It is important to make the point that we are dealing here with two Bills — the Broadcasting and Wireless Telegraphy Bill and the Sound Broadcasting Bill. It is significant that very little attention has been paid to the Broadcasting and Wireless Telegraphy Bill, the aim of which is to control the unlicensed use of the airwaves. It is also significant that it has not been put into law yet, despite the fact that it was brought before the House on 8 December last and there was an impassioned plea from the spokesman of the Labour Party. He said, and I would have supported him, that the Bill could have been made law that day if there was the will in the House to do so. But the will was not there on the part of the conservative parties in this House because it would have meant the pirate stations would immediately have been illegal. There would have been massive fines imposed on those who continued to operate those stations, on those who continued to provide facilities for them and on those who continued to advertise on those stations. As I said, it is significant that despite the fact that we are discussing two Bills, that Bill has hardly been mentioned in this debate. The fact is those pirate stations, which were flouting the law — the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1926 — are operating in defiance of that law. Yet nothing is being done to ensure that the law is kept.
When you consider the kind of laws which are very rigorously imposed on ordinary people, particularly in relation to road traffic offences, it leads one to think that if you have money and influence the law has no bearing on you.
I do not know how long this debate will be but I urge that the Broadcasting and Wireless Telegraphy Bill be passed through this House quickly and put into effect. Indeed, if those who continue to operate after the Bill comes into effect apply for licences they should be ruled out on the basis that they have been in breach of the law. It is significant that in the two Bills there is no indication of what attitude will be taken to those who have flouted the law over the last ten years. Various excuses have been made by spokespersons of the conservative parties for those who have flouted the law; they said they had been forced into it. I do not know of any person coming before our courts who has managed to successfully plead that they were forced to break the law and, as a result, were not penalised by a judge or jury. It may have mitigated their sentence but they were convicted because the law is the law. An important amendment to the Bill would be one which ensured that those who have been in breach of the law over the last ten years would have to make a very strong case for licences to be given to them if they applied for them.
To some extent I would soften my position in relation to a number of community broadcasting pirates. They are still in breach of the law and, in many cases, have commercial interests involved with them but in at least one instance of which I am aware, the income they derived was ploughed back into the service and no particular individual benefited financially. However, they are pirates in breach of the law and it is a mockery for this House to make excuses for them. We argue about a host of things in this House from week to week and we cannot advocate respect for the law if those with money and an eye to making a quick buck can simply ignore it.
The Sound Broadcasting Bill is aimed at controlling the allocation of licences for the use of the airwaves. I have heard it argued by spokesmen for the conservative parties in the House that there is no need for an Authority to monitor and control standards in relation to the stations which will be set up under this Bill. Deputy Roche and Deputy Gay Mitchell said that there is no need for an Authority because the print media do not have an Authority monitoring standards and activities. Of course, the print media do not need a licence to operate; anyone with the resources can print a newspaper or magazine, get advertising and hope to sell it. Those Deputies cannot argue on the one hand that the issuing of licences must be controlled on the basis that it is needed — the reasons for licensing have not been clearly expressed so far — and at the same time argue that there is no need for an Authority to maintain and monitor standards because the print media do not have such a procedure. However, I argue that there is a need for licensing and for an Authority in relation to the print media as well. It is not new for people to call for a press council, there is ample evidence of the need for such a body in the State.
I do not propose to go into specific examples but I am sure very few Deputies in this House could not come up with at least one example of the way the media abuse their position. There are libel laws and if a person feels sufficiently aggrieved — and if they have the financial resources — they can go to law, hoping to get compensation. In the interests of the common man or woman, there is a need for a press or media council which would cover the print and the electronic media to ensure that certain standards are met. It is important because there has been a growth in the tabloid press in Ireland of late. It reached a certain pitch in the UK and, while we all have our ideas of good and bad taste, no one could seriously say that the tabloid press in the UK is in good taste. There are worrying signs that that kind of development will emerge to a greater extent in the Dublin area and perhaps in other parts of the country. Unless there is an Authority in relation to the commercial stations proposed in the Bill, we will have the same kind of low standards in that area.
Deputy Roche used a phrase that stuck in my mind, that the Sound Broadcasting Bill provided a free medium of the people, by the people, for the people. It is a very old expression, I think an American President said it first. If the Bill was proposing what Deputy Roche claims for it, I would have no problem in relation to it. However, it does not propose a free medium of the people, by the people, for the people. It proposes a licensing procedure whereby those who have the financial resources to establish radio stations, to win advertising, etc. can provide a station over which there will be no control on standards and over which there will be very little control in relation to what it produces and puts out on the air. If what Deputy Roche claimed were true, very few people in the House would have any problem with it. However, the reality, unfortunately, is different.
There have also been a number of references in the course of the relatively short debate so far to ideology and dismissive comments in relation to it by a number of Deputies from the conservative parties. It is fashionable to dismiss ideology but it strikes me that the people who make these references to ideology are ignorant, deliberately trying to deny the fact that ideology exists or misunderstand what ideology means. Quite simply, ideology means a framework within which a person or a group of persons see the world, read the world, understand the world or which gives some meaning to their lives. There is no doubt whatsoever that Deputy Jim Mitchell, Deputy Roche and others who referred to ideology here in a dismissive way have an ideology. It would be virtually impossible for them as politicians to exist without an ideology, without a framework within which they make their decisions and decide on what is right and what is wrong, as they see it. Of course, it is always fairly easy to dismiss other ideologies when you are working from within the dominant conservative ideologies of the parties of this House and indeed of Irish society. It is quite easy to dismiss other ideologies as nonsense and to deny the fact that ideology exists at all. Their view is that what they believe in is simply commonsense.
There is a clear ideological split in this House. It is a fairly uneven one because we have the Fianna Fáil Party, the Fine Gael Party and the Progressive Democrats who, by and large, believe in a particular ideology, the ideology of free enterprise, of individualism, of rolling back the State, of a whole range of things. This is a very clearly understood ideology in the political area at least. Then, there are those on the Left who believe in a different framework, who see the world in a different light, who see the world in terms of the collective responsibility of individuals for each other, the collective responsibility of society for those who are weakest and those who cannot make it in the fight of the fittest which we have under capitalism. It is a fairly clear division. The reason I am referring to it is because that understanding comes across very clearly in the Bill on broadcasting. I think Deputy Michael D. Higgins referred to the idea of deregulation, of not having constraints of any kind on commercial activity, in this case in relation to the airwaves and broadcasting. That derives from the ideology of the conservative parties and likewise the attitude of both the Labour Party and The Workers' Party to this Bill relates to the way we see society and to what broadcasting ought to be about in society.
What I am talking about is probably under scored by the level of debate which has taken place in relation to this Bill. There has been virtually no reference at all to broadcasting as such. There has been a lot of talk about licensing, whether there should be two or three licences in the Dublin area or whether there should be more than one county licence in any particular county and whether they will survive because there is a certain limited amount of advertising available to support them. During my time in this House there has been no debate or at least very little debate either here or outside on the subject of broadcasting. There has been no thorough investigation of broadcasting within the State.
We have had a development of broadcasting under Radio Éireann — as it was known some years ago — since 1926 up to the present day. We have gone from a period where radio was a novelty to a point now where we have radio and television and indeed satellite pictures being beamed around the world. We even have the latest technology where fibre optic cables are being stretched across the Irish Channel and indeed across the Atlantic. Because of this development satellites, in a few years' time, will be rendered obsolete.
There has been no examination as to what effect that kind of development will have on Irish broadcasting or on what broadcasting should be about. What is it in the first place? What is it for and how should it be controlled in a democratic society? How should it be used to further the goals of social and cultural life and how should it be used to further the goals of political life in the broadest sense?
In the Dáil where we are supposed to be entrusted by society with the task of moving people along to common goals, to employment, to job creation, to peace, to justice, to a better life and so on, there has been no debate on how broadcasting can be used to assist us in reaching those goals. Broadcasting, I would argue, is nothing more nor less than the people talking to each other, arguing with each other, getting involved in public argument rather than talking in the old style of argument in the pub or outside the church on a Sunday Morning or wherever, a style which to a large extent has been replaced by the debate that should be taking place on radio and television.
The task of this House should be to see how the airwaves can be used to assist that kind of discussion and that kind of debate among Irish people primarily so that we can talk about our common life and our common ambitions. It is sad to say, but it is a fact, that the major conservative politicians and political parties in this House have again and again decided to ignore that central question of what broadcasting is and have concentrated instead on trying to ensure that the airways are doled out in some way for commercial exploitation so that whatever market is out there for advertising can be exploited by those who have the capacity or the resources to set up stations.
What is needed and which should have preceded this Bill but which at the very least should be done in tandem with the Bill — I am talking specifically about the Sound Broadcasting Bill rather than the Broadcasting and Wireless Telegraphy Bill — is a commission on broadcasting with specific terms of reference which would put broadcasting policy, issues of culture and public policy at the head of their list and questions of cables, frequencies and licences at the bottom of their list. It would be a commission on communications on which nobody would sit who did not have a distinguished track record on communications or on cultural work, for example, poets, artists, broadcasters, teachers, novelists, sculptors and men and women widely acknowledged to be public servants of proven merit in the field of cultural administration. Their brief would be to decide public policy on broadcasting. We do not have any such policy. We have only a series of irrelevant reports describing how RTE do things and, indeed, how RTE ought to do things. We need a report on the principles by which RTE and the kind of commercial stations which are being proposed in this Bill would operate, and how they might do things and by what ends and by what legal cultural and political means they would be regulated. In the absence of such principles to talk of independent radio is a nonsense and simply a cover up for doling out the airwaves to commercial free enterprise in the hope that someone along the way will come up with some little nuggets.
The unfortunate thing is that what is being proposed in this Bill — even though I disagree fundamentally with the approach being taken — in that most of the commercial stations, whether county stations, national stations or otherwise are likely to be wiped out by the kind of competition which the multinationals will be beaming in at us over the next few years by way of satellite, at present and certainly by way of the fibre optic cables which are the way of the future.
There is a lot more to be done than simply agreeing to the share out of the airwaves to the commercial interests. There is the task of defining what is the role of broadcasting in fostering Irish culture, of finding out what is contemporary Irish culture, of finding out how to reach our alienated youth in the urban wastelands where unemployment and crime conspire against them having any hope of a future of educating our people to the practice of pluralism, for instance, and of learning to live with other religious, cultural and political traditions. That is an obligation which is implied in relation to RTE but which is not implied under the Broadcasting Bill before us.
It should be the task of the community radio stations — which again are not in this Bill but for which the Minister told us in his Second Stage speech he would be open to receive applications for licences — the commercial radio stations as well as RTE to foster a pluralist and tolerant view of the very diverse historical traditions which exist not just in this State but on the island as a whole. Indeed, it is time that the existing Broadasting Acts were amended to stress what should be done as well as to stress what ought not be done. A director general of RTE in the sixties said that RTE was not neutral about racism. That is true and should always be true, but should RTE be neutral about sectarianism? There seems to be a view abroad that RTE should be neutral in relation to sectarianism and what is going on in Northern Ireland, that it is very necessary to present one or other view of those who are engaged in a sectarian war in the North and that in some way there should be a balanced view in relation to what is happening there. However, I would argue that they have no right to be neutral on those issues. Indeed, I would argue that any commercial or community radio stations which are set up under this Bill would have no right to be neutral on those issues.
Where is the injunction either in this Bill or in the existing Broadcasting Acts to foster anti-sectarian ideas? Where is the clause in either this Bill or in existing Acts which would ensure the kind of positive approach we need in order to develop a pluralist society and tolerance on this island? Why is it that those that make war on this island get far more attention on the airwaves than those who try to make peace? These principles and questions should matter more to this House than the giving of the airwaves over to commercial interests. That particular failing is the fatal flaw in relation to this Bill. It does not address itself to any of those questions but I hope, in the course of the Committee Stage, to attempt to address those flaws and failings.
Again, I must emphasise that I am referring to the Sound Broadcasting Bill and not to the Broadcasting and Wireless Telegraphy Bill, but it strikes me that the Bill would be entirely unnecessary if its only function was to provide for local radio. It has to be said that there has been no demand for the national radio station which has been proposed in this Bill. I am not aware of any group or company who have sought a commercial national radio station. Perhaps, the Minister would enlighten us as to why is it necessary in his view — we already have RTE 1 and RTE 2 — and to have a third national station? The point I am trying to make is that the demand has been for local radio and specifically for community radio. That would have been quite feesable and possible under the present Broadcasting Acts.
There is already adequate provision in law for local broadcasting to be initiated efficiently, quickly and to a high standard as RTE have already demonstrated. There is nothing to prevent the Minister from giving RTE the go-ahead to set up radio stations wherever he pleases. Indeed, it is now some years since RTE made proposals for Radio Dublin and were far advanced in setting up this station when it became plain that the Minister would not give them the go-ahead. It is also clear that Cork local radio, who have been building themselves a reputation down through the years, are being prevented by the Minister from extending their broadcasting hours so as to provide the kind of service which the people of Cork want and are entitled to have. The fact is that RTE are not allowed to broadcast on any wavelength except with the specific permission of the Minister and only within the hours allowed by him. It is clear that the Minister, together with the Ministers who came before him from a variety of parties, is far more concerned with making provision for the allocation of the airwaves to commercial interests than with the provision of a diverse public service broadcasting network.
Over the years RTE have done a very good job in the area of broadcasting, especially in radio. They have shown that there is a good natural audience for reasonably intelligent radio programmes and that there is a demand for something other than a diet of pop and patter. The news at 1.30 pulls in over one million listeners every day and the "Gay Byrne Show" which is largely a speech programme concerned with a vast range of personal, social and consumer issues, brings in an extraordinary 600,000 listeners every day. Perhaps, at some stage in this debate there may be a reference as to whether radio should editorialise. If we take the "Gay Byrne Show" we find a considerable amount of editorialising by the front man of that programme. I have no objection to that because there is the opportunity to respond where one feels they should respond.
It is too simplistic to argue that there should be no editorialising when because of the particular way in which programmes are structured or presented there is an inherent editorial line involved. It would be far better if we acknowledged that there is almost without exception an editorial line in all programmes, be they entertainment programmes, or current affairs, or news programmes.