I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time". I have great pleasure in formally introducing this Bill to Members of this House. Its purpose is to provide a framework for the development of local and community radio services in this country. It is, I know, a long awaited Bill but I make no apology for this because it represents a major development in the evolution of broadcasting services in this country and it is esential that the correct decisions should be taken. For the first time we are establishing a statutory base for independent radio services — independent in that the public are being given an opportunity to organise themselves to provide the kind of services they see as best meeting the needs and wishes of their own areas and local communities.
The Bill is unique too, in that it is the first piece of legislation to which the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Legislation had an opportunity to make a contribution. This proved to be a most useful experience. The committee received some 60 submissions from groups or organisations and heard oral submissions from nine of these. The committee also put forward their views on how they saw local radio services being developed in this country.
There has indeed been extraordinary interest in this proposed legislation. I myself have also received many submissions from various groups and met many delegations who were anxious to make known their views on this subject. It will be obvious, therefore, that a considerable amount of thought and effort has had to go into the preparation of this Bill. We have endeavoured to capture the best of the many ideas that have been put forward to us. In legislation of this kind, where there can be so many genuinely held diverse views, it is clearly not possible to met everybody's point of view. But I hope that the proposals will be accepted generally as a sound framework within which local radio can develop to its full potential to the benefit of the community generally.
Before going on to deal with the principles and intentions behind the Bill think it would be useful to reflect briefly on the development of broadcasting services in this country. We will see that what is being proposed now is part of an evolutionary process, and one indeed which is by no means unique to this country, being mirrored in many other European countries.
Up to 1960 the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1926 provided the legislative basis for broadcasting services. That Act was extraordinary in its foresight and has a continuing major relevance to all facets of radio communications services today. I will have a greater opportunity to develop this point when I am dealing with the Broadcasting and Wireless Telegraphy Bill, 1985 shortly.
Part 11 of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1926 vested responsibility for the control and operation of broadcasting services in the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs and in the early days of broadcasting the national radio service was provided by a division of the former Department of Posts and Telegraphs. Over the years, however, it became clear that a Civil Service form of organisation with its inherent detailed controls and somewhat conservative approach was not the best form of organisation for a creative medium whose primary purpose was to inform, entertain and enlighten. A reorganisation of the service designed to correct that took place in 1953, when an advisory body — known as Comhairle Radio Éireann — were established to assist the Minister in running the broadcasting service. In practice the operation of the service was left very much to the Comhairle and Radio Éireann was, broadly speaking, free to manage their own affairs and, subject to general controls, to spend as they saw fit the moneys allocated for broadcasting services. This was the first step in the evolutionary process of moving the broadcasting services away from the direct apparatus of the State and giving them greater opportunity to realise their own potential and to become more responsive to the needs of the people.
The impetus for further change in the structure of Irish broadcasting came primarily from technological advancement which brought a new medium in its wake. By the 1950s television services had been established in most countries in Europe and those that did not have it were preparing to embark on the establishment of such a service. Even in Ireland about 40,000 homes were receiving British television signals at the time. At this time too, more thought was being given to the role of the broadcasting media in terms of their significance for and influence on character and attitude formation, culture and aspirations and to their role vis-à-vis political institutions. Were the broadcasting media to be for the people or to be perhaps an arm of the Government of the day? Could structures be created which would have sufficient independence to provide public service broadcasting — in the sense that one would have an organ of the State which would be able to respond to and cater for the needs and views of both majority and minority interests — or should the service be given into private ownership? These were the kind of issues which had to be addressed in the context of deciding how the new medium of television should be introduced just as they were in the 1920s when the introduction of sound broadcasting was being considered. The debate on this will be a never-ending one and that, in my view, is as it should be.
In the event, the decision in the 1960s was that the public service concept of broadcasting should be adhered to and the Government of the day decided that the two broadcasting services — sound and television — should be under the control of a single statutory authority. To translate that decision into legal reality the Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960, was enacted. This Act provided for the establishment of the RTE Authority and set out the functions and duties of the Authority in relation to broadcasting services. It still remains the main statutory basis for Irish broadcasting. It too was a milestone in the evolutionary development of Irish broadcasting institutions and services in that it formalised the separation of the service from the direct apparatus of State that had been evolving since 1953.
An important amendment to the 1960 Act was enacted by the Oireachtas in 1976. The Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1976, clarified and expanded the duties of the RTE Authority in fulfilling their task of providing a national broadcasting service in the light of developments, experience and new insights since the Authority were established. It also provided greater autonomy and freedom for the broadcasting services within clearly defined statutory restraints and obligations. The 1976 Act was also important in that it established an independent mechanism for dealing with complaints about the services through the establishment of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. The commission, as will be seen later, will have a role to play in relation to the new services to be established under this Bill.
We are, with this Bill, at a cross-roads in the development of broadcasting services in that for the first time effectively since the broadcasting services were established, provision is being made for national competition and choice of services for the listening public. It is right therefore that I should say a few words about RTE which has been the custodian of the national broadcasting monopoly over the years. There is no doubt that RTE has served this country well, and that it will continue to do so. We can all have our criticisms of the State broadcasting service from time to time but I, and I am sure all Members of this House, will readily acknowledge that RTE have over the years succeeded in providing from limited resources high quality sound and television broadcasting services well up to world standards. Proof of this is that it has been able to hold a high audience share in the face of competition from UK services which are available in many parts of this country and which are generally recognised as being among the best in the world. The fact that RTE have been able to do so with their much smaller resources, against such competition, is a pointer to the fact that they have nothing to fear from the local radio services which this legislation proposes to develop, or indeed in relation to the various other electronic media services — such as specialised cable TV services or international satellite broadcasting — which are only a short way downstream. It is, of course, the position that RTE have had to compete for some years on unequal terms with the many illegal radio stations that, regrettably, have continued to operate and I am sure that in some respects at least RTE will welcome genuine competition on more equal terms than they have had to face in recent years.
RTE's primary role in the future is I believe both clear and unambiguous. They will remain the country's national primary broadcasting service fulfilling its public service broadcasting role. To that extent RTE's main perspectives and those of the proposed new services will be essentially different.
I will return at a later stage to the issue of RTE's role in relation to the proposed new local radio services when we come to deal with the principles behind the sections of the Bill dealing with this question. For the present however, I wish to put on the record of the House my tribute to and appreciation of the services RTE have rendered to this country over the years and continue to render. Furthermore I wish to state that there is great credit due to the various RTE Authorities who have served down through the years, and to all those who have been involved in providing the services.
Returning to my theme of the evolutionary development of broadcasting structures and services, I believe that the next impetus for change finds its origins in what I might call the cultural revolution of the mid and late 1960s and early 1970s. This was an era of economic boom, of liberalising values and, for the younger generation of the time at least, a time to question if not reject "establishment" conventional wisdoms. In the broadcasting context one small but significant manifestation of this revolution was the off-shore pirate radio stations of which Radio Caroline was probably the most famous. There is no doubt that in many countries these stations shook the broadcasting establishment who had, undoubtedly, become somewhat cocooned and lethargic in their response to public needs.
For the younger generation of listeners at the time, the swashbuckling image of the pirate stations had an immediate attraction but the more significant and lasting effect they had was the awakening of the realisation that broadcasting services did not, after all, have to be provided by State organisations as had been almost universally the case in Europe. There was also the fact that these stations catered for a huge listening demand which evidently was not being catered for by the "establishment" broadcasting organisations at the time. What has emerged from this experience and all that has ensued since is a consciousness that broadcasting services do not have to be run by experts backed by large organisations and substantial resources and that the public have the potential to provide broadcasting services of an appropriate scale and nature to meet local needs. It is this consciousness, this demand, which is in some cases latent and in many others overt, that this Bill now seeks to address.
Before I go on to deal with how the Bill addresses these issues I think it is appropriate that I should explain why it is necessary to have legislation governing broadcast services at all — in other words, why not let everyone who wishes to set up radio broadcasting services do so? The reasons are fundamentally twofold although they are also inter-linked. The main constraint on a total liberalisation of the airwaves is a technical one. Broadcasting services operate on radio frequencies which are allocated from the radio frequency spectrum. The frequency spectrum is a finite natural resource which is utilised in all countries for a multitude of services — maritime, aeronautical, business, security and emergency services, telephone links, satellite communication to mention but a few, as well, of course, as broadcast services. Because of the demands for spectrum space and the fact that radio transmissions are no respecters of national boundaries, the use of the frequency spectrum has to be controlled and regulated internationally if radio interference is to be avoided and the spectrum is to be utilised and managed in an efficient manner.
The International Telecommunications Union in Geneva, which is a specialised agency of the United Nations and of which Ireland is a member, is the international regulatory body for the radio frequency spectrum. The allocation of radio frequencies for broadcasting and other purposes, as well as various other paramenters such as power limitations, etc., on the use of these, are decided at planning conferences held at various intervals, and Ireland along with all other member countries negotiates its quota of frequencies. There must, therefore, be national control over the use of the available frequencies if we are to meet our international obligations as well as a fair method of allocating those limited frequencies among the many services needing them, and this is one of the purposes of the legislation.
There are, of course, other reasons why some degree of control has to be exercised over broadcasting services. The State must protect its own authority and integrity by, for instance, preventing those who would seek to undermine that authority from being given control of or access to such services; it also has an obligation to provide protection in fundamental matters of moral taste and decency. For these and other reasons which we will come across as we go through the Bill a degree of regulation is needed, and this is achieved in the first instance through the legislative framework we establish.
The purpose of this Bill is to provide for the establishment of the Local Radio Commission — An Coimisiún um Raidió Aitiúil (CORA for short) — which will select and enter into contracts with interested parties for the provision of local and community sound broadcasting services and which will regulate those services in accordance with the provisions of the legislation and the terms of licences governing technical matters which will be issued by the Minister for Communications.
The main thrust of the legislation is to establish a two-tier structure of radio services comprising local and community services. The former I envisage as fully professionally run services operating on a sound commercial basis and serving relatively large catchment areas such as a major city, a county or groupings of counties. These stations will be required to meet a range of public service broadcasting requirements in their programming, that is, to offer a broad range of news, entertainment, information and education and to be responsive to the varied interests of the populations they serve.
I would doubt if there will be very many of these stations because this country simply does not have the population to support an extensive network of such stations. I am reluctant to make forecasts in this unknown area so far as this country is concerned, but if we refer to the experience in the UK the general rule of thumb there is that a local radio station requires a listenership population of close to half a million persons to be reasonably sure of viability. On this basis and allowing for differences in the way we are proposing to organise our local radio services I would be surprised if there will ever be more than a dozen or so local stations at most.
I must stress, however, that this is merely my own estimate and that I do not intend it to be taken as a guideline. It is the task of the commission to determine how many stations can be supported and I do not wish to circumscribe them in determining this. My concern at this point is essentially to give the House a flavour of how I think these services will develop, and the opinion I have given is purely for this purpose — and no other.
Because there will obviously be a limit to the number of local stations, the Bill proposes that the selection of broadcasting contractors for the franchises will be on a public tendering basis. As we will see when going through its provisions, the Bill sets down a range of basic criteria which the commission must have regard to in assessing tenders. It will, of course, be open to the commission to add to those criteria.
Each community radio service is intended to serve a very local identifiable community and the fundamental characteristic of these services is that they must be owned and controlled by representative community groups or persons. They will in general have a relatively small range of coverage dictated by the low power of their transmitters. Where there is a demand for such a service — and I would expect that demand would be manifested either through applications made to the commission or by initiatives taken by the commission themselves — the commission will be required to hold such consultations or public meeting as they consider necessary for the purpose of ascertaining the extent of the interest in the community in having such a service and of considering what proposals the community has for providing the services.
This element of the Bill has tremendous potential. What we wish to do is to ensure that local communities can themselves get involved in providing the kind of service best suited to their own needs. We are providing them with the opportunity to talk to and entertain each other and to air issues and concerns of interest to them and their community, thereby fostering a true identification with, and sense of, their community. This concept of local communities becoming involved in the provision of these services is a very real example of the educational potential — in its broadest sense — of the broadcasting media.
However, I should sound a note of caution here. I believe that the development of these services will be an evolutionary process — the number of communities who will be capable of organising a radio service may be limited at this time and there may well be disappointments and failures. We as legislators or as Government cannot create these services. Our role is to create the framework and environment in which the development of these services can take place. It is up to the public to take advantage of this framework, to get organised and to pool resources and expertise so as to get these services off the ground. Furthermore, I think communities wishing to become involved in these services should tailor their proposals to their own particular potential. It may be preferable, for instance, in some cases to set up stations which will provide only a few hours of quality or relevant programming a day rather than to go for something more ambitious and end up with totally bland and inconsequential programming.
I would like to go on now to deal in more detail with the various provisions in the Bill. The first 15 sections deal with bringing the legislation into force and with the establishment of the commission. The provisions are quite straightforward and are, essentially, common to most forms of State-sponsored bodies.
Section 1 contains interpretations which, I hope, are self-explanatory. Section 2 enables the Minister to appoint by order an establishment day for the purposes of the Act and it can be taken that I will make the necessary order as soon as the Bill is enacted.
Section 3 provides for the establishment of the Local Radio Commission and the most significant provision in this section is the power it gives to the Minister to designate where the headquarters of the commission will be. I have already announced that I propose to specify Cork as the place where the commission's headquarters will be located. My reason for doing so is that it has frequently been represented that our present broadcasting services are too Dublin oriented and I believe there is an undoubted element of truth in this. A decision to locate the commission in Cork is an important step in the establishment of the principle that local radio will not be dominated by a Dublin perspective; local radio services will look to Cork rather than Dublin for guidance and direction although I would expect, of course, that the commission will reflect all shades of opinion in the country.
Section 4 deals with the appointment and number of members of the commission and lays down certain criteria in relation to the type of person to be appointed. The provisions of this section are basically similar to those relating to the appointment of the RTE Authority under the Broadcasting Authority Acts, 1960 to 1979. They provide for the appointment by the Government of a minimum of nine and a maximum of 12 members. With any lesser number there could be problems in having a good balance of members while anything larger would, I think, tend to render the commission somewhat unwieldy. The maximum term of office will be five years although the section gives the Government the option of appointing members for shorter periods. It is appropriate also that it should be possible to re-appoint members after an initial term of office if only to ensure some continuity between commissions and this is provided for in section 3 (3). Subsection (5) lists the criteria which appointees should meet. I believe there is considerable merit in having persons appointed who have a proven track record in the realms of experience listed and in addition it is designed to ensure so far as possible that the scope for controversy in relation to who is appointed is reduced to a minimum.
In connection with this provision the House will be aware that I have already, with the approval of the Government, appointed an interim Local Radio Commission under the chairmanship of Dr. Colm Ó hEocha, President of Galway University, and lately the very distinguished chairman of the New Ireland Forum. I think the quality and calibre of the persons who have been appointed to the commission speak for themselves and from the contact I have had with them I believe they will bring an excellent blend of experience, common sense and insight to bear on the undoubtedly difficult task they have been given. The decision to appoint this interim commission in advance of the legislation was taken because it was recognised that there was much useful groundwork to be done if we are to get legal local and community radio services off the ground as speedily as possible. I have already told the members of the interim commission that it is my intention to invite them to accept appointment as members of the statutory commission once this Bill is, with the co-operation of this House, enacted and I will be proposing accordingly to the Government in due course.
I would at this point like to place formally on the record of the House on my own behalf and on behalf of the Government our sincere gratitude to the members of the interim commission for agreeing to give their services. There are many pressures and demands on the members of the interim commission in their main areas of occupation and the fact that they are prepared to make some of their valuable time available for the work of the commission is an excellent example of rendering a public service. Membership of bodies such as this is, generally, a thankless task and members do not always get the recognition they deserve from the community at large for the service they render.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Legislation expressed some views on the manner of the appointment of the commission including a suggestion that there should be a provision excluding any member of the RTE Authority or of RTE's staff from sitting on the commission so that the independence of the new commission from RTE would be made clear. I did not consider it necessary to make such a provision in the Bill although I accept the underlying reasons for the suggestion and it would not be my intention to appoint RTE Authority or RTE staff members to the new commission. However, I believe in a matter such as this, the legislation should not be unduly restrictive and that we should not limit future Governments' freedom of action unnecessarily.
Section 5 again is a standard provision dealing with the appointment and resignation of the chairman of the commission, while section 6 deals with the appointment of a deputy-chairman. This latter provision is in some respects an unusual but, by and large, desirable one. It arises primarily from my own experience as a Minister responsible for probably more State-sponsored bodies than any other Ministry. I have from time to time found that the ability of State-sponsored bodies to react quickly to some situations can be hampered because of the unavailability of the chairman. What we are doing here is endeavouring to minimise the possibility of these kinds of situations arising.
Section 7 provides for the removal of a member or members of the commission subject to resolutions accordingly being passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. This corresponds precisely with the situation which applies to the RTE Authority since the enactment of the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1976. The requirement that Oireachtas approval be obtained for the removal of members is a democratic safeguard against arbitrary dismissal which is particularly appropriate in the broadcasting area having regard to the circumstances in which the Government of the day might regard it as necessary to terminate a member's appointment.
Section 8 deals with the remuneration and terms of office of the members of the commission and is broadly similar to that contained in the Broadcasting Authority Act and in other Acts relating to State bodies. The Government will fix the remuneration and terms of office of the members while the commission will, subject to the approval of the Minister given with the consent of the Minister of the Public Service, fix the payments of members' expenses.
Section 9 is a standard clause in all similar legislation providing for disclosure by members of statutory bodies of any interest they might have in proposed contracts. Where a member discloses such an interest he is prohibited from taking part in deliberations or decisions relating to that contract.
Section 10 is again a standard clause providing for a seal for the commission which will have judicial recognition.
Section 11 deals with procedural matters relating to the commission's meetings and provides for such matters as the chairing of meetings, voting procedures and the size of the quorum needed.
Section 12 specifies that the commission may appoint a chief executive and staff, subject to approval by the Minister. I think an important point to be made here is that we do not want the commission to develop into a major bureaucracy and we expect, therefore, that they will have a relatively small staff. The commission's role, apart from the selection of broadcasting contractors, will be essentially an overseeing one and they will have no need of major structures or significant staff numbers to discharge their role. I do not wish to put a precise figure on the number of staff envisaged — this is something that will have to be worked out with the commission — but at this stage I see it as being a mere handful.
Section 13 is a standard provision for State-sponsored bodies and relates to the conditions of service and terms of remuneration etc. of the chief executive and servants of the commission. The position in relation to the chief executive is similar to that which applies to RTE's director general — his appointment and removal from office are matters for the commission subject to the approval of the Minister, while the terms and conditions of employment including the remuneration and allowances of the commission's staff is subject to the approval of the Minister given with the consent of the Minister for the Public Service. In addition, provision is made requiring the commission to comply with any directives issued by the Minister with the consent of the Minister for the Public Service in relation to the pay and allowances for staff on the same lines as in recent legislation relating to statutory bodies such as an Bord Gáis and Údarás na Gaeltachta.
Section 14 is also a standard provision providing that members of the commission shall cease to be members in the event of their being nominated for election or being elected to the Dáil, Seanad or European Parliament and likewise, members of the staff of the commission shall stand seconded from their positions in similar circumstances. This is a long-standing convention in relation to State boards and stems essentially from the possibilities of conflicts of interest that could be involved for persons who might be legislators as well as members or servants of the commission. Finally, section 15 provides that the commission shall establish a superannuation scheme for their whole time staff.
In sections 16 to 21 we reach the real heart and substance of this legislation in terms of what it is trying to achieve. These sections deal with the general powers and functions of the commission, including the two tier structure of services to be provided, their modus operandi for selecting programme contractors, the role of RTE and the general duty of the commission in relation to programming.
Subsection (1) of section 16 mandates the commission to arrange for the provision of local and community radio services as a public service of entertainment, information and education. This provision introduces the concept of the two-tier structure of radio services. I should, perhaps, for a moment here advert back to section 1 where we give definitions of local and community broadcasting services. This was in fact an extremely difficult area to deal with because while we were not anxious to make it as clear as possible in the legislation what precisely we mean by these two types of services, we found that in endeavouring to spell out more elaborate definitions there was a very real danger of creating an undue inflexibility and rigidity. One approach, for instance, might have been to define these services by reference to factors such as geographic or population limits or by transmitter powers. However, none of these approaches was satisfactory because different areas have different characteristics. For example, a community radio service in a built-up suburban area might only need a relatively small transmission distance and yet serve many thousands of listeners while a similar service in a rural area would need wider coverage in distance terms and still be serving only a fraction of the population compared to the suburban station. For these reasons the services are defined primarily by reference to the provisions in the Bill which govern them — provisions such as the methods of selection of contractors, the kind of service they are expected to provide and who may own and control them.
The public service broadcasting precepts which we specify in section 16 (1) — that is, that the stations should provide a service of entertainment, information and education — make it clear to the commission the kind of service we as legislators wish to encourage and promote. It is vital that we should not squander the opportunities presented by local and community radio — as could happen, for instance, if it was to provide only for "wall to wall" pop music which is so typical of many of the illegal stations currently in operation. In saying that I wish to emphasise that it is not my intention to adopt a patronising attitude either to contemporary music or the musical tastes of the young and, dare I say it, not so young listeners.
It is important that there should be an opportunity to cater for all tastes and ages within the radio framework proposed. I believe local and community radio will be a vital forum for the expression of the concerns and interests of the population it serves and is much too valuable a resource to be used solely to meet the demands of any one segment of the population. The commission will arrange for the provision of radio services by entering into contracts with persons who will be known as broadcasting contractors and who will actually provide the services.
A further significant provision in this section is that the broadcasting contractors will provide, operate and maintain their own transmitters but I would emphasise that they will do so in accordance with licences governing technical matters issued by the Minister to the commission, the benefits of which licence will be conveyed to the broadcasting contractors through their contracts. This provision requiring broadcasting contractors to provide their own transmitters represents a fundamental difference between the approach of this Government towards the provision of local radio services and that of the Opposition who had proposed that the authority, or the commission as they now are, should provide the transmitters.
This difference of approach is not based on philosophic considerations but on practical considerations. Indeed, as we will see later arising from a subsequent provision which will require the broadcasting contractors to hold their transmitters on trust for the commission, combined with the obligations which will be on contractors under the terms of the licences issued to them to operate such transmitters, the end result from the point of view of control over the use and disposal of the transmitters will not be significantly different from that envisaged by the Opposition.
The Government had several reasons for rejecting the concept of the commission being responsible for the provision of the transmitters. In the first instance there is the economic reason. Why should the State, particularly in current economic circumstances, when there are so many compelling demands on the Government for capital for a wide range of projects, take on a responsibility for providing the necessary resources — which could be as much as £4 million to £5 million — to provide transmitters when it is clear that the resources are available otherwise to provide these facilities?
Secondly it would change the nature of the commission — they would have to be a much larger organisation than we envisage with a substantial engineering resource capable of providing and maintaining the transmitter network. This would, in turn, affect the financial base of the commission and make it a much more expensive operation. Since the commission will be required to pay their own way through the contractual payments they will levy from contractors there would be a considerably greater diversion of resources from the contractors towards the commission. We also consider that if the commission were to be responsible for providing the transmitters, the development of local and community radio services would be much slower than we would wish. The financial and manpower limitations on the commission would inevitably be such that the provision of transmitters would only be undertaken on a phased basis over a number of years. Thus many areas, which themselves could probably provide their own transmitters, would have to wait until the commission got around to them.
Finally, as the experience of the IBA in the UK suggests, the tendency for the commission would be to provide transmitters of a perhaps unnecessarily high quality and, therefore, more costly than need be. The costs would have to be recovered through substantial rental payments to the commission which, in turn, would act as a disincentive to the development of the services. It was for all these reasons that the Government decided that the overall public interest lay in the broadcasting contractors providing and maintaining the transmitters, effectively in trust for the Local Radio Commission.
There were some conflicting views on this issue when it was considered by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Legislation. I think those who advocated the provision of the transmitters by the commission saw this as giving a greater degree of control to the commission over the operation of services. I find the argument that the commission would have greater control through ownership of the transmitters rather weak because for such control to be effective in practical terms would require a presence by the commission's staff at the transmitters. This would be totally impractical.
In any event, the commission's position in relation to the transmitters will essentially be the same under the trusteeship arrangement we propose in this Bill — and which I will deal with later — as it would be if they actually owned them and leased them out to broadcasting contractors. In fact, the main instrument of control over the stations rests in the contractual arrangement between the commission and the programme contractors and, as we will see later, in the rollover provision relating to the continuation of these contracts.
Section 16 also deals with the question of licences for transmitting apparatus under the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1926. The 1926 Act is the basic national instrument for the management of the radio frequency spectrum which is achieved through the licensing provisions of that Act — it provides that a person requires a licence from the Minister for Communications covering possession and use of all forms of wireless telegraphy apparatus. Thus, when the commission propose to enter into a contract with a broadcasting contractor for the provision of a radio service, the Minister for Communications will issue a licence to the commission prescribing such technical matters as the frequency and transmitter powers which may be used, thereby ensuring that these aspects conform to assignments which have been agreed internationally for this country. Subsection (4) of section 16 confers the benefits of this licence on the broadcasting contractor through his contract with the commission and provides also that his obligations under the Wireless Telegraphy Act are fulfilled.
There is just one other subsection of section 16 to which I wish to advert, that is, subsection (10). We will, of course, be dealing in greater detail with all the subsections on Committee Stage. Subsection (10) enables the commission to make such temporary arrangements as they see fit to ensure continuity of service in the event of a broadcasting contractor ceasing to provide service and where there is a prospect of another contractor taking over the service. These temporary arrangements could include the commission either directly or indirectly running the service. It needs to be emphasised however that the commission are not broadcasters and in so far as they might have to engage in such an arrangement as I have indicated, it would have to be for a very short period of time only.
Section 17 deals with the selection of broadcasting contractors for the local tier of service. As I mentioned already, because of the limited number of such stations likely to be viable, a public tendering process is being provided for, and the basic criteria which the commission should take into account in the selection of contractors are outlined. These criteria include such matters as the range and quality of programmes which the proposer is offering to provide, the extent to which programmes in the Irish language and relating to Irish culture are to be provided, the general expertise and resources available to the proposer, and the general economic or commercial viability of the proposals.
The commission would also look to see to what extent an applicant would be prepared to provide service in what might be looked upon as an unattractive as well as an attractive area from the purely commercial point of view. We also have an important provision here which in effect asks the commission to consider carefully in relation to any applicant whether, if granted the franchise, they might be giving that applicant undue or even monopoly control over the communications media in any area. We have in mind here the possible involvement of newspaper publishers, whether national or local, in broadcasting contracts. It is not our intention to rule out such interests from running local radio services.
Indeed, in many respects we would welcome their involvement, particularly in the case of local newspaper publishers because we recognise, in the first instance, that they already have an infrastructure and resource which could make a very real input to local radio in terms of their knowledge of a particular area and in terms of being able to articulate the views and concerns of a particular area. Also we recognise that local radio could result in some diversion of advertising revenue from newspapers and we are anxious not to undermine the viability of these newspapers which provide a most important service to the people whom they serve.
We are simply asking the commission to ask themselves the question when faced with an application or applications which includes some newspaper publishing involvement, either as a major or minor participant, whether the public interest is served in terms of the dissemination of news, information and opinion by accepting an applicant which includes a substantial element of newspaper publishing interests. It is, however, up to the commission to make their own balanced judgement on this issue in the light of the applications before them. This section also enables RTE in their own right or in conjunction with others to tender for any local radio franchise which the commission may offer. I will deal in greater detail with RTE's role when I come to section 19.
Section 18 deals with the community tier of services. Their fundamental characteristic is that they must be owned and controlled by groups or persons who are representative of the community concerned. Because of this feature it is considered that it is not necessary to have a public tendering process — any community will generally have only one station and those who run it must be able to demonstrate to the commission that they are representative of the community. Provision is made, therefore, that before deciding to give a franchise for a community service, the commission shall hold consultations or public meetings to ascertain the level of interest in the community in having a service, their proposals for the service and to see that those who will run it are representative of the community.
We want, too, to encourage the idea that communities would organise themselves into co-operative societies for the purpose of running these services as we think this form of organisation is particularly suited to the concept of community broadcasting. We also want the commission to take the initiative in encouraging these services and for this purpose we would see them providing a basic information and advisory service to communities as to how to go about organising community radio services.
Some communities or groups might wish to provide a limited community radio service in association with some particular event or festival — along the lines, for instance, of the kind of service which has been provided for some time by RTE's experimental mobile community radio service. For that kind of service the provisions of this section of the Bill would be quite unnecessary and this is allowed for in subsection (4) of section 18.
Sections 19 and 20 deal with the role of RTE in relation to local radio services. There has been quite an amount of discussion, and perhaps even controversy, about the precise role to be given to RTE in this area. As is to be expected, there are widely divergent views on the matter and this was reflected in the Oireachtas Joint Committee discussions on the proposals for the legislation. Those views range from giving RTE total responsibility for the development of local radio services to their total exclusion from involvement. The former I have to say was a minority view within the Oireachtas committee. Most members felt, and it is a view I strongly share, that the public want a choice of listening or, at least, to have the possibility of choice explored. They recognised too that there is a body of people here with the expertise, talent and resources to offer that alternative and that with technical developments, the resources needed now to operate local services are greatly reduced. On the other hand, the contribution which RTE have made to the country through their broadcasting services, plus the expertise, talent and resources they have must be given due recognition and we must arrange to allow these to be placed at the disposal of the people, where they represent the best prospect in any individual areas.
It has to be borne in mind too, that the new services will be dependent on advertising for their viability and that this could have some repercussions on RTE's advertising markets. I do not think that those repercussions will be significant because to a large extent I expect that local radio will spawn a new layer of essentially local type advertising which does not have a need for the national coverage available from RTE as well as taking up the advertising revenue of the pirate stations. We have, therefore, adopted a twofold approach to RTE's involvement in local radio. Firstly, we are putting RTE in precisely the same situation as anyone else who wishes to seek a local radio franchise, in other words they may tender like anyone else for any local radio franchise which the commission offer. At the same time, however, we want to ensure that there is no diversion of RTE's resources from their mainstream activities which are fundamentally the provision of our national broadcasting services. Furthermore, fundamental to our approach to local radio is that there are to be no State funds used for the provision of these services and we think it would be inappropriate that revenue paid to RTE in respect of licence fees for the national services should be used to fund, directly or indirectly, the establishment or operation of local radio services.
Section 19 therefore provides that where the commission decide to award RTE a franchise for a local radio service RTE will be required to set up a subsidiary company to provide the service and that subsidiary company may not be funded from revenues accruing or made available to RTE under the Broadcasting Authority Acts.
The second area of RTE involvement in local radio is provided for in section 20. This section relates to a situation in which the commission have decided not to offer a contract for a local radio service to RTE either because RTE did not tender, or because it felt that is would be preferable from the point of view of diversity, the service to be offered, the persons involved in tendering and the nature of the proposals generally, to offer the contract to another party. In this situation if the commission feel that there is a good case for involving RTE in such a broadcasting contract, whether already entered into or about to be entered into, they may invite RTE to participate in the contract and may enter into discussions with RTE about the nature, extent and terms of its possible participation, and if agreement is reached, RTE is given the power to accept the offer and participate in the contract.
Obviously, the commission in such circumstances will have to consult also with the existing or proposed broadcasting contractor to ensure that he would be happy about RTE participation. However, the critical element here is that it is the commission's judgment which determines whether RTE should be invited to participate. This is as it should be because it is the commission who are being charged with the responsibility of developing local radio services in this country and it must be in a position to have control of that development and who is involved in it. We had in fact considered making it mandatory on the commission to offer RTE a fixed level of participation in every local radio contract but such a concept created major difficulties in terms of practical workability of the Bill, in terms of seriously circumscribing the mandate of the commission and in terms of forcing applicants for franchises who might prefer to proceed independently, to go to bed unwillingly with RTE. We decided therefore that such an approach was untenable and opted instead for the much more sensible and practical provision now before you.
We are not providing for involvement by RTE in any community radio franchises which the commission offer. To do so would run counter to the principle that the community services must be owned and controlled by representative community groups. This does not preclude any groups involved in these services from making private arrangements with RTE for facilities, services or advice if both parties so wish. Furthermore, it does not prejudice in any way RTE's right to continue to offer and provide its existing mobile community radio service for special events and so on.
Section 21 deals with the general duties of the commission in relation to programme services provided by programme contractors and here again a distinction is drawn between what is expected from the local and community radio services respectively.
It will be the responsibility of the commission to ensure that local stations meet the fairly wide range of public service broadcasting precepts which are set out in this section of the Bill. On the other hand, the requirements laid down for the community stations are of a more limited nature, aimed essentially at ensuring that these stations are of very real relevance to the community. The objective is to give these stations as much flexibility as possible in accordance with the principle that each community can best identify and meet its own needs. In discharging its duties in this area the commission may require local stations to submit their programme schedules in advance to the commission as well as to keep recordings of its programmes. The community stations are however being exempted from these requirements because it was concluded that they would be unduly onerous on them. On the other hand, if experience indicates that the commission cannot adequately exercise their overseeing role in this area, then there is a provision enabling the Minister to make an order applying the requirements in question to the community stations.
Section 22 deals with requirements of impartiality and objectivity and associated matters which we are imposing on local and community stations. These requirements are broadly similar to those which apply to RTE. I think Deputies will agree that, given the likelihood that there will be only a very small number of stations in any area plus the very forceful influence that broadcasting services above all other forms of media can have, it is most important that these stations should be fully impartial and objective in their treatment of news and current affairs. We also have certain other safeguards in this section, such as the requirement that stations may not broadcast matter likely to promote or incite to crime, that the privacy of the individual is respected as well as arrangements for ensuring fairness in relation to party political broadcasts. An important provision here is that a person who controls or exercises editorial control over a newspaper may not have editorial control over the news or current affairs programming of a radio station. This provision is aimed at prohibiting monopoly control over the dissemination of news and information in any area. I think this is an entirely reasonable and modest provision which will ensure as far as possible a balance and diversity of perspectives on local current affairs without precluding the involvement of local newspaper interest in local radio.
Advertising will be the bread and butter of radio stations, particularly the local tier. Section 23 gives the commission certain basic controls over the advertising carried by radio stations, controls which are essentially similar to those vested in the Minister for Communications in relation to RTE such as the maximum amount of advertising that may be carried. It will be noted that we have a particular provision here enabling the commission to direct broadcasting contractors to carry a reasonable amount of local advertising. What we are endeavouring to do here is ensure on the one hand that these stations are not dominated by what might be termed national advertising and on the other that the stations are opened up to local advertisers for whom the national broadcasting services may not be suitable.
Section 24 is an enabling provision to allow the commission to exercise some control over programme prizes offered by radio services. It is aimed essentially at ensuring that companies and so on which give away prizes do not come to exercise an undue influence over broadcasting contractors and to ensure also that radio stations do not develop into a type of auction market for listeners by means of the prizes they may offer.
Section 25 enables the commission to appoint advisers — for example, to carry out special tasks or studies in relation to its functions — as well as advisory committees, including advisory committees representative of a community served by a broadcasting station. This latter was a suggestion made by the Oireachtas Joint Committee and we see it as being a way in which the commission could be assisted in ensuring that the radio service established in any area is providing a service of relevance and interest to that community. We do not however wish to force such committees on the commission. We are leaving it in the hands of the commission to decide in the light of experience whether such committees would be of real value to them in exercising their overseeing role.
Section 26 enables the Minister by statutory regulations to extend the ambit of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission to consider complaints relating to the services provided by local and community stations. This too was a suggestion put forward by the Oireachtas Joint Committee. It is not however a provision I intend to activate immediately. We must remember that it is the Local Radio Commission which has the primary obligation to oversee the operation of local and community radio services, including the programme content. It will therefore be the main forum of appeal and complaint about the programmes provided by these services. If in the light of experience this does not prove satisfactory then I will be disposed to exercise the power conveyed on me through this provision.
Sections 27 to 34 are broadly speaking provisions which are common to most State-sponsored bodies and they deal mainly with matters relating to the finances of the Local Radio Commission.
Section 27 sets out the commission's financial mandate which is that it should be self-sufficient. The main source of revenue for the commission will be the payments it receives from programme contractors for their franchises. Section 28 enables the Minister for Finance to make repayable advances to the commission up to a limit of £1 million for capital purposes. The commission is unlikely to be involved directly in capital works, and in any event, in view of the commission's requirement to be financially self-sufficient, such advances would be made only as a last resort.
Sections 29 and 30 enable the commission, with appropriate consents, to borrow moneys for temporary — that is essentially overdraft-purposes or for an approved programme of capital works. Since the commission is primarily a regulatory body we would not, as I said earlier, see it in general undertaking major capital works.
Section 31 is a rather complex but in fact standard provision enabling the Minister for Finance to guarantee borrowings by the commission up to a maximum limit at any one time of £5 million. Section 32 enables the commission to invest any of their funds while section 33 requires the commission to keep full and proper accounts of all their finances which will be subject to audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The audited accounts will be submitted to the Minister who will have them laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Likewise section 34 requires the commission to prepare and submit each year to the Minister a report on their activities in the preceding year and this report too will be put before both Houses of the Oireachtas.
Section 35 will, I daresay, prove to be a sensitive provision. It is similar to the section 31 provision in the Broadcasting Authority Acts under which, in this case, the Minister may issue a direction to the commission to ensure that a particular matter or matter of a particular class which would be likely to promote or incite to crime or would undermine the authority of the State shall not be broadcast from local or community radio services.
I appreciate that there are differing views about the need for or value of the so-called section 31 directives — it is something indeed about which I have some reservations myself although on balance I have to date felt it necessary to issue them. However, this is not the question at issue here; whatever views exist on either side of the House about these directives, I think there should be unanimity that we must at least include this enabling provision in the Bill so that the Government are in a position to safeguard the authority and integrity of the State where they consider it to be threatened.
Sections 36 and 37 deal with the form of contract which the commission may enter into with broadcasting contractors including the duration of and review procedure for contracts, as well as certain provisions which should be included in contracts. A rolling form of contract is provided for — that is a contract may not exceed a period of four years — but the contractor's performance will be reviewed regularly and if all is satisfactory the contract may be rolled over up to a maximum of seven years. After that the franchise must be thrown open again. This section also precludes the commission from entering into contracts with political groups and also provides that the shareholding in any contract or the articles of association of a broadcasting company may not be altered without the commission's consent. These are I think reasonable safeguards.
With regard to the provisions in section 37 which are to be included in contracts I think that most of them are fairly selfevident. For example, contracts must contain undertakings by contractors in relation to the kind of service they are to provide, payments to be made to the commission in respect of contracts, information to be given by the contractor to the commission to enable them to carry out their functions, and provision for the secondment of staff or resignation of directors of a broadcasting contractor in the event of their being nominated or elected to the Seanad, Dáil or European Assembly.
There are, however, two unique provisions here which I wish to explain. The first of these is in subsection (2) of section 37 under which the broadcasting contractor is required to make a declaration that he holds his radio transmitter on trust for the commission for the period commencing on the date of his contract and ending either on completion of his contract or, should he cease providing service before his contract expires, for a period of six months thereafter. This provision has two benefits. In the first instance it confers the equitable or beneficial ownership — in effect the legal ownership — of the transmitter on the commission for the period in question. This to all intents and purposes puts the commission in the same situation for the periods in question as if it had actually provided the transmitters and leased them to contractors.
The provision dealing with the continuance of that trusteeship arrangement for a period of six months where a contractor ceases to broadcast before the expiry of his contract has to be read in conjunction with the next section — section 38. This latter section excludes the transmitter from the provisions of bankruptcy and insolvency law thereby ensuring that for a period of six months after a broadcaster ceases broadcasting as a consequence of financial problems or bankruptcy, the transmitter cannot be seized or disposed of. In that regard, my aim is to ensure as far as possible that there will be continuity of service in that unfortunate eventuality; in other words, the commission will be able to make alternative temporary arrangements to continue service using the transmitter of the bankrupt or insolvent contractor pending a more permanent arrangement.
Another important provision here is that when a broadcasting contractor has his or her contract terminated or fails to have the contract renewed he or she will be required to dispose of the broadcasting equipment to such persons as the commission may nominate — which in normal course will probably be the new contractor if the latter wants it — on such terms as may be agreed or settled by arbitration.
Section 39 is an enabling provision whereby if it appears that broadcasting contractors are making unduly high profits it will be possible for the Minister to issue a direction requiring contractors, through the commission, to make special payments to the Exchequer. The mechanism proposed is that the direction will issue to the commission for payment of the specified sums and the commission in turn will levy the payments from the broadcasting contractors.
I am satisfied that the principle implied in this provision is wholly justified. The position is that broadcasting contractors will be in a privileged position in that they are being given access to a scarce national resource — the frequency spectrum — which belongs to the people as a whole. It is only right that if large profits were to accrue in any individual case the nation as a whole should benefit through these special levies. It is important to stress that this is an enabling provision only and there are no grounds for believing that these stations will prove a bonanza for the broadcasting contractors or State revenues. I personally do not subscribe to the view that local radio is a licence to print money, particularly where it is based on public service broadcasting principles. Indeed experience in the United Kingdom would suggest that apart from the stations in the major centres of population and in the middle range — and the biggest stations here would not match those —the others are just about surviving. I would be surprised if the experience here were greatly different.
Section 40 of the Bill conveys certain important powers on the commission to enable them to facilitate the establishment and continuation of broadcasting services. Although in general the commission are mandated not to allow any person or consortium to have control over an undue number of radio services, they may in certain circumstances allow the same contractor to operate different services. This might arise, for instance, where a broadcasting contractor, in addition to being given a franchise for a densely populated area, might also undertake to provide service in a more sparsely populated area. Likewise, where a broadcasting contractor ceases to provide service a neighbouring contractor may be permitted to take over and run the service until a new contractor is found, thereby ensuring continuity of service.
Provision is also included to enable the sharing of facilities or programmes between contractors. Finally, the commission are enabled to make grants to broadcasting contractors for specified purposes. The presumption here of course is that the commission would only make such grants available after they had fully met their own financial obligations.
Section 41 is in some respects a corollary to section 35 under which the Minister can issue directions to the commission relating to the broadcasting of a particular matter or matter of a particular class. The commission, in turn in section 41, are given power to issue directions about broadcast matter to broadcasting contractors. This power is of a general nature, that is, it is not solely confined to issuing directions on matters relating to incitement to crime or the subversion of the authority of the State but can include directions relating to any broadcast matter to ensure compliance by contractors with the provisions of the Act.
Section 42 imposes an obligation on broadcasting contractors to ensure that any broadcasting installations under their control are fully secure and not open to improper use. I do not need to stress the undesirable consequences that could follow from ready unauthorised access to broadcasting facilities. Section 43 is an amendment to the definition of the word "broadcast" in the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1926, while sections 44 and 45 are standard provisions relating to expenses incurred by the Minister in relation to the administration of the Act and the Short Title respectively.
Those then are the provisions of the Bill I am putting before this House for its consideration and deliberation. I believe they constitute a realistic and practicable framework for the establishment and operation of new broadcasting structures in this country. I do not, however, claim to have a monopoly on wisdom because, despite all the thought that has gone into the Bill, I am quite sure there is room for further improvements and ideas. It is in this sense that I am bringing the Bill before the House — to stimulate further informed debate on the issues involved and to hear ideas.
I always make the point when I bring proposed legislation before this House that I am quite open to further changes in that legislation and that applies in this instance if it is going to enhance the prospects of getting legal local radio services off the ground in a practical and realistic manner. Influencing and improving the provisions of draft legislation is after all the real function of this House and of the Seanad and of the various stages in the legislative process.
It is not therefore my intention, or the intention of the Government, to bulldoze this legislation through the House before the recess, despite the external pressures that are on us to restore order to the airwaves, because we recognise, as did our friends in The Irish Times— if that is a fair description — in their leader last Saturday, that there are issues of major public importance relating to communications media generally and their future raised in this Bill.
My approach to this legislation has not been hidebound by ideological or political considerations. I am simply concerned to provide a practical and workable framework within which new broadcasting services will flourish and prosper in a manner that will best serve the public interest and demand, and under which the maximum social value will be derived. It is my earnest hope that Deputies' deliberations on this Bill will be guided by the same motivations. If they are, they will find me ready and willing to accommodate changes which will meet their wishes and opinions. In putting forward their views, I would urge them, with respect, to think through their practical consequences for those who will have to, or would wish to, work within the legislative framework they propose.
It is important that legislation of this nature should be flexible and that the Local Radio Commission, in particular, should be allowed a reasonable degree of discretion in the formulation of their broadcasting policy for the services we have in mind. We must, in other words, avoid the temptation to legislate for every conceivable aspect of the services. Our task is to set down the broad parameters within which we, as the public's representatives, wish CORA to work, to give them guidelines as to the flavour and thrust of the services we want to see them provide.
I look forward, therefore, to a fruitful and stimulating debate on the Bill. I emphasise again that I am not dogmatic in my approach to it and that I am open to new ideas and improvements.
Let me say before I conclude that in all the preparations for this Bill I have had to resist the most enormous pressures to impose particular tastes or formulations on the listening audience. I believe that the success of local radio depends largely on what the listeners want. We should resist the temptation to impose a middle class, middle brow, middle aged local radio service on the listening audience. Many of our listeners are young people. There are different categories of listeners. Therefore, we ought to have a flexible approach to providing this radio service. In the end, it is not the House but the listeners who will decide the success of local radio. I commend this Bill to the House.