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——
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.