters — there are so many good ones — will have to understand that the one way in which they can prevent the right of reply from being required to be exercised is by ensuring complaints have no basis in fact.
Can I make two more points? Advertising constraints are required in respect of alcohol. No longer are we considered to be old fogeys, as was the case in the past, when we raise this question. Several times in this House we have decried the anti-social behaviour that has resulted not from alcohol but from its abuse. It should be possible to establish constraints in this regard given that this can be achieved in respect of tobacco. Alcohol is one of the foremost drugs in the country and has an impact on health. This must be also considered.
I notice my colleague on the other side of the House, Senator Coghlan, was afforded a little flexibility and I therefore ask for 30 more seconds. The concept of an Oireachtas channel is excellent for the simple reason that, if one looks in a daily newspaper for what is happening in the Houses of the Oireachtas, one will note that, in the main, legislation does not figure. Oireachtas proceedings figure if somebody uses an unusual word or fires a reply across the House but the basic information and tenets of legislation do not come across. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the public perception of politicians and parliamentarians is as it is?
I give credit to RTE for “Oireachtas Report”. It does its very best but the programme is always based on the Order of Business in the morning, on the soundbites and topical issues. It is seldom based on the meat of Oireachtas work. Perhaps an Oireachtas channel would not have a great viewership in its early stages but, if presented in a creative way, it would train and focus the minds of the public.
I compliment the Minister of State on bringing forward the legislation. It is not easy to reconcile public and commercial broadcasting. An excellent effort is being made in the Bill and it is right to aim at excellence, not just in the output but also among the people on boards. Having listened to the other contributors, I believe there is a general welcome for the fact that there will be a vetting system.
Senator Joe O’Toole: A Leas-Chathaoirligh, caithfidh mé a rá gur thug tú an-sheans ar fad do mo chomhghleacaithe ar an dtaobh eile den seomra. Ba mhaith liom cur leis an méid atá ráite aige mar gheall ar an reachtaíocht seo. Bronnaim mo chomhghairdeas ar an tAire Stáit as ucht an jab nua ata faighte aige. Tá súil agam go n-éireoidh go breá leis. Tá mé sásta go bhfuil an-chuid oibre curtha isteach sa Bhille seo. It really is comprehensive, very impressive and quite significant. That there is so little criticism thereof is a tribute not only to the Department and Minister but also to the advisers and those who put it together. Members are adding to it and using it as an opportunity to forward proposals.
I want to take up the point made by an Seanadóir Ó Murchú mar gheall ar an méid oibre atá déanta ag RTE, go mórmhór ó thaobh cur chun cinn na Gaeilge agus na Gaeltachtaí de agus ó thaobh TG4 a bhunú. That TG4 is moving off on its own is an important cultural point. It is important that this be marked and dealt with legislatively.
We often criticise RTE — I am a regular critic myself — but it is important that the State recognise that there are programmes made by RTE that no independent or commercial provider could make or afford to make. I balance this statement by advocating the need for support structures for independent producers at other levels. It is important to recognise the work done by RTE in providing programmes for children and for minorities and by keeping Lyric FM on the go all the time to keep us all sane from 1.40 p.m. to 3.30 p.m. in the afternoon and at various other times of day.
It is also important to note the cultural work RTE has done and its support, stitched into this legislation, for choirs, orchestras, etc. I wonder how many Members realise RTE has provided Sunday night drama unbroken for approximately 50 years. There is no money in this and the audience is small but it must be recognised. This is another field in which independent radio producers could have a greater input. I acknowledge they have an input to aspects of documentaries and so on at present. The “Documentary on One” is another superb piece of radio. A programme such as “Farm Week”, to which I have referred in the House many times previously, provides an extraordinary focus on rural Ireland. While it is well produced, it is costly because it covers an entire island for a small audience. I also refer to one of my favourite programmes in which I have a vested interest, namely, “Sunday Miscellany”, which also captures a small but important audience. In such matters, one depends on RTE.
Where does the licence money go or where is it used? When watching coverage of the American elections, I like to see an RTE correspondent speaking from the US. That said, at one point I questioned the reason so many RTE staff were over there during the election campaign, which as an issue pertains to management. However, I prefer to hear their views than to tune into other stations and to listen to different voices and perspectives. While these also are important, I enjoy them all the more when I have access to an Irish view as well. This is not to be racist, nationalist, insular or introspective in any way. It simply pertains to getting coverage of breadth and comprehension, which is very important. I refer to election coverage and the amount of money RTE puts into it. It places people in every count centre in the country and no commercial station could afford to or would do this. It is important to put on record that Members require RTE to do such things. If it does not do them well, Members criticise it, etc.
The “Oireachtas Report” programme has been mentioned. As I listened to the Leader of the House speak earlier about the extraordinary contributions made in this Chamber, I felt my chest go out and my back straighten and felt myself to be a person of significant importance. However, I wish to put on record that what RTE does in this regard is recognised and valued. It should be aware that when Members criticise it on particular issues, they do so from that context. Tá sin thar a bheith tábhachtach.
I am absolutely intrigued by section 113, which goes to the trouble of changing the name of Radio Telefís Éireann to Radio Teilfís Éireann, that is, changing the spelling of “Telefís” to “Teilifís”. Is this due to standardisation or to someone who has a clear view? I do not complain, as I like attention to be given to names. The same attention should be given to placenames in Ireland, some of which are absolutely appalling in their lack of connection.
Section 114 pertains to the availability of programmes, which relates to another point about RTE, namely, the establishment or maintenance of an emigrants’ channel. While I am in favour of such a measure, I have many questions in this regard. Will it be free to air? I have made this point in the House before but as no one listens, I will make it again and will repeat it ad nauseam. In any part of Europe one can buy a dish and a decoder at no extra cost, with no cards and without a contract with anyone. One can tune into BBC 1, BBC 2, BBC 3, BBC 4, ITV 1, ITV 2, ITV 3 or ITV 4, as well as Cypriot, Maltese and many other stations throughout Europe that are free to air at no cost. However, one cannot tune into RTE. The Minister of State should not reply by citing the cost of audiences. I do not ask RTE to transmit anything that would cost additional money. However, I would like to be able to see the “RTE News”, “Prime Time” current affairs and other programmes that are Irish and which would not cost us anything. It seems extraordinary that people from Belmullet to Moscow can tune into those other stations but cannot tune into RTE 1 or RTE 2, or to TV3 for that matter, without having a contract with Sky.
There is something completely wrong with this, which goes back to the highly important section 74, which deals with electronic programme guides, EPGs. I support that section. Anyone who wishes to know what this means should try to tune in to something like BBC 4, which is a superb television station, through a Sky control. Sky has made it so difficult it is like getting into heaven or like the rich man passing through the eye of a needle. This is the reason electronic programme guides, which appears to be a highly technical issue, is of great importance.
I welcome the establishment of the parliamentary channel, which is important. It should be easy to implement now that a live web feed is available from both Houses and from the committee rooms. I also welcome the announcement of a film channel although I am unsure how it will fit in. In common with the Minister for Finance and my colleagues in respect of the Lisbon treaty, which people tend not to read from cover to cover, I have not read the Bill from cover to cover.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I know. I apologise. However, I could not find the magic words, to “educate, inform and entertain”, which used to appear on RTE’s objectives. Do they still remain extant somewhere or are they included in this fine legislation? I have been unable to find them and the Minister of State should reassure me that it is still part of RTE’s requirements to do exactly that.
As for what I have said in RTE’s favour, I now wish to balance it by making a point that has been made by a number of Members. It is of great importance that independent radio production should be supported. At present that sector receives €500,000 and has asked for it to be increased to €1 million. This assistance should be increased to approximately 3%, which would be more than €1 million. The reason for this is that I love radio. At this time of the afternoon on every week day, BBC Radio 4 broadcasts afternoon theatre. While I do not suggest that we could afford to do so in Ireland, other British radio stations, such as BBC 7, use much independent production and even BBC Radio 4 now does so. I also refer to Oneword Radio, which is a radio station owned by Channel 4 that appears to be off the air at present. However, it is coming back with two new radio channels. Radio is a growing part of the communications sector and I ask the Minister of State and his advisers to take on board this issue. Not enough money is available and I do not propose taking it from RTE. Money is available and this simply is a distribution issue. It could be for programmes that might be broadcast or re-broadcast on RTE. However, independent radio production must be supported, cultivated and allowed to develop. It should be a sector in which career option exist, rather than one in which the practitioners try to work from month to month while wondering how to survive in future. These people are creative and are as important to us as are the RTE Players or RTE drama. This measure should be taken. Similarly, I also will insist that the 5% funding that RTE currently receives from the sound and vision schemes should be maintained as it is written at present in the Broadcasting (Funding) Act 2003. I want this to be maintained and will argue the point again on Committee Stage because of the balance of the work that RTE performs.
I stood up in this House and in three other places, namely in a committee, within the GAA and within the trade union movement, to support RTE’s change from medium wave to long-wave broadcasts. I supported the move in good faith because I used to be able to listen in my car to RTE long wave from Edinburgh to London. The reception is better, it has a longer reach and is to be recommended. However, I recently have discovered that RTE is not broadcasting at full power.
Senator Joe O’Toole: RTE should be broadcasting at 500 MW but is broadcasting at 250 MW instead. I regret that RTE did not inform Members of this. I was in London recently and tried to pick up long wave but could only barely do so. Moreover, the transmission of RTE long wave is being interfered with by Radio Algeria. This tells one how weak is the Irish broadcast. One can simply look at a map and work out the reason a station in north Africa could interfere with our reception in London. While we are only 500 miles away, they are at least 2,000 miles away. We are not broadcasting at the power that is allowed to us.
I make this point in the knowledge that throughout Ireland at present, most local radio stations are broadcasting at a power far greater than they are meant to broadcast. Fair dues to them and I do not object to it. However, RTE should do the same. As it is not doing so, I will table an amendment to ensure it broadcasts at the power it has been granted by the European regulators or the body that hands out station frequencies.
I have a lot more to say but I will not be able to get through all of it on this occasion. We will deal with these issues on Committee Stage. I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Department and the advisers on an extraordinary piece of work. I look forward to debating some of the issues I raised at the next opportunity.
The legislation proposed in the Broadcasting Bill 2008 is both regulatory and reforming. I congratulate the Minister and his staff on the proposals in the Bill. It is comprehensive and covers a large area, with every aspect of broadcasting included. In section 8(2) the Minister has set the number of members of the authority as nine, five of whom will be appointed by the Government on the nomination of the Minister and four of whom will be appointed by the Government on the nomination of the Minister with the Minister having regard to the advice of the joint Oireachtas committee. This is a new departure that will give the committee extra powers and extend its role. It is good that the joint committee may establish a panel for a contract awards committee and I welcome the fact that there will be an equal balance of men and women on this committee.
Section 9 clearly sets down who may be appointed to the authority or a statutory committee and the experience he or she must have in 12 areas including music and several other aspects of culture. This is to be welcomed as is the period of five years a person may serve on the committee or authority. A person may not serve more than two consecutive terms which is long enough because people with new ideas should be given a chance.
The area of complaints is well covered in section 47. It is only right that the public has a process to lodge a complaint, provided it is genuine, and in this section the onus is placed on the broadcaster to provide a proper code of practice. The compliance committee will investigate the complaint. The new right of reply proposed in the Bill allows that a person who feels his honour or reputation has been damaged by a factually incorrect assertion in a broadcast may be entitled to a right of reply. A right of reply will be broadcast by the broadcaster concerned and will correct the facts that were previously stated incorrectly. This will be beneficial to the complainant and the broadcaster as it will not be treated as an admission of liability in a defamation case and may help reduce damages in such a case. I strongly support my colleague, Senator Ó Murchú, who said he hopes this section will have teeth and will be honoured in the spirit it is presented in the Bill.
Other Members have stated that “Oireachtas Report” is relayed too late at night and I agree. Young people doing school exercises on the workings of Government could find such a programme of great benefit if it were relayed at a suitable time. It would also give the wider public a good insight on what happens in both Houses. Very few people stay up until between 11.30 p.m. and midnight to watch the programme and a more suitable time for it would be after the nine o’clock news. It seems that more time has been given to the American presidential primaries in the past six months than to our own political system. Irish people know more of what is happening between Democrats and Republicans in every state of America than of their own country because the coverage is shown at the right time. Broadcasts of our Houses or printed reports on local government meetings tend to be negative. The Bill refers to a live programme and it should be available to the public. As Senator Ó Murchú already said, this could allow viewers to see the legislative elements of what is done in both Houses rather than the soundbites and smart answers given during Question Time and the Order of Business.
Section 116, which has been addressed by other speakers, requires RTE to commission specified levels of television and radio programming from the independent production sector. Only 1.25% of moneys are guaranteed in this regard while independent television is guaranteed
95%. A great deal of good work is done by the independent production sector and I ask the Minister to re-examine this section. Even over a five year period he could increase the level of moneys to 5% from 1.25%.
I would like to take this opportunity to recognise the work done by TG4 over the years. I wish that station well because we would not receive coverage of certain football matches and so on were it not for TG4.
Senator Paul Bradford: I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on bringing forward this important piece of legislation. This feels something like “Back to the Future” because during my first term in the Seanad in 1988, when, due to renovations here, we sat in the ante room, a Broadcasting Bill was introduced by the then Minister, Mr. Ray Burke. That Bill caused a political stir because it provided for the introduction of advanced forms of local and independent radio and even television. At the time buzz words included Century Radio and Radio Ireland. There has been a lot of change since then and broadcasting legislation must be updated, so I welcome this Bill.
This is a substantial Bill, given the number of sections before us — it is a little like the Lisbon treaty in that, I concede, I have not read every page. I hope my colleague and friend from the Sinn Féin Party does not ask me to stop speaking because I have not read the entire Bill. There are some issues I would like to go into in the time available to me.
The subtitling of programmes for the hard of hearing is an issue I have raised on many occasions through the years in both Houses. We all know people who enjoy the subtitling service and who would not get value from television without it. I understand this subject is covered in section 43 and I hope that as a result a stronger emphasis will be placed on this service with a stronger obligation attached to its provision. Admittedly, the subtitling service for pre-recorded programmes is excellent but news, current affairs and live programmes need more investment. The news service is very poor on subtitling. Fortunately, all of the Members here have a good level of hearing but if they turn down the volume on their televisions and try to follow the news by reading the subtitles they will find the service inadequate. I hope that the obligation under this legislation will be strongly enforced and that there will be additional investment made in the area, not only by the national broadcasting service but by independent channels, to ensure people who are hard of hearing enjoy a better quality of service and quality of life.
I do not wish to dwell on this point too long but important programmes, such as the nine o’clock news, are not necessarily entirely comprised of live broadcasts. Many reports are pre-recorded and there is no excuse for such poor subtitling in those cases. If Members do not believe what I say they should watch the six o’clock news or nine o’clock news tonight, turn down the volume and see whether they can follow it by using the subtitles. The service is not as good as it should be and I would like to see an improvement.
I welcome what many of my colleagues said about an Oireachtas channel. Apparently we are all going to become TV stars over the course of the next few months and years. A parliamentary channel would be beneficial, although it would not be “Top of the Pops” with regard to viewing figures initially. There are continual complaints from all sides of the House about lack of coverage and biased or unrepresentative coverage of the business of the Oireachtas. As Senator Ó Murchú rightly pointed out, 99% of all the excellent, thorough work done in this and the other House and, particularly, at the committees goes almost universally unreported and unregarded. A parliamentary channel would be helpful in this regard. Most of the business of politics practised in Leinster House is of enormous short-term and long-term value to the people of Ireland. The possibility of spreading the worth of our work to a greater extent is something to which we can look forward with a degree of enthusiasm. I am hopeful there will be early progress in this regard.
I hope the parliamentary channel will not simply cover the Dáil and Seanad but also the European Parliament and the politics of Europe. RTE has a ten or 20 minute slot once a month on European politics, which is entirely insufficient. I credit RTE for at least making the effort to provide some coverage, although it is not as instructive, informative or substantive as it should be. The new parliamentary channel might give the Irish people an opportunity to see on a more regular basis and at close quarters the work of the European Parliament which, again, is a forum in which decisions of major importance to the people of this country are being taken on a regular basis.
With regard to the coverage of politics — moving beyond the question of a parliamentary channel — my colleague Senator O’Toole spoke earlier of his pleasure at the national broadcaster’s coverage of the US presidential primary elections. This is a matter I have addressed in the House a few times in recent months, perhaps from a slightly different perspective. I compared RTE’s coverage of the primaries with its lack of coverage of an election in which the Irish people will have a say in a few weeks’ time, the Lisbon treaty referendum. I am still bemused at our fixation with the US presidential elections. I saw a figure last week for the cost to the national broadcaster and to the taxpayer of the Super Tuesday coverage. The coverage, if one went through it in great detail, was far from super and was perhaps a little superficial. Every time I hear a broadcast on the US elections or read a review it strikes me that we are absolutely fixated on one candidate. That was the case until last Tuesday, when the results of the most recent primary election seemed to put paid to the campaign of that particular challenger. On Wednesday’s radio and television there were almost no reports of Tuesday’s results. We will soon be moving on to coverage of the real presidential election in November, which will be contested by two candidates neither of whom appears to be favoured by our national broadcaster, and perhaps the coverage will be a little less excited and a little more balanced.
Rather than making up this as I go along, I will say that I am taking note of some of the interesting aspects of the Bill. Section 114 covers the principal objects and associated powers of RTE. I note here with interest a provision which is relevant to a point made earlier by Senator Ó Murchú. Subsection (2) states that RTE shall “uphold the democratic values enshrined in the Constitution, especially those relating to rightful liberty of expression”. This issue has been raised here a number of times in the past few years in the context of advertising for religious papers or with a religious message, which we were told was not appropriate. I hope that under this section the issue of advertising of religious newspapers and so on, which we were not able to address previously, will come in for more positive consideration.
On the question of advertising, I support the points made by a few of my colleagues concerning the advertising of alcohol. There can be no doubt that there is currently a national alcohol crisis. A culture of drinking surrounds almost every event not just to an unnecessary degree but to an almost dangerous degree. Our fixation with drink is now becoming a serious national problem which requires attention. This has been addressed here previously by the Minister for Health and Children and various other Government spokespersons. Advertising is a powerful vehicle for sales and marketing and for influencing people’s mindsets. Therefore, alcohol advertising is something about which we should be extremely concerned. I hope that under this Bill we will be able to give serious consideration to the advertising of alcohol and restrict it to the maximum possible degree. Our culture of obsession with alcohol is one that needs urgent attention.
I am pleased that this interesting Bill is before Seanad Éireann at the commencement of its passage through the Houses. I hope that sufficient time will be allowed on Committee Stage for us to go through the sections, maybe not line by line but in some detail. I welcome the legislation.
I had hoped to have a chance to talk about local and independent radio, an area in which significant progress has been made. We would like to see more of this. I was critical of RTE in some small ways but overall, as a national broadcaster, it has been a very positive institution which has transformed lives and given people an opportunity to see and hear the world. RTE must be congratulated on this. Now, in the new Ireland and in a new century, we have to respond to new challenges. I hope the Broadcasting Bill will assist us in this regard.
Senator Terry Leyden: I congratulate the Minister of State on his reappointment to Government, which was well deserved, and wish him well in his new portfolio. I also welcome the officials from the Department. I compliment the Minister, Deputy Ryan, on the Bill. I have listened to the contributions in the House and, like other Senators, I am delighted it has been introduced in this House because it gives recognition to the expertise in this regard that exists among Senators. This well-structured Bill is a indication that the Government members — the Fianna Fáil Party, the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats — are working well together. I am satisfied with the content of the Bill.
I welcome the Bill, which will enjoy broad support from broadcasters and interest groups. I also welcome the repeal of other Broadcasting Acts and the consolidation of all relevant legislation in one Bill. This approach is to be welcomed in all areas of legislation as it makes statutes much more accessible for all parties concerned. I also welcome the fact that under section 8, four of the nine members of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland will be appointed based on the advice of the relevant Oireachtas joint committee. The involvement of elected members in appointments to regulatory bodies is to be welcomed wherever possible. Many members would be very interested in joining the committee if they were aware they would have such responsibility. It is an indication of future developments with regard to appointments to boards. This is the first time in legislation that joint committees will have the responsibility of nominating members to a board. This is welcome as it is a step in the right direction. Other Departments will follow this lead.
I particularly wish to address the provisions of the Bill which deal with radio broadcasting. Even in the era of Internet communications and mobile telephones, the old technology of radio is more popular than ever and enjoys a particular place in the Irish psyche, as was evidenced by the huge public interest and concern when RTE decided to cease broadcasting on medium wave. This was a retrograde step.
Senator Terry Leyden: I presume RTE is monitoring this debate. I have difficulty in picking up its longwave broadcasts. I tried to listen into a broadcast from the Sacred Heart Church in Roscommon last Sunday, but I could not pick it up. If I could not do so, I do not know who could. Will those monitoring the debate investigate the issue of frequencies and how to tune into the stations in question?
In section 116 the Bill establishes a fund of €40 million for RTE to commission independent television and radio programmes. This is a welcome move and the success of independently produced television programmes is well recognised. However, while 95%, or €38 million, of the fund is specifically for independent television programmes, only 1.25%, some €500,000, is for independent radio productions. That amount would barely cover the costs of administering the allocation of the funds. I urge the Minister of State to ensure that 5% of the fund, a full €2 million, be allocated for independent radio productions. Independent radio producers can contribute worthwhile programming in important but often neglected areas such as the Irish language, children’s radio and radio dramas.
In recent years, local radio stations have been steadily acquired by large corporations. The Bill should explicitly allow the State to impose a broad and extensive range of conditions on licences to such acquisitions or transfers in many different ways. Section 69 of the Bill sets out the conditions that broadcasting licences may contain and makes provision for conditions prohibiting the assignment of the licence or a change in the material ownership of the licenceholder if the broadcasting authority sees fit. I welcome this development, but the Bill could also empower the authority or the Minister to, if either sees fit, make provision for the State to be reimbursed or to take a fee from any subsequent financial transaction involving the resale of State-issued licences. This is only relevant in situations where the authority chooses not to prohibit the transfer of the licence outright, addressing the concerns raised by the Leader about the vast wealth accumulated by some individuals, which was not anticipated or catered for in previous legislation. I am a former Fianna Fáil Front Bench spokesperson on broadcasting and introduced such legislation, but it was not envisaged that local radio stations would be sold to large companies.
The independent Ox report commissioned by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, BCI, was published in 2004 and noted that only cross-media ownership is monitored by regulators because of plurality controls. It recommended that changes in organisational shareholding structures should be reported to the regulatory authority. In light of the increasing acquisition of local radio stations by groups such as UTV Radio, Communicorp, Thomas Crosbie Holdings Limited and Radio Kerry, which was mentioned by a shareholding Senator — they have acquired FM 104, Dublin’s Q102, Cork’s 96FM, 103FM County Sound, Limerick’s Live 95FM and LMFM, Today FM, Newstalk, Spin and Dublin’s 98FM, WLR FM, Beat, Midwest Radio and Red FM, and Shannonside-Northern Sound, respectively — it is vital that procedures for monitoring ownership of broadcasting licences are continually developed and improved.
I commend the quality of local radio stations, which do good work and have brought broadcasting to the people. I also commend community stations. RosFM is doing considerable work in bringing radio to the people and I compliment its managers and directors. I have a vested interest because my wife, Mary, is a director of RosFM, a non-profit organisation. The Minister of State would agree that there should be more news input in local radio and a greater proportion of Irish, ensuring a fair hearing for Irish-produced records.
Another aspect of the Bill allows the children’s advertising code to prohibit advertising of unhealthy food aimed at children. This is to be particularly welcomed in light of concerns about the eating habits of younger people and eating disorders in general, which were raised in the House this morning.
I welcome that the Minister has not prohibited elected public representatives from being members of the authority’s board. Members of the Oireachtas made it clear that a prohibition on elected councillors being appointed to such boards was unacceptable.
I commend our high standards of public broadcasting, particularly in terms of RTE 1. I commend it on its “Prime Time” programme last night, which detailed the contents of the Lisbon reform treaty. I hope RTE 1 continues broadcasting such exposés, as people want to know the facts and television is the best medium through which to present them. TV3 could do more in respect of the treaty. There should be a dedicated Oireachtas channel. Last night, “Oireachtas Report” was aired at 12.40 a.m. I nodded off, but I spotted my good friend, Senator O’Reilly, speaking well. He is the only person I remember.
I compliment everyone concerned. RTE should be more adventurous, but I compliment TG4, a brilliant station that is doing good work. It was established by a Fianna Fáil-Labour Government, which was a progressive period. Deputy Michael D. Higgins was the Minister responsible for that matter at the time and we have much to be proud of in that regard.
RTE should be actively involved in the establishment and management of television and radio stations throughout the EU. It has the ability and capacity to compete with the best and to project the Irish image. I cannot understand why, unlike the ESB, which created jobs for Irish people, RTE is not in the 26 other member states creating jobs for Irish broadcasters. I would have welcomed an opportunity to discuss the Eurovision Song Contest, but I will do so at a later stage.
I welcome the Bill broadly and look forward to the various Stages during which this side of the House will be able to table amendments where the Bill requires improvement. I wish to discuss the Oireachtas channel in particular. Every Member has made the point that, for a long time, the broadcasting of events in the Houses of the Oireachtas, particularly those in the Seanad, has been somewhere between non-existent and poor. There were recent examples of “Oireachtas Report” not being aired on RTE television if the Dáil was not sitting despite the Seanad sitting. It is an affront to this House and its Members. How can we expect people to engage in hot political issues such as the Lisbon treaty, a significant debate, if there is a knowledge deficit? How can we expect the ordinary Joe and Mary Public to be aware of what is transpiring in the Houses if RTE does not bother to cover our business when the Dáil does not sit? This is an important point.
Regarding the film channel, we have made significant inroads in terms of Irish films in recent years thanks to a succession of Ministers. I wish to single out Senator Leyden’s comments on Deputy Higgins, who invested considerable resources when he had the political opportunity to do so. There has been significant growth in the film industry. The designated film channel is welcome, as it will allow us to showcase the best of Irish talent, put together headline films and have a strong base from which to project them.
I welcome the proposed single content regulator. It is timely and appropriate that a broadcasting authority of Ireland be created to take over from the BCI and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, BCC. Regarding the right of reply mechanism, it is important that a provision be included in the legislation whereby those who believe their reputations have been damaged by a production have an efficient and timely mechanism through which to rectify the situation.
I welcome the important code to control the advertising of food to children, as child obesity is a considerable issue. The Bill does not go far enough in this regard, however, and we propose to table amendments to that effect. I look forward to putting forward proposals on Committee and Report Stages.
Senator Pearse Doherty: Is í an cheist is tábhachtaí sa Bhille seo ná an chosaint a chaithimid a thabhairt do chaighdeán craolacháin sna meáin cumarsáide. Go ginearálta, caithimid aithint go bhfuil caighdeán iontach ard ag an teilifís agus an raidió sa tír seo. Nuair a amharcann muid ar cad atá ag tarlú i dtíortha eile, feiceann muid nach bhfuil an cás mar an gcéanna sna tíortha sin. Caithfimid a bheith iontach cúramach faoi na caighdeáin, go háirithe nuair atá muid ag déileáil le craolachán poiblí agus caithfimid cinntiú go bhfuil sin lárnach sa Bhille seo.
The most important consideration in regard to this Bill must be the protection of standards in the broadcasting media. While the standard of television and radio in this country is generally high, what has happened in other countries makes clear the need to exercise vigilance. In particular, we must ensure that public broadcasting retains its central role. This is especially important when we consider the so-called dumbing down that has occurred within many broadcast media, particularly television. While there are those who argue that reality shows, sensationalised chat shows and so on are a reflection of popular culture, it is equally valid to state that they are formative of popular culture and not always in a beneficial way.
Likewise, there are those who would argue that recent changes in RTE radio with regard to specific niche areas of the arts are a similar reflection of public demand. This has been used as justification for reducing the amount of time devoted to blues and classical music or to the discussion of books. In general, however, RTE radio is far superior to most of its competitors in this regard. The role of public broadcasting ought to be the same as that of any other public utility or service, namely, to cater for all sections of society regardless of whether there is a massive demand for particular services or whether they are commercially viable. If those criteria were applied to museums, public parks, libraries, playgrounds or football pitches, they would also disappear. It is vital that this legislation protects the central role of public broadcasting.
I welcome the provisions which provide mechanisms to ensure that unsuitable individuals or companies are not licensed. Section 66 sets stringent criteria in regard to content including, in subsection (2)(d), conditions regarding the Irish language and other aspects of Irish culture. However, it would be preferable if the Bill spelt out in concrete terms how this will be implemented, by setting out, for example, the percentage of programming and air time devoted to Irish language broadcasts and the level of Irish produced content.
The Association of Independent Radio Producers of Ireland has welcomed the provision in section 116 for RTE to commission independently produced radio programmes but expresses concern at the level of funding available to ensure the sector will be able to meet any such demand. The association has proposed that 5% of the independent programme account, which equates to some €2 million, should be set aside for the independent radio sector. This seems a reasonable request and is something that could be addressed by way of amendment.
Maidir le TG4, tá gá le cúpla rud a shoileiriú. Molann gach éinne TG4 na laethanta seo, agus is ceart go dtarlaíonn sin, mar tá seirbhís den chéad scoth á chur ar fáil aige, agus é ag déanamh sin faoi choinníollacha deacra. Tá dualgas ar an tAire maoiniú ceart a sholáthar do TG4. Ní leor an cheist sin a fhágáil ag eagras nua nach mbeidh bunaithe i gceart go ceann bliana ar a laghad, mar tá leagtha síos sa Bhille seo.
Caithfear bonn ceart maoinithe a chur faoi TG4 láithreach más rud é go bhfuil an Taoiseach chun gníomhú faoin teanga, seachas bheith ag caint fúithi, agus más mian leis an Rialtas a chruthú go bhfuil sé dáiríre faoin gcur i bhfeidhm a bhfuil sa ráiteas faoin nGaeilge a fhoilsíodh bliain go leith ó shin.
The Minister, like all his predecessors, agrees that TG4 is a huge success, not just in regard to the Irish language but also in terms of the innovation and energy it has brought to public service broadcasting. The public also considers it a success. However, the Minister must also agree that the channel is seriously underfunded. Each of his predecessors acknowledged this to be the case. He has an obligation to address this funding deficit before establishing any new regulatory structure that might take years to deal with it. We have heard a lot from the new Taoiseach about his commitment to the Irish language. The Minister must be grateful that he will have so many allies when he seeks the increased funding that TG4 so badly needs and deserves.
It would be remiss of me not to express my sincere sympathies to the Barr family on the tragic death of Maggie Barr in a car crash in Gweedore yesterday. Maggie was a frequent contributor to various programmes on TG4 and Radio na Gaeltachta. She will be sadly missed by many listeners, not only in my own community of Gweedore but throughout the island. Her son also works for TG4 and RTE.
I welcome the proposal for an Oireachtas channel. There is a need for an increased connection between the public and its elected representatives. I am not sure whether many will tune in to see what goes on in the Houses. The coverage may be listed in the RTE Guide on different days as either comedy, documentary or informative content. On some days it is all three. The proposal for a film channel is also to be welcomed.
Will the Minister consider also establishing an education channel? Significant numbers of people throughout the State struggle with literacy and numeracy problems. Dedicated education channels are available in other countries, including in less developed countries. In some cases, work sheets are delivered to people’s home, both in rural communities and urban areas. They can then watch the education channel and fill out their work sheets. Such a service would be just as important if not more important than a film channel or Oireachtas channel.
Senator David Norris: I welcome to the House the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Seán Power, and congratulate him on his new office. I would also have been pleased to welcome the new Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Mansergh, and commend him on his elevation. Unfortunately, that elevation reduces the potential for badinage between the two of us. We used to have great sport across the floor of the House. Now, alas, I shall have to treat him with the respect due to a Minister. However, I will be pleased to do so.
I should declare an interest in this issue. Being something of a Jack of all trades, I am occasionally introduced as a politician, ex-academic and broadcaster. I partake in a certain amount of broadcasting, both when I am invited to do so by RTE and in my regular Sunday morning slot on Newstalk, which I greatly enjoy. Therefore, I have an insider’s view of the broadcasting world. The independent stations, even those such as Newstalk which now broadcast nationally, are operating on a shoestring. They must be nourished. Newstalk is seeking to grow its national audience from a localised Dublin base. However, I do not wish to be too partisan about that station. The growth of independent stations is a positive development. I also welcome the fostering of community radio as provided for in the Bill.
We all have our favourite radio presenters. Senator O’Toole mentioned several of his. I have always enjoyed radio as a consumer and have derived pleasure from the distinctive voices of presenters such as Tommy O’Brien. His wonderful mellow Tipperary tones are part of what makes his programme, “Your Choice and Mine”, so enjoyable. Val Joyce has provided some wonderful radio moments which one could not expect to encounter anywhere else in the world. I recall one occasion when the programme’s signature tune failed and Val asked the girl in the weather forecast office if she would sing the tune. She agreed to do so if Val helped her out and the two of them proceeded to hum the tune. One would not get that on the BBC.
Examples such as these show how radio can reach out to people and communities in a very human way. Sometimes one might feel uninspired by a particular programme but as one listens while doing the washing-up, it brings one alive. Some programmes are geared towards a specific audience but can appeal to a wider one. I am thinking in particular of “Outside the Box”, with Olan McGowan. It is one of the great radio programmes and it reaches out to people described as disabled and so on. However, that is enough about the programmes in which I am interested.
I have just been speaking at the lunch and annual general meeting of MIST, an organisation for people with macular degeneration of the retina. I have the problem in a small form. Such people really depend on radio; television is not much use to them. I will come back to this because we must ensure the radio signal is sufficiently strong. I have put down some amendments on the matter. It is important to recognise the spread of the independent radio service. A total of 63% of the population, 2.25 million people, tune into independent radio stations daily. That is an enormous section of the population and it must be serviced properly.
I commend this Bill. It consolidates an enormous welter of broadcasting legislation in a single Bill. That is a good approach. I welcome the installation of the broadcasting regulator through the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI. I also welcome the fact that a significant proportion of the appointments to the board will be subject to the advice of the Oireachtas committee on broadcasting. I believe that committee can be used to a greater extent but I will turn to that when I discuss the levy. With regard to the limits that apply to advertising minutes, I have been lobbied to ease this provision. However, I do not believe it should be eased. We have the correct balance at present and an increase in advertising to American levels, for example, would be regrettable.
I agree with the broadcasting codes. RTE can really take credit for objectivity because its coverage of the Lisbon treaty has been excellent. It is about the only place where there has been an attempt at balance. It certainly has not existed in this House but it has existed on RTE radio, which is welcome. It was a pleasure to hear an MEP from Denmark give a considered view of the “No” case today on RTE. One would not hear it anywhere else. Unlike Senator Bradford, I considered the coverage of the American election superb. I agree with Senator O’Toole that RTE should maintain correspondents in America. I am interested in “Super Tuesday”, even if Senator Bradford is not.
Senator Bradford also mentioned alcohol advertising. I believe it should be banned, with some form of compensation for the drastic reduction in revenue. If we are serious about this major problem, the advertising should be addressed. However, it does not appear to be mentioned in the Bill. There is reference to children and fatty, sugary foods and so forth but the most damaging issue is alcohol. We have already dealt with the issue of cigarette advertising.
It is important that we invoke the Oireachtas committee with regard to the levy. Why not provide that when the broadcasting authority is devising a budget it should present the budget to the Oireachtas committee in the first instance to have it approved? When it is approved, the authority can seek the levy to service the agreed budget. With regard to fines, people should not be sent to jail for not having a television licence. It is nonsense. First, it actually costs the taxpayer money and, second, one hears of awful instances of hardship. A few days ago a woman was wrenched from her family and put in jail. That is absolutely unacceptable.
The broadcasting funding scheme for commissioning radio programmes is important. However, it does not fund recurring strands, regardless of their success. That is similar to the old FÁS schemes, where people were brought into schemes from unemployment and made a terrific contribution but once the schemes were up and running, they were cancelled because there was a policy of not repeating the funding. If one has a success, one should encourage, cherish and develop it.
The strength of the radio signal was referred to by Senator O’Toole. In many parts of the country one cannot receive the RTE signal. It fades from time to time, for example, when one is travelling on the train to Belfast. Why is that? It should be available throughout the island; there is no excuse for it not being available. The Senator also mentioned that it was not easy to receive the signal in London. That was acknowledged by RTE in January 2002. In a letter the station said it had always been hampered by the fact that there is no clear signal reception in the greater London area. This deficiency was a prime consideration in the decision not to replicate the RTE Radio 1 service, as the Tullamore medium wave transmitter had equal or better coverage in that regard. That is true, but then RTE closed the Tullamore transmitter so the point made in the letter was cancelled. The replacement frequency, long wave 252, has been downgraded and broadcasts with half its daytime licensed power at 300 KW.
There is a problem with FM. First, it does not cover the blackspots. One must also consider the weather forecasts for fishermen. I recall listening to those broadcasts in the same way as I listened to GAA results; I knew nothing about the GAA but loved hearing the names of the townlands I knew in Laois and around the Slieve Bloom mountains spoken in that wonderful voice. I also listened to the fishing forecast to hear the placenames and to imagine where they were. However, the fishing fleets are beyond the range of the FM service.
We recently received leaflets about what we should do in a nuclear emergency. There was a funny satirical programme about them on RTE Radio I recently. If there is a nuclear facility available we might have to take shelter with our transistors, but that means we will be unable to receive the advice about what we should do, even if it is a little barmy. That situation must be addressed. I have attempted to do so by putting down a couple of amendments. I will also put down amendments to deal with the issue of people being sent to jail and the question of alcohol advertising. That will not make me popular in Newstalk but I believe there should be a compensatory mechanism for a ban on alcohol advertising.
I welcome the Bill. I hope this House will be able to play its role in sharpening the Bill’s focus by putting down amendments to achieve this. There is an allocation of €0.5 million for independent radio production. That figure should be re-examined. It should be a percentage and it should be increased. It is the view of some of independent radio stations that up to 70% of the proposed budget would be required to manage and administer the unit in RTE for procuring programmes from independent radio producers.
Finally, the broadcasting complaints commission is very welcome. I have neither the time nor the wish to rake over the Cathal Ó Searcaigh controversy again but RTE did not cover itself in glory. If it thinks, as its spokesperson said, that it showed its commitment to impartiality by sending the maker of that dubious programme back to Nepal to check the facts, it is not my idea of impartiality or a commitment to fair treatment. Let us have a complaints commission with teeth. However, the fine of €250,000 is very severe. What type of offence would provoke such a large fine? In my experience of independent radio, such a fine would put virtually any independent radio station in this country out of business.
Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Eamon Ryan): I thank the Senators who spoke today and last Thursday for their valuable contributions, and in particular for their constructive approach to this Bill. The general objective is to provide a regulatory environment that is fair to both public sector and independent broadcasting companies and that will sustain and develop the broadcasting sector in Ireland and the component parts of that sector. Its key aim is to develop a broadcasting system that is attentive to the needs and interests of the audience and viewers and to put their interests at the core of the legislation.
This is reflected in a number of initiatives which have been discussed in this Second Stage debate. These include the children’s advertising code; the requirement on public sector broadcasters to maintain children’s programming, which is a crucial issue of public interest for which we pay the licence fee; the requirement to maintain audience councils; the enhanced right of reply; and empowering the BAI to conduct audience surveys at the start of the broadcasting contract award process.
I propose to respond quickly to some of the issues raised by Senators during the debate. Senator O’Reilly referred to the proposal in the Bill to require RTE for the first time to commission a certain level of programming from the independent radio production sector. I welcome his support for this initiative, the details of which no doubt will be further discussed on Committee Stage.
Senators O’Reilly and Brady referred to the issue of alcohol advertising. This falls to be addressed by a number of Departments, including the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources in respect of broadcasting. Section 42 provides for the continuance of the advertising code published by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland on 10 April 2007. This code prescribes certain requirements in respect of alcohol advertising, including a ban on the advertising of particular categories of alcoholic drinks. Section 42 also requires the new single content regulator, the broadcasting authority of Ireland, to maintain and review an advertising code, which protects the interests of audiences.
Senator Mullen referred to the need for public education to bring about a better understanding of how the television and radio media operate and impact. The Senator has hit upon an important point and one which section 26, in requiring the authority to engage in the promotion of media literacy initiatives, attempts to address.
Senators de Búrca and O’Reilly referred to the proposed development of a Houses of the Oireachtas channel and an Irish film channel which will be carried on RTE’s public service digital terrestrial television multiplex. These two new channels offer exciting opportunities for new carriers and for the licence fee-paying public which has access to a wider range of services on a free-to-air basis. The Houses of the Oireachtas channel will ensure the important work undertaken by Seanad Éireann and Dáil Éireann is directly accessible to the public. The Irish film channel will serve to support the creative efforts of the Irish and European film industry and will allow the viewing public access to the rich legacy of Irish film that has developed since the birth of the State and which we have on archive under the control of the Irish Film Board.
Senator Ryan referred to the UK’s plans to switch off analogue television in different regions from 2008 to 2012 in favour of digital terrestrial television, DTT. In Ireland, the development of DTT is well under way. The Broadcasting (Amendment) Act 2007, the terms of which are continued in this Bill, provided for RTE to develop a public broadcasting DTT service with space to carry the RTE, TG4 and TV3 channels. In addition, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland is running a competition to provide commercial DTT services. In these circumstances it is expected that Irish digital terrestrial services will provide a significant range of television services and will be available initially in the south east, which is the first area to lose analogue overspill from the UK administration in 2009. This is the precursor to the widespread deployment throughout the country of the digital service.
Senator Ryan also raised the issue of the proposed public service broadcasting charter which requires RTE and TG4 to place an increased emphasis on children’s programming. This is a positive and necessary development. We need to restrict certain advertising during children’s programming. However, we cannot allow broadcasters to decide to withdraw from children’s programming, because it provides a cultural, educational and entertainment resource that should be available through the public service operator. It should not be left to satellite channels to provide this service as such channels cannot provide the necessary cultural context for these resources.
Senator White raised issues concerning the broadcasting fund and the sound and vision scheme, a review of which is due to be carried out by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland or the new authority in 2009. The upcoming review can be informed by the debate on this Bill and any conditions we insert. We can steer the review in the direction it should take. I take heart from the comments in the House supporting the scheme and we should examine the issues raised in more detail on Committee Stage. We should consider whether to make changes, amendments or improvements or to leave the scheme in its current format.
Senator Boyle raised the issue of the reform of the television licence system and whether, given the availability of new technologies, we should further alter the television licence. There are difficulties and we are cognisant of the changes in technology. For example, it is possible to have a television in a small hand-held device and if such applications become widespread, difficulties arise with the way such portable devices are licensed and monitored. A similar change occurred in radio licensing. Before the size of radios began to shrink radios were large boxes with valves and transmitters and one could tune into Radio Athlone. There was a radio licence that had to be paid. When radios became more portable, it became impossible to police or control and we moved away from requiring a radio licence. No doubt we will face a similar situation in television broadcasting, but we are not at that stage yet. It is appropriate the proposed legislation allows for a continuation of this source of revenue for public service broadcasting through a licence fee. However, we are not blind to the necessity at a later stage to be more flexible and innovative in the way we pay for public service broadcasting.
The advertising on satellite channels from abroad was remarked on and it was pointed out that these channels are licensed and regulated in the country of origin and therefore do not fall under Irish law. However, the new EU directive will allow Ireland to raise concerns with other jurisdictions where it is felt there is specific targeting of the Irish market. The powers are limited in the new audio-visual directive but we are willing to use them where it may have an effect on inappropriate targeted advertising from another jurisdiction.
Senator Quinn raised the issue of the right to reply in the Bill and the attempts in it to balance redress with the need to ensure investigative journalism flourishes. I contend this is the reason the relevant section is so long. We have tried to strike a balance between representing the interest of the broadcaster and the viewer or listener’s interest in having a right to reply, which does not exist at present, giving him or her the opportunity to correct any inaccurate or damaging information. The legislation also strengthens the rights of the broadcaster in this regard. By providing a right of reply the broadcaster does not incur any admission of liability should there be a subsequent libel trial. The broadcaster’s co-operation in this regard may be considered as a mitigating action if a libel trial proved successful and damages were awarded. We have the correct balance and careful consideration has been taken in drafting the Bill. We will revisit the points raised by Senator Quinn and will reconsider and amend where improvements are clearly outlined on Committee Stage.
Senator Ó Murchú raised the issue of monopolies in local radio and referred to section 66 which requires the authority to consider the desirability of any person or company having substantial control of radio services in a given local area. I reassure Senator Ó Murchú that this is a crucial aspect of the legislation and a development we wish to introduce. We will give any new authority the ability to examine a local or even a larger area and decide whether the re-allocation or continuation of a licence to a particular company or individual is necessary. The authority will have the ability to take into account the ownership that such an individual or company has, not only of other local radio stations in the area but of other media too. If there is a situation where a person or company is dominant through ownership of press, television and radio, this can be reflected in the issuing of broadcasting licences.
This is a necessary and correct development to complement the ability of the Competition Authority and others to consider any media-based mergers or acquisitions and the issuing of contracts under competition law. We need a law which provides the ability for us to protect the public interest to ensure there is a plurality of media ownership and not excessively concentrated ownership. That is what this Bill will provide for the first time.
Senator O’Toole raised the issue of changing the name of Radio Telefís Éireann as a standardisation. The RTE abroad service will be free-to-air on satellite and will include news, current affairs and some programming from TG4. That commitment was set out last year and it was agreed by all parties in the Oireachtas that it is desirable to have free-to-air services, particularly in respect of Irish emigrant communities in the UK and elsewhere. We have started that process and I am glad to see RTE has taken it on as part of its public service remit. We are considering the use of a satellite channel on freesat to provide a service which will be freely available across the UK and perhaps further afield once we have formatted programming into a suitable structure. Section 114(3)(a) sets out that RTE has a duty to inform, educate and entertain. This Bill introduces measures to ensure it fulfils that duty in return for the licence fees paid by the Irish public.
In regard to the subtitling and access rule issues to which Senator Bradford referred, we have to continue to ensure that broadcasters, whether they are Irish or transmitting from other jurisdictions, observe these rules so that people with disabilities are not excluded from public service and independent commercial broadcasting. Section 96 requires RTE and TG4 audience councils to include representatives of persons with sight or learning disabilities. The audience council will, therefore, have a specified contact point with whom these issues can be raised. Section 38 requires the broadcasting authority of Ireland to report annually on the steps taken to improve accessibility for all users, while section 43 sets out that all broadcasters will be required to report on access rules every two years.
I have given a brief response to the many issues raised by Senators and I appreciate the interest and attention they have shown to this Bill. I look forward to discussing it further on Committee and Report Stages and to making suitable amendments where these serve the public interest.
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