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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 24 Jun 1998

Vol. 493 No. 1

Private Members' Business. - Broadcasting and other Media (Public Right of Access and Diversity of Ownership) Bill, l998: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the spirit of positive thinking behind Deputy Michael D. Higgins's Bill, which is that legislation in respect of Article 3a of the EU Broadcasting Directive would be introduced here to protect various sporting events and that cross-ownership of different media would be limited to less than 25 per cent in cases where ownership was up to 100 per cent in others.

Regarding sporting events that could be listed for protection, the GAA All-Ireland senior and minor hurling finals in September 1997 attracted a television audience of 495,000 people. The All-Ireland senior and minor football finals on 28 September 1997 attracted 601,000 viewers. My county was involved in the latter game but lost. The Jameson Irish Grand National from Fairy-house in March 1997 attracted an audience of 256,000 and the Budweiser Irish Derby from the Curragh attracted an audience of 141,000. In international soccer, the Republic of Ireland versus Belgium in October 1997 attracted an audience of 727,000, while the friendly game between Wales and Ireland in February 1997 attracted 663,000 viewers. In the 1994 World Cup, the Irish games against Italy, Mexico, Norway and Holland attracted audiences of 1.466 million, 1.534 million, 1.705 million and 1.512 million viewers. The FAI Cup Final between Derry City and Shelbourne attracted an audience of more than 250,000, while rugby internationals attract approximately 267,000 viewers.

It would be encouraging if the Minister, given the complexities and consequences of the introduction of digital television, accepted Deputy Higgins's Bill. She should accept it in the interests of promotion of diversity, competition and public service. If her Department does not feel it is up to standard she could amend it on Committee Stage and arrange for the acceptance of Article 3a in respect of sporting events having consulted the public. She could then amend its provisions regarding cross ownership of the public media. The principle is correct and I support it very strongly.

I wish to share my time with Deputy J. McGuinness.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Like the Minister and other speakers, I welcome the principle of the Bill and I have no difficulty with what Deputy Higgins wants to do. However, having read the Bill and its Explanatory Memorandum, I am not sure that it is effective in achieving its stated objectives. With respect to whoever drafted it, it is put together slightly crudely and if passed in this form would be open to a variety of challenges. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. That is not to say that legislation with these objectives cannot be drafted and passed, as I hope it will.

In essence this Bill has two sections; the remainder of it is incidental and of no significance. Section 1 purports to implement Article 3a of Council Directive 89/552/EEC and seems to do so simply by quoting the Article, which I do not think is sufficient.

Section 1(3) seems to assume legislation in all member states to implement the Article when the Article is optional. If it is decided to implement it, member states may do so by legislation, regulation or administrative action. It would be impossible to prosecute and convict somebody here of a criminal offence based on something as vague and relatively indefinable as administrative action in another member state. The approach by way of criminal rather than civil liability may be faulty. The last line of the subsection refers to legislation only and ignores regulation and administrative action.

Another difficulty with section 1 is that it makes no attempt to define what a broadcaster operating within the State is as opposed to one established within the State. Can it be said that the Murdoch empire, and BSkyB particularly, operates within the State? I think that is very doubtful. The nature of the Murdoch group's business means it could make it its business to operate from another member state or another country outside the EU. Effective enforcement on prohibition of exclusivity necessitates refined international co-operation of a kind that is scarcely met in the directives of 1989 or 1997.

The Minister is not given much guidance in section 1(2) on how to prescribe a list of events which are, in her opinion, of major importance for society. We are mainly talking here about sporting events; are most sporting events properly described as being of major importance to society? Society is something broader than avid fans who are intensely interested in a particular sport, and not all sports fans are interested in all sports.

Apart from the annoyance caused to members of the public who cannot view particular sports events without paying significant sums of money to Mr. Murdoch, the real damage done by Mr. Murdoch is to the sports themselves. His acquisition of exclusive rights to many of the more important rugby matches throughout the world has had a profound effect on rugby, introducing an era of professionalism that is foreign to the spirit of the game but which is now inevitable and apparently permanent. I hate to think what would happen if the GAA went down the same road as the rugby unions.

This is an important but complicated matter, and Deputy Higgins's best efforts do not overcome the complication. I hope the Minister, together with her colleagues in other Departments, will come up with a solution after full reflection. They cannot do it on their own and we need enhanced international co-operation, particularly from the EU, to achieve these objectives, which I feel would be shared throughout the EU.

Regarding section 2, I subscribe to the desirability of proscribing an undue concentration of media ownership. However, the Bill's approach to this is to extend the application of the concept of abuse of dominant position, which is not necessarily the best or only way. I used an alternative with some success when I made an Order under section 2(5)(a) of the Mergers, Takeovers and Monopolies (Control) Act, 1978, in respect of the ownership and control of newspapers and magazines. That Act was passed early in July 1978 and a few days after that I made an Order under the section removing the minimum threshold requirements for all takeovers and mergers relating to newspapers and magazines in Ireland. That order remains in force and has achieved its objective. At the time the order was made, Independent Newspapers owned 16 newspaper titles within the State. I felt that was enough.

As Minister I did not consent to their acquiring any further titles. I believe none of my successors in office so consented either. Independent Newspapers did partly circumvent my efforts by establishing on, I believe, a 50-50 basis a new newspaper in Ireland called The Star, and they acquired 29.99 per cent of the Sunday Tribune which was the maximum they could then acquire without having to obtain the consent of the Minister. They have exercised virtual total control over the Sunday Tribune because, in addition to their shareholding, they have lent large sums of money to that paper which apparently enables them, with the consent of the majority shareholders, to exercise full control. If I had not made the order in l978, Independent Newspapers would by now probably have acquired control of most newspapers in this country.

Several approaches were made to me as Minister, and presumably to others also, to allow Independent Newspapers to take over full legal control of the Sunday Tribune, but I refused each such approach. Approaches were also made in respect of the Irish Press. My feeling in regard to that paper was that Independent Newspapers were more interested in acquiring it at or before its closure for the purpose of closing it down and preventing the continuation of a competitor rather than for the purpose of investing money in it and revitalising it.

I always felt that it was inappropriate and inopportune that Independent Newspapers should have been granted or allowed to acquire the majority of licences for MMDS rebroadcasting and the right to broadcast local television here, because of the substantial proportion of national and local newspapers which they already owned or controlled. However, they were given a significant number of licences and acquired some further ones so that they now hold, according to recent newspaper reports, 19 of the 29 licences issued for this purpose in Ireland. This is undesirable, and the question of their being asked to divest themselves of some of these licences should be seriously considered. In particular, they should not be allowed to acquire any further interest in television in any form here or in local or national radio.

In considering Independent Newspapers' ownership position, it is necessary for the House and the Minister to bear in mind that this group has been known to use its editorial policy to further its own commercial interests. It is not necessarily unique in this, but so strong is its grip that I have noticed a reluctance by some in public life or in public positions to voice in public any criticism or indeed even reservations about that dominant position.

Concentration of media ownership is a problem in a great many countries. It is no less a problem here even if that fact is not always fully realised. Section 2 of this Bill, by inserting a new section 5A in the Competition Act, l991, tries to tackle the problem from a different point of view, and there is some merit in approaching it from the aspect of abuse of a dominant position if one is precluded from preventing that dominant position arising by the prohibition of mergers or takeovers, the dominant position having already been achieved. However, subsection (2), in prohibiting an undertaking that enjoys 25 per cent of one media market acquiring an interest in another undertaking which enjoys 25 per cent or more of the market share of another media market, is not sufficient. A large variety of companies in the MMDS and cable areas have rights to originating transmission as well as retransmission. It could be argued that with the exception of Cablelink in Dublin, no one undertaking has 25 per cent of a particular national media market. Therefore, subsection (2) is virtually toothless.

I do not follow why section 2 (4)(d) of this Bill lumps in cable and MMDS with satellite and digital television. These should be retained as separate categories because by putting all four together it is necessary to show that one undertaking has more than 25 per cent of that entire field in the State. No one has, and probably no one ever will have.

A more useful approach therefore to the problem of concentration of media ownership which section 2 seeks to tackle may well be the making of another order under section 2 of the l978 Act in relation to broadcasting and retransmission in all its forms allied to an inquiry into a dominant situation, which was previously called a monopoly, by the Competition Authority, the report of which the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands or the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment could consider with a view to making a divesting order.

Any dominant position is dangerous if it is abused. A dominant position which is not abused at a given point in time can very quickly become abused when its owners see the power they have and want to flex their muscles. There is very little tradition of compulsory divesting here, but, because of its special sensitivity the concentration of media ownership deserves more attention than any other dominant position or monopoly. This is especially true in an age where some sections at least of the media can be identified as regularly grinding their own axes or putting their own spin on public events and public affairs in a way that was not known a generation or two ago when its objectivity was assumed and the absence of a private agenda in the media was taken for granted.

Much as I agree with what the Bill is trying to do, I must recommend to Deputy Higgins that he take it back and try to rework it with the benefit of broader advice to avoid the various pitfalls into which it has fallen. Nonetheless, I commend him for trying and hope that before the end of the year we might see a Government Bill that will tackle these two objectives.

In being grateful to Deputy Higgins for bringing this Bill before the House, I have to say that he could not have done so at a more opportune time. Even as I speak a debate is raging about the relationship between media moguls and the political system, and that debate is likely to intensify before the end of the week. There is now huge public interest in the nature of the relationship between the leader of the Labour Party and the top brass in Independent Newspapers. I am somewhat surprised the Labour Party has not called for these matters to be investigated by a tribunal of inquiry. Has it any plans to do so? For my own part I can only look on in wonder at the unfolding relationship between big business and the political system.

Current events are particularly interesting in the light of the imminent merger between the Labour Party and Democratic Left. I would have thought neither Deputy De Rossa nor Deputy Rabbitte would have been great fans of Independent Newspapers in recent times. Maybe we could end up with two parties after the merger — Independent Labour and non-Independent Labour. I made a suggestion in the past on a number of occasions which drew fierce criticism down on my head from the newspapers and RTE, namely, that opinion polls be banned during election campaigns. In the light of recent revelations, I wonder if there are any members of the Labour Party who are willing to support me now on this.

I welcome the fact that Deputy Higgins has brought this Bill before the House. It is both premature and insufficient, but at least it gives us the opportunity to publicly debate this issue, to tease it out and to become better acquainted with an important and complex issue which will have a significant impact on all our lives.

The Bill is inadequate because it underestimates the significance and complexity of the subject with which it seeks to deal. It echoes the provisions of the European Broadcasting Directive and seeks to provide criminal sanctions for broad-casters who contravene those provisions. It is too simplistic in its coverage of these important areas and ignores or avoids dealing with the pitfalls that any Government faces in confronting the many commercial and legal problems which need to be overcome if the matter is to be dealt with fully.

Nevertheless, I welcome the Bill, viewing it as a starting point from which we can begin to build a comprehensive body of legislation to deal with the many complex issues involved in this matter. We must take our time and carefully examine not only the current position but that which will obtain in the future in regard to what might happen in an industry which is in a state of flux and rapidly changing. We need to carefully examine the legislation of the country at the cutting edge of all kinds of technology, the USA, while reminding ourselves of the problem it has had to face with Microsoft. We must proceed with care and our preparation and research should include soundings from all the sporting bodies here.

We must not forget there is another side to this coin which has the possibility of serious revenue for these organisations. While I agree that our major sporting events by and large should be available free of charge, I would like to hear the views of our sporting bodies in regard to that revenue possibility which I am sure will be laid seductively before them.

That brings me to the question of property rights and how a government can become involved without infringing on those rights. The question might be asked: should we become involved? The whole area is a legal minefield which we should approach with extreme caution; certainly the Attorney General will have to be consulted in the matter.

We are now in a world where big business is happy to take on governments, as Microsoft recently demonstrated. We have a duty to ensure that the rights of people to view major sporting events are protected and that major cost will not be incurred. It is unacceptable that a person should have to pay to watch, for instance, the All-Ireland finals.

I am concerned about the power of multinational media companies. I am mindful of the manipulation of both the Conservative and Labour parties in the UK and the involvement of Murdoch's huge media empire in general elections. The power of these empires, which are increasingly in the hands of a small number of moguls, fills me with apprehension. However, we are dealing with international law and also with an issue which, because of its complexity and rapid development, is the subject of legislation which might be suspect. We cannot hope to meet this challenge if we do not take great care and the best possible advice.

We live in an environment where Governments are more likely to be challenged and where our culture and that of other countries is subject to unprecedented attack from people whose sole objective seems to be profit and power at any cost.

I accept the point made by RTE about 20 per cent of the budget for its programmes being allocated to independent productions. The thrust of its argument will be that the cost should be divided between TnaG and TV3. However, I would like to have more information before adopting a position on it. The promotion of independent productions has wide-ranging advantages to our culture and economy. I speak from experience having been involved with the young group of Irish film makers in Kilkenny where I saw the enormous cultural and social benefits this art form has brought to hundreds of young people in Kilkenny.

Overall, I am happy that the review group will take all aspects of this legislative area into consideration when it puts together what I hope will be a comprehensive package later this year. While I cannot support the Bill I support the approach the Minister is taking in relation to providing the necessary legislation in this area.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Broughan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and thank the Labour Party for sharing time with me. This is a timely and important Bill which deserves support and will get the support of my party. It is a pity the Minister has chosen to reject the Bill. I would have thought her reservations could be met by way of amendment on Committee Stage rather than an outright rejection of the Bill.

The democratic checks and balances in relation to the media are an issue upon which this House cannot afford to adopt a leisurely approach. That we live in an information age has become a truism, yet we have enough evidence to be deeply concerned about the style, content and ownership of the media transmitting such information both globally and here in Ireland and its implications in terms of democratic accountability. We must have a serious debate and take action in relation to this central issue to modern life. I am concerned that the Minister is not taking the initiative in the way the situation demands.

The Bill deals with two areas, one of which is the broadcasting of sporting and other events. It is clear that intense financial pressures and competition for audience share has led to greater rivalry for exclusivity in regard to such events. The Bill states that such events must always be free, whether broadcast live or deferred. That vital principle must be protected.

In my own county of Wicklow we are currently preparing for the Tour de France and enormous effort, commitment and money is going into ensuring the tour is a success. The idea that one would have to pay to view an event of such scale or any event that has the support of many people is abhorrent in a democracy and across a democratic Europe. Indeed, EU Ministers are no doubt vulnerable to their electorate in the way we are in this House. We are accountable to an electorate that enjoys sporting and cultural events.

The second aspect of the Bill is the one on which I want to concentrate because it is a central issue which relates to cross-media ownership. It deals with the question of the dominant position of any one company as regards media and media ownership. I accept it is a complex issue, and the Bill deals only with the particular aspect of cross-media ownership, but ensuring there is diversity in the various forms of media is something that is complex in its nature and in the response required. All Members understand that and it is unfair to say that Deputy Higgins is not aware of it. There is nobody in this House more aware because of his experience.

In examining the question of ownership we must be conscious that it is not just a simple matter of ownership of newspapers or television. There is more than one way to control a newspaper. If a company like Independent Newspapers, for example, did not have a majority on the board of the Sunday Tribune but still paid the bills, there are ways of ensuring that control is in place even though it may not be expressed in the pure form of ownership. I am concerned the matter of ownership is not fully addressed. Perhaps it is unfair to expect it would be addressed in this Bill, but it is an important aspect. Theoretically, it could mean that one owner would own 100 per cent of one medium and, under the Bill, it would be limited to 24.99 per cent of another.

I listened to Deputy Higgins speak about the percentages of the Irish market owned by the Independent Group. We must be precise in terms of the statistical evidence we provide — for example, whether the Irish market is solely the market for Irish newspapers or whether it also includes British newspapers.

One in four daily papers and one in three Sunday papers here are edited in Britain. That highlights an aspect of media ownership that must be considered carefully. Such encroachment and penetration of the market has given credibility to the Independent Group's defensive, aggressive style which is essentially "what is good for the Independent Group is good for Ireland". There are fundamental dangers in that approach. We only have to look at the example in another industry where Irish Distillers developed a monopoly. At the end of the day the argument was whether it would be French or British owned and a chauvinistic debate ensued. Questions must be raised that are wider than the Bill. The question not only of diversity of titles but diversity of ownership is central to this matter.

Deputy O'Malley referred to undue political influence where there is a monopoly and control of a medium, and I agree with him. I am impressed he had time to consider the position of Opposition Deputies. He seemed quite involved in the future of Democratic Left and the Labour Party, which I am sure will be rosy, but I would have thought he would be totally exercised with the emerging information on what is happening and concerns about Progressive Democrat's Government partner. I thank the Deputy for taking time out from his deliberations, keeping up with every wave of scandal and horror story about the Government, to think about the Opposition.

On promoting diversity, I appreciate there is no simple solution. This is a complex issue in that there is globalisation of the market. The global strength is so powerful and all-pervasive that the idea that we as a small country can take total control of our media is inappropriate. We are in a position where we can, with imaginative measures and initiatives, encourage diversity which may not always be income or profit generating but would ensure a multiplicity of views, particularly in the written media. The example I would cite is Holland where a press fund was established. With the advent of commercial television in Holland, a proportion of the advertising levy was used to provide funding to support newspapers. That enabled small newspapers that were not in a position to survive without support to be sustained and, in some cases, to grow. Even within groups where one paper was not profit making, the press fund was used to ensure its future. We should consider that and other initiatives with a view to their application here.

We must ensure diversity of ownership, diversity of title and a range of opinion. We should not under-estimate the importance of protecting the range of opinions, whether political, cultural, sporting or whatever, that must be maintained not only by a diversity of titles but by a diversity of ownership. There is a link between a monopoly of ownership and a monopoly of views, but it may not always be apparent. Where self-interest is involved, it is guaranteed that monopoly of view will be expressed forcefully. We have seen that in modified form here and we must be on our guard in that respect.

I welcome the Bill and congratulate Deputy Higgins for introducing it. I ask the Minister to think long and hard before she rejects it.

I warmly welcome this timely Bill introduced by my colleague, Deputy Michael D. Higgins. Its genesis lies in the lengthy work the Deputy carried out as Minister, in the discussions that took place on developing our culture and encouraging cultural diversity, diversity of expression and freedom of expression. The Bill is another milestone in Deputy Higgins' remarkable career in this House and his remarkable contribution to life and the philosophy of Irish citizenship which he developed with great care and idealism in his opening remarks last night. That is typical of the man who established the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and created, for the first time in our history, a distinct public awareness of the necessity to develop public policy at the highest levels to strengthen and encourage the artistic achievement of our people, to encourage diversity without fear or favour from any quarter. I thank him for his contribution over the years.

One of the disappointing features of the past couple of decades has been the ability of organisations such as News International, Sky television and BSkyB to cherrypick high quality events, particularly in the area of sport and other areas of popular culture, and concentrate their monopoly of power and ability to extract the highest price from the public for their observation of those events. Contrast that with, for example, our national broadcasting organisation, RTE, and its remarkable achievements over the past 68 to 70 years. It is a wonderful contrast. RTE is in the classic mode of national broadcasting organisations, such as the BBC and others in Europe, which have enriched the lives of populations over the past three or four generations. Think of all the work of the RTE orchestras, the various choirs and Cór na nÓg and the other cultural initiatives the station and its various components undertake. Think also of RTE's great tradition of high quality independent news and news reporting over the past 25 to 30 years which has made a valuable contribution to political life on this island. It also has a remarkable tradition in the area of culture. The Minister and Deputy Higgins will engage in discussions over the coming months and years about the direction of public sector broadcasting. It is critical that we ensure the cultural development of our country is not easily cast aside by caving in to monopolists, oligopolists and people who would tell us what to think.

In that context, I will respond to remarks made by the former leader of the Progressive Democrats on this matter. This Bill has been in genesis for many months and the Labour Party, through its spokesperson, brought it forward with out fear or favour. We sincerely believe it is a modest and simple proposal which is right for the future of our nation. I hope the Minister will take it on board. It is critical given the introduction of the euro over the next six months. I spoke to the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, about this issue last night at a committee and about the great dangers and responsibility which he and the Taoiseach have, to steer our economy through these difficulties and the difficult times ahead. The Minister also has a special responsibility in the area of culture, news and freedom of expression, which I hope she will be prepared to discharge.

The Labour Party has no problem demanding that any news organisation will not have a dominant position in more than one area of the media and that there will not be a sprawling incubus of organisations spreading across the intellectual domain of a nation. That is the Minister's responsibility. Each Sunday we continue to read articles by Michael McDowell and other people in the Progressive Democrats. While they are entitled to put forward their views, we cannot allow a situation where one newspaper or media group would seek to impose its economic views on the people or on this House.

I welcome this opportunity to contribute to my party's Bill. It is timely legislation which, if accepted by the Minister will ensure all citizens will have access to important events of cultural or national importance. It will also ensure a diversity of media ownership thereby preventing media empires from emerging and dominating our society. The two simple proposals in this Bill are about democracy and the cultural rights of citizens in a democratic society. The principle of universal access gives all citizens the right to view matters of major importance, including cultural and sporting events. The diversity in media ownership allows for plurality of opinion, which is of benefit to both the media practitioners and the consumers of media products.

In the current climate of digitalisation, this Bill has a particular worth. From some of the Minister's recent comments, I know she is concerned about the onset of this technology, as indeed was her predecessor who for many years warned of the need to prepare for it. The digitalisation of television will supersede the existing analogue based systems of TV broadcasting and is set to be introduced in the near future. It will give rise to improvements in the quality of picture and sound but will also provide the consumer with access to more channels — up to 200 or so — and interactive services. As the former Minister, Deputy Higgins, said, we are facing a scenario where one screen on our wall will be an interactive service covering the Internet, consumer needs and cultural and information services.

However, without appropriate legislation from the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, we are in danger of allowing a market driven form of digitalisation to open up a further divide in society between the information rich and the information poor. This legislation, prepared by my colleague, would pave the way for a more citizen based model of digitalisation. Ownership of digital television would be in the hands of the people and would not become a vehicle for profiteering and multinational business.

I am concerned the Minister is unaware of the urgency and speed at which we are approaching digitalisation and unless we are prepared to deal with its introduction, Ireland will be left lagging behind. Next year Sky television will offer a digitalised service and contracts are now being signed. We must ask if this country will be prepared and that is the Minister's responsibility.

In relation to universal access to events of major significance like sporting events, this Bill gives the citizen the firm right to view events like the All-Ireland Football Final without restriction. Maintaining the televising of such an event on terrestrial television allows more equality of access across society. It also ensures that access is granted to people beyond national boundaries. People should not only have access to football matches if they attend pubs which subscribe to certain television channels, a point to which I will return. Monday nights in areas of the northside of Dublin have become a different type of evening culturally since Sky television began to show football matches a number of years ago. Universal access gives people the right to enjoy cultural or sporting events without boundaries. If we do not legislate for universal access, we could find the merits of All-Ireland day will only be available to those who subscribe to certain television channels or attend pubs which subscribe to those channels.

Section 3, which deals with ownership, is crucial to universal access. The Labour Party accepts the need for investment in media groups. However, it is against the creation of media monopolies and empires. My party also accepts the right of the media to comment on and take positions on public affairs. However, it is concerned about any possible future concentration of ownership in the media across different media vehicles. It is in the public interest that media access is as wide as possible.

A diversity of media ownership contributes to a healthier democracy. This is particularly the case in relation to news. If news is manufactured from the one media organisation, citizens are only given one spin, so to speak, on a story. A variety of news delivered by a variety of media outlets enhances the citizen's access to news and views. In this way, citizens can make up their own minds and contribute to a more enhanced democracy.

Our society is more diverse than ever before. We live in a pluralist society and require a pluralist media. Our society is now characterised by mixed cultures, a range of political views and greater participation by various representative groups in the lobbying process. As a result, it is imperative that there is a full range of information coming from different angles to ensure that everyone's concerns are aired and addressed.

I am concerned that when I go to my local shop on Sunday, of Irish newspapers on display, 90 per cent are part owned or are owned completely by Independent Newspapers. While I do not cast any aspersions on workers and journalists in these papers — in many cases, I greatly admire and enjoy their work — I do not believe we are provided with sufficient plurality in editorial terms. Objectivity can only be provided where there is a diversity of ownership because at the end of the day, media owners are the people with influence. While I wish the two largest parties would consider a merger so that there might be a proper debate of ideas, if all political parties decided to merge, the end result would be that the electorate would have no choice of Government, and it would result in less choice in terms of political debate. In such circumstances, the qualities of a democratic society would be eroded. Because of the huge role played by the media in influencing the views and information available to citizens the control of sections of the media by one vast empire would equally erode democracy.

A great deal has been said about Sky and News International. I notice that our colleagues in the British Parliament have drawn up a list of a number of events they would consider critical, the type of events the Bill seeks to protect under section 2. Many people would say coverage of the two All-Ireland championships, soccer and rugby internationals, major running events and others are events to which everyone should have general access. The Minister has a key responsibility to ensure that type of access for the future. There has been considerable competition regarding the next European football championship in that the new television station, TV3, has out bid RTE for coverage. For the first time, we will not watch those matches on RTE, but at least they will be shown by an Irish station to which we will have full access. It is critical such key sporting events are maintained.

Deputy Michael D. Higgins spoke at length last night about the efforts of the 15 EU member states, using the television without frontiers directive and others, to try to ensure the sporting and cultural life of Europe was not decimated by the Anglo-American cultural world. I mentioned Monday evenings on the north side of Dublin where distinct cultural effects can be seen and this is probably true of the Minister's home town of Ennis as well. Many young men and women interested in professional football feel the need to watch a match with Manchester United or Newcastle on television in a certain hostelry. The owner is probably paying through the nose for the right to show the matches. This creates a system of access which is completely market driven and which has no cultural connections. That is something I would like the Minister to examine.

On section 2 which deals with the concentration of ownership, Deputy Higgins thoughtfully laid out the key areas in which he wanted the 25 per cent rule to apply, such as a group which occupied a dominant position in one or more markets. I mentioned the situation in Ireland but we have witnessed the recent history of the United Kingdom. Many people in this House remember the election of 1979 in the UK where a huge impetus from The Sun and other newspapers was behind the Conservative Party. I remember one headline which ran: “Give The Girl A Chance” and it was the dominant headline in a close election in which our sister party was defeated. That election outcome has been examined and most people believe the performance of The Sun and other newspapers, who were and are members of a dominant group, had a strong influence on the election.

We remember the election here last summer. We believe it was very unfair when, on the front page of a newspaper under the headline "It's Pay-back Time", readers were directed to vote for certain parties. No one denies that good journalists and political commentators must have views on who should run the country and that newspapers take stances on issues. I remember the editor of The Sunday Times, one of the News International papers, on 1 May last year in a famous editorial stated: “Hold your nose and vote Tory”. Deputy Higgins has made a powerful case regarding the concentration of ownership.

I wish the Minister well and applaud her for some of the initiatives she has taken during her ministry. She has shown quiet effectiveness. However, I believe this is a Bill worthy of being accepted by the Government.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Fleming.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I compliment Deputy Higgins on the introduction of the Bill. I congratulate the Minister on her work to date and for her many visits to Cork North-West over the past 12 months.

The Bill allows for a debate on various issues relating to media ownership and so forth and one of the most important issues raised by it is the access to television coverage of major events, be they social, cultural or sporting. The vast majority of us would know where we were when David O'Leary scored that goal in the 1990 World Cup in Italy as we do when many other events occurred such as the death last August of Princess Diana or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

It is possible to imagine access to television coverage of sporting events such as the World Cup or Gaelic games having to be paid for and not being available free on television. In that context, I compliment the Minister on the press release she issued last evening in which she mentioned the priority of the Government to ensure major sporting events remain available to Irish viewers on free to air television. A culture has developed where, if tickets for a match cannot be obtained, people watch it on television with their families in the comfort of their living rooms. If we have to pay for access to such coverage and people must go to pubs or clubs to gain access to it, it will probably break up the family unit and that must be discouraged at all costs. The rate of social change at the moment means there is considerable pressure on families and anything which can be done at any level by any Department should be done to ensure as much support as possible is given to it.

While I understand from the Minister that legislation covering these areas is at an advanced stage of preparation, the debate is an opportunity to raise many issues. At a meeting in my constituency recently, there was a debate about the media and its power. One elderly lady said that, when she was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, the parish priest, the bishop and the archbishopreigned supreme and had exclusive power, whereas now the editors of newspapers or television programmes reign supreme. It is a worthwhile point and, while it may be a little simplistic, it is valid nonetheless and one which should be borne in mind when drafting legislation such as this. RTE is legally obliged to allocate 20 per cent of its programming budget to independent productions but it is looking for a change in this legislation. Changes have taken place since the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1993. There has been the advent of TnaG and TV3 will soon come on stream. Twenty per cent of RTE's programming budget amounts to between £12 million and £15 million. We have seen recent newspaper reports indicating an increase in the viewing figures for TnaG and the advertising market has become more competitive. Therefore, there is a case to be made on the 20 per cent quota.

The most important issue is Article 3a of the EU Broadcasting Directive and we must ensure that major sporting events are free to air. We have all seen the value of people having free access to various sporting events. However, a number of important sporting events have been taken off free to air television, including the Ryder Cup and Stephen Collins' defence of his world title. There have been many high points in Irish sporting history which have given people a good feeling. We have done well in the World Cup and Stephen Roche won the Tour de France in 1987. At county level there is great confidence when a county wins a provincial or All Ireland title. These are important social events and sport is very important to social life. Many young are very impressed by sporting stars and we must ensure that we have free access to as many sporting events as possible. It is not right if parents have to take children into clubs or pubs to watch sporting events. This is detrimental to the family unit and does not encourage people to socialise at home.

There is much common ground between this Bill and the Bill which will be introduced by the Minister. The Minister's Bill is being prepared in consultation with two other Departments. It is important that whatever results from these deliberations is well thought out and researched. Technology has advanced greatly in the past three or four years and it will continue to do so. We have to take account of these developments as we plan for the future.

Section 2 deals with cross media ownership and related matters. This is a minefield but it requires careful planning and consideration. Some of the proposals in Deputy Higgins' Bill which deal with shared and cross ownership should be included in the Minister's Bill.

The issue of BSkyB, Rupert Murdoch and pay per view channels has come up in committee in representations from various interested groups. These areas are experiencing tremendous growth and one of the fears is that one such channel could dangle a large cheque in front of a sporting organisation. Many sporting organisations are strapped for funds as they are trying to support clubs and halls throughout the country and money is a great incentive. BSkyB and Rupert Murdoch can offer any amount of money to a sporting organisation and the forthcoming legislation must ensure that this is not allowed to happen. This is a sensitive area and various legal issues have to be taken into consideration.

I commend most of what is in this Bill. However, it is better that we study it carefully. It will be the blueprint for future media broadcasting legislation. The comments of the elderly person in Cork are becoming more relevant. We cannot legislate for everything but the Minister should take them into account in her deliberations. We have seen the power of the media and newspaper editors, not only in politics but in every aspect of life.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and I commend Deputy Higgins for its introduction. I agree with many of its principles but disagree with much of the detail. The Bill is narrow in focus. It deals with only two specific issues. There are many other issues in the broadcasting industry that must also be dealt with. I hope the Government's legislation will include a much wider range of issues.

Before dealing with the provisions of the Bill, I want to refer to the transmission of television signals throughout the country. If I want to get a full range of television services in my village in County Laois, I must have an aerial for RTE 1 and Network 2, another for the MMDS stations and yet another for Teilifís na Gaeilge. If I want the satellite stations I must also put a satellite dish on the roof. It is appalling that in 1998 I must have four monstrosities on the roof of my house to get a full range of services.

The Bill refers to the concept of free television. There is no such thing. The four items I mentioned cost money, in addition to the cost of a television licence. While the concept of free television is great in theory, it does not happen in practice. The cost associated with the MMDS service or the cable system in urban areas runs at well over £100 per annum. We should not delude ourselves by talking of nice concepts that do not exist.

Many of the problems in this area will be resolved by technology. We live in an evolving technological age. A generation ago there were very few televisions, whereas we can now get instant television from the far side of the world as well as from space. The world in general is coming to terms with the new technology.

The most significant advance in terms of television transmission will be digital TV. It is important that we make the correct decision about digital TV. I have a copy of a beautiful document that RTE presented to the joint committee on its proposals for digital TV. While we should study the document carefully and analyse it in great detail, one should have a large grain of salt beside one when doing so. I take grave exception to some of its recommendations. The document began by stating what RTE wanted and went on to construct the rest of the document to back up its opening position. In referring to how we should handle digital TV, it states:

A consideration of these factors indicates that Ireland is ideally suited to terrestrial distribution of digital TV — rather than any other mode. The population is small and spread widely across remote rural areas. Mountain ranges add to the transmission difficulties. These factors preclude the cost effective deployment of either cable or

Even though the MMDS system operates here, in a cavalier manner, RTE states it is unsuitable for Ireland. I agree it is unsuitable because the people who have been licensed to provide the service have not been in a position to provide it to households that are willing to pay for it. It is outrageous that large sections of the community are being deprived of a television service which they are rightfully entitled to watch and willing to pay for. In the following paragraph, the document goes on to state:

While satellite distribution of digital TV is possible, this would not be in Ireland's national interest — since it would likely be controlled by foreign interests distributing foreign programming. Moreover, if the satellite platform were to be used as a vehicle for electronic commerce, it is likely that any electronic transactions would take place outside Irish jurisdiction and involve transfers out of the Irish economy.

I do not accept it is too expensive. Every new invention is expensive at the outset. It goes on to refer to the high expense of leasing satellite space, the necessity for the consumer to buy a dish rather than using an existing TV aerial and states that the cost of satellite is not feasible. I urge the Minister to study the question of satellite TV carefully. Every household should be able to get the full range of television services by digital TV and the only way this can be done satisfactorily, bearing in mind our topography and geographical spread, is by satellite. With a satellite dish one can get reception from as far away as South America. The consumer must be consulted in any discussions on this matter. It is pointless having a product that suits the industry but that is not consumer friendly.

Another major advantage of digital TV is that, due to technology, it can be adapted to allow for regional advertising. RTE has quoted costs in this regard, but the cost to the consumer could be reduced substantially if advertising is sold on a provincial or regional basis. Local radio has been an outstanding success. It has high listenership in every county, at no cost to the listener. It is free to listeners because advertisers pay for it. There is no reason we should not extend the logic we successively adopted in relation to local radio to the television service. Commercial interests have the money and the power and if they know their product is being beamed into every household, they will pay for the advertising. This is a technological as well as a financial issue and we must ensure the cost to the consumer is as reasonable as possible. The transmission of television signals is an unresolved issue in many counties.

I agree with the general sentiments of the Bill. Major events should be broadcast to all members of the public, if possible. However, the Bill does not include a schedule of events to be covered and, more importantly, it does not state how such events could be defined. The Bill also gives the Minister too much power, even though I know the Minister would not take advantage of that. The type of events to be covered should be outlined in legislation rather than by regulation and is important that public representatives have an input in that regard.

The Bill is strong on getting the service to the consumer, but it does not take account of the rights of the various sporting organisations. Major sporting organisations, such as the GAA, the IRFU or the soccer federations, have built up a good product and are entitled to get the free market price for the television rights to their product. Some of those large organisations have invested heavily in the youth and provided facilities for their members and supporters. I would have a difficulty accepting legislation that would artificially reduce the potential income to which some of these sporting organisations are entitled in a free country. I caution against depriving those organisations of their constitutional right to sell their property at a fair price.

Some major sporting events such as the Steve Collins fight occur not for the sake in this case of the boxing match, but because the television organisations knew that if they promoted the event on a pay per view system they would generate enough income to profit from the event. I am concerned that while participation by a major Irish sports person or world champion, such as Steve Collins, in an event would be considered important in the context of Irish society, under the Bill it would not be possible to stage a pay per view contest. The Bill might be too restrictive and have the effect of preventing major sporting events coming to Ireland which might otherwise come in a less restrictive environment.

Steve Collins said he was boxing for Ireland, not for Rupert Murdoch.

Most of us who pay 48 per cent tax spend half our time working for Ireland.

Television is a global issue and must be seen in more than an Irish or European context. We cannot solve the problems at European level. The issues are global and must be tackled globally, although I do not know in which forum, rather than in the Oireachtas, the European Parliament or the Commission. Everybody is aware that technology knows no boundaries and will continue to expand and develop in terms of resources.

The legislation also raises the issue of preventing one person from having exclusive rights to major events. This implies that rights should be open to at least two people. However, I would be equally worried by this as two people can easily form as effective a cartel as one person can form a monopoly. It is not just a matter of the number of people with exclusive rights to broadcast events, but of how they use their power. In many industries in the past we have seen how several players could form cartels. I am as concerned about cartels as I am about monopolies in this area.

The criminal penalties in the Bill are too extreme. First, it will be hard to define where a crime is committed as events may be broadcast from the other side of the world. Second, I believe the only appropriate sanctions are commercial in nature. An attempt could be made to prevent a company broadcasting in breach of the legislation if prior knowledge of the breach was received through, for example, ensuring it did not receive its intended source of funds, fining it, refusing to give it a licence to transmit in the State on a future occasion or making it pay compensation to its competitors which it unfairly excluded. Sanctions should be commercial rather than criminal in nature.

I am very concerned about concentration of ownership which not only applies to the media but to every area of society in Ireland and worldwide. Across the world the biggest car companies in Europe and America are merging. We will reach a situation where all these worldwide companies will begin merging and there will be a concentration of ownership in every sphere of society unless the process is checked somewhere along the line.

I would like Deputy Michael Higgins to clarify the five areas of broadcasting. He speaks of broadcasting as including terrestrial television, newspapers, magazines, satellite and digital television and the Internet. I assume he includes radio in the general definition of broadcasting.

That is correct.

I did not see radio referred to. We cannot look at ownership in an Irish context as many of the papers sold and television stations viewed here are British while many satellite television stations are broadcasting the American news every night. The solution will be found in new technology and by examining the issue in a global sense.

I wish to share time with Deputy Richard Bruton. As a former Minister with responsibility for sport, I wish to refer to one aspect of the Bill. BSkyB is being cast in the role of villain of the piece. For far too long I have seen television companies, including RTE, show utter complacency in relation to the coverage of sporting events. The advent of BSkyB has acted as a catalyst in getting stations involved in more imaginative coverage of sporting events.

Some time ago in the House I questioned the wisdom of RTE scrapping "Sports Stadium" from its Saturday schedule. In doing so I attracted the wrath of RTE's director general who that evening went on the main evening news bulletin to deal with my complaint and rubbish the points I made. My case was borne out some weeks ago when I switched on my television at 3.10 p.m. one Saturday. On one channel RTE was showing a pre-war film while on the other it was showing cartoons. Saturday afternoon is a time for sporting events but our national television station was totally ignoring sport. This was not doing sport a great service.

On another occasion I was driving and listening to how Sonia O'Sullivan was performing in MorocCo. The RTE radio commentator was watching Eurosport to get news of how she was doing. At 3 o'clock Bill O'Herlihy said the latest news from Morocco was that Sonia O'Sullivan had won the world cross-country championships, an event which occurred about an hour and a half before the announcement.

RTE has failed to provide adequate coverage of a broad cross section of sport. It is very good in covering professional English soccer, professional rugby and top class GAA games. However, it has essentially ignored minority sports. I was appalled when told recently at a dinner that the Badminton Association of Ireland had to pay RTE to get a slot on "Sports Stadium" on Saturday afternoons.

The advent of BSkyB has acted as a catalyst for other stations to provide a more comprehensive and imaginative coverage of sporting events. Sky Sports has done a magnificent service to international sport which must not be overlooked. However, in acknowledging the contribution of that organisation to sport, we must not overlook the downside and the threat to sporting event. We must not back away from the threat of closing coverage of major sporting events, be they international or national, to a broad cross section of our community.

The UK has faced up to the issue by preparing its own list of protected events. As Minister with responsibility for sport I believed we could not deal with the issue on our own, that there had to be a pan-European approach and I and others raised the issue in a European context.

We must deal with what has been achieved. The directive can be used to introduce legislation which must be implemented after broad consultation with sporting bodies. I regret the Government has decided not to accept the Bill on the grounds that it is not sufficiently comprehensive, in the same manner in which it rejected my Bill on a statutory sports council. Having rejected these Bills the Government is failing to introduce legislation, despite having all the necessary resources to do so.

Consultation must take place as major sporting organisations, such as Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, the FAI and the IRFU, also have rights. They have carried out a great service to Irish people. Their rights to profit from major sporting events must be taken into consideration in regard to any legislation which may be drafted.

Debate adjourned.