Accepted. The Minister has managed in a haphazard manner to unify the Opposition both inside and outside this House on his ill conceived and ill thought out proposals on broadcasting. As I said at the time, and as is indicated on the Order Paper by another party, I believe the Minister has little option at this stage but to do the honourable thing and resign from his portfolio. At the outset, I call on him to do so. I do not make that call lightly. I have always been treated with dignity and indeed courtesy by this Minister and I know that he is an extremely hardworking and diligent man. But everyone in this House knows, I think, that the Minister for Justice and Communications has carried out his master's bidding once too often with the publication of this Bill.
On the day that this Coalition Government was put together, I indicated in the course of my contribution in this House that I wished the Government well and I even tried to identify some of the tasks facing them. At that time I said:
Over the next months and years, two main questions will preoccupy the political system of our country. At least, these two questions ought to be among the principal issues that we face and deal with. It may well be that these issues will be ignored, and that they will be settled by default. It may well be that the politicians we have elected to Government will simply turn a blind eye to them, and allow them to be decided by faceless, anonymous people. If that were to happen, the result would be disastrous, as it has been disastrous in other countries where these issues have arisen.
The questions I posed at that time were as follows:
First, how are the fruits of economic growth to be distributed? And second, who is going to wield the power and influence of ownership in Ireland in the future? These are huge and difficult questions. They may not seem at first glance to be the most obvious ones that arise on a day like this. But if recent political experience has shown us anything, it has shown us that issues like these must be put to the centre of the political stage.
Too much of our recent experience has been tied up with defending people against the callous and unthinking consequences of an ill-considered approach to policy. Too much of our recent experience has been tied up with unscrambling the consequences of secret deals and political cronyism. We cannot, as a community, allow the style and substance of this kind of Government to continue.
Subsequent to that, including my contribution to the budget debate, I instanced some of the evidence that was available to suggest, unfortunately, that the style and substance of a Government committed to political cronyism was alive and well, despite what might be regarded by some as the better influences of the Progressive Democrats, when they choose to appear.
I referred, for instance, to the Fahey and Foxe deals — which were prominant at that time — and to the widespread unease which exists about the possibility of corruption in our planning process, and to the privatisation by stealth that has been a feature of the Government's approach. Many Deputies, too, will be aware of my repeated efforts to secure a debate in this House on the wide ranging implications for our political system of the Gallagher merchant banking scandal — and they will be aware of the stone wall of silence with which those requests have always been met by the Taoiseach. Nowhere, unfortunately, is the smell of political cronyism and jobbery more rank than in the handling of the Communications portfolio. As I said yesterday, in three short years this portfolio has been dragged from the Department of Energy to the Department of Industry and Commerce and now to the Department of Justice. In that time, we have had a part-time Minister for Energy, which was one of the reasons it has taken so long for the Radiological Protection Bill to be published, and one of the reasons that the Minister habitually forgot to raise the Sellafield issue with his British counterparts. We had a part-time Minister for Industry and Commerce while industrial policy was in a shambles, and we have had a part-time Minister for Justice while overcrowding and ill health in our prisons has led to an explosive and dangerous situation.
However, we have never had less than a full-time Minister for Communications, who has seen it as a job from the day he was appointed to that portfolio to engage in a war of confrontation with the national broadcasting company. It has been one of the unstated and secret items on the Fianna Fáil agenda — even though, as the previous speaker said, the Minister in a very ill-considered remark on the night of the election of the Fianna Fáil Government made his views on RTE very well known in the RTE studio — for the past three years that RTE was to be destroyed and curbed. The present Minister for Communications was hand picked for that job. At the same time, he was given instructions that commercial radio and television was to be got up and running as soon as possible, and no obstacle was to be placed in the way of their being as lucrative as they could possibly be.
The way in which he went about those twin tasks makes an interesting recitation. In the case of radio he saw it as his first task to assign licences, originally with the help of a spurious advisory board. When that did not wash with the Dáil, and bearing in mind the then minority position of the Government, the Minister backed down, and agreed to the appointment of an "independent" radio and television commission. The day that commission was appointed, we pointed out the fairly obvious fact that with the exception of the chairman, it was loaded to the gills with prominent Fianna Fáil activists. That did not deter the Minister who insisted stoutly that it would be both independent and authoritative in the carrying out of its duties.
Other people had other ideas. For instance, three months before a single licence was issued,The Cork Examiner quoted one Mr. Oliver Barry as announcing that Frank Sinatra was coming to Dublin, and that the Frank Sinatra concert would be used as the launching pad for Mr. Barry's new national radio station. Mr. Barry at least was not at all surprised when several months later the “independent” Radio and Televison Commission announced that the national franchise was to go to Mr. Barry's consortium, Century Radio, even though, alas, the management skills employed by Century proved inadequate to the task of getting Mr. Sinatra and the station on air at the same time.
On 20 November 1987, this Minister, who was then in charge of Energy and Communications, was moving the Second Stage of the Sound Broadcasting Bill in this House. In the course of his speech, he said:
In the current economic climate, where the Government finds itself having to make major savings in the provision of services which have a higher priority than broadcasting, and where it is finding it necessary to abolish or rationalise various State agencies, it would be unacceptable to provide public moneys to finance a new broadcasting regulatory authority.
Later in the same speech, the Minister added:
The Government also questioned whether radio services actually need the degree of regulation which would warrant the creation of a new State structure, given the trend internationally towards less or lighter regulation in the broadcasting sector. We decided on the minimalist approach. The new services to a large extent will be self-regulatory. Their sole source of income will be from advertising, which will only be available if they have a substantial audience.
Fighting words on that occasion, but unfortunately the winds did not last long in those sails.
The Minister has just told us in the House today that there will be no increase in the licence fees, but I wonder if we will be back in two years' time saying that on this day, the Minister said there would be no increases in licence fees but the inevitable has happened.
In 1987, this Minister believed in a noninterventionist approach where commercial radio was concerned, at least on the surface. The reason is simple. The Minister's friends were at that time advising him that all he had to do was to give the green light for commercial radio, create the right sort of commercial climate in the community at large, and it would become a licence to print money with, no doubt, great spin-off benefits for everyone involved.
The reality has turned out to be rather different. It would appear that the Minister's friends were much better at advising him about politics than they were at running a radio station. Century Radio was started with highly professional and committed staff who were prepared to work long hours to make a success of their station. The news service provided by Century Radio, in particular, quickly gathered a reputation as being highly professional. I know for example, that their main news bulletin in the middle of the day was listened to avidly by the RTE newsroom. It probably is not possible to pay a higher compliment to the professionalism of Century staff than that.
But from the very beginning, the station was under capitalised and badly marketed by its proprietors. The station got off to a bad start as a result of the row involving its transmission facilities, and the management appeared unable to determine what audience they should be aiming for. It was a station without any particular role or niche in the marketplace.
And so, inevitably, the Minister's friends had to go back to him and tell him that they were unable to make a go of the station. He was probably very surprised — after all, he had already intervened with RTE to force RTE to charge a lower than economic fee for transmission facilities, and had generally kept the RTE Authority very busy responding to his instructions and demands. For example, he had refused to allow RTE Local Radio in Cork to broadcast around the clock, and had insisted that the station sell a substantial proportion of its shares in Cablelink, thereby affecting RTE's cash flow and potential surplus for years into the future. But whatever else may be said about this Minister, it has to be said that he is loyal to his friends. He immediately set about putting together the package which he unveiled last week. It did not appear to matter to him or to the Taoiseach that that package flew in the face of both logic and fairness. The bottom line for this Minister and for this Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat Government is that their friends must be looked after.
The details of the package have already been widely discussed. They boil down to two elements. The first element of the package was to take a share of the money which every licence payer contributes to public service broadcasting and to put it into the back pockets of a small number of private investors. No matter what way you examine that element of the proposal, no other outcome is possible — if private investors do not have to spend money on meeting the public service obligations they freely entered into, that means more money for them. There are no strings attached to that money. They have to provide no additional service in return for their share of the licence fee, nor have they to give up any element of the ownership and control of their stations. For these reasons, it cannot be seen as acceptable to transfer any element of the licence fee, no matter how small, to private individuals with no strings attached.
Lest there be any misunderstanding about this, let me say here that the Labour Party have never supported, and will never support, such a "free transfer". The transfer of the licence fee from a station owned by all the people of Ireland to stations owned by a small number of individuals, is tantamount to a Government subsidy for wealth. I am glad the Minister has been forced to drop that proposal, and only sorry he was unable to see for himself how unacceptable it was.
The second element of the package was effectively to close down what is currently the most successful radio station in the country in order to create a place in the market for the least successful. We are not told that that element of the package is unlikely to be proceeded with because of its manifest unpopularity. But what about the lack of basic common sense in the proposal? If this Government were bringing before this House a proposal to close down Aer Lingus in order to make room for a small private airline which had three good pilots and a Tiger Moth, they would be rightly judged as having lost their grip on reality. The proposal they unveiled last week is precisely the same in economic terms, albeit on a smaller scale.
Now we are told that instead of the effective closure of 2FM, it is to be hived off from RTE and forced to stand alone as a virtually independent company. No doubt when we have a chance to examine the small print, particularly the implications of the phrase "full apportionment of central service costs", the Minister's continuing intention to make 2FM nonviable will become even clearer. There can be little doubt that such is the Minister's intention — he has now merely decided to be a little more subtle in his approach in the interests of keeping his back benchers and the Progressive Democrats on side.
There is, of course, another element — the proposal to cap RTE's advertising revenue appartently in the hope that revenue lost to RTE will flow to the other Irish media. We can now see in this Bill the full scope of the Minister's intentions. Even though there has been no independent evidence in support of this proposition — indeed, all the evidence available suggests that the idea would lead to revenue being lost to the country as a whole — he still proposes to proceed with the removal of revenue from RTE. Some calculations suggest that perhaps as many as 500 jobs will be lost in the advertising and film industries as a result, with no benefit to anyone other than Rupert Murdoch's Sky Television. What possible sense can there be in that?
Finally, the Minister has made it clear that it is now his intention to force RTE to provide transmission facilities for TV3. No doubt, in the fullness of time, he will intervene to ensure that those facilities are provided at whatever price TV3 can afford, in exactly the same way as he did with Century, and when TV3 fall behind in the payment of their bills to RTE, as Century have done, no doubt the Minister will be totally silent.
In any consideration of the logic of the Minister's approach, regard must be had to the mandate of RTE. RTE are the property of the Irish people. They are charged, on behalf of the people, with providing a comprehensive range of services, and with doing so without losing money. If they make a profit, that profit is either reinvested in the station or recovered by the Exchequer. The advertising revenue they generate, in addition to the licence fee, is used to finance drama, the development of musical interests among young people, the support of Ireland's only symphony orchestra, the promotion of Irish writing, the fostering of our language and a range of other public service interests.
On the other hand, any profit made by commercial radio is re-invested in the wellbeing of its proprietors. I have no objection to that — after all presumably no one would take the risk of investing in the first place if there were not potential rewards. But surely the whole point of the exercise is that commercial radio is a risky business. At least, it was a risky business until the Minister decided to do whatever he could to generate a profit for the friendly investors. In his own parlance, in his efforts to level the playing pitch, he has done quite the contrary. He has cut down the goal posts, ploughed up the playing surface, knocked down the stands and even turned off the lights.
It can clearly be seen that the Minister's approach is not based on any commercial or economic logic. One must, therefore, question the Minister's motivation in taking the action he has taken. As I have already said, a decision by any Government to close down the most successful radio station in the country in order to try to bail out a failing commercial enterprise would be inexplicable. When that failing enterprise is run and managed by political associates of the governing party, the decision becomes deeply suspect and unsustainable.
I charge the Minister with failing in his national responsibilities, and I have to say in all gravity that I believe he has been motivated by base and unworthy considerations. His decisions, supported by the Government, stink of the rankest political cronyism. I have now reluctantly come to the belief that the reason this Minister has carried the Communications portfolio through three separate Ministries, all of them important in their own right, is that he has been charged with ensuring that the political friends of Fianna Fáil are thoroughly set up with their licence to print money.
One has to ask where this leaves the Progressive Democrats, who are seldom to be seen in this House at present. How is it conceivably possible that the party which publicly pride themselves on their integrity can stand by and allow these decisions to be implemented in their name? The Progressive Democrats are known throughout the length and breadth of the land as the party that believe in the free play of market forces. One has to ask: where were they last week when these decisions were being made? Were they in Government at all when the matter was being discussed?
The Leader of the Progressive Democrats, Deputy O'Malley, was forced to shrug his shoulders in this House not so long ago, and point out to the House that nothing could be done about the closure of Sunbeam Wolsey since that was the result of market forces at work. Yet, as a member of this Government, he appears to be able to stand over the baling out of Fianna Fáil supporters at the expense of public broadcasting.
The Labour Party do not intend for one moment to allow this matter to drop. The issues involved are simple. They are issues of principle. If a commercial enterprise is to be supported with public money, there must be good and valid reasons for it, and the public money must never be given free of conditions. We have never, and will not now, stand over a situation where presents are given from the public purse to private individuals. If Century need to be baled out, let the Minister come here with an honest proposal which will involve Century in giving over to the people of Ireland a share in the future wellbeing of the company. Because he is not prepared to do this, and because he has behaved in a manner which makes him unfit to discharge the public trust, as I said at the outset, he should resign.
But I believe that the time has come for us to go further. I said at the start of this contribution that this Minister was only carrying out his master's bidding. As long as he does so, and is seen to deliver, it appears that his career will prosper. He may not always have been on the same side as his master in some of the internal Fianna Fáil battles that have gone on in the past, but he has nevertheless always managed to hold down senior positions of trust. When things go badly wrong, as they clearly have on this occasion, his master lets him be hung out to dry in this House.
But if the Minister for Justice and Communications has been to some extent a puppet in this affair, what can we say of the puppetmaster? It is quite clear, and has been clear to anybody involved in public life in Ireland, that the Taoiseach has long harboured an antipathy to RTE. It is well known that he holds RTE responsible for having the audacity to report on the deep and widespread anger in the community over health cuts in the last election. In a classic piece of political self-delusion, he appears to believe that it was the reporting, rather than the anger in the streets, that cost him an overall majority in the general election. And of course in this case the puppet-master was pulling more than his Minister's strings. He would have been aware that the idea of diverting part of the licence fee to the Radio and Television Commission came originally from the Fine Gael spokes-person, when he was dealing with the legislation as a Minister. He clearly thought that he had the Leader of Fine Gael in his backpocket after their covert meeting the week before last, and that he was at last free to take the kind of actions that he has always wanted to take, with no more than token opposition from the largest opposition party.
It is perhaps not surprising, given this background, that the Taoiseach was so hurt in this Chamber last week when this particular house of cards began to fall down around his ears. I believe the reason for that was much more than pride or the prospect of political embarrassment.
I believe that to find the explanation for the Taoiseach's discomfiture we must go back to the question I raised at the start of this contribution. This issue, in a very real and significant way, is inextricably bound up with the question of who is going to wield the power and influence in Ireland in the future.
The first issue that arises is the future of a small commercial company. I have already spelled out my view that a small radio station which has failed to attract an audience, despite the best efforts of a professional staff, has no right or entitlement to support from public money. But the real issue here, in the medium term, is not the future of Century Radio. Every Member of this House knows that the viability and profitability of commercial television is where the real interest of the Fianna Fáil Party lies.
Fianna Fáil, and it must be said Fine Gael too, have already made it abundantly clear that they want commercial television to have every possible advantage that this House can give them. That much was clear in the debate over the televising of the proceedings of this House, when an unholy alliance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Deputies made it clear, right from the start, that there was no way RTE were going to get that franchise, no matter what proposals they made.
There was nothing to choose between the submission made by RTE in terms of facilities, expertise and cost and other submissions. In fact, if cost factors had been the only consideration, the advantage would have been on the side of RTE. It was clear from the report laid before the House in respect of the televising of the Dáil that the net cost of the proposal by Windmill Lane, the winner, was only cheaper than RTE's because Windmill Lane were including estimated marketing income of £280,000. RTE made their submission on the basis that they would be supplying a free feed to other Irish stations, and to European stations as part of their EBU obligations. If RTE had assigned any income to their proposal, the net cost of what they put forward would have been significantly cheaper.
There was, of course, another question mark about these costings, particularly about the Windmill submission. The estimated income in the Windmill proposal was comprised of an expected income from RTE in respect of the feed of £130,000, and expected income from TV3 of £150,000 for the same feed. The motion we passed on the issue made it clear that the feed would be supplied to RTE, and placed no obligation on RTE to pay more than a contribution to production costs. If RTE take the view that they were prepared to supply a free feed, they would surely be entitled to the view that they should not be expected to pay another contractor more than a nominal sum. That puts a big question mark over the £130,000 of purported income.
Secondly, there is no TV3 at present, and no certain knowledge of when TV3 will be established, or what the financial arrangements of that company will be. At present all we know for certain is that the front runner for the franchise appears to be a company in which Windmill Lane, the company to which we have now consigned the contract for televising the Dáil, will be a major share-holder. It is possible therefore that Windmill Lane will find themselves in the position, if their plans work out, that they are relying for a substantial part of their revenue in respect of this contract on income from a broadcasting company in which they are a major shareholder.
We can be absolutely certain that, at best, several years will elapse before any new television company will be on a sound financial footing. In the interim, there is the possibility at least that Windmill Lane, now that they have been awarded the contract to televise the Dáil, will find themselves confronted with a difficult conflict of interest. On the one hand, if they are to honour their contract, they must extract £130,000 in revenue from TV3. On the other, they must ensure the survival of TV3 through their difficult early years.
I think we can now be fairly certain that this Taoiseach and his Government fully intend to ensure that TV3 succeeds in their commercial objectives. A substantial proportion of the licence fee they are now proposing to divert will go to that purpose. In addition, if necessary, more money will be pumped into the Dáil broadcasting operation, to ensure that the share-holders of TV3, who are also to be the providers of Dáil broadcasting, will never be out of pocket as a result of that operation, and forced to rely on income from TV3. In short, I confidently predict that TV3 will never be asked to pay a penny towards the Dáil feed they receive, and that the broadcasting of the Dáil will end up as an operation totally financed by public money.
The proprietors of TV3, whoever they turn out to be in the end, will have one thing in common with the proprietors of Century Radio. They will be friends and associates of Fianna Fáil. The establishment of TV3 will have about it the same smell as is very evident in this House today. The undermining of RTE will continue, and the concentration of power and influence in a small number of hands will be accelerated as TV3 goes on the air. All of that is very clear to me.
There is another thing that is clear. The attack on RTE has had another angle to it. I refer particularly to the decision of the Government to force RTE to sell their Cablelink shares to Telecom. The purpose of fleecing RTE in this manner has a sinister side to it. RTE will lose several million pounds a year in current revenue, and many millions more in potential revenue, and they will be forced to return any capital windfall they secure to the Exchequer.
But in the process, they will be inadvertently assisting in the fattening up of Bord Telecom. There is no doubt in my mind that the essential purpose of this exercise is to prepare Telecom to be sold off, and that in due course it will become the property of Irish and foreign speculators, who will then own an asset into which the Irish people have poured hundreds of millions of pounds of their money in the last number of years.
The Minister for Industry and Commerce is, I believe, conscious of the hidden agenda behind the fattening up of Bord Telecom, and that is why he has entered his reservations about the sale of these shares. I hope the Minister contributes to this debate, and I call on him now to make his real reservations clear when he does speak and to explain to us his activities in Cabinet last week and what happened at his meetings with the Taoiseach in relation to this matter in the course of this week.
In overall terms, this entire issue has revealed a great deal about the attitude of Fianna Fáil in particular to the preservation of their political friendships and contacts, no matter what the cost to the public purse. When a party are prepared to go to the lengths that this party have gone to prop up some of their cronies, and to secure the future for others, there is only one word that can be applied and it has been applied already in the course of this debate. That word is corrupt. We have had revealed to us — not for the first time — the corrupt side of Fianna Fáil. I believe this has provided a salutary lesson for people inside and outside this House. The corruption that has been revealed has been compounded by the complacency of one of the Government parties and by the ineptness of one of the Opposition parties.
But we have, I think, learned a lesson. The lesson is that Fianna Fáil have forfeited the confidence of this House. They appear to have lost the confidence of their own backbenchers in the course of their contributions in the media during the past few days. The Taoiseach and his Minister for Communications have betrayed the public trust and have attempted — and are still attempting even with the changes made and announced by the Minister in the course of his address to the House this morning — to pervert their mandate to ensure the commercial survival and prosperity of their political friends. Such a Government do not deserve to survive for a moment longer.
In opposing this Bill at every stage we, the Labour Party, want to send a stronger message to the Government than just opposition to an unsavoury piece of legislation. We want to say to them that they were never given a mandate for political cronyism. They have betrayed the mandate they were given and have even betrayed their own honourable history in building up a strong indigenous public broadcasting sector. The unsavoury events of the last couple of weeks have ensured that Fianna Fáil no longer have the trust of the people. We will oppose this Bill on every Stage despite the Minister's attempts to get it back on the rails.