Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Bill, 1979: Second Stage.

Dublin South-Central): I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

This is a straightforward Bill, the primary purpose of which is to provide for an increase of £10 million in the limit on repayable advances that the Minister for Finance may make to RTE for capital purposes. The Bill also contains two small technical amendments to the Broadcasting Authority Acts, 1960 to 1976. I shall refer to these later.

Section 23 of the Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960 provides that the Minister for Finance may make advances from the Central Fund to the Authority for capital purposes on the recommendation of the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs. The 1960 Act sets a limit of £2 million on the aggregate amount of advances that could be made to RTE but this limit was increased by three subsequent Acts. The present limit of £15 million was fixed by section 9 of the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1976. Section 2 of this Bill proposes to increase the limit to £25 million.

The initial capital cost of establishing the television service was financed by Exchequer advances. Thereafter during the 1960s RTE met their capital needs almost entirely from internal sources, that is, from revenue surpluses and depreciation funds. From the early seventies on, however, the growth in advertising revenue and in the number of television sets slowed down and RTE had to rely to a greater extent on Exchequer advances to finance capital expenditure.

Between 1975 and 1978, RTE's capital expenditure totalled £14.4 million of which £10.4 million was advanced from the Central Fund. At the end of 1978 all but £631,000 of the £15 million provided for under the 1976 Act had been advanced. This amount was advanced earlier this year. The Public Capital Programme for 1979 made a provision of £2.45 million for capital advances for RTE but the balance of £1,819,000 cannot be paid over until this Bill is enacted.

Capital expenditure in the period 1975 to 1978 was incurred on the provision of the second television transmitter network, the renewal and improvement of the existing TV network and various television and radio production facilities and support services. The contribution of over £10 million made by the Exchequer to this expenditure reflected the effects of inflation on RTE's own funds and the substantial capital costs of providing the second television network.

RTE envisage further capital expenditure of about £23.5 million at 1979 prices over the next four to five years, of which £14.9 million would be on new studios and equipment for increased home production on RTE 2 and renewal and development of existing production facilities. RTE also have in mind spending £4 million on improving reception of both television and radio services in different parts of the country, and £4.2 million on radio production facilities, and regional broadcasting centres and Radio na Gaeltachta. The proposed increase in the limit on Exchequer advances that may be made to RTE does not imply a commitment to make any advances, nor does it imply any approval of the capital expenditure envisaged by RTE. Expenditure and advances will, as always, have to be subject to consideration and approval annually in the context of the Public Capital Programme and in the light of RTE's financial performance each year.

RTE are paying interest on the Exchequer advances they have received for capital purposes, but so far they have not repaid any part of the principal. The question of requiring them to begin repaying the advances is at present under consideration.

As I mentioned at the outset this Bill also proposes to make two amendments of a technical nature to the Broadcasting Authority Acts. The first of these, provided for in section 3, is intended to clarify the position of the Authority with regard to the establishment and maintenance of local broadcasting services. For some years past RTE have been providing (1) a local radio service for an hour a day on weekdays on the Cork medium wave transmitter (2) Radio na Gaeltachta which is broadcast on medium wave in Gaeltacht areas and on VHF nationally, and (3) experimental community radio services for a week or two at a time in various locations on low powered medium wave and VHF transmitters. Section 16 (1) of the Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960 reads as follows:

"The Authority shall establish and maintain a national television and sound broadcasting service and shall have all such powers as are necessary for or incidental to that purpose".

It had been considered that the section conferred power on RTE to establish purely local radio services. However, doubts were raised recently as to whether the section as it stands gives RTE such power. It would be prudent to remove any doubt on the matter, and this is the purpose of the amendment. The provision is purely enabling and does not place any duty on the Authority to provide local broadcasting services. It merely clarifies RTE's position in regard to the maintenance of existing local services and the establishment of any local services that may be approved by the Minister in the future.

Section 4 of the Bill provides that any officer or servant of RTE shall stand seconded from employment by the Authority if nominated for election to the Dáil or Seanad or nominated to the Seanad directly. In recent years a provision on these lines has been included in legislation setting up new State-sponsored bodies, and the opportunity is therefore being taken to bring the legislation dealing with RTE up to date in this respect.

I recommend the Bill to the House.

We have no objections to section 2 of the Bill, which deals with providing extra capital for RTE, because we are aware that extra capital is essential, but we are confused by the fact that there is no clarification of section 3 either in the Minister's speech or in the explanatory memorandum which we received with the Bill. I am well aware that there was strong opposition in RTE to the setting up of an independent broadcasting authority which would have the power to issue licences for local radio. In a speech at the Jacobs Radio and Television Awards on 30 March last the Taoiseach intimated that such an independent local radio authority would be set up and that facilities would be made available for the issuing of licences to independent groups for the operation of local radio. There is no mention of that in this Bill. We will have to oppose the Bill on those grounds.

We are in favour of the setting up of independent local radio licensed by an independent authority to be established under stringent conditions by legislation giving safeguards to the public and financial safeguards to RTE. We would like to know exactly what section 3 sets out to do. Will it retain control of local broadcasting within RTE or will we get the independent local radio authority which was promised by the Taoiseach on 30 March last? The Taoiseach's statement published inThe Irish Times on Saturday 31 March is as follows:

The Taoiseach, Mr. Lynch, last night announced plans for the establishment of an Independent Local Radio Authority...

The decision to establish the Independent Local Radio Authority was taken by the Cabinet last week after Ministers had heard a detailed report about legal and practical ramifications, domestic and international, from the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Mr. Faulkner.

Last night the Taoiseach said there had been evidence of a significant demand for purely local radio services to complement national services. In the larger centres at least, the local services should be supported by advertisements.

"Having considered the matter in depth," he continued, "the Government has decided that the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs should arrange for the preparation of new legislation to provide for the establishment of an Independent Local Radio Authority.

In view of the Taoiseach's statement we are entitled to know why this promised local independent radio authority has not been set up and we would like to know why it is not specified in this Bill. The Bill does not eliminate the possibility of such an independent authority being set up, but until such time as we are satisfied that the Government intend to set up an independent authority we will vote against the Bill strictly on those grounds and not on financial considerations as outlined in section 2. We fully agree with section 2. If the Minister can satisfy us on section 3 that provision will be made for an independent authority to issue licences, we will be satisfied. The Bill as it reads does not eliminate that possibility but it does not state that there is a possibility. We want that point cleared up before we will agree to the passage of this Bill.

We are told that television was set up with three main functions, to inform, to educate and to entertain. I have no doubt that certain of these functions are being fulfilled quite well by RTE. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their work over the years. In a sparsely populated country such as ours with difficult geographical terrain it is not easy to operate a satisfactory television service at a reasonable cost, but RTE have worked very effectively and have achieved a significant amount so far in providing a service to virtually every part of the country which is comparable with any other European country considering the density of population in other parts of Europe. Unfortunately for RTE, comparisons are frequently drawn with the BBC and the ITV television networks in Britain. These works are probably the most outstanding in the whole world, and from time to time RTE are severely criticised for not having a comparable standard or the same material to offer to viewers. Anyone with a reasonable knowledge of television services other than the ones mentioned will agree that the service provided by RTE is excellent in the circumstances.

In the field of entertainment RTE are doing a very good job. Both services are quite good. While I was not an advocate of RTE 2 originally—I would have preferred relaying BBC1 or ITV or a mix—it has worked out quite well. The promises made by the authority have been kept and we are getting some excellent foreign programmes and the entertainment value of that channel is extremely high.

With regard to radio, the bringing in of the new second radio channel has been a great success. It has very large audiences throughout the country and is competing successfully with BBC and Radio Luxembourg. Its creation was obviously necessary and it is doing quite well.

The second of the three ideals put forward was informing the public. RTE are doing a good job in this area. Newscasts are well constructed and presented but I noticed a deterioration in the standard of documentaries and, in particular, of political discussion programmes. They are not comparable with the standard which existed some years ago. I do not know why this happened, whether it was lack of trained personnel or difficulty in finding finance to produce such programmes. Most people in the political world agree that the high standards set by programmes like "Seven Days" has not been maintained and that there is a need for a resuscitation of some kind in this sector to get back to the previous high standard. I ask the Minister to bring these observations to the notice of the authority.

If RTE fall down on any of the three ideals I mentioned, it is on education. The educational content of the programming is not as good as it might be. It is sad to learn that educational programmes are not being produced by RTE, or, if they are, only on a very minor scale. No longer do the Department of Education give RTE a grant to produce educational programmes. The only educational programmes being shown nowadays are repeats or imported programmes. Our own creativity in this sector has ceased. Perhaps the Minister could give us some hope for the future that things may improve.

I should have thought that with the advent of RTE 2 we would have considerably expanded educational opportunities on television, but this has not been the case. For instance, the 45 per cent of the population who can receive British television have the opportunity to do a university course. The other 55 per cent do not. Programmes such as "Open University", are a considerable advantage to the people who avail of the opportunity to do a degree. Perhaps the Minister would ask RTE to consider using RTE 2 to provide an extended service in this area.

In his statement the Minister referred to existing legislation. He said that this legislation gave RTE 2 the power to establish purely local radio services. Doubts were raised recently as to whether the section as it stands gives RTE such power. Was that prompted by a statement made by Deputy Kelly who last year in an article pointed out that the broadcasting monopoly which RTE took for granted was not reconcilable with Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution or with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights? He felt that any citizen of the State was entitled to put forward his views, either through the spoken word or through the media, as long as there was not anything corrupt or salacious in what he was saying.

The Minister's statement may have been brought about because Deputy Kelly said RTE were not necessarily entitled to a monopoly. He did not say they were not entitled to a monopoly; he said is was debatable. It would appear that the Minister, his senior civil servants and the Government have come to the same conclusion—that legally it might not be possible to prevent individuals or groups of individuals from applying for and obtaining, if need be through the courts, a licence to operate a local radio or television service under certain conditions.

Why is there a need for local radio? Why do we in our policy document, issued earlier this year, advocate that this should include independent operators? It has been obvious for some time that there is a need for local radio. Where local radio stations have been inaugurated they have been very successful. The only instances of local radio we have are the Cork station and the community radio which is a mobile unit and goes all over the country. The Cork local radio station, which operates for about one hour each lunch time with a programme called "Corkabout", has proved to be a tremendous success in the Cork area and there has been an outcry for a similar service in other parts of the country. The British independent local radio stations have been in existence for the last six or seven years and for a longer period under the aegis of the BBC. They have proved tremendously successful.

Nothing adds to the argument more than the fact that the pirate radios which have been set up in recent years have been extremely successful and have a great appeal especially to the younger members of our population. They wanted something different. They liked the innovations which were brought about by such radio stations and there is obviously a need for such operations in our community.

It is unfortunate that the operators of such stations are labelled as pirates and as people who are breaking the law. The fact is that they are good people who have a certain skill and acumen and are using it as they see best. They are giving good employment and great enjoyment to large sections of the community. Rather than prosecute and label them as law breakers we should be endeavouring to bring them within the ambit of a legal broadcasting system and give them the opportunity to partake in the independent local broadcasting system throughout the country.

This has been done with great success in Britain. In areas where there is local broadcasting run by the BBC competing against local broadcasting run by stations licensed under the Independent Broadcasting Authority it seems to be the case that the independent stations have a greater listening audience and are providing a more popular service.

To go back to the original local radio service we must go back to 1964 when Radio Caroline was set up. At the time that was labelled a pirate radio and the name has stuck. It may be pirate for two reasons. First, that it was poaching frequencies which it was not legally entitled to do and secondly, that it was a radio station at sea. I could never discern which of the two reasons was more valid. We have had a succession of pirate radios since then.

In 1970 local radio was a considerable election issue in the British general election of that year. Despite the opposition of the Labour Government at the time the Conservative Party campaigned on the basis that they would consider the setting up of local radio stations run by independent operators under licence. They gave that election promise and were successful in that general election. In 1973 they set up the Independent Broadcasting Authority who are entitled to give licences to responsible groups who provide a comprehensive service to the public. At the time it was felt—I feel the same is true here at present—that these stations, if set up, would fill a gap in the communications media which is now being filled illegally. We have an obligation to see that the gap which exists is filled legally. To say that there are not sufficient frequencies available is not correct.

In 1979 in Great Britain—I should say Britain, it is no longer great—it was discovered that despite the case made by the then Postmaster General, Mr. Stonehouse, who has been heard of in other spheres since, there were not sufficient frequencies available, it turned out on investigation that there were 115 frequencies available for medium wave transmitters. It was not a genuine excuse. It is not an excuse to say that the frequencies are not available in this country. The Taoiseach on 30 March and the Minister, Deputy Faulkner, have stated that some of these pirate stations use frequencies which interfere with rescue services, police services and other vital and necessary services and are giving cause for concern because they could be responsible for an accident or fatality of some kind, or could cause undue suffering because the proper authorities could not be notified due to the fact that the frequency they were using was taken over by one of these stations. The way to eliminate that abuse is to license these people who are deemed to be fit to raise the finance and run a local broadcasting service.

We would have no objection to the Government proceeding with the new Bill which was published last April with the objective of suppressing illegal broadcasting. It has not yet been debated in the House because this Bill was to be passed first. We understood that to-day's Bill in being passed would allow, as I have said, for the licensing of these local independent broadcasting systems. A praiseworthy effort has been made by RTE in recent years who set up a chain of local studios, television and radio throughout the country. Unfortunately it seems to have got only as far as the radio stage so far. I understand that RTE have radio studios in Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Galway and Sligo. These studios provide a long-awaited need but I sometimes wonder if they are being utilised to the fullest advantage. I doubt that they are. The reason is probably lack of finance. We do not seem to get as much provincial news as we would wish on the national broadcasting systems. When we do get such news it is generally a day or several days out of date. I would like to see the studios being utilised in a manner which would do justice to the expenditure involved. They are not being utilised to a reasonable degree.

The lack of use of these studios was noticeable during the European and local elections last June. As politicians we would notice whether something was covered or not. The coverage of these elections and particularly the local elections, which had a vast significance, was considerably less detailed than in 1974 or in 1967 when previous local elections were held. Surely the setting up of studios should be to cover major events such as those in a comprehensive mannner?

Those elections barely got a mention on the national network. The local studios were used to a limited extent in this regard.

Besides having radio facilities in these studios I should like to see RTE providing television facilities. We could have a vastly improved new service involving the provinces. The statement has often been made that Dublin is Ireland and when you watch television news broadcasts too often you get that feeling. This happens more and more as time goes on because major events taking place down the country are quite often completely neglected or given very poor coverage. The day has come when we should be able to feed back information from the provinces to the Donnybrook studios in a matter of minutes and such events should be televised and covered by radio as they actually take place.

I know there is a new technique involving portable electronic television cameras which has revolutionised the whole TV system, especially the news broadcasting system in America, Britain and other major countries. Could the Minister let us know if this technique will be introduced here in the near future? It means that news items from centres around the country can be directly injected into news bulletins. One does not have to wait, as is now the case until, the following day or week for events to be televised; they can be transmitted on the spot and shown on the national television network at the instant at which they occur.

The same could be done with radio. There seems to be some fall-down in technology here or perhaps it is lack of finance, but the direct transmission of news items from provincial studios to Donnybrook does not seem to be occurring. The only place from which we seem to get direct transmission is Belfast where there is obviously a comprehensive studio. Not only do we get radio news on the spot but we also get TV shots from Belfast. There is no other centre in the country, to my knowledge, where the same facilities exist at present. This gives cause for concern and should be rectified as soon as possible. We can hardly boast that we have a truly national communications network when we cannot transmit pictures or radio signals on the spot from the more important centres in the country.

At present, as mentioned in this Bill, RTE are spending a vast amount of money in providing new studio facilities in Donnybrook. The figure mentioned is £14.9 million, part of £23.5 million which is to be spent over the next four or five years. That is a very large sum and obviously there is need for vastly improved studio facilities. But the vastly increased facilities beggar the question of how the studios will be manned and from where the money will come to man them. Could the Minister spell out for us today what the capital expenditure by RTE will be in the coming years? In the RTE 1978 report it is stated that approximately half the expenditure by the Authority is on wages and salaries. Total expenditure for the year ended 30 September 1978 was about £25 million, and half of that goes on wages and salaries. If we have greatly improved facilities and increased capacity for such facilities it is obvious that the work force, particularly the number of skilled technicians and personnel, will be considerably increased and that there will be need for a much greater income. At present RTE meet their expenditure on programmes and payment of staff from income from TV licences and advertising revenue. Just a year ago we saw that the licence level was reaching the point beyond which it will be very hard to push it further. The licence fee for a colour television is now £38 and for black and white, £23. These do not make a good comparison with licence fees in other countries and obviously there will be certain resistance by the public to any further increases.

On the other hand, advertising revenue, while it has increased appreciably in recent years, must also have a limitation. So, there is fear that with the vastly increased facilities now being provided at Donnybrook and in the form of regional studios around the country there will not be sufficient money to operate these facilities. I should like the Minister to tell us what financial arrangements the Government have made to see that the studios in question are properly utilised, because it may be a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. We all know it costs a much greater amount of money to produce a home programme than it does to import canned programmes from America, Britain or any other country. If extra money is needed to pay the increased staff—obviously there will be greatly increased expenditure on extra staff—does it mean that the amount of home-produced programmes will be reduced? I cannot see the economics of the matter balancing out otherwise.

It appears that to finance the staff and provide the equipment necessary for the expanded facilities—I am not complaining about expansion; obviously it is badly needed—will require extra finance and we would like a clear idea of where the money will come from. If we have not such an explanation of where the money will be found, we must assume there will be a cutback in home-produced programmes and a greatly increased proportion of imported canned television. Sometimes, the imported programmes are quite good, but I think the public will demand that the present ratio of home-produced programmes will be at least retained, if not increased.

I understand that in 1978 the amount of home-produced programmes on RTE was 44 per cent, an increase of 9 per cent over 1977. We had a 9 per cent increase in one year but to bring that about the capital involved was increased by 29 per cent. The House will see the relevance of my point that if you are to maintain or increase the amount of home-produced programmes you will have to provide a vastly increased amount of finance. I should like the Minister to spell out the answer quite clearly to the question I am asking, because it is giving rise to concern in television circles. I do not think the public would like to see a reduction in the number of home-produced programmes. The clamour from cultural groups and language groups in particular has been for an increase in the number of home-produced programmes. This demand has increased since the advent of RTE 2. They feel that that channel should be used more and more, even at off-peak hours, for the production of more home-produced programmes.

The former Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Deputy Cruise-O'Brien, advocated in 1976, when he brought before this House legislation to set up a second RTE channel, that we endeavour to beam television and radio signals from this State into parts of Northern Ireland which presently cannot receive RTE radio or television. That point was never pursued, and it is worthy of consideration. I would ask the Minister to make some reference to that in his reply, because if there is anything conclusive to continuing animosity and trouble between the two communities in Northern Ireland it is ignorance. Surely a television channel beaming signals from this State into Northern Ireland would be an element in eliminating the obvious ignorance that exists at the moment. I would like to see such an arrangement brought about. I do not believe that there would be any objection from the British authorities. I am sure they would be only too delighted to see an equitable solution to the Northern problem and anything that would help to create such a solution would be welcomed. There would probably be objections from bigots on both sides in the Six Counties, but bigotry exists and it will come to the surface at every available opportunity so we might as well face it head on rather than pretend it does not exist. It would be a very worthwhile exercise if approaches were made to the British Government with a view to beaming in television and radio signals to all parts of the Six Counties. In particular I understand that there is a difficulty in regard to Belfast; the geological terrain surrounding the city is such that it is difficult to get a radio or television signal into that city at present. I am told there is a mountain range in County Louth, and one peak in particular, which would be ideal for beaming signals to all parts of the Six Counties, particularly Belfast.

We have the facility whereby 45 per cent of the population here have the advantage of getting signals from Britain through the BBC or ITV networks. The British people, on the other hand, do not have the same opportunity to receive Irish television. Some people along their west coast and in parts of Wales get RTE signals but that is the most sparsely populated part and the numbers are limited. The numbers in the Six Counties who can receive RTE television are quite small because the bulk of the population in the Six Counties is in and around Belfast and north of Belfast and they are not in a position to get these signals at the moment. So it would be a worthwhile exercise if we made moves in this direction and showed the other side how we live and that we are not the awful demons that some of their politicians and particularly some of the media make us out to be. That would be providing a television service where it does not exist at present.

There are areas in the Twenty-six Counties at the moment which suffer from a lack of television reception. From time to time there are questions raised in this House asking when a television service can be provided for a particular place, be it in Kerry or Galway or some area which is hidden behind a mountain range so that it is very difficult to beam television signals into it. The Minister makes the point that £4 million is being provided to improve reception of both television and radio services in different parts of the country. That statement is welcome. In my own county there is a valley between two mountain ranges where television reception is non-existent most of the time. When it exists it is purely because of climatic conditions, but that is difficult to overcome, and I would not envy the Minister his task of trying to provide 100 per cent television reception throughout the country. Even in Britain and other European countries with their high density of population a 100 per cent television service has not yet been attained.

What causes concern is the fact that quite large areas of the country have yet to get RTE 2 television. Will the Minister be specific in telling us when the present blank spots will be serviced? I know that in terms of population it may not be more than 10 per cent but the areas concerned generally coincide with the areas which are not receiving BBC or ITV so they feel that they are not getting value for money in terms of their licence fees.

In regard to licence fees, I want to refer back to the RTE annual report for 1977-78. It is disquieting, to say the least, to learn that in 1977 £1.5 million was lost because of evasion of licence fees. Has the Minister any proposals to make on that serious shortfall in the financing of RTE? It is not fair that a sizeable element of the public should be welshing when it comes to paying their rightful dues to the RTE authority. This figure was £1.5 million in 1977 and we are told in the report that in 1978 it was well in excess of £2 million. That is not a sum to be sneezed at. The Minister should make a very serious effort to eliminate this evasion. It is recommended in the 1978 RTE report that a system of collection of licence fees by computer methods could be successful in eliminating present abuse. I wonder if the Minister has any comment to make on that statement?

TheRTE Annual Report 1978 states:

In the period under review——

that is up to 30 September, 1978——

this shortfall——

the non-payment of licence fees——

was estimated at well in excess of £2 m. and represents a significant charge which has to be borne by those who pay licence fees. In this connection the Authority reiterates the view which it has previously expressed that a computer-based collection system would help to combat evasion and would facilitate the introduction of some form of instalment payment. The Authority is aware that this matter is of concern to and is being considered by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs and hopes that some progress will be made in the near future.

I would like the Minister in his reply to tell us what progress is being made and if he is in agreement with the suggestion by the authority that a computer-based collection system be adopted. If it would provide extra finance to the tune of well in excess of £2 million as stated in this report, then surely the matter should be pursued with all possible vigour.

In the same report we are told that there are approximately 100,000 unlicensed television sets in the State. It is estimated that there are 700,000 television sets in the Twenty-six Counties and only 600,000 of those are licensed at present. Some network must be set up to eliminate that abuse.

I have already referred to our reservations about the Bill as a whole and particularly in regard to section 3. I am dubious as to whether the Minister intends to set up an independent licensing system for local radio because it is not stated clearly in the Bill or by the Minister that this is the intention. I am dubious also because of the opposition which has been voiced by senior executives within the RTE structure and in particular a statement which was made by the Director-General of RTE, Mr. George T. Waters, on 29 August 1978, that is about 15 months ago, when he was opening the Radio and Domestic Appliance Dealers' trade exhibition at the RDS Simmonscourt extension. He spoke very strongly against the involvement of any independent operators in local radio and he said that the campaign was coming from banking, the media and other commercial concerns whose main objective was to make money. That is not a fair comment. The interests to whom I have spoken in the local radio business, although they are termed "pirates", are upright, intelligent and well-meaning individuals who like doing this work and would like to do it under a legal guise.

The Chair has a problem here. Is independent radio not covered in the other Broadcasting Authority Bill on the Order Paper?

Section 3 of this Bill covers it.

This section really covers only radio by RTE themselves.

I do not doubt the wisdom of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle but he would require the wisdom of Solomon to decide where you stop at one and start at the other.

The Chair is prepared to allow plenty of latitude in the matter but I feel that what would be referred to as independent radio and sometimes pirate radio is covered in the other Bill.

It is covered in this Bill in section 3.

(Cavan-Monaghan): The other Bill outlaws pirate radio.

This Bill covers only the Authority themselves.

The table in section 3 states:

(1) The Authority shall establish and maintain a national television and sound broadcasting service and may establish and maintain local broadcasting services and shall have all such powers as are necessary for or incidental to those purposes.

That is local services under their own control.

I am referring to the statement of the director-general on 29 August 1978. I do not agree with the sentiments that he expressed in that statement. He said that commercial operators who would operate such independent stations if they were granted licences would be interested only in big cities where the money was. He gives the impression that nobody other than RTE could operate such a service and that they have the personnel, the equipment, the best raw materials, the best amalgam of programming and the best and most varied use of the relatively few frequencies available for radio broadcasting. He says that it is not necessary to set up independent radio to provide local radio, that RTE can do it and nobody else should be allowed to do it in those circumstances. To summarise, he said that radio should remain under the control of the national broadcasing system.

Obviously, from popular demand the need exists for a second point of view. Why not allow an authority to be set up to give this second point of view? It has been proven elsewhere, albeit by the ITV television network in Britain, that that second point of view is a very valid and quite different point of view which has a contribution to make and so should be entertained. For the benefit of the community at large a local radio service should have a second voice. Let RTE partake in it, but let us not give the monopoly or majority holding to them. Let interested groups, such as the operators of existing local radio, pirates or otherwise, become involved. Let the local provincial newspapers have a say. Get all the interested bodies and set up legislation to found a licensing body who will see that all the necessary criteria which should be observed will be observed. If they make money it need not necessarily be to the detriment of the finances of RTE. Under a licensing system they could be charged a sizeable amount of money for the franchise and that money could be channelled back into the coffers of RTE. That is the policy which we have promised and published and we would like to see it enshrined in this legislation before the House.

I ask the Minister to spell out whether it is intended to go along with the statement made by the Taoiseach on 30 March this year when he said that the Government were going to do this. We are very disappointed to pick up this Bill and find that that announcement by the Taoiseach is not incorporated in the Bill. We would like to know why it is not included. That does not mean that the possibility that what the Taoiseach advocated could be done in the Bill is eliminated, nevertheless it is not spelt out. We await the Minister's reply with interest.

(Cavan-Monaghan): In recent times at least one Bill and a number of Estimates have been introduced into this House and the House was asked to pass them at short notice or with little or no debate on the grounds that the money which they would provide was absolutely necessary for the ACC, the Garda Síochána or the Attorney General. Here we have yet another Bill which seeks more money for RTE and I understand that the Government expect it to be passed by this House without delay and they expect—I am not saying that they will get—all Stages of this Bill by next Tuesday. The Government could and should be blamed for organising their business in such a way that they introduce Bills here increasing the borrowing powers of RTE from £15 million to £25 million without proper and adequate debate. The request might be understood if it were not for the fact that the occasion is availed of here to insert section 3 into the Bill which, as I have said, is a very far-reaching section, a section which proposes to confer on the RTE Authority the right to establish and maintain local broadcasting services throughout the country. This is in the nature of an innovation. It is giving to the Authority a right they did not have before. The Minister has stated that it was understood that a section of the 1960 Act confers such powers on the Authority and he went on to say that section 3 here is introduced for the purpose of clarifying the position and of removing doubts. He went on to say also that it is an enabling provision which does not place any duty on the authority to provide local broadcasting services but merely enables them to do so. That would be all right and would be understandable were it not for the fact that this change, this power to establish local broadcasting stations is being conferred on RTE in the middle of a national debate as to whether there should be an independent broadcasting authority which would have the right to issue licences to local stations. It is Fine Gael published policy that there should be independent local broadcasting stations. We made that policy public early last year. I understood that this was Government policy also because, as Deputy Deasy has reminded us, the Taoiseach, speaking on 30 March last at the presentation of Jacobs Radio and Television Awards at Leopardstown Racecourse, seemed to put the matter beyond doubt in relation to his favouring independent local stations. The following day we read in The Irish Times:

The Taoiseach, Mr. Lynch, last night announced plans for the establishment of an Independent Local Radio Authority and the introduction, soon, of the long-promised Bill to deal with unlicensed broadcasting.

In the same report we read that:

The decision to establish the Independent Local Radio Authority was taken by the Cabinet last week after Ministers had heard a detailed report about legal and practical ramifications, domestic and international, from the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Mr. Faulkner.

Last night the Taoiseach said there had been evidence of a significant demand for purely local radio services to complement national services. In the larger centres at least, the local services should be supported by advertisements.

"Having considered the matter in depth," he continued, "the Government has decided that the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs should arrange for the preparation of new legislation to provide for the establishment of an Independent Local Radio Authority.

"It will operate broadcasting transmitters for local radio services, under licence issued to the Authority by the Minister. It will enter into contracts with organisations for the provision of local radio services and it will regulate and control independent local radio broadcasting generally.

There we have an announcement of a very detailed decision taken at Cabinet level to establish an authority which would facilitate independent radio and there is a promise from the Taoiseach that legislation would be before the House in the autumn of this year to establish such an authority.

(Dublin South-Central): Perhaps I could clarify the position.

(Cavan-Monaghan): The Minister will have an opportunity later to reply.

(Dublin South-Central): The Deputy is giving the wrong impression regarding independent radio.

The Minister will have the right to reply later but what concerns the Chair is that the point being made is in the other Bill on the Order Paper.

(Cavan-Monaghan): That only outlaws pirate stations. The Minister will be able to reply later and to have the last word.

(Dublin South-Central): The Deputy is giving the impression that the Bill we are introducing is not being introduced.

The Chair is allowing Deputy Fitzpatrick to make a point but is concerned that the point may be covered in the other Bill on the Order Paper.

(Dublin South-Central): Before we proceed I should like to clarify the position.

If the Minister wishes to intervene on a point of order he may so intervene, but it must be a very brief intervention.

(Dublin South-Central): The view is being put forward that we are not introducing an independent authority.

That is not a point of order.

In those circumstances and until the other Bill appears Deputy Fitzpatrick is entitled to make the point he is making. The Chair was under the impression that the other Bill had been introduced.

(Cavan-Monaghan): I am obliged to the Chair. The point I am making, and apparently I am putting the cat among the pigeons, is that on 30 March last at Leopardstown Racecourse the Taoiseach spelled out in great detail the proposals on which the Cabinet had decided for the establishment of an authority which would facilitate independent radio stations but that we have not heard another word about that since.

(Dublin South-Central): That is not true.

(Cavan-Monaghan): I do not wish to be interrupted again. The point I am making is that we would at least have expected the status quo to have been maintained but instead we find that not only has the promise made by no less a personage than the Taoiseach not been fulfilled but we are giving authority here to RTE to establish their local radio stations and to get in before the other independent radio stations. Therefore, RTE will have the right now to establish themselves in the market and in that way to prejudice the establishment and running of independent radio stations. The Government are trying to rush this Bill through the House. RTE must have been thinking seriously about the establishment of these stations.

(Dublin South-Central): The Deputy knows they cannot be established without the authority of the Minister.

(Cavan-Monaghan): RTE must have been considering seriously the establishment of these stations on a much more elaborate scale. The Minister said that thought had been given to them and that it was doubted now whether they had the right to do that. This section should be deleted from the Bill. The Minister should introduce the Bill that the Taoiseach promised and which is in line with Fine Gael published policy on independent radio stations, a policy that was accepted by the Taoiseach at Leopardstown.

That is what I am complaining about. This is a sneaky little operation to put section 3 into the Bill. The Government are pretending to the House that it is really to clarify something when, in fact, it is going to give to RTE the authority to establish local radio stations. They will not be independent radio stations but will be offshoots of the present radio stations. That is why I am objecting to the section. I am objecting to it particularly when the Taoiseach and the Government accepted the policy of establishing independent radio stations. This was spelled out by the Taoiseach in his speech at Leopardstown Race course at the presentation of the Jacobs awards on 30 March 1979. There should be local radio stations. Secondly, I believe they should be independent and, thirdly, I believe that in order not to damage or put out of business local newspapers they should be given a considerable stake in local independent radio stations.

I appeal to the Minister to wihdraw this section. It should not be put into this Bill, which is essentially to provide capital, to increase the borrowing powers of RTE from an original figure of £2 million, which was later increased to £15 million. It is now proposed to increase the amount to £25 million. In his statement the Minister stated that a sum of £2.45 million by way of advance authorised in the capital programme of 1979 cannot be implemented fully until this Bill is passed. I have no wish to prevent the remainder of that capital being advanced. I think it is necessary and I am fully in favour of it. However, I object in the strongest terms to the Government putting in section 3 in the hope that it would not be noticed. It was obviously their intention not to debate this matter in the weeks prior to the Christmas recess.

The Minister should withdraw section 3. If he does that he can have the remainder of the Bill. I do not propose to detain the House with a general discussion of the various programmes on radio and television. Indeed, I doubt very much if Deputies, particularly rural Deputies, could be good judges of the programmes because they do not have the time to look at them.

That would be much more relevant to the Estimate debate later.

(Cavan-Monaghan): Deputies work long and unsocial hours and the only opportunity they have of listening to RTE radio is when they are driving. I am not going to attempt to take up the time of the House on this matter. At first sight one would take this Bill as merely a measure to provide capital that might be given without debate. I was horrified to read section 3 in the Bill and I doubt the bona fides of putting it into the Bill. The attitude of the Government was “Do not hit me now with the child in my arms. We must get the Bill because we want the capital.”

I make a strong appeal to the Minister to delete section 3. If he does that he can have the remainder of the Bill. The section could be more appropriately discussed in the Bill dealing with independent television which the Minister has said will be introduced soon; and if it cannot be put into that Bill it should be put into another measure that could be introduced here and discussed. This section should not be enacted now to give RTE an unfair advantage over other stations that it is proposed to establish. No one knows when the other Bill referred to by the Minister will be introduced. It might be the end of next year. However, the stations could be established in the spring and could be in operation very soon.

This is a deceptively simple Bill but it raises a number of major issues of principle on which we should comment at this stage. The primary purpose of the Bill is to increase the limit on repayable advances that may be made by the Government to RTE for capital purposes. The sum of £25 million has been mentioned but, in his speech, the Minister pointed out that this did not imply a commitment to make any advances whatever nor did it imply any approval of capital expenditure envisaged by RTE. We need a little more information, to put it mildly, from the Government before we can agree holus-bolus to an increase in the limit concerned of £25 million which is not chicken feed even in these inflationary days.

It would be interesting to know, for example, what type of capital expenditure RTE envisage, what kind of project is involved, whether any formal requests or submissions have been made to the Government by the RTE Authority, and when the Government propose to conclude their consideration of the requests from RTE for finance for these capital projects. I find it inconceivable that the Government would ask us to increase by £25 million the limit on the money they can lend to RTE without having some kind of an idea of whether any or all of this money will be required, and what it will be required for.

The very least the House is entitled to in courtesy—even in broad outline—is a little further information about RTE's capital development programme. When I say that, I should not be taken as implying any criticism of RTE's financial matters or, indeed, of their capital plan. To the best of my knowledge, the public broadcasting service provided by RTE to date has been provided, in relation to capital at any rate, in such a way as to give us extremely good value for money. I do not think any of us can complain too much on that score. I am not to be taken as criticising anything RTE may be looking for money for. It is important that, if we have a national public broadcasting service, it should be a good one and it should be adequately capitalised.

Another issue we have to look at is dealt with by the Minister in his speech. He said:

RTE are paying interest on the Exchequer advances they have received for capital purposes, but so far they have not repaid any part of the principal. The question of requiring them to begin repaying the advances is at present under consideration.

Those are two very pregnant sentences. We need to know a little more about the kind of assumptions on which RTE's handling of revenue and capitalisation programme are based. If successive Governments have given RTE to understand that what is involved in capital advances is merely a matter of making capital available, subject to RTE's liability to pay interest charges, it seems a bit odd late in the day for them to say to RTE: "That is not really what we meant. We actually want you to start paying back capital as well." Was it intended, when the RTE Authority were set up, that borrowed capital should always be repaid, or that the Government should be put in a slightly less favourable position in that borrowed capital from the Government might be dealt with more flexibly?

In fairness to RTE and to their budgeting and their planning—and among other things this involves things like increases in the licence fees—they need clear guidance from the Government. If they are expected to pay back capital borrowed, let them be told at the time the capital is borrowed and not a couple of years afterwards. Let them be told on what basis the capital repayments are to be made. No organisation can have a reasonable budgetary programme without having that kind of knowledge well in advance. If the Government have not done this up to now in relation to RTE, they should certainly start now. The Minister could start immediately by giving us in this House, when he replies to this debate, some indication on Government thinking in this area for the guidance of the planners and budget-makers in RTE.

It will not have escaped the notice of the House that, if RTE's revenue and finances are calculated on the basis of the assumption that they do not have to repay capital, then a Government decision to seek an early repayment of part or all of those capital advances will have one of two effects or, perhaps, a combination of both. Either programme activities will have to be cut back, or the licence fee will have to be increased. The Government cannot conceal their basic responsibility for either of those two events occurring, or any combination of them, by a rather bland phrase in a ministerial speech about requiring them to begin repaying advances, as if advances and capital repayments could be conjured out of thin air. This is an important financial measure. The Minister's speech is of considerable financial significance for the organisation concerned. The House and the organisation are entitled to more detail in relation to it.

In relation to the second main provision in the Bill, that part of the Bill relating to RTE's functions in connection with local broadcasting, I am in total disagreement with the line of country travelled by Deputy Fitzpatrick. I know Deputy Fitzpatrick adopted that line with the best of intentions, and in full accordance with his own party's policy. At this time, when local broadcasting on radio and television is becoming an increasingly live issue, it is doubly important that we should strengthen the arm and the role of the public broadcasting service in any way we may consider necessary. The section involved is described as merely a clarifying section. Obviously it does fulfil that function. It is important to look at the direction in which the clarification is taking place. We are not clarifying things in such a way as to imply that RTE should be given less freedom to engage in local broadcasting. We are clarifying things in such a way as to imply that RTE should be given more freedom to engage in local broadcasting. This is a point of view with which I fully concur.

Deputy Fitzpatrick suggested that this was a sneaky provision, and he argued that it should be withdrawn from the Bill until we have had time to consider the other Bill promised by the Taoiseach on local broadcasting. I share with Deputy Fitzpatrick a concern about the lack of speed with which this other measure is travelling towards this House, but I do not share his opinion that, for some reason, we should shelve this proposal until we have seen the other.

Deputy Fitzpatrick argued very strongly in favour of what he described as independent local broadcasting. The implication of his remarks is that what we are trying to do in this Bill is to give RTE, this great monolith, this creature of the State, this shapeless authoritarian monster, further and more detailed control over even the smallest of the local communities in our State. Set against that model, like St. George against the dragon, is the model of independent local broadcasting.

A couple of implications in that line of argument are very serious. One is that independent local broadcasting is independent. When you look at it more closely, however, you realise that the only thing independent local broadcasting is to be independent of is the Government and RTE. By definition the one thing so-called local independent broadcasting is not independent of is the desire to make money. This is the first, middle and last objective of so-called independent local broadcasting. These objectives are on occasion linked by a very tenuous web of public interest and information. The primary purpose of independent local broadcasting is not public information but the creation of a profit for its organisers and owners.

The other point made by Deputy Fitzpatrick that local newspapers should be given a say in the extension of local broadcasting on an independent basis is something which I would put a major question mark against. We have a great number of local newspapers in the country. There are local newspapers which play fairly by their communities and by all sections of opinion within them but there are others which do not. On several occasions, as a former journalist, I have had representations from people from my party in relatively small urban provincial communities which could prove to my local satisfaction that their local media were biased against them either from an editorial or a proprietorial point of view. They asked what could be done about it and the answer is nothing. Our press is free to be biased. I shudder at the possibility that an extension of so-called independent local broadcasting would, instead of adding to the variety of the sources of information, simply create another source of information under the same effectively monopolistic control.

The other implication of what Deputy Fitzpatrick said was that public service broadcasting is falling down on the job, that it is not unbiased, that it does not fully and fairly reflect the needs of the community. I would like to ask him how he can even think that a broadcasting service, founded and run on the principle of profit alone, will ever give to minority groups in our society, to public issues which are not related to generating large profits, to the arts and to associated enterprises and areas of activity, anything like the coverage air time and air space they deserve. Not only do I not see anything sinister in this aspect of the Bill, I see it as entirely praiseworthy and as something which should probably have been done a long time ago.

The third aspect of the Bill, which in a sense is a tidying up provision, is in relation to members of the staff of the authority. Section 4 provides that where a person who is an officer or servant of the authority is nominated a member of Seanad Eireann or for election to either House of the Oireachtas he shall stand seconded from employment by the authority and shall not be paid by the authority for the period of nomination for membership of either House and that a person may not become an officer or servant of the authority while he is entitled to sit in either House. I share a constituency with a Deputy who will be covered by this aspect of the Bill. I would hate to think that his election to this House would in any way jeopardise his right to remain in employment or to return to employment with the authority should the electorate in their wisdom at the next general election decide to dispense with his services.

Two points of detail arise here. The first one is the meaning of the word "secondment" As I understand it this implies that a person who is employed by the RTE Authority and is elected to this House or fulfils one of the other things referred to in the Bill, is entitled at the end of his services in the House, whether voluntarily or involuntarily terminated, to return to exactly the same position he held prior to becoming a Member of this House or the other House. Does this not unduly restrict the kind of flexibility that organisations need? My fellow Deputy from the Fianna Fáil Party in the South Dublin constituency may be here for four years, ten years or 40 years. It is surely absurd to suggest that at the end of 10 years or 20 years he should go back into RTE at exactly the same job he was doing at the time he left. Other things may have happened in the meantime. Another person may have been employed to do the same work. He is surely entitled to the same kind of position, the same kind of level, the same kind of responsibility, certainly no worse than that, he had when he left. Is he, at the same time, entitled to the identical job specification? That would be putting unnecessarily fine print on it. The general entitlement to a similar kind of job, similar kind of entitlement, level of financial remuneration and responsibility would be adequate to meet the situation.

I use this occasion to appeal to the Minister, even at this stage, to give us any reason why he has not, within the compass of this Bill, done anything about the political rights of large numbers of other employees of his Department. One of these employees was a candidate for the Labour Party in the recent by-election in Cork city and actually had to leave his job in order to fight that by-election without any guarantee that he would get it back. Why should one category of people under the Minister's jurisdiction be treated more favourably than another in this regard? The Government have promised a review of the situation, but this promise has not been lived up to so far. I appeal to the Minister to do something about this at the earliest possible opportunity so that people's political rights, apart from their basic civil rights, are fully recognised.

I would like to pay tribute to RTE for what they have been doing with very limited resources. It is a step in the right direction if providing extra money for them will improve their performance in any way. Since the beginning RTE made a brave effort to include a number of home produced programmes in their schedule. Those programmes in the beginning were a bit amateurish. The Riordans programme, for example, improved with time. We need to have more of this type of programme especially for politicians and people who are working all week. On Sunday night RTE should give us some decent home produced shows instead of the antiquated type of American wild west programmes that have been dished out to us over the last few months.

Debate adjourned.