Wednesday, 25 June 2008
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Joe O’Toole: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, to the House. This matter is of serious import to many people. There are aspects of it that are not entirely under the control of the Department or the Minister and I acknowledge that. It is of serious political concern to the rest of us and for that reason we must have some reassurances from the Minister of State.
RTE reception, especially throughout the UK, has disimproved due to the changeover from medium wave to long wave. I stress that I support the idea of that move because long wave reception is much nearer to FM quality. The problem is that there has been a reduction in the quality and the output. This has given real concern to emigrant groups all over the UK who have contacted me, and also, doubtless, my colleagues on both sides of this House and the other House. On a regular basis people have reported to me that the situation is unacceptable. This House has debated the rights of emigrants and the need to support them on many occasions.
This matter is of considerable importance to the GAA community in the UK. I talked to the cathaoirleach of the provincial council of the GAA of Great Britain who is appalled at the reduction in reception. The thrust of the Good Friday Agreement as it related to broadcasting was that there would be an easier overlap of signals between both countries.
Most importantly, I cannot get honest clear information from RTE on this matter. It is not possible to get it. I know that the Departmental advisors have dealt with this and I wish to put a number of issues on record for them. First, I have a letter written in 2002 to Deputy Brian O’Shea, signed by a person in RTE. I will not give names here as there is no point in doing that but the Minister of State can take my word. I shall send him a copy and leave one for the Cathaoirleach. The letter informed Deputy O’Shea that there was no clear signal reception in greater London as Tullamore medium wave had equal or better coverage. At this time the question posed was the opposite to the one put now. When people requested that reception be improved they were told that the medium wave reception was better than, or, at very least, equal to, long wave in the greater London area. I have this letter and shall let the officials see it.
In March of this year, in a letter which also came from RTE, it was stated that long wave is superior in its reach: “for example it is difficult to receive RTE medium wave in London but most of the city has good long wave”. That second letter was written to the clerk of the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, of which I am a member.
I am infuriated by being given the runaround by RTE. If people in that organisation think they will get away with this I tell them they will not. I shall stick with this issue and embarrass them until we get the truth of it and until we get the type of output to which we are entitled. Members of the Oireachtas are asked to represent GAA people, emigrants and community groups in the UK.
I spoke with the Minister two hours ago who gave me leave to refer to his briefing documentation but I shall read first from a letter to the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, dated April 13 2008, which states: “It is not legal to broadcast power in excess of 62.5 kilowatts at night”. The Minister’s briefing document states that the licensed power for night-time operation is 100 kilowatts and that RTE is licensed to operate at that output during the night. Either the committee or the Minister is being told untruths.
This is factual material and I will not let this issue get away. We will have RTE back into the House to explain itself. The Minister’s document informed the Minister and his advisors that RTE operates at night and in excess of the figure quoted. The committee was told that RTE broadcasts at 62.5 kilowatts. I do not know how other Members feel about this matter but it will not go away. RTE needs friends in this House and I am one of those who speaks for it all the time.
The briefing document also states, in the kind of weasel words that I hate, that the new system RTE has is far more efficient, that while the old system did not give a good signal the new one does, as well as being more efficient. It neglected to inform the Minister about something I know well, having studied it so much. The efficiency mentioned was that of power or energy. It was not efficiency of reception. The letterwriter did not bother to clarify that for the Minister. We are being misled on this issue and it is completely unacceptable.
I also wish to state what it would cost for RTE — if one can believe the organisation’s own figures — to broadcast at its licensed output of 500 kilowatt for 24 hours a day. The cost per year would be the enormous sum of €108,000. That is what we are talking about here.
RTE took over Atlantic 252 which used to pump out pop music at 500 kilowatts, day and night, all over the UK and to northern Europe at a time when we could all receive it. Then it reduced the output and made fools of some of us. Before the GAA, in this House and in committee I defended RTE’s decision to move to long wave on the basis that there would be better and clearer reception. It would have been so had RTE done the honest thing and broadcast at the licensed output of 500 kilowatts.
Why should we reduce ourselves to a mere 500 kilowatts in any case? We should be able to broadcast as far as Brussels at the very least. Our output should be receivable on long wave in that city and there is no reason why it should not be so. It is not long ago since I sat in my car in Cherbourg listening to RTE long wave coming in as clear as a bell under the previous transmitter. There is no reason why the range cannot be extended.
I could continue to talk at length about this issue and I have a mind to do exactly that. As a member of the Opposition and an Independent Senator, I do not feel any more strongly about this issue than my colleagues on the other side of the House. Anyone who has cared about the Irish community abroad and who knows of the lonely emigrants sitting in bedsits will know the broadcasting of GAA and other sports results in the afternoon is part of their community lifeline. Their cultural roots are reflected in the programmes of RTE, particularly at the weekends and at night. There are people who like to listen to “Céilí House” on Saturday night, to “Fáilte Isteach” with Donncha O’Dulaing and to programmes by others who broadcast at night. Sometimes the audiences for such programmes are larger in the United Kingdom than in Ireland. What is occurring cannot be allowed to continue.
A completely different reason it cannot be allowed to continue is that RTE transmitters are crucial in the event of a national emergency. According to our plans, RTE is supposed to be broadcasting at full output during any major national emergency. However, it has reduced its power output to below the legally agreed limit, that is, to 250 KW or 300 KW. That it has reduced its potential is unacceptable. It is telling us it is reducing it to 250 KW. It is not a step it can take at will and that is why I do not trust it to do what it is supposed to be doing. My amendment is to require RTE to pump out its signal at the licensed power output at the very least. I would like the Minister of State to say how it can increase this output. Who deals with this?
The main source of interference with RTE long wave reception at night is Radio Algérienne, which is probably broadcasting at approximately 2,000 KW, although its licence is based on the same international agreement as that of RTE, that is, the agreement of 1975. How long can we put up with this? It is not good enough.
I am not making these remarks with a view to criticising the Department. However, I am very critical of what is taking place, of the lack of information and of the difficulty in finding that information. We need to speak for those who cannot be present to speak for themselves on this issue. On that basis, I ask the Minister of State to accept the amendment.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I second the amendment. I spoke at length on this issue when RTE was getting rid of its medium wave service. We made the case that people abroad tuned into sports events in Ireland and enjoyed a very good reception. We were told the new regime would result in greater efficiency but this efficiency did not apply to reception. Deception was evident in RTE’s answer to questions on its getting rid of the medium wave service. It is paramount that RTE have the highest possible power output, as the amendment seeks, with a view to ensuring listeners in Ireland, the United Kingdom and further afield receive the reception to which they are entitled and to which those who pay a licence fee are entitled.
Conflicting information was received from RTE on this issue and it will have to be sorted out. If it tells a committee of the Oireachtas one story and tells another to the Minister, it should be hauled in straight away by the Minister and asked specifically for the truth. Will the Minister of State ensure this as a matter of urgency, such that Members of the Oireachtas will know the exact position, as they and the public are entitled to know?
Senator John Paul Phelan: I echo the sentiments of Senators O’Toole and Cummins. We have all received correspondence from various groups, from both inside and outside the State, on this issue. The points Senator O’Toole made are well made, especially on emigrant groups in Britain that have maintained contact with Ireland over the years, largely through the medium of radio. The loss of the service is considerable to them. The only contact many of those in bedsits had with home was through the Irish national broadcaster.
Since RTE is the national broadcaster, its remit is surely to broadcast not only to those who reside on the island of Ireland but also to those nationals who are forced, often through no fault of their own, to live across the Irish Sea. The service provided to them for years was very good. Reference was made to the importance of providing a service to those interested in sports organisations, including the GAA. I agree with this.
I received a number of e-mails from residents in certain parts of Ireland who are having difficulty receiving a signal, including individuals in west Cork and parts of the south east. Senator O’Toole stated Deputy Brian O’Shea raised this issue in the Dáil. The Senator also referred to Radio Algérienne broadcasting at an output strength eight times greater than that of RTE. This is causing difficulty and the signal is much clearer than that of RTE in certain parts of Ireland. I support the amendment fully and urge the Minister of State to accept it.
The nub of the issue concerns the national broadcaster broadcasting to the nation. I have no problem paying my licence fees and, as with Senator O’Toole, I defend RTE, but it is badly wrong on this issue. It has spread disinformation. I was not aware of Senator O’Toole’s letters. There are clear contradictions in the information presented to the committee and the Minister. This needs to be explained but has not been to date.
Senator O’Toole made a good point on national emergencies, during which transmission is vital. The point was made to me in an e-mail that fishermen rely on RTE for weather forecasts. Quite often, they operate some distance from the mainland and are placed in jeopardy if they cannot receive a signal from RTE. This should be taken on board. I urge the Minister of State to accept all the grouped amendments and hope he can produce some formula of words that will resolve the problem and ensure RTE can broadcast at full strength such that a clear signal will be received not only by people on the island of Ireland but also by Irish communities in the United Kingdom.
It is a terrible indictment of public broadcasting that in 2008, someone who until recently was able to access radio and who emigrated in the 1960s now is being deprived of this facility because of a change, which I understand was implemented to make financial savings. While in general I am in favour of such measures, responsibilities also arise in respect of public broadcasting. I believe that given the technology available, one should ensure that people can keep some connection with events in their native country through the radio stations. When this fails, there is an obligation on Members to insist on it to the public service broadcaster, which is funded to a large degree by the population at large. Were one to poll the population, there would be strong support to use part of that funding to ensure the diaspora, in the closest country to us in particular, can access the radio stations. It also is imperative that this can be done using radio receivers. That is essential for people, whether in cars or elsewhere.
I refer to RTE’s failure to point this out. Parts of the Northern Ireland are unable to access RTE radio, which is disgraceful. An all-island economy is being promoted in many ways and efforts are being made to cultivate co-operation and understanding between both sides of this island. Surely one way to so do is through the medium of radio. People can listen to BBC stations on their radios in this part of Ireland and it is incongruous that such access is not available. My question in this regard is whether the Bill under discussion is the appropriate way to deal with this issue, which is an operational matter. However, the Minister and the Department must be proactive in redressing what unfortunately has happened when medium wave transmissions were done away with and people were deprived of access to the national airwaves.
Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Seán Power): I thank Members for their contributions. As for amendments Nos. 99 to 101, inclusive, relating to the operation of RTE’s long wave service, I have considered them as a result of the debate in the House last week. A number of Members raised this issue last week to express serious concern. Consequently, contact was made with RTE with a view to clarifying some of the issues raised at the time.
As Members are aware, primary legislation in the main outlines objectives, rather than the specific operating conditions, technologies, standards or parameters needed to support such objectives. Most people would agree this is a logical approach, given the rapid pace of technological and service development. Section 114(1)(a) sets RTE the objective of providing a broadcasting service to be made available, “in so far as it is reasonably practicable, to the whole community on the island of Ireland”. Section 114(1)(f) sets RTE the objective of providing a broadcasting service to “be made available, in so far as RTÉ considers reasonably practicable, to Irish communities outside the island of Ireland”. Section 114(1)(d) gives RTE the objective of co-operating with public bodies and preparing the dissemination of public information to the public in the event of an emergency. The Bill as drafted sets RTE these specific objectives. It allows it the latitude to choose the most appropriate economic and technological means to fulfil these objectives and establishes various accountability mechanisms under which RTE accounts for any or all of the decisions it makes.
Members have raised concerns regarding RTE’s ability to meet its objectives relating to the provision of services within Ireland and abroad. I believe that RTE takes these objectives seriously. I should point out that a satellite receiver in Ireland or in the United Kingdom can at present tune in to all four of the principal RTE radio services for 24 hours per day, should one so wish. RTE also is planning to extend the radio services to the freesat platform, where they will be easily locatable via the BBC freesat electronic programme guide. This will tie in with the planned provision——
Deputy Seán Power: I will continue to outline what RTE has to say about it, arising from the discussions and some of the clarifications we sought from it. This will tie in with the planned provision of the new RTE international television channel and freesat from early next year and will represent an extension of its radio service in the United Kingdom.
In respect of emergencies, to which a number of Members referred, it is important to provide for emergency broadcasts over different broadcasting platforms and technologies. This is important for a variety of reasons. All Members will agree that relying on a single platform for emergency broadcasts is not secure as it could fail or be subject to interference or sabotage. Listeners listen to radio over an ever-increasing range of platforms and the main platform is FM. However, there is an increasing number of listeners over the Internet and satellite.
I also wish to make the point that Sky satellite and the long wave 252 frequency are the two principal ways to hear RTE radio in Great Britain. Sky carries all four radio channels and serves listeners on satellite throughout Ireland, Great Britain and the Continent. The long wave 252 service broadcasts RTE Radio 1 on a single frequency throughout Ireland and, by overspill, into a wide area of Britain. By the end of this year, RTE plans to introduce a new international and existing radio service at freesat. The coverage provided by freesat will be the same as on the existing Sky satellite service. The difference is that freesat is not a subscription service. Its users only will pay the once-off costs of a dish and the setting up of a receiver. RTE’s four radio channels will form part of this extension of service to Irish audiences via freesat. For both television and radio audiences, this constitutes an important step forward as it will provide a television service and will extend the availability of radio at a cost that is both reasonable and non-recurrent.
Consequently, I am not in a position to accept the amendments as proposed by Members. However, in view of the correspondence to which Senator O’Toole referred, there is a need for some clarification regarding this matter. While I cannot provide such clarification to the House at present, I will take up this matter with RTE and have it clarified at the earliest opportunity. However, I am not in a position to accept the amendments as proposed.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. However, I repeat that this merely constitutes half-information. For example, the Minister of State referred to freesat. He stated the RTE stations will be on freesat and will be available to people who do not have a subscription to Sky. It can be obtained on Sky without subscription at present. This kind of half-information is driving me mad. One does not even need to say “hello” to Sky. All one must do is to install a dish and a decoder and one then can receive the four radio stations throughout Europe.
I have made this point in the House many times. While I digress slightly from the point under discussion, what drives me mad in this regard is that although one also can tune in RTE television, it is encrypted. Consequently, throughout Europe one can erect a Sky dish and decoder at no cost, with the exception of the aforementioned two items, and without a contract, one can tune into BBC 1, BBC 2, BBC 3, BBC 4, ITV 1, ITV 2, ITV 3 and ITV 4, as well as every single station of every small country in Europe, with the exception of Ireland.
I have raised this issue previously and have been in dispute with RTE about it for the past four years because it insists that our channels should be encrypted. It will make all sorts of assertions about copyright when all one wants to do is to watch RTE programmes. Other organisations do this, including regional variations of ITV, such as UTV, as well as the BBC. If a match involving Celtic is being broadcast on BBC 1 Scotland, one cannot tune into it on television but can do so in some other way. My point is that the Minister of State must double-check everything he is being told by RTE.
Many people in the UK want to listen to Irish music, artists, culture and sport. I sit on the committee with some of those people whose names are on the letter read out by Senator Jim Walsh. They are disgusted with it all.
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