Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Jim Walsh: It was suggested on Second Stage that the advertising area as a whole should be examined. A number of Senators raised the issue of curbing the advertising of alcohol and have tabled amendments in this regard. We also need to examine the issue of betting. A number of bookmakers advertise on television. Recent reports highlighted the problems associated with betting for individuals. The report states that in many instances betting addiction is a bigger problem than alcohol addiction. One report suggested that up to 10% of the population are affected by betting addiction. I accept a great deal of betting is done on-line and as such cannot be easily controlled.
Perhaps this matter, which is giving rise to serious problems for individuals and their families could be considered in the context of this Bill as it makes it way through the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Senator David Norris: I support Senator Walsh’s proposal. When flicking through the television channels one night around 11 p.m., I came across an American bought programme which was glorifying betting and poker games. There appeared to me to be quite large sums of money involved. Whether they were real, I do not know.
I take Senator Walsh’s point that there are people who are addicted to betting. The programme which I saw related to a young female lawyer in America who sued a Casino which continued to offer her facilities to bet when she had exhausted her funds. Senator Walsh’s point is well made.
Along with a proliferation of drink outlets there now exists a huge proliferation of betting outlets not alone in Ireland but in Cyprus and other countries. I am astonished by the staggering number of glitzy betting shops which not alone permit traditional betting in respect of horse-racing and so on but permit betting in regard to card games such as poker. I do not know how they do it. I strongly support Senator Walsh’s remarks in this regard. Also, I reassure him that a number of amendments in this regard have been tabled. Senator Mullen has tabled an amendment in regard to the control of betting outlets while I am much more draconian in that I am seeking that it be totally banned.
Amendments Nos. 25 and 26 seek to achieve something simple and practical. The Bill provides that there should be only ten minutes of advertisements in any hour, a principle which is accepted across the House as being in the best interests of good programming. We do not wish a total commercialisation of our television stations. Anyone who has been to America and watched television there will have noticed it appears programmes are interrupting the advertisements. Nobody aspires to that happening here.
The Bill provides for a maximum of ten minutes advertising in any hour. It is not mandatory that ten minutes of advertisements be broadcast in any hour. On the face of it, that is fair enough. However, there could be exceptional circumstances — this issue has been raised with me by people in the industry — where this should not apply. For example, the Dalai Lama is to be invited to address this House, a proposition put to the House and readily accepted. If this visit occurs and is to receive live coverage on a given media surely it would wrong to interrupt that coverage with a sequence of advertisements. It would make sense in that situation that the advertising quota be averaged out over two hours. This is a simple and practical measure which could apply in respect of a football match, a special event or ground-breaking interview. We do not need silly examples in this regard. Are we to interrupt a special interview just to run a sequence of advertisements?
I am proposing the deletion of “any hour” and substitution of “any two hours” thereby providing that in exceptional circumstances there be no more than ten minutes advertising in any two hours. This would facilitate coverage of for example outside broadcasts, big events, festivals and so on. Nobody is seeking a carte blanche for advertisers or radio stations. I fully support the objective of maintaining a maximum standard. I have no difficulty with that. The amendment seeks only to adjust that standard in exceptional circumstances.
It would not be in the interests of a radio station to broadcast 20 minutes of advertisements in any given hour. It is in their interests to balance them out over one hour. I am sure this is what their clients would want. The likelihood is that in reality the Minister’s objective will be achieved. My proposal relates only to exceptional circumstances. It would not make sense not to run the advertisements for ten minutes in any hour. One hopes that in some instances there would not be ten minutes of advertising within an hour. We have a horror of those awful stations which, thank God, are not national stations but are beamed to us from satellite, and one cringes at the horrific sequences of advertisements which are awful drivel. We do not aspire to that.
My amendment aims to facilitate programming in certain instances, and the flow and rhythm of programmes. It aims to facilitate the industry but not to give on the principle or concept in any shape or form. The practice of a good broadcaster would be to average its advertisements on an hour and its commercial supporters would require that it do so.
Senator David Norris: I strongly support Senator O’Reilly’s amendment. I was concerned when I received the initial brief on this in case it meant commercial pressures within radio stations would lead them to seek to increase the revenue by expanding the amount of advertising but this is not the case. It is exactly as Senator O’Reilly described. From my inquiries I realised that radio stations do not want to increase advertising revenue because over the ten minutes advertising operates as a disincentive to listenership. Advertising revenue is mathematically related to audience penetration. Radio stations want to maximise their audience and not put them off by saturating them with advertisements.
Exceptional occasions do exist and I am not sure they are quite as infrequent as Senator O’Reilly suggests. It may be that they are. I do a certain amount of broadcasting and on a couple of occasions I filled in for other people with far more glamorous programmes than mine with live feed to Hollywood for the Oscars. One does not break that because if one does the people on the other end will buzz off. With regard to coverage of the US elections, stations in the US break in with advertising right at a vital point and this is regrettable.
The idea of averaging out the advertising time in a manner which ensures no increase in advertising is good. It would be silly to penalise a station simply because it had an important item and did not want to break the link. If a programme has a feed from Iraq or Afghanistan by satellite phone and connection is lost it can be difficult to re-establish it. It might be lost if a commercial break is taken. This is a reasonable and non-threatening amendment and I hope the Minister will be able to consider it.
Senator Jim Walsh: I met with representatives of the independent broadcasters association who made a logical and cogent case for flexibility in this area from a practical point of view, which was stated by Senators O’Reilly and Norris. The suggestion made is for 20 minutes advertisement over two hours rather than ten minutes over one hour. A variation of this might be to allow some flexibility within the system, such as using eight minutes in one hour and carrying forward two minutes, averaging out over the broadcasting day as not more than ten minutes per hour. Perhaps the Minister can construct something on this for Report Stage.
Local radio has been a great success. Those radio stations have an obligation to produce a certain amount of current affairs programming during the day. Often, an interesting debate can take place involving people on the telephone. To break it can lose the audience or the thrust of an interesting part of the debate. We should avoid taking from the quality of the content. I do not see the necessity to be rigid. This case was strongly and fairly made by the independent broadcasters. As Senator Norris stated, the same principles apply to national radio.
The Minister may be disinclined to take this amendment on board but he should re-examine the matter. I cannot see good cogent arguments not to provide flexibility. It is all about controlling the overall advertising time rather than when it takes place during the day.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I support the comments made by my colleagues Senators Norris, O’Reilly — who proposed the amendment — and Walsh. I was also in touch with the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland. It seems to be a reasonable proposal. It is a good principle to limit the amount of advertising in any one hour. However, like many principles it can be stretched to an absurdity. It would be an absurdity if quality programming had to take second place to the observance of a particular rule when that rule might have been expressed more flexibly in legislation. This is our opportunity to do so.
Given that the Bill has yet to go to the Dáil, I encourage the Minister to be open to this suggestion. I know the Minister and his officials have given careful consideration to the proposals and I am sure they also heard from the independent broadcasters. I cannot imagine a reason not to make such an amendment and on this basis I support it.
Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Eamon Ryan): The Senators make strong arguments and Senator O’Reilly’s offer of visits from the Dalai Lama is a clever means of enticing me towards a certain thinking. However, this involves a principle and I do not believe it is absurd to maintain a balance in our broadcasting between obvious commercial interests and our interests which are to represent the viewing public.
This involves a general principle as to what nature of public broadcaster we want. There is a possibility of moving towards a model we see in other countries, such as the United States and elsewhere, where advertising has a far more dominant position. I do not believe making a move in this direction would serve the Irish viewing and listening public well.
I quite like listening to and watching some advertisements. One can pick up a sense of what is going on culturally as much from the advertisements as from the programme. I am not against advertising or commercial and public sector broadcasters raising income from the showing of advertisements. However, it has its place and should not dominate our programming. One of the means by which we maintain this is by having a principle of a limit in the hour. To weaken this principle is to immediately invite all types of special circumstances for which one could argue but which would fundamentally alter the balance.
There is a world of a difference between advertising at 5.10 p.m. and 6.10 p.m. just after the news or advertising in the few minutes prior to a major football game and advertising an hour earlier. Any flexibility, the likes of which is suggested in this amendment, would lead to a distorted situation where we would see intensive advertising at key points when advertising is valuable being made up by quieter times when the station has a fraction of the viewers. Once this is allowed, the commercial instinct will drive towards an intense concentration of advertising at peak periods. These peak periods can be precise and measurable. It is right for us to maintain a principle of ten minutes per hour and 15% of programming of the day. While I listened with interest to the persuasive arguments of the Senators, I am not persuaded.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: I am disappointed the Minister has not accepted the amendment or at least the spirit of it and considered other ways of dealing with this matter. In light of the fact that the Minister will not yet accept it, we will try further persuasion on Report Stage and I hope the Minister reflects in the interim.
Senator David Norris: The Minister stated advertisements would be loaded into a prime slot and there would be overloading, which is extremely irritating, particularly on television. I agree some of the advertisements are very professional. I am not totally opposed to advertising and advertisements are absolutely necessary, particularly in the independent sector, which is not served by the television licence. However, our contributions have centred on radio, not television, but the examples given by the Minister all related to television. Not all broadcasters are as professional as Gay Byrne, with whom I had the pleasure of working from time to time. He had a genius for bringing an item to a close exactly on the button of the commencement of an advertisement. Some people go over during live feeds and so on.
The Minister’s argument about the relative value of the different slots, although initially attractive, is not at all persuasive. The amendments refer to adjacent hour slots. We did not refer to a ban on advertising during peak times in the morning and evening and all advertising to be slotted in at 3 a.m. for an hour. If, for example, advertisements could interrupt a programme in mid-flight to fulfil the hourly quota, they should be aired in the following hour at the end of the interview, which might cause a dislocation in the time loading.
The Minister referred to sensitivity and he treated this subject from an aesthetic point of view. A number of programmes, especially on talk radio, deal with serious subjects and it would not be appropriate to interrupt them with advertisements. For example, I will treat the Minister to a little Vermeer scene on North Great George's Street. A few Saturdays ago I was washing my breakfast vessels late in the morning and I was riveted to an interview between Marian Finucane and the late Nuala O’Faolain. A series of advertisement slots would not have been appropriate during that interview and none was used. Extremely jarring material could have interrupted an extraordinary powerful radio broadcast. In those circumstances, it would be appropriate to examine not only the one-hour slot but the two-hour slots and average them out. The difference in audience participation between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. and 11 a.m. and 12 noon is not substantial enough to back up the Minister’s case that there would be a loading of advertisements from one hour to the next, which would cause a distortion, for grossly commercial reasons. That is not the intention.
I was interested in the response of those who briefed me. They were horrified and they said they did not want more advertising, as it deters listeners. My colleague and friend, Senator O’Reilly, will not press the amendment but that gives the Minister an opportunity to consider the arguments made and perhaps review his position.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: On earlier amendments, I stated I was a great supporter of the concept of a film channel. It is welcome and I congratulate everybody concerned with that initiative. I am delighted it has been included in the legislation. Senator Mullen tabled a well thought out amendment relating to a heritage channel. Amendment No. 105 provides for five minutes per hour of advertising on the film channel, which, at a minimum, would make it self-financing and which would cause little interruption. I hope the advertising would be run at the end of a film or at appropriate times. I do not wish to have good cinema interrupted ridiculously by advertisements. Five minutes per hour with occasional interruption could mean the channel becomes self-financing. Niche advertising relevant to the audience of the films would be involved.
The five minutes per hour would readily finance the station and it might even provide for further expansion by the public service broadcaster without over-commercialisation or anything ugly or distorting. I fully agree with the Minister that we do not want to go down the road of overly commercialised broadcast media. That is not being proposed and we should adhere to that principle. That will not be challenged by amendment No. 105, which provides for the film channel to be self-financing and money could be in the coffers to fund another station or other developments in broadcasting. There is an advertising sector particular to film, which would be happy to pay the money to advertise and the result would only be for the good when it is controlled and considered. It would not destroy film, the audience or anything else. This would be positive and a number of advertisers could use this niche channel to reach a target audience. They might not necessarily wish to advertise at other times of the day or on other stations and, therefore, an additional revenue would be attracted into the broadcasting sector.
Senator David Norris: This is a reasonable amendment but I remind the Senator it states “advertisements should not interrupt film showings”. He weakened this in his contribution by saying they could be interrupted.
Senator David Norris: However, it is reasonable that if a film channel is introduced, it should engage in some element of self-financing. I am not acquainted with the figures and, therefore, I am not sure whether the advertising proposed by Senator O’Reilly would pay for the entire station.
I am amused and perhaps we will hear more about what niche advertising in this sector implies. Is it that everybody boozes at home watching huge liquid television screens, which are large and flat and transmit good colour and precise definition and so on? To make it feel more like a cinema, will popcorn be advertised? I recall a wonderful film I saw years ago called “The Smallest Show on Earth”. It was about a young couple who inherited a cinema, which they mistook to be big and flashy. It turned out to be a little bijou flea pit. To maximise their profits, they showed a film about a man struggling across a desert in great heat and conditions of extreme thirst. They turned up the heating to the maximum and then there was a slight intermission during which the ice cream girl was mobbed. Is that what is meant by advertising or some equivalent for television?
Senator Jim Walsh: This is an interesting section, as it provides for a film channel and an Oireachtas channel. I wonder how they will be funded. With the advent of digital broadcasting, there will be an opportunity to roll out more choice. Reference was made to regional channels, which the Oireachtas channel could become because local authorities will be involved.
I was watching MUTV, the Manchester United channel, and saw advertising on that for golf clubs, as well as a programme on golf. It strikes me that some of these niche stations could attract niche advertising which might not necessarily go to mainstream channels. I do not know whether it is allowed. Perhaps the Minister might clarify whether advertising would be allowed on some of these channels and possibly other channels that might be rolled out. If not, the question arises as to how they will be funded. Given the success of local radio and the number of local radio stations, there is great potential in this section to roll out many new Irish channels which would reflect the culture and heritage of the country. Through satellite technology, we now have myriad foreign channels, some of which are fairly alien to what we stand for as a people.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: In respect of Senator Norris’s point about radio advertising, the same principle applies. Radio has an even more powerful effect. The connection to the radio in our kitchen, car or bedroom is far stronger in many ways. It goes right into one’s mind and is a connection that is particularly important to the Irish people. In every house in this country throughout the day and evening, people return to radio as a key communication in their lives.
It is appropriate for us to define and limit the advertising input, not because I am against advertising, but because it breaks that communication. The one thing about radio advertising that irritates me is when the advertising break is too long. I get deeply frustrated because I want to get back to the communication for which I am looking. It could well be in the short-term interest of a particular station to apply such a policy but it is not in the long-term interests of radio in this country. It is our job as regulators to set the long-term interest.
I imagine that there is a world of difference between radio advertising between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., and 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. If I was an advertising manager and was given complete freedom, I would stack my advertising between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. because my audience is much larger. Perhaps I would not do so if I was the controller of the station in the long run. I do not want to hear more than ten minutes of advertising while I am putting toast on, feeding the kids and am in a hurry. In such situations I want the content and the connection. In those circumstances, it is right for us to put a limit on advertising in the long-term interests of radio and television in this State. We must recognise that there is a limited pool so that those stations that are the best and get the largest audiences will get the higher price for an advertising slot to make them commercially viable. Simply spreading it out into larger and more flexible mechanisms will not necessarily expand the pool of advertising that is available.
I appreciate the chance to speak on the concept of the film channel in respect of this amendment. It is a new channel in a new broadcasting era. We have what is known as the long tail in communication terms. Previously the vast majority of the population’s broadcasting viewing, listening or reading was concentrated on a small number of channels and outlets. This is changing radically with the development of the Internet where one can access a range of different channels and supplies of books. One is not limited to one’s local bookshop anymore because one has a huge choice available on the Internet and through different providers. One’s interest might be in a very small and specific niche area but it can now be served.
This is a similar concept in terms of the development of the film channel. We are not necessarily looking for a mass audience. Within such a channel, we will often look for niche audiences that might not otherwise be served in a commercial television world. We have the opportunity with such a channel to show world cinema. This might be of real interest to certain immigrant communities in this country.
Senator Mullen asked whether we would have programming with a religious content. We could look for something that some people might consider to be an utterly non-commercial niche area in which nobody is interested. With this channel, we could have a slot where one could show such a film that might be of interest. I do not want to restrict the editorial freedom of the organisers of this channel by putting commercial advertising into that mix. As sure as night follows day, that would colour some of the editorial decisions one would make in terms of what niches one wants to serve, whether it is commercial or what sort of viewership one will get.
It is far better for us to create a new public service channel that will be very creative in how its resources can be used. Advertising will not pay for such a channel but the channel could take advertising revenue from some of the other channels that are already dividing up that pie. This channel will not be expensive to run. The reason one gets this long tail development is that the cost of digital platforms is a minute fraction of what it cost previously to broadcast a television channel. This is particularly so when one is dealing with something like film where one has long sections with the material already available so one does not have to do considerable production or processing work with it.
As a State, we have already invested hundreds of millions of euro in tax breaks for the film industry and other support measures we have given to studios. We have hundreds of films gathering dust in the archive that will never be used unless we take them out, convert them to digital form and give them a platform. The costs are minimal. We are talking about a small studio space that allows a simple introduction facility and gives viewers a short history of a film, for example, that it was made in 1950 in Waterford. Perhaps only 5,000 people will watch it. Perhaps only Waterford will tune in that night but that is a great service to the people there. One goes to the Waterford newspapers and says “Do you know what is coming up next week? A picture made here back in 1950.” Otherwise, the film will not be shown but it will be of interest to those 5,000 people and would be a real service. Perhaps 5,000 Chinese people would watch a Chinese film in the afternoon. Perhaps we will go to the colleges involved in making all sorts of short films and productions and tell them they can put them up on our film channel. Perhaps only 1,000 relatives, friends and college mates of the people who made that film will watch it, but they will be proud because their work has been shown.
Those are the possibilities we have in this new long tail broadcasting environment. More than anything else, film fits into it because it is an hour and a half of production that is already available to us. We will not be making films; we will show them. This can be done very cheaply and is better without advertising because it gives us real freedom to be creative and innovative and to provide thinking television.
Senator David Norris: What the Minister said about the film channel is very interesting and exciting. On the basis of my own experience, the Chinese, with whom I am quite familiar because Chinatown is at the bottom of my street which is Parnell Street, already get Chinese films so I do not think 5,000 Chinese people will watch whatever RTE or anyone else can dredge up because they are already running. I frequently see them in the little restaurants.
The Minister addressed the earlier point in a very interesting way. The BBC used to be the broadcasting equivalent of the Garda Síochána. It was unarmed and had the proud boast that it did not have advertisements at all but now it does. The BBC has advertisements on its international service which are mainly for banks and big institutions like that so advertising has penetrated there.
What we were talking about, as I understand my brief, was a situation which would not be a particularly regular one but which might occur from time to time. Supposing there was a four-minute advertising slot, it would run over on the hour, for reasons Senators O’Reilly and Mullen and I have already suggested. In other words, if, because of a very important interview on a news programme, one started the advertisement sequence at 9.58 p.m. instead of 9.56 p.m., there would be no technical infringement by leaking over into the next hour.
How will this be policed? Will there be a monitoring service? In many ways, I would like to think there would be. I am a great fan of RTE but I do not think they listen to themselves. Sometimes they go off the air, one gets bleed from another studio, music pops in unexpectedly, one hears conversations between presenters and so forth. It seems that nobody in RTE is actually listening and I would like the Minister to explain, in order to make sure this is efficient, if there will be an agency monitoring broadcasts. How will we be able to tell if the advertisements go over time or are broadcast at an inappropriate time?
Such monitoring seems to be a useful option and perhaps could operate like the telephone-based home security services. Companies offering such services send the gardaí to one’s home if one’s alarm is activated but if they send them out on a false alarm more than three times in six months they cancel one’s cover. That is an option which could be examined. Let us imagine a would-be margin of appreciation whereby a radio station that had a current affairs obligation allowed occasional leaks of advertisements from one hour to another. If there was somebody monitoring the broadcasts, we would know if such leakages were on the cusp of the hour or not and a system of three, six or eight strikes and the station is out could apply. I ask the Minister to explain how he will know if there are infringements.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I heard the Minister’s objection to the amendment but surely it is possible to either accept this amendment or change it to ensure it does not allow the situation to which the Minister referred whereby broadcasters could consciously and premeditatedly load advertising into a particular hour slot. Surely it is possible to legislate to allow for the situation whereby, in the interests of good quality broadcasting, one can, on an occasional or emergency basis, allow for a programme to run on and to make up the advertising time in the next hour, but not to allow broadcasters to market their advertising on that basis or to sell it at a particular price, based on such a commercial strategy. I would have thought it was a simple matter of drafting to allow for the exception, namely, not to stretch the principle to the point of absurdity but to legislate for the exception while making it clear this cannot become part of a commercial drive of the kind the Minister suggested, whereby there might be no advertising between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. and a glut of it between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. As I said already, I would have thought it was a drafting matter.
I was very interested to hear what the Minister said regarding the Irish film channel and I am a fan of what he is talking about. However, it prompts me to refer back to the heritage channel which, as some of my colleagues mentioned, was proposed in an amendment I tabled earlier. It seems the spirit the Minister is seeking to promote is a respectful focus on the small communities here. It is a very good idea to look out for niche groups and give them quality programming which stimulates and interests them. That is what I had in mind with the proposed heritage channel except that I argued that far too often we cater for niches who are politically influential or powerful from the point of view of advertisers. My suggestion regarding the heritage channel would, like the Minister’s Irish film channel, be low cost to a considerable degree in that it would draw on the RTE archive. Also, it notes the fact that as people grow older — although it would not focus just on older people — they are more likely to watch television during the day but we easily forget their needs. The Bill as it stands does not even provide for consultation with older people. I welcome what the Minister of State said earlier regarding a possible review of section 96 providing for audience research and allowing for consultation with older people as well as children.
Given the Minister was not in the Chamber earlier, I would like to briefly revisit the subject of my proposed heritage channel. Broadcasting is a communications business and communication is complicated. The Minister did not give me any comfort that my proposal might be considered but the Irish Daily Mail reports his spokesman as saying that the Minister would examine the amendments with interest and investigate whether the new digital output would have capacity for the heritage channel. The Minister made my day. I had the second sausage on reading that. However, I am left wondering whether the Minister is really going to consider my proposal. I ask the Minister to revisit the issue, not only because he was not here during that section of the debate, but because the type of thing to which he is aspiring with the Irish film channel is exactly what the heritage channel would be all about. It would attend to the needs of different groups like tourists in Ireland, the Irish abroad and older viewers. I have visited people in nursing homes and wondered why they had to be subjected to “Judge Judy” or “The Bill”. It is fine if it is their choice but surely we can have family-friendly viewing for nine, ten or eleven hours a day, drawing on archive material, our great cultural tradition and heritage of ceol traidisiúnta, dramaíocht, cláracha faisnéis and of course, putting on specific programmes directed towards the greying population. However, I am anxious not to ghettoise the proposal because such programming would be of interest to a much wider community than merely older people. I apologise for that little side bar intervention but I thought the Minister might like to make some reference to the matter, given how related it is to the spirit that animates his proposal regarding the Irish film channel.
Senator Jim Walsh: I listened with interest to the Minister’s comments on this issue. With regard to the film channel, his argument is reasonably persuasive in that the only cost really is the transmission of the films, which may be two or three hours long. I can see that it would not require much ongoing expenditure to run such a channel.
We had a debate earlier about the heritage channel, a sports channel, a GAA channel as part of the heritage channel and so forth. We also talked about the Oireachtas channel and the necessity of making it interesting, particularly in the context of local and regional television, via the involvement of local authorities. If we transmit the Oireachtas and council meetings only in session and leave it at that, we will sell it short. If we want to make it a success, we will have to go further and include interviews and encourage public participation at local level.
What is the general policy on options for channels? Is it decided on a case-by-case basis? Many options have been mentioned already but a very obvious one would be a European channel. We do not really get a lot of exposure to mainland Europe through our own television network. If Mr. Gordon Brown sneezes, we hear about that and if something happens in the United States, we hear about it too. However, when it comes to other European countries, we have very limited coverage, unless there is a disaster somewhere, like an aeroplane crashing. We should encourage a European channel of that type. The only thing that would remotely reflect what I am suggesting is the French news service broadcast by TG4 very late at night, when most people are in bed, which is a very good service.
We need more exposure to mainland Europe. We had a debate earlier about the Lisbon treaty. If people here could be connected on a daily basis with interesting issues in other European countries, the connection with the whole concept of the European Union would be enhanced. However, I do not think such a channel would run unless it was supported by funding from the Exchequer through the television licence, or through advertising. I suggest to the Minister that advertising is a good means, in a controlled way, of providing those types of extensions to the broadcasting media that are highly desirable.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I am more in agreement with the Minister than my two colleagues on this side of the House. I ask the Minister, however, to reconsider amendment No. 105 and advertising on the film channel. Programmes broadcast on public service stations — not the core ones but stations such as TG4 and TV5 — need support. I recall the excitement when the UK’s Channel 4 was established. It moved from an arts channel to “Big Brother” and so-called reality television in the most surreal environment. Film4 is a film channel showing modern and good quality films with advertising. Its advertising does not have the same format as TV3’s. When one watches a film on TV3, there is an advertisement every 12 minutes which makes one lose the run of the film. Film4 has an advertisement every half an hour and it does not feel the movie is being constantly interrupted.
The Minister used the term “world” when describing the format of the film channel. I know what world music and films are but I am not sure the world does. If the same idea is used to support making local films of a cultural and artistic nature for this channel, it will need funding.
This channel will begin with large public support and the Minister will be well-congratulated. However, when the mandarins who decide how much money goes where on an annual basis get their hands on this channel, it will become like the Asgard list. Who will care if €100,000 is dropped from the channel’s funding as only 5,000 people watch it, despite it being important to them and our cultural values? The Minister has proposed the establishment of an oversight body to ensure the moneys provided for the channel are properly spent within the Minister’s objectives.
What is tradition? Tradition was once somebody’s good idea. If someone produced a 20-minute film in Waterford 50 years ago, can someone afford to do it now? Could this money be used to support the making of local community world film-type movies? While such a mechanism may seem similar to the Arts Council, I am not suggesting we replicate this. I am thinking of films that are reflective of local culture or history but are not commercial. These would be films that would not be made by large film-makers or shown in cinemas but are nevertheless important. Would that be good enough reason for the Minister to accept Senator O’Reilly’s amendment No. 105?
Senator David Norris: Regarding the question of radio advertising and the hours between 7 o’clock and 8 o’clock and 8 o’clock and 9 o’clock, with commuting times, there is little difference between these two times. Radio advertising is sold on a time-slot basis. Prime slots attract a particular rate. It is not conceivable that anyone could make the argument that there was an accidental overrun necessitated by a particular non-recurring circumstance. They could not make the case that it was accidental if they were selling it. The only advantage to a station would be if it were selling it as prime time slot. It could not honourably or legally do that. That, I believe, counters the Minister’s argument. The Minister claims this is done to generate extra revenue. If a radio station were found doing this, it would be guilty of an offence.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: No one is looking to hammer or punish an accidental breach. The Bill sets out that the compliance committee would look to the adherence of duties, codes and rules for broadcasters and it will carry out similar work to the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. It will carry out random checks on an intermittent basis to see what advertising is being carried. It is not going to pick up on an accidental breach and call the Minister urgently that Gaybo has run on into the 9 a.m. slot.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: The nature of these codes is that there is an authority that applies them. Where there are routine and flagrant breaches, it would take a certain decision. I am sure it would have ways and means of dealing with such cases.
The proposed Irish film channel will also run popular and commercially successful movies which will be typically Irish. This concept came from the Irish Film Board which recognised the large store of brilliantly crafted Irish films that will attract an Irish audience. In many of these cases, the film was not commercially successful because it did not have, say, a distribution agreement. The film will be shown on the channel which will not be commercial and not carry advertising. As well as the benefit of not influencing editing decisions, such a set-up will be easier to sell to the industry. Rather than having a film languishing in the Irish Film Board’s archive, it has proposed this outlet. The channel could also broadcast, say, a French film at a certain time in the morning which schools could use. Another time slot could be used for a particular age group for a movie they might not see on other channels. One can do all sorts of things so long as it is cheap. One of the principles of this type of channel in this new digital platform is not to break the budget because it will not be big. There will not be the annual row with the mandarins, as one Senator said, because the nature of what we will be trying to do is to use what is already easily and freely available.
These amendments deal with a number of related areas. Amendments Nos. 27, 28 and 31, relate to section 41 and amendments Nos. 33 and 36 relate to section 42. Section 41 deals with advertising. My proposed amendment No. 27 deals with the broadcasting of advertisements which promote the merits or otherwise of fortune-telling services, psychic services, palmistry or tarot card services. Amendment No. 28 is related. Amendment No. 31 deals with the promotion of sex services. Amendment No. 36 deals with section 42 which deals with broadcasting codes and the area of sexually explicit advertising.
What I am proposing here is to delete a section of the Bill relating to religious advertising and to replace it with a proposed ban on the advertising of the kind I have described, promoting the merits or otherwise of fortune-telling services, psychic services, palmistry and tarot card services. My second amendment proposes to delete subsection 41(6) in light of the previous amendment proposed.
Subsection 41(4) currently provides that a broadcaster shall not broadcast an advertisement which addresses the issue of the merits or otherwise of adhering to any religious faith or belief or of becoming a member of any religion or religious organisation. This is qualified somewhat by subsection 41(6) which says that nothing in the aforementioned section would be read as preventing the broadcasting of a notice of the fact that a particular religious newspaper, magazine or periodical is available for sale or supply or that any event or ceremony associated with any particular religion, will take place.
I am proposing the deletion of the subsection which prohibits the broadcast of an advertisement addressing the issue of the merits or otherwise of adherence to or becoming a member of any religion. I am linking this with a proposed ban on advertisements which promote the merit or otherwise of fortune-telling services, etc., because the two are connected. Taken together — the presence of one ban and the absence of another — is not only very revealing of perhaps a certain mentality that as a society we have slipped into, but is also quite unjust when one considers the ramifications of it.
The ban on advertisements for membership of a religious organisation or becoming a member, made a lot of sense at a time when Irish society was more homogenous than it is today. The Constitution provides for freedom of expression and freedom of religion. We could see the advantage of such an exclusion of this kind of advertisement when we were a more homogenous society because people would find it rather difficult and it would be controversial to have advertisements of the kind that could proselytise.
I argue that the situation has changed; we live in a more heterogenous society. In light of what is now permitted to be advertised on television and radio, it is bizarre that we should still have such a ban. It is all the more bizarre when one considers that the State has set up a structure for dialogue with religious organisations and other faith-based and philosophical bodies, including humanists. There is a recognition of the public value of religious adherence. Despite the many controversies over the religious dimension of Irish society in recent years, few would deny the enormous contribution made, not just within the Catholic tradition but in all the traditions, by committed people of faith. I refer to the role of religious orders in the provision of education, health and other services in the State. It is not beyond argument, and people will courteously disagree on different aspects of what they have done, but by and large, the service to Irish society has been phenomenal.
Given the current situation, it is bizarre but one could probably have an advertisement on television for a book like The God Delusion, in which Richard Dawkins sets out to debunk religion but one cannot have an advertisement——
Senator Rónán Mullen: Senator O’Toole and I might agree to disagree on that. One cannot have an advertisement for the Franciscans who might want to advertise or encourage people to consider vocations to the religious life. This suggests to me that a new intolerance has taken hold, almost by accident. What was originally a very sensible exclusion of a certain kind of advertising is now acting in a quite oppressive way.
It is in this context that I ask the Minister to consider the even more astonishing anomaly that there is no proposed ban in this Bill, unless my amendment is accepted, on psychic services, tarot cards and such like. People who live for others, who do not charge money, who promote a communitarian-based vision of society, may not advertise their way of life. However, others purport to tell you what will happen in your life tomorrow or next week and they prey on the gullible. We have heard in recent times just how much these psychic services and these supposed tarot card operators and various such tellers of the future prey on gullible, vulnerable people and some people have lost astonishing amounts of money when they have dialled up these services hoping for good news about their future and so on, only to be exploited. It was recently stated by one of the operators of these psychic services that he never used them himself. It reminds me of the story of the clairvoyant who was sacked by the tabloid newspaper. She was informed of the news by the editor in a letter in which he began, “As you will have no doubt foreseen, we will be dispensing with your services”.
It is a parable of our individualistic society that people who adhere to a particular vision of life which happens to be a religious vision with which not everybody need agree, but who none the less promote a message that is broadly speaking one of harmony and solidarity, may not advertise themselves as membership of their organisation or way of life while these charlatans can advertise as they do. I have not seen them on RTE but I certainly have seen them on other channels, including TV3.
There is another anomaly to be found in the ban on religious advertising and the way in which it is qualified. The legislation purports to allow a religious newspaper to advertise for sale or supply or that a particular event or ceremony associated with any particular religion can be advertised. On one reading of the Bill, however, this means that The Irish Catholic can say it is on sale, but cannot say “New survey says religion is good for you”. That would be prohibited under the legislation, at least on my reading of it. Presumably also, the Archbishop of Dublin could advertise that a Corpus Christi procession is taking place somewhere in the city but he could not say, “Come along; you’ll have a great time”, because that would be promoting the merits of the religion. It would be like the GAA saying, “Come to Croke Park to see the match next Sunday”, but not saying, “You’ll have a great day out”, because one cannot promote the merits involved. How ridiculous would that be? Meanwhile, another more secular newspaper could advertise a feature in its weekend edition saying that religion is going down the tubes. We have an anomalous situation therefore because the Government is trying to re-establish healthier lines of Church-State dialogue, recognising that the plurality of faith communities and humanist communities is good for civic society, yet those people are hobbled in advertising terms. Others who exploit people by charging a fortune for tarot cards, psychic services and palmistry, are not so constrained, however.
Amendment No. 31 provides that, “A broadcaster shall not broadcast an advertisement which is directed towards the promotion of sex services.” It would be easy for politicians to be concerned about being considered moralistic. Not too long ago, however, Senator O’Toole and I spoke on the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act and tabled amendments that would have criminalised those using persons involved in prostitution. Senator O’Toole eloquently observed that there was an anomalous situation whereby pimps and prostitutes could be criminalised but not their clients. On that occasion I asked, as did other Senators, what message that sent out concerning women’s dignity and the respect that is due to people in this society.
It is remarkable that it is lawful to run advertising, albeit late at night, which is targeted at vulnerable, sad people, inviting them to spend lots of money on the telephone to talk to somebody who supposedly is interested in talking to them. It is time for some leadership, which is why I have tabled these amendments. As I said on Second Stage, I do not consider it paternalistic to table such amendments. It is allowing media operators to be paternalistic for us to abandon the field and not legislate in the common good.
In summary, I am asking the Minister to scrap the restriction on religious bodies from advertising membership. I am not suggesting that there do not need to be controls of a certain kind, but I am sure it is not beyond the genius of the Parliamentary Counsel to provide a legislative framework for bona fide advertising, if that is what these organisations wish. I have not been lobbied to date by any of them to argue for it. As a matter of civil rights, however, they should be allowed to advertise. I cited the simple example of the Franciscans who might want to promote vocations to the religious life. There should be some mechanism whereby it is possible for them to do that. By the same token, we should move to exclude the possibility of advertising by charlatans who hold out sexual, fortune-telling or other nonsensical services to vulnerable people to raid their pockets by holding out some kind of false hope in their lives.
I have no problem if people want to establish such channels, but we are talking about public service broadcasting. For example, one could have a gambling channel which would be available to people on a pay-per-view basis whereby they make a conscious decision to buy access to it. Channels that come into an ordinary person’s living room, however, which they might just happen on at night because they pay the basic television licence, should be regarded as privileged space. We must ensure there is nothing on those channels at any hour of the day that is based on falsehoods or false promises, which exploits people or promotes negative attitudes to other citizens. I am moving the amendments on that basis and I hope they will be considered favourably.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I advise my colleague that it ill behoves politicians to run down psychics. There is a community of psychics in both Houses, although we call it different things at different times. Sometimes we call it the budget and on other occasions we call it an opinion poll. We have all sorts of names for it.
Senator Joe O’Toole: If we were to start gagging the psychics in this great House, we might have some very silent debates indeed. I agree with Senator Mullen that the Franciscans should be allowed to advertise for vocations. If they want to tell us that it is one true, Catholic and apostolic church, I do not have a problem with that either, but neither do I have a problem with psychics selling their services. They might be right sometimes. The amendments before us go too far into regulation. These issues could best be dealt with through the advertising standards process. I agree with what is in the section concerning advertising for a political end, but any objections of mine would have more to do with the political process than with content. Generally speaking, I am satisfied with that section. Psychics have been dealt with efficiently and effectively by investigative stories, newspaper comment and radio and television programmes. We do not need to do it.
Senator Mullen made a strong point in commenting about restrictions on a group, such as a church, putting forward a point of view. I do not see why anybody should object to that and neither do I see why it creates a problem. If people want to advertise a Corpus Christi procession or some aspect of church community life or church beliefs, they should be allowed to do so. Any kind of restriction on that is impossible in a republic. As I have said many times before, there must be room in a republic for the woman who used to sing the rosary down in O’Connell Street as much as for elected public representatives. Once one starts trying to stop people from doing this, that or the other, it is dangerous territory. I am uncomfortable with it and I do not want to go down that road.
I would be concerned, however, if the content of the Bill prevented members of a religion from talking about or expressing aspects of their religion. Religion is a personal choice and in a free society I would be uncomfortable with any aspect of controls or regulations which prevented the active participation in religion, if that is Senator Mullen’s point. We do not need to be proactive but if it is the case that an interpretation of the section has the consequence as outlined by Senator Mullen, I would be concerned about it. I would not be concerned about psychics, however, and would let them at it.
Senator Joe O’Toole: They come up with ideas and there are all sorts of issues that come through. I quite like the section as it is but if Senator Mullen’s interpretation is correct, it should be amended to deal with the points he has raised. We will leave the psychics to do their thing, however.
Senator David Norris: I think Senator Mullen is using this amendment to make an ideological point and there is merit in some aspects of it. I was rather surprised, however, to hear him — even with a sense of irony — appearing to equate the Roman Catholic Church with tarot cards, fortune tellers and that sort of business. From time to time, I have criticisms of the Vatican and even of the distinguished hierarchy of this country and some of its organs but I would hesitate to put them at that level. Senator Mullen is a braver man than I am.
It is true that members of the public are routinely gulled by people who present themselves as being able to forecast the future, read palms and so on. These activities, for example, reading the horoscope in evening newspapers, are often harmless but they become inimical to people’s interests when considerable sums of money are extracted from people through telephone charges and the lengthy introduction and preamble one has before getting to the meat of the situation. This practice has been exposed on radio programmes and by investigative journalists and I understand the communications regulator has intervened on occasion.
I assume the same circumstances apply in the case of sex services, although having not called them, I am not 100% sure what they are. I might try to do so this evening — prompted by Senator Mullen — to find out what takes place. I imagine the process is similar to the other practices to which the Senator referred. I am not sure if it involves telephone sex or whether tarts are available on the other end of the line. I imagine the telephone sex lines operate in exactly the same manner as tarot card lines, with callers being required to go through a long build-up during which they are asked whether they are sitting comfortably or what is the colour of the wallpaper and told the weather is nice. They might then be told by the person on the end of the line that they are feeling warm and will now remove a glove — that sort of thing. The whole point is not so much to get one excited but to keep one on the telephone for as long as possible. If the caller gets too excited, it all might come to the boil which would end the conversation. I am not sure it can be taken entirely seriously.
While I would not be very happy with the idea of proselytising, it would not bother me that much if it would satisfy some people. However, it would be an extraordinary device and one I would not like if politically motivated religious groups had an opportunity to intervene in political matters and use paid advertisements to attempt to influence decisions from outside the House on what are viewed as moral matters, such as sex services or whatever terms are used.
I agree with Senator Mullen on one point. I remember a number of occasions on which perfectly reasonable advertisements, some of which were religious, were refused on RTE. It was prim of RTE to exclude these advertisements in the manner it did. It was wrong also not to allow radio advertisements for concerts organised to protest against the Iraq war. People do not have to go to such concerts and it was not as if the organisers were making arguments in paid advertisements, which merely stated that those who opposed the Iraq war might like to attend the concert. The advertisement was banned. On balance, Senator Mullen has raised a point, albeit one that is not as substantial as he believes and is likely, if the discussion is prolonged, to lead to levity and low humour in the House.
Senator Jim Walsh: I will confine my remarks to amendment No. 33. I do not see a great deal of difference, other than the inclusion of the word “balanced”, between the amendment and the wording in section 42(2)(a) and (b). I welcome the inclusion of these two paragraphs. It would be wrong of the House to introduce provisions preventing broadcasters from making critical comments or implied criticism and we would be accused of censorship and ridiculed for doing so. Equally, however, it is unacceptable that broadcasters can peddle personal prejudice in their programmes. There is a justifiable expectation that comment will be fair and reasonable and programmes impartial. That this expectation will be underpinned in legislation is welcome.
I am concerned that in many cases broadcasters do not need to display prejudice on air as they can promote their personal bias and prejudice in editorial and topic selection. The provisions of section 42 should be extended to cover this practice because by setting their own agenda, broadcasters can influence important social issues and promote their personal bias. The principle of impartiality should apply not only in broadcasting but also in the editorial and selection of programming. I strongly welcome the inclusion of this desirable and necessary provision in the Bill.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: I congratulate Senator Mullen on tabling these amendments on which he has invested considerable thought and work. I do not have a difficulty with cases such as that of an advertisement for the Franciscan order which the Senator cited or advertisements for other religious exercises or efforts.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: While I believe we could amend the legislation to permit this type of advertising, I am concerned by the possibility that removing a prohibition on religious advertising could be used by the Church of Scientology and other sinister sects to influence young people in a negative manner. Senator Mullen clearly has no such ambition and I support his objective of clearing the way for the Franciscan order or other Christian groups to advertise a positive community initiative or recruitment campaigns which are good, wholesome and socially worthwhile or at least provide an alternative for people. However, we must also prevent circumstances arising in which a vulnerable teenager could be lured by means of subtle advertising into a group which could keep him or her under effective house arrest for a number of years. The Church of Scientology is the organisation which comes to mind.
On the potential of chat lines to exploit vulnerable people, in the course of my constituency work I came across a case of a family which was landed with an astronomical telephone bill because a young member of the family had been calling chat services advertised on satellite channels. The family was living in marginal economic circumstances and I, as a public representative, mediated with Telecom Éireann, as the company was known then, on the family’s behalf. There is scope to provide protection against such circumstances.
I empathise with Senator Mullen’s point that there also is scope to provide protection in the case of tarot card lines where people are being charged very expensive tariffs. I accept Senator Norris’s point that this activity can be harmless and people who believe in fortune telling, a light-hearted activity which is not inherently wrong, can go to festivals and so on. If a sinister type of advertising is used to promote these lines, however, premium rate telephone charges are applied and, as Senator Norris noted, one must first listen to a long introduction costing up to €7 or €8 before hearing the message one seeks, which may not be good news. It is an expensive activity which merits restriction.
While I do not have a problem with benign or positive religious advertising being placed by religious groups which do good, I have a problem with some religious organisations which could advertise if we are not careful. I have no problem with the avoidance of expensive telephone chat lines or tarot card lines which cost vulnerable people a lot of money. There is a sense of Irish fun about people going to the Ballinasloe horse fair and going to a fortune teller in a caravan. It is a tradition that goes back to pre-Christian, pagan times. It is in our culture and there is nothing malevolent in it. As a local representative I have come across cases where the chat lines that cost a fortune have caused hardship to vulnerable families. There are sad people who are using them, as Senator Mullen says, and it is tragic when people are lured into it.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I thank my colleagues for their comments, particularly those that were supportive. I am a little disappointed by some of the comments because when we make light of psychic services in that way, as Senator O’Toole appeared to do, it can have a chilling effect on legislators trying to legislate in the public interest. We are talking about channels coming into people’s living rooms, not pay-per-view. We are operating in a world where people of all ages are watching television at all hours of the day. Although I have an amendment that refers to a watershed of 9 p.m., in many ways watersheds are a theoretical phenomenon because people are watching television at all hours of the day.
Senator O’Reilly outlined the way in which people can be vulnerable and be gulled, and how young, immature people can spend a fortune. That was a much more healthy contribution than that of my esteemed colleague, Senator O’Toole, who gave the vaguest hint that telephoning psychics is a bit of fun.
I have no problem with people going into Gypsy Lee at the Ballinasloe horse fair. The question is whether Gypsy Lee can advertise on television. I ask people not to be nervous of protective legislation. Senator O’Toole talked about going too far by way of regulation but Senator O’Reilly more correctly points to the fact that there are vulnerable people in society who get hurt in different ways. Senator O’Toole would be the first to come into the Chamber and speak strongly in favour of the consumer if we were talking about false advertising of some product. This is exactly what is going on in respect of psychic services. People are being told that they can have certainty about their future lives and are being encouraged to pin their hopes on it at considerable cost to themselves.
That is my major theme, religious advertising is a minor theme but the contrast is remarkable. One is legal, the other is not. One is in the public interest, the other is not, but it is the one that is not in the public interest that is allowed to operate untrammelled. It is interesting that RTE has no truck with this advertising but other commercial stations do. I encourage the Minister to state that this is an area that must be examined.
Senator Norris suggested I was making an ideological point. I do not know what he means by that. My only ideological point is that we should not be afraid of having the law exercise a protective effect where, in the case of tarot cards or sex chat lines, people are being exploited. Their personal sense of inadequacy is being exploited and their pockets are being filleted at the same time. In the case of chat lines there is the collateral damage of objectification of women in particular because it tends to be women that one is invited to dial up late at night.
Can we move beyond these fears? These debates suffer from a backwash from the 1960s, when people were scared stiff of moral debate because they thought it was taking us down the road of having to subscribe to some religious dogma. We have moved on from that. Ireland is a free country, and always was, but never more than today are people free to choose how to live their lives and to what values they adhere. Can we get back to the discussion on legislating in the public interest to protect the more vulnerable members of society? It is not good enough to suggest the television advertising of high-cost services offering to tell people about the future is some harmless fun when we hear repeatedly of vulnerable people being gulled into spending large amounts of money. Are we so market-oriented that we do not care about that and are happy for it to go on?
Let me give the House proof that we should consider restricting this area. I do not suggest that there should not be channels for which people can pay to have access to these services but we are talking about the public thoroughfare in broadcasting terms. Is it not interesting that although we show the races on a Saturday and give the betting prices, we never invite people to dial a number at high cost to place a bet on Lucky Lad? We recognise that there are people who would gamble away a lot of money, not only at their own expense but at the expense of their loved ones. We make a distinction, the law does operate in a protective way and we do establish standards. It is not for any desire to recreate a nanny state that I put this on the agenda. I do so because it is in the public interest. The debate deserves better than the nudge-nudge, wink-wink, “This is all a little bit strict, Reverend Mother”. That is not where we are at in the 21st century and we should legislate in the public interest.
I agree with Senator O’Reilly’s point that if we were to lift the ban on religious organisations advertising membership or merits, there would have to be a regulatory structure. This is where codes come in, it is not a question that the law would establish a free-for-all. Given that the State has established a structure for dialogue with religious organisations and non-faith based organisations, it has a mechanism to decide what groups it does and does not talk to. By the same logic could we not have a code permitting certain kinds of ads and excluding others? Judgment calls must be made.
I have referred to tarot card and chat lines. I have two other amendments that are being discussed in this group. One relates to fairness and balance, a proposed amendment to section 42 of the broadcasting code, the other is an amendment to section 42. The broadcasting code deals with advertising and I have suggested the insertion after section 42(2)(f) of: “A broadcaster shall not broadcast an advertisement which is sexually explicit in nature,”. Everything that I have said in respect of chat lines can be applied to this without my going on ad nauseam.
The rationale involved is about the law exercising a protective effect with confidence, not worrying about the sneers. We already have codes on alcohol advertising to the effect that it should never promote sexual or social success. By the same token, and given the fact that watersheds are increasingly a theoretical concept and people of all ages watch television at all hours of the day, our legislation should specifically prescribe that advertising should not be sexually explicit in nature. This can be characterised as a narrowly moralistic aspiration but I remind Senators, not that they need reminding, that to do otherwise would be to condone exploitation. We have had the debate on trafficking and we know that women, in particular, are exploited in the sex industry, which is run on trafficking. Anything that adds to that by engaging in the exploitation of people, especially women, is not in the public interest nor is it conducive to the common good. Under our employment law, the display of sexually provocative or explicit posters or calendars in the workplace can constitute sexual harassment. By the same logic, is it not a form of public harassment to engage in advertisement which is sexually explicit? I am not saying there is a huge problem in this area at present but we might be getting there, particularly as broadcasting services become more commercially driven. An axiom in the advertising industry is that sex sells so for that reason, we should have a specific legislative bar on advertisements which are sexually explicit in nature.
Turning to the issue of fairness and balance, I propose the deletion of paragraphs (a) and (b) of section 42(2), which relates to broadcasting codes. I propose that all news broadcast by a broadcaster be reported and presented in a balanced, objective and impartial manner. The word “balanced” appears twice in my amendment. The reason is that the issue of balance is a very controversial one.
During elections, referenda or in situations of intense public controversy, complaints about impartiality are often made. I have tabled another amendment which refers to the need to speed up adjudication on such complaints. I believe the “Liveline” programme engaged in discussions with women who had abortions and had not regretted them a day or two before the 2002 abortion referendum and before there could be any redress on the balance front. It was a highly ideological intervention in a matter which was to be determined by the people. That type of thing goes on from time to time.
I hope one does not have to be a social conservative on some issue to see the point because it is visible from outer space. I mentioned on Second Stage that RTE’s former director general, Bob Collins, said in the wake of the divorce referendum that if somebody had come down from Mars, he or she would never have thought the referendum result would be as tight as it was given the type of media coverage of the issues at the time. I hope people on all sides of the argument would be willing to be authentic liberals and see that there has been a problem in this area in the past.
As I said on Second Stage, it is not only in regard to controversial social issues that this arises. There may well be other bodies who feel that broadcasters and public service broadcasters steal a march sometimes and allow their own agenda to be set in the context of supposedly fair and balanced coverage. The absence of any clear obligation on RTE — I would argue there should be one — to provide urgent redress in such situations can allow individual broadcasters to conduct totally partisan and biased interviews, for example, on the eve of an election or referendum even though a moratorium is supposed to be in place — I gave one such example — safe in the knowledge that no redress can be sought until it is too late.
I am aware of occasions where people have made complaints to RTE. They have received letters which state it must be fair and impartial but that it does not have to be balanced. It has sought to be “Jesuitical”, if I may use that word, on the issue of its obligations to balance. Senator Alex White is a former producer with RTE and I look forward with interest to hearing what he might say on this amendment if he speaks on it. There has been a repeated failure on the part of our public service broadcaster to ensure objective and impartial programming.
The Minister said on Second Stage that he was promoting a light regulatory touch and he sought to reassure us that fines would not be too punitive in certain situations. However, the possibility of financial penalties where there is a failure to comply with broadcasting duties, including the issue of balance, needs to be examined.
Only in the past couple of weeks there were debates on stem cell research and same sex parenting and those debates were not balanced. Whatever one might think of the issues, where one introduces a real life, emotionally wrenching story and then tries to have a two person interview, supposedly to debate the intellectual dimension when the emotional agenda has already been set, is a very subtle kind of agenda setting and I do not care whether it is the liberal or conservative side of the debate which is on the losing end on any occasion. It should not happen.
My amendment would require a very explicit commitment not only to fairness and objective and impartial programming but a guarantee of balance. In considering this amendment, will the Minister consider the precise mechanism under which this commitment to balance would be brought about and more thoroughly enforced than has been the case to date?
Senator David Norris: What constitutes an advertisement on radio, for example, with these soothsayers, fortune tellers and so on? Sometimes they will say that if one wants to telephone the programme, one should telephone a particular number. Is that an advertisement? We need to look at this issue. I am a little concerned about people who are moulted for large sums of money. However, I believe that is already handled and we may be using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut.
I use the word “ideological” and do not see anything wrong with it. It is a neutral word. “Ideological” could be used as a word in a negative fashion but it need not necessarily be. To say that an item is ideological means that it is formed as a result of a systematically formulated response to a situation and it may well be in concert with other people’s ideas and so on. I do not necessarily believe it is always a bad thing. Certain positions I would take could be described as “ideological” but it does not mean they are inappropriate or incorrect. I would certainly espouse a left-wing ideology, and I am utterly unashamed of that.
Unfortunately, I have not observed the nudging and winking nuns to which Senator Mullen referred nor have I had the pleasure of seeing the various referendum phenomena which he apparently viewed from outer space. I have not been there so I do not know whether they are visible from outer space.
In regard to amendment No. 33, the business of balance is a moot one. It is important things are objective and impartial but sometimes this notion of balance can be abused just as much as the question of impartiality. In other words, to give equal weight to an absolutely unsustainable view logically and every other way seems daft. It is this old stuff about there being two people in it or that one is as bad as the other. That is not always the case. I refer to this idea of a kind mechanical balance. I understand the idea of balance but it is covered by impartiality and fairness.
Even in regard to the expression of a broadcaster’s view, I agree with Senator Mullen in that it would not matter to me whether it was a right-wing or left-wing view or whether it was ideologically or not ideologically driven. Sometimes it is quite interesting to hear a broadcaster’s view. I quite like to hear it and it does not matter whether I agree with him or her. Perhaps this is a weakness in my argument but I would probably agree with most of the people who come to my mind straight away. It would be a pity not to have the views of people like Robert Fisk or Tony Benn or people of interest on the other side aired. I do not see why they should not express their views. I am happy to hear the expression of a broadcaster’s point of view, as long as he flags that is what it is. I do not like the points of view of broadcasters to be presented to me as facts. That is the danger. It is sometimes better for one to be told by a broadcaster “this is my point of view”. One can then add a few pinches of salt to what the broadcaster says. If broadcasters were not permitted to express any point of view, it would be terribly bland.
Senator Alex White: I have reflected on the question of religious advertising. It may help the debate for me to point out that, as the Minister may be aware, an EU court authority is considering the proposition that it is lawful to exclude religious advertising from public broadcasting. I do not have any of the relevant papers with me. This matter has been the subject of some discussion and controversy at EU level. I have some sympathy for Senator Mullen’s argument in this regard. Superficially, it seems reasonable to suggest that it is somewhat excessive to say one can never carry an advertisement advocating a particular religion or religious viewpoint. I suggest to Senator Mullen that if we move towards a regime in which religious advertising is allowed, we will inevitably change the manner in which the broadcasting sector engages with religion and religious topics and controversies. Not only will such issues be the subject of controversy and debate in current affairs programmes, but they also will be the subject of advertising. I respectfully ask Senator Mullen to pause for a moment to question how such a move would change the character of broadcasters’ engagement with these matters.
In fairness, Senator Mullen has not proposed a similar deletion or amendment in respect of political advertising. Many of the same issues arise in that context. His argument does not fall down because of his failure to propose the deletion of references to political advertising. An analogy can be drawn between the two. I would be resolutely opposed to any suggestion that our broadcasters should be allowed to carry political advertising. One only needs to examine the position in the United States to see that the manner in which politics operates and is funded is transformed when political advertising is a factor. There is a marginal risk that if we were to provide for or allow religious advertising, the bigger, more powerful and better funded religions might prevail in such circumstances. I am putting that out as a thought. Senator Norris mentioned earlier that RTE has been a little too restrictive on one or two occasions when interpreting the question of what constitutes an advertisement advocating a religious position. RTE might have been a little more generous in its response to a request to advertise a certain book, for example.
The second issue I would like to address is the question of balance in programming. A Senator mentioned that I worked as a radio producer for ten years. I gained some experience from that background. I do not suggest that I have a particular interest to declare in this regard, as 14 years have passed since I worked in broadcasting. When people ask me whether I miss RTE, I have to remind them that a decade and a half has passed since I worked there. It is not as if I have a direct involvement in RTE, although I am interested in the subject of broadcasting. I would like to respectfully say to Senator Mullen that I am opposed to the introduction of the word “balanced” to sections 39(1)(a) and 39(1)(b) of the Bill. As Senator Norris said, public and private broadcasters have to give coverage to a wide variety of opinions and arguments, including those which may seem extreme or one-sided. They can do that as long as a regime is in place to ensure a measure of fairness and impartiality across each broadcaster.
I would like to give the example of an interview about the Lisbon treaty on tonight’s 9 o’clock news. That might not be a particularly good example at a time when we are just over a week from the referendum. I do not think anybody feels a strong view on either side of the debate on a big issue of public concern needs to be immediately balanced with the opposite view. Audiences are sufficiently sophisticated to tell that someone they hear on the radio is strongly in favour of or against a certain proposition. People tend to have a reasonable expectation that the strong views they hear will be matched at some point by similarly strong views from the other side. That might not happen tonight or tomorrow night — it might happen on some other evening. We can rely on the good sense and professionalism of broadcasters to ensure the overall sweep of the coverage of any issue is balanced. Senator Norris hit the nail on the head when he suggested that the notion of a “mechanical” balance is completely anathema to the concept of a free press or, in this case, free broadcasting. We must give broadcasters some latitude. The quality of our broadcasting system would be undermined if we were to provide that there needs to be balance within a half-hour or one-hour programme devoted to a person with strong views on one side of a controversial issue. Senator Norris mentioned Robert Fisk, but one could think of many other examples. It would be wrong to advocate such a mechanical way of managing broadcasting.
I respectfully remind the House that the wording of sections 39(1)(a) and 39(1)(b) is familiar to broadcasters. A similar wording was used when changes were made to the Broadcasting Acts in the 1970s. A great deal of it was used in the Broadcasting Authority Act 1960. It has served us well. People will continue to make complaints when they feel a debate is focused too strongly on one side and is not balanced with the other side. I do not wish to belittle what Senator Mullen has said when I say I have often found that people tend to perceive an imbalance in the context of where they are coming from themselves. It may sound patronising, but I do not mean it like that. When people are genuinely upset, they have a right to make a complaint. A comprehensive complaints system, which I welcome, is carefully provided for in this Bill. It would be wrong of us to require what Senator Norris has rightly called a “mechanical” type of balance in each programme. It would change the nature of the news and current affairs sectors of our broadcasting system. I have given my observations in respect of these amendments.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: The amendments before the House relate to codes. The children’s advertising code has already been drawn up. We are seeking to continue to develop such codes under section 42(9). Some of the provisions which have been suggested are contained in the existing codes. There are restrictions in the codes on one’s ability to advertise that one can tell the future and to accrue commercial benefits from such advertisements. The interest that has been shown in the debate we have had is an indication of the importance of this area, which is difficult to legislate for. The crucial assessments of programme material and content that need to be made are subjective. That this is such a complex area supports the case for the use of codes, which can be amended, updated and monitored, as opposed to the introduction of legislation. Work is needed to put in place an authority and a system of compliance. It does require judgment.
We could say in respect of recent examples that people got it right or wrong. The religious area was mentioned in this regard. This works better when an independent body rather than legislators make some of those margin calls or attempt to foresee what margin calls might have to be made. That is the purpose of the authority. It will also set out the codes within the broad constraints we have set.
When the codes come up for review we, as legislators, like anybody else, will be able to make submissions and suggestions in regard to how they should be updated and improved. I was involved in such a manner in the children’s advertising code. A mechanism exists for the continual updating and amending of the codes. A question arises in regard to the broader issue of what direction we should give to the new authority in regard to political and-or religious advertising. As I understand it, the religious advertising code, as set out in the Bill, dates back to 1960 and was certainly in place from 1988 onwards. In regard to the political code restriction, the general direction from the Legislature is that we should not open up political advertising as it would be almost impossible for an authority to judge the political aspect of such advertisement and to make calls in terms of whether it is accurate, inaccurate, acceptable or unacceptable. It is a difficult and grey area.
A similar situation would pertain were we to give to a regulator or authority the responsibility to assess religious advertising following the removal of any restriction. In essence, religious advertising deals with metaphysical issues for which I contend it would be difficult for a regulator to set codes. I say to Senator Mullen that we should be careful here because unintended consequences could ensue from good intentions. Senator Mullen cited his experience in America where the intermingling of politics and religion has taken on a consequence not alone for politics but for religious communities. One could foresee circumstances, following the removal of a restriction, where it would be difficult, given we are speaking about metaphysical issues, for a regulator to impose certain restrictions. For instance, a wealthy church from outside the country could decide on a missionary basis to canvass here in a way with which we would not be comfortable and we would not be able to restrict it. The same would also apply in respect of religious messages. I harbour a concern that we would be creating a difficult situation for a regulator in that the regulation of that type of advertising per se might be difficult.
Senator White is correct that the prohibition which we are continuing has been upheld in the High Court and the European Court of Human Rights when tested. The debate is interesting and worthy. However, my instinct is to be cautious and careful in terms of whether we should open up advertising to political and religious content in particular and, at the same time, to ensure we do not restrict even the faintest reference to religious or political activity or event. We must rely on the regulator to interpret our intent and to represent the public in a flexible manner.
The amendments are well grouped. The issue of whether current affairs and news broadcasting should be balanced relates to code. What we are proposing in this Bill — it is an innovative measure — is the establishment of a broadcasting code to complement advertising and other codes which provide a mechanism for a check on what broadcasters are doing. Section 42(2)(b) provides that the broadcasting treatment of current affairs, including matters of public controversy or the subject of debate, is fair to all interests concerned and that the broadcasting matter is presented in an objective and impartial manner and without an expression of the broadcaster’s own views. One could argue whether “balanced” is the same as “fair to all interests”.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: People could contend that circumstances can exist whereby the truth is not in anyone’s interest. Surely, in news and current affairs broadcasting, the search is for the truth. We must ensure we do not let the search for a good story get in the way of the truth. We know that in politics as in elsewhere when one is acting politically one is looking to hammer one’s opponent and to make the facts fit into a good story. I imagine the instincts of those involved in broadcasting are similar.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: People chasing a good current affairs or news story may tend to continue on that route and thus lose sight of the truth. I am concerned about this. We must ensure news and current affairs broadcasting is accurate and truthful. Whether that is encompassed in the word “balanced” or is represented by “fair to all interests” is difficult to know. This is a matter for which it is difficult to legislate. It is appropriate for us to set into a code the long-established rules in regard to broadcasting duties and to allow for them to be applied by a regulator. It would be difficult to find the appropriate wording which would allow us to legislate that people should seek the truth. It is the job of politicians to be brave and to challenge something in the media which they know to be inaccurate. A healthy tension exists between politics and journalism in this regard.
I listened to the debate with interest. However, I am reluctant at this stage to accept amendments given we are dealing with complex, important and crucial issues. While the debate has been worthwhile and useful, I am reluctant at this stage to amend the codes as set out in the Bill. While many of the codes will allow us to achieve what we want we must leave it to the authority to establish, monitor and implement them.
Senator Norris rightly sought clarification on the subject of gambling. I was not suggesting it would be right for people to be provided with numbers which they could dial up in order to gamble. My point is that the channels which people receive simply by having a television in the House should not and do not provide for gambling services. By extension, we should exclude advertisements for psychic services, the promotion of sex services and so on. I do not blame the Minister for not addressing that issue in his reply. Perhaps he will address them now.
It would be censorship to suggest people could not subscribe to particular channels or pay extra to receive certain television channels which may provide these kind of services. My point is that we should treat ordinary accessible channels as a public thoroughfare to be respected and monitored.
Senator Alex White’s raising of the issue of political advertising was thoughtful. However, I believe there is a distinction to be drawn here. Political advertising relates to who gets their hands on the levers of power to regulate people’s lives whereas religious advertising relates to people making, as the Minister rightly said, metaphysical propositions. Here is the interesting matter. I share the Minister’s concern about unintended consequences and I stated earlier that given it is possible for the Government to establish a structure for dialogue in which it engages with certain people and not with others, then it is not outside the bounds of human ingenuity for us to similarly provide for certain types of freedom for certain types of religious organisation. This is not something which we would specify in legislation.
If we are worried about the unintended consequences to people of allowing certain religious organisations, such as well-funded sects from abroad, to advertise and people are that much in need of protection why are we not worried about the impact of tarot cards and psychic services? Why are we not worried about the impact of advertisements directed towards the promotion of sex services?
On the issue of balance, the fundamental philosophical issue all of us must consider is whether we believe a problem has existed with regard to fairness and balance in terms of the representation of certain ideas and values particularly on issues of public controversy. It is easier for those on the liberal side of the argument to think there has not been a problem because by and large the coverage of these issues by our public service broadcaster has tended towards their point of view. I do not ask anybody in the House to take my word for it. I gave the House the words of Bob Collins, the former director general of RTE.
On Second Stage, I mentioned an excellent chapter, namely, “The Discordant Drum” from Jiving at the Crossroads by John Waters. It discusses how people were preached at by a Dublin 4 elite for many years on a range of issues. If one does not see the problem, one does not see the point of this amendment. I ask the Minister to consult widely on this issue prior to Report Stage. There is a strong feeling among many decent members of society that we have not had balanced treatment of certain issues.
What is missing from the Bill is the word “balanced” and, interestingly, this is the word cited by RTE where it states it is not required to be balanced. We should not prescribe every detail of this in legislation. However, we could consider having a body which would have the right to examine the matter if a complaint is made. For example, it would be good if an independent body could consider a complaint made with regard to coverage of stem cell research and have the right to examine six months’ coverage of the issue by RTE and make a judgment on whether all sides of the argument were properly respected. If they were not properly respected, it should be within the remit of such an independent body to levy a fine.
My amendment does not provide that every programme must be balanced, rather it provides that all news broadcasts by a broadcaster be presented in a balanced manner and, more generally, that broadcast treatment of current affairs be balanced. It is a carefully worded amendment and with great respect to the Minister I do not believe I heard a good reason from him for not including the word “balanced”.
Prior to Report Stage, will the Minister come up with something new, innovative and reforming to reassure many Irish people that their most cherished values are not treated with contempt in RTE or journalism generally but that stringent requirements exist for honourable treatment of sensitive social issues with the possibility of penalties where such honourable treatment is not forthcoming? It is not a lot to ask. It promotes harmony in society when one tries to ensure with a slightly heavier touch than has been the case heretofore that there is fair treatment of various legitimate points of view on sensitive social issues.
Senator Jim Walsh: I will confine myself to two specific points. I was not completely supportive of the earlier proposition of the amendment by Senator Mullen. However, he made a point which struck a chord with me. Some of these advertisements take advantage of vulnerable people. This is incontrovertible. In the Bill, the Minister has outlined that we will have a specific prohibition on advertising certain foods which target children. We will do this because it is against the interests of the child and children are vulnerable and need protection.
With regard to the advertisement of sex services, I started with the view that adults can make choices for themselves and have entitlement to do so. However, this loses sight of the fact that some sections of society are extremely vulnerable and at certain stages of their lives people may be susceptible to this. I have come across people who accumulated substantial bills in this area because when they were at a low ebb it seemed like a comfort or escape and they had no one else to talk to. As a consequence they were taken advantage of. There is no doubt that this happens. If we have an obligation, it is to protect the vulnerable in society. The Minister might usefully examine this area to see whether there is an element of truth in what was said in this regard and introduce an element of protection, without necessarily having total prohibition.
With regard to amendment No. 33 and the inclusion of the word “balanced”, I probably did not make myself clear when I spoke earlier. I intended to put a question to the Minister to elicit a response because this is an important point. I do not fully support the point made by Senator Mullen that we must add the word “balanced” with regard to individual programmes. A requirement already exists for them to be objective and impartial and when it comes to current affairs and controversial matters that they be fair to all interests concerned. I welcome the inclusion of this in the Bill and compliment the Minister. It is a significant initiative.
Broadcasters are human beings like all of us. They have their prejudices and biases. They have issues and agendas which they want to promote. The producer and presenter can select a liberal or conservative topic and the participants in the discussion. In this selection process, the broadcasters can plough their prejudices even though the broadcast can come across as objective, impartial and balanced. This is the lacuna in the Bill. If we feel, as the Government obviously does as it included this clause, that we want matters to be presented in an objective and impartial way because this is the essence of public broadcasting then we need to extend this.
I suggest to Senator Mullen that the word “balanced” may be more appropriate in section 42(2)(f) rather than in sections 42(2)(a) and 42(2)(b). It stresses the desirability of maintaining the independence of editorial control over programme content. In exercising this independence there should be an obligation to be balanced. The question I wanted to put to the Minister earlier was whether he feels we need to extend it so that for the programme to be objective then the foundation stones upon which the programme is built must be balanced.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: I will limit myself to stating I will take into account what was stated and re-examine the wording. My instinct is that “fair to all interests” is as close to “balanced” as makes no difference. I must examine the difference whereby Senator Mullen stated he received an answer from RTE that it does not need to be balanced.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: I will take note of what was stated, consider it and come back on Report Stage. The restriction of advertising, for example, of sexual services could sit within an advertising code. That is the appropriate location for it be set out, taking into account the broad provisions we set in the legislation.
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Carty, John.||Daly, Mark.|
|Ellis, John.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Hanafin, John.||Keaveney, Cecilia.|
|Leyden, Terry.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|Norris, David.||Ó Domhnaill, Brian.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O’Brien, Francis.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||O’Sullivan, Ned.|
|O’Toole, Joe.||Ormonde, Ann.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Alex.||White, Mary M.|
|Bradford, Paul.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Coffey, Paudie.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||Donohoe, Paschal.|
|McFadden, Nicky.||Mullen, Rónán.|
|O’Reilly, Joe.||Phelan, John Paul.|
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