With your permission, a Leas Cheann Comhairle, I wish to share my time with Deputy Donal Carey.
Private Members' Business. - Broadcasting and other Media (Public Right of Access and Diversity of Ownership) Bill, 1998: Second Stage (Resumed)
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I thank Deputy Higgins for initiating this Bill. It is timely for us to have a serious debate about two issues that are raised by the Bill, public access to major media events of cultural and sporting significance and fair competition, and fairness in the amount of media control we should have, in the marketplace.
The principle of access for all to important sporting and cultural events is of great importance. It is desirable that we should develop this approach. There has been some debate in recent days on the issue of whether these are compensatable rights or not. That is the only issue on which there can be any division. It is fundamental that people should have a right of access to sporting events on the terrestrial channels.
Deputy Higgins's approach may run into some practical difficulties. This is because if one draws up a list one must decide, for example, whether to broadcast the Derby but not allow exclusive coverage of the Oaks. Will the line be drawn between the Oaks and the 1,000 Guineas? In a spectrum of such events where will one draw the line and say that the right of access is fundamental and, therefore, non-compensatable. It would become extraordinarily difficult to stand over that sort of approach because these are shades of grey.
If that is the case, the arguments must be much stronger for some form of compensation for the event organisers. In many cases we might not have sympathy with the organisers of such events. Equally, however, if an FAI cup final featured St. Patrick's Athletic and a smaller country club struggling to break through and which had a strong community commitment, we would like to see them benefiting financially from their club's success.
The issue that needs to be added to the legislation on Committee Stage is a recognition that these are major events and those who work hard to stage them should have some right of recognition. Other than that, the approach by Deputy Higgins is admirable and deserves our support.
The second issue is much more important from the long-term perspective. We all want to have access to important cultural and sporting events. However, the issue of fairness in competition and not having excessive control of the media, goes to the very heart of our democracy. I have been impressed by the argument, put forward on more than one occasion by the National Newspapers of Ireland, that newspapers are not just like any other product. Newspapers, and the media generally, should reflect our cultural diversity. We must maintain the media as an expression of our cultural distinctiveness. It is also important for us to maintain a media that is competitive. It is not healthy either for our media to be overrun by outside interests or for it to be controlled excessively by any one interest.
We are in an unusual position in that the media in Ireland is predominantly controlled by a small number of interests. RTE is still the major player in our broadcast media and in the newspaper industry the Independent group is now so dominant it probably has a 90 per cent share. In the case of RTE there are very strong legislative controls on the approach it must take to honour its public service broadcasting role and ensuring fairness in the way it approaches its work. That is not the case in the newspaper industry. I do not think anyone would want to see legislative controls on the way newspapers handle their editorial content. That is what makes this Bill so important; it is trying to address competition issues in a way that does not involve the Legislature in trying to dictate opinions that are expressed or in trying to ensure that both sides of the argument are invariably expressed.
We must put in place a competition regime that ensures diversity without drawing the State into that sort of undesired media control. We need to address the fundamental issue of cross ownership. It is bad enough that 90 per cent of the national newspapers are controlled by one group, but it would be unthinkable if one saw a similar control of the broadcast media beginning to develop. In the UK, some of the cross ownership between the major satellite television magnates and their newspaper interests is very unhealthy. It is not a development we should seek to replicate.
I have some misgivings about the detail of the Bill. Deputy Higgins is defining an abuse of dominance as owning more than 25 per cent in two different media. Abuses of dominance are, ipso facto, prohibited. Therefore, he is requiring that a person would either not own, or divest themselves of, shares greater than 25 per cent. One runs into difficulties where Deputy Higgins introduces some exclusions to this provision. He says that if ownership was designed to deny ownership from outside the State it could be let through. I am uneasy with that sort of provision and, in any event, it sits uneasily with our European obligations. Deputy Higgins clearly envisages that it would not only apply to non-EU owners but also EU owners. That aspect of his Bill is problematic.
The very broad and loose definition of control is also problematic. It seems that if one had indirect control — and however indirect is not specified — one could have very little real cross ownership in these interests. However, it would trigger an abuse of dominance and an immediate divesting of ownership. That may be particularly problematic when one comes down to defining indirect control. I know Deputy Higgins is only talking about the State market, but it is equally important that we try to maintain diversity in local markets. Although we already have some provisions to do so, it would not be healthy to ban local newspapers from having excessive ownership of local radio stations. We do not have a similar provision in reverse. There are difficulties in the tight way Deputy Michael Higgins has tried to draw this. The ceilings are rigidly defined at 25 per cent but the ownership is loosely defined. That could cause serious difficulties in practical terms, although I do not have immediate proposals to amend it.
Although I was surprised that the Commission on the Newspaper Industry did not come up with any proposals in relation to cross-media ownership, it did, nonetheless, give a signal that merger control was the best way forward. In other words, if a newspaper proposed to acquire control in a radio station, it would have to get permission but the Minister, having obtained the views of the Competition Authority, could turn down the merger. It would avoid having to rigidly define these 25 per cent ceilings in the scheme. I am more sympathetic to that type of approach. However, it would only be worth considering if there was cross ownership in the State, but luckily that is not the case. As a result, I would prefer the merger option.
This debate is extremely important. We must be concerned about the excessive concentration in the newspaper market. The Commission on the Newspaper Industry pointed out that our merger policies are not sufficient. It advocated that our merger policies must curb any control over another newspaper which does not involve direct acquisition of shares but involves the use of loans. It is widely known that one of the problems with the demise of the Irish Press was that the Independent Group was seeking to take control through loan mechanisms rather than direct ownership.
Extra work needs to be done on this Bill on Committee Stage. However, it is important that it has been published. The House must endorse the principle behind it. We should take time to consider how to develop Committee Stage proposals. I congratulate Deputy Higgins for introducing this Bill which I support.
I congratulate Deputy Higgins on introducing this Bill. The fact it has been introduced by an Opposition Deputy shows the inertia in the Department about broadcasting policy generally.
The mission statement published by the Department states that the core elements of this framework, as set out in An Action Programme for the Millennium, will include the establishment of Teilifís na Gaeilge as a separate statutory entity and will ensure adequate ongoing support for the service. We know that no separate statutory functions have been given to Teilifís na Gaeilge and that appeals for adequate ongoing support for the service have fallen on deaf ears. The station is looking for £3 million to allow it to function properly into 1999 but it has not yet received a reply. The mission statement also states that there is a provision to ensure that television coverage of major domestic sporting events remains accessible to Irish viewers on free to air television such as RTÉ, Teilifís na Gaeilge and TV3.
When the Minister was in Opposition she made a speech about the terrible catastrophe it would be if emergency legislation was not published by the then Minister, Deputy Michael Higgins. It seems strange that a Bill introduced by Deputy Michael Higgins, who has great expertise in this area, has been rejected by the Minister. She said she has other proposals. We have been told that a broadcasting Bill will be published, yet the Tánaiste informed the House today that it will not be introduced until the end of the year.
The committee, of which I am Chairman, is aware that major companies in the UK intend to establish digital broadcasting in September. Where will that leave RTÉ and the other national television stations? When the analogue system was set up, people on the east coast watched BBC and UTV. However, when digital broadcasting is introduced, world-wide channels will be available and people will get into the habit of watching other stations. This will be a major culture shock because we will not have our own television stations. RTÉ will not be able to compete unless the Minister makes a decision on what she intends to do about broadcasting in the future.
Deputy Higgins also sought to tackle other issues over the years. We have been swamped by American culture. If one looks at the programmes on RTÉ television tonight and on Teilifís na Gaeilge, one will see a greater proportion of Irish culture on Teilifís na Gaeilge than on RTÉ which is dominated by American or non-European cultures. If Deputy Michael Higgins included provisions in this Bill to limit cross-ownership, he did so in the full knowledge of what is being imported. He was an active Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and he attended many broadcasting meetings in Europe during our European Presidency. One of his greatest successes was the inclusion of culture in the Amsterdam Treaty.
It seems strange that the main Government party which, when in Opposition, shouted about Irish heritage and culture and accused the Rainbow Coalition of having no respect for the Irish language, dropped culture from the Department's title. Culture is important. Today the Minister for Culture in France honoured two Irish artistes, including Van Morrison, with the badge of honour from her Department. That was the result of the music connection which was made at the L'Imaginaire Irlandais by Deputy Higgins when he was Minister. The Department seems to be paralysed when it comes to making major decisions.
The Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, has been busy. The regulator she appointed is admirable, well versed and has thoroughly studied the technical side of broadcasting. However, the Taoiseach did not seem to appreciate that broadcasting policy, and all the technical effects, should be grouped together in one Department. He divided them up for whatever reason. I suppose he did not want another dictatorship of the media to evolve or for some Minister to become too powerful. There is no communication between the Department responsible for public companies and the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. For that reason I urge the Minister to reconsider this matter.
Deputy Higgins has produced quality legislation. He knows what he is talking about. The Bill can be easily amended in committee. Some of the valid suggestions made by my colleague, Deputy Richard Bruton, might be considered by Deputy Higgins. Having regard to the Minister's speech, all the indications are that she will continue with this indolence and no decision will be made in her Department.
This Bill should have been introduced long before now. The English Rugby Football Union decided to hold its franchise on the televising of international games and that was a problem during 1998. While I am not a rugby fan that game brings in substantial tourism revenue here. As the Minister said, it has some import for generating cultural feelings. Even though some of us might not know much about the game, we would like to see Ireland win a rugby match. However, we will not see Ireland win a rugby match on television in the future because we do not have the necessary legislation in place. The British Rugby Football Union has taken a decision and effectively given a thumbs up to international legislation. I urge the Minister to go back to the Council of Ministers and ask the Ministers with responsibility for culture what effective legislation they will introduce in addition to provisions of the directive which need to be expanded.
A good deal has been written about the impact of digital TV, its many facets and how it will lead to a merger between telephones, telecommunications and television giving rise to an exchange of technical services. Those services are being developed at a rapid pace, but we are a long way behind in that regard. There is an information age town in Ennis, but it has taken a long time for people there to even become accustomed to the view that Telecom will provide PCs for every household in the Ennis urban district area. Also, the message that they need training to use a PC has not been properly delivered.
If we are to foster Irish culture through native programmes on RTE, we need to take immediate steps. One way for the Minister to indicate her intention to do that would be to support Deputy Higgins's Bill. He took a courageous step in introducing it. I had hoped the Minister, Deputy de Valera, would have had the courage to accept it. She acknowledged the Deputy's good work, but I cannot see anything in her Second Stage speech to indicate that any flaws in the Bill could not be amended.
In an era of technological revolution, it is disappointing that officials in the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands advised against accepting this Bill. I doubt they did that because they realise the former Minister is the expert in this area. If the Department needs to draft a Bill, they should take him on as an adviser.
Deputy Higgins is blushing.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Conor Lenihan.
That is agreed.
I was quite moved by the end of Deputy Carey's contribution. I was trying to start a Mexican wave for Deputy Higgins, but, unfortunately, I am stuck on the back benches and on my own, a double inequity. This is an interesting Bill and I do not say that in a patronising way. It is interesting for a variety of reasons. I had not intended to make a contribution to this debate, but I was quite moved by some of the po-faced hypocrisy evident in the contributions of some of the more extreme elements on the left.
This Bill is timely and a debate on media dominance is long overdue. The media is such a powerful force in any modern democracy that we must all be mindful of the need to achieve the proper balance between control and freedom. Deputy Higgins's Bill deals cogently with one aspect of the issue. I would not have any problem with the device adopted by the previous Government with regard to my freedom of information Bill, to pass Second Stage, put it on hold until the Government produces its Bill and then to marry minds on all sides in this regard. I am not sure if I am supposed to say that, but it slipped out.
The media is a powerful force in modern democracy. From time to time we must debate the changing circumstances that present themselves and how to achieve the proper balance between control and freedom. Some argue very strongly that the freedom we have to date in this area has meant that, without any regulation, those who operate in the print and, to a lesser extent, in the electronic media, have done what Adam Smith so long ago astutely forecast they would do, they have conspired to promote their private interest at the public's cost. We do not have to look too far to see that happening. Having regard to what is happening with the media internationally, it is a fact it is becoming excessively dominated. That domination is a threat not only to democracy here but internationally.
We have seen internationally how powerful electronic news media have had to tailor the imagery they present, for example, in the case of China because it might have trespassed on some of Mr. Murdoch's other international activities. Irrespective of whether we are talking about this island or internationally, it is an undeniable fact that the domination of the media is a powerful and dangerous issue that requires attention. Individual domination of the media is to be avoided, irrespective of whether we are talking about ownership of television, radio or newspapers or some other form of domination. I commend the Bill's proposer for forcing us for the first time to focus on this issue.
One aspect of the debate to date which I do not commend is the po-faced hypocrisy of some speakers on the left in this debate. I was astounded last week when I heard the doyenne of left wing hypocrisy, Deputy McManus, say that the only problem she and her fellow travellers identified is the threat of dominance through ownership of the media. I do not lump any of the speakers present tonight in that group. I acknowledge that ownership is a major threat, but intellectual domination is equally a threat to the media and it is a peculiar threat which is evident and obvious here. There has been an attempt over the years to create a type of intellectual hegemony which dominates the thinking of those who produce, report and disseminate the news. This is a dominance which is more subtle but no less dangerous than dominant and excessive ownership concentration.
I accept the point which Deputy Higgins is making about the excessive concentration of ownership, but the hegemony of intellectual thought in the media is something which few politicians have had the guts to acknowledge because of course it is politically incorrect to do it. For example, when I have something to say about RTE, I doubt RTE will give my contributions much space. That raises the issue of the kind of domination about which we are concerned. Is it domination when it affects us and our particular prejudice or when it affects the objective balance in the way news is presented, broadcast and reported? This particular type of domination, the domination of the intellectual content and presentation of the news, is largely ignored and always under reported because of the demands of political correctness.
Sadly, the reality is that we have long since ceased to have a news media in Ireland. I agree with Deputy Higgins that there is a requirement that the news be objective. I feel incredibly uncomfortable with the manner in which the news has been operating in the past ten or 15 years. Increasingly, we are losing the old concept of newspapers or news media and getting "viewspapers" and "views media". I acknowledge that some media people are uncomfortable about this. There were two particular articles, one of which was in The Irish Times recently, in which this specific point was made.
Inevitably, although not always, those who dominate the editorial content have been of the left. I say "not always" because there are certainly some people distinctly of the right who also sit in high positions. This has not happened by accident. It has happened because we have allowed it to happened. It has happened because there are not enough people with sufficient moral courage to stand up and say we have gone wrong on this issue.
In the 1970s, we all know there was an attempt to infiltrate and command news rooms in this city. That particular infiltration was by the Stickies, the Workers' Party. That is well known. People in the Press Gallery acknowledge it privately and they will talk about it privately, but they are not prepared to write about it publicly. Deputy McManus was a senior member of that party at that time. She was a prominent member of Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin Workers' Party and The Workers' Party in its various manifestations when a wellknown columnist was a prominent leader of the intellectual wing as opposed to the more earthy, physical force wing of Sinn Féin through the 1970s. I did not hear that Deputy, or her fellow travellers, being anything other than as silent as the grave on the issue of the domination of the media here. When the same well-placed columnist played an extraordinary role in the shaping and reporting of news in the then State-owned electronic monopoly, RTE, none of the spokespersons from Sinn Féin or The Workers' Party had anything to say on the issue of dominance, particularly the intellectual dominance of the news media. The Deputy did not wring her hands then and demand an even playing field. The standard tack when this allegation is made is to either ignore it or deny it, but one cannot deny the facts. The facts remain that there was at that time and remains an excessive degree of domination of one type of political philosophy within news rooms.
Indeed, the bleatings of most of those on the extreme left about the domination of the media is a relatively recent phenomenon. Opposition either of the left or right seemed to have been seized most actively of the dangerous position of the domination of the media in recent times. If in its front page editorial Independent Newspapers had trumpeted, for example, the benefits of voting for Fine Gael, Labour or Democratic Left on the eve of the last election, would we have witnessed the outcry about media bias which we have seen here. I must acknowledge that we did not criticise it either so we are no better than the Opposition.
If I appear to be hypocritical, I ask the House to accept I am not. I am just making the plain and obvious point that wherever we stand in the political firmament, we should wake up to the reality that there is something unacceptable happening within the media when it is dominated either by people who are put in position because of their political philosophy or people who are put in commanding heights of the media because of their pockets. It does not matter to me whether personal ownership or politics has dominated the media. What I, as a citizen, am concerned about, and what I am sure Deputy Higgins would be equally concerned about is the evident unhealthy bias and that the high standards have started to collapse.
The media were expected to give and gave, without interference, those who wrote the columns or broadcast in the electronic media the right to express an honest view, whether it was in favour or against a particular line. It is correct to say that there is something unsettling when the media is abused to peddle a particular line, whether at the personal behest of the owner or at the political behest of somebody. It is particularly unsettling when the considerable power of the media is used to peddle a line dictated by a powerful self-interested individual in the media, whether that powerful self-interest is the self-interest of ownership or of somebody who has acquired a high editorial position. It is wrong for anyone to control the output of any sector of the media or to slant that output whether for politics or because of the power that comes with ownership.
The great pity about this debate is that it has not been ongoing for the past ten or 15 years. I commend the Bill, not in a patronising way but because it forces us to debate these issues. There is a need for a full-blooded, no holds barred debate on the media here, its balance and all the factors which govern its control and that debate has not taken place.
There is another aspect of the unhealthy media domination with which I want to deal briefly, that is the Dublin 4 centred bias within the media. Again, this requires debate and examination. I do not live far from Dublin 4 but when I look at the televised news or read the newspapers it seems that anything which happens between the two canals in Dublin city is reported. However, unless a matter outside that geographical focus is significant, it will not be covered. This was addressed recently in a most interesting editorial in one of the provincial newspapers which took to task the media personalities, the "views peddlers" as opposed to the news reporters in some of the national newspapers. That editor was absolutely right. The bias in favour of the city is astonishing, as is the way the news, the variety and richness of the culture, and all that happens in provincial Ireland is ignored. Looking at RTE or reading some of the national newspapers, one is struck by how parochial they have become.
On balance the media in Ireland are good and they reflect quality. However, when I go to the United States I am struck by the parochial nature of its news media. It is extraordinary the way the media ignores anything which happens outside a ten mile catchment zone of the particular television station. We are moving in that direction. It is a type of intellectual laziness which has to be addressed quickly. When that sloth enters journalism and editorial thinking we will end up regretting it.
Deputy Carey complained about the lack of coverage of issues in the west. Deputy Higgins waxed eloquent on the issue on more than one occasion but nobody is listening or paying attention. We will have not just an individually dominated ownership of the media but also an intellectually dominated media which will squeeze out the variety of the nation. This is not a phenomenon that we should allow to take hold. I hope the issue will be addressed in a White Paper or discussion document. One thing is certain, we should not hold our breath waiting for newsrooms to take up this aspect of the debate.
Were it not for the provincial newspapers and local radio stations, in terms of news, much of the country, particularly rural areas, would remain uncovered and unreported. I was delighted when it was suggested recently that the earmarking of a portion of the broadcast tax yield, the television licence, for use by local radio stations should be considered. I have been arguing for a number of years that the television licence fee is a tax which was instituted for one reason only, that is, to fund public service broadcasting. It was a good and progressive measure at the time. There are now a variety of media broadcasters which have public news obligations. The Minister should, therefore, give serious consideration to the possibility of earmarking a portion of the broadcast tax yield for allocation to good independent current affairs productions at local level.
I was asked recently by the editor of a local newspaper why it should be confined to local radio stations. He argued — his argument has great merit — that we should also think in terms of the provincial newspapers. News gathering is not cheap. If we are to have a healthy, vibrant independent local news media, it will have to be supported. If we do not have a healthy, vibrant independent local news media, we will leave the way open for domination. That would be unhealthy.
There was a thought provoking article in The Irish Times last Saturday by a class mate of mine, Jack Banville, in which he drew attention to a cartoon by Gary Larson in the Far Side series of cartoons to make a point about individuality, the herd instinct and the importance of diversity. In the cartoon strip Larson depicts a flock of sheep in the midst of which there is an indignant black-faced sheep protesting loudly that “we're eating grass”. It is a solitary protest. Do we have in the media enough hardy souls and black-faced sheep who are prepared to stand up and say that they are being forced to report, write and broadcast grass?
For a short time I wrote articles for one of the newspapers. I was struck by the lack of confidence and the fact that newsrooms would check with each other on the line being taken. Surely, they are adult and confident enough to have diversity of lines. In reportage if one tries to follow the same line, one is no better or no worse than the flock in Gary Larson's cartoon. Banville made the point about the individuality of Nietzche but I make it about the need for individuality within the press and media.
The Bill has much to commend it. Perhaps it is possible to accept it and push it to one side until such time as the extent of the Minister's proposed legislation becomes clear. I agree with Deputy Higgins that there is a need for comprehensive legislation in this area.
Section 1 deals with the broadcasting of specific events on an exclusive basis by a broadcaster establishing or operating within the State. This is a most obnoxious and pernicious aspect of the media. I listened recently to a debate on this subject in the United Kingdom where it has become a major issue. Those who follow cricket, for example, are being denied coverage. The same is true of international rugby. The southern hemisphere tour appears to be an extension of Sky broadcasting. This is wrong. I hope the matter will be addressed nationally and internationally. Deputy Higgins's proposition is in line with what is being proposed at European level. There is a need to create in law the situation that he foresees in section 1 which I commend to the Minister who I know shares his views. I look forward to her legislation incorporating this provision.
Section 2 provides for the preparation of a list of sporting and cultural events which would not be capable of being violated by the demands of the marketplace. Section 2 would also amend the Competition Act, 1991, by dealing with the term "abuse of dominant position". This is covered by Article 86 of the Treaty of Rome but, as the Minister and Deputy Higgins well know, there is an abundance of extraordinarily interesting case law as to what constitutes abuse of dominant position. In the cases of B and I v. Sealink and Aer Lingus v. British Midlands it was recognised that one could have a dominant position in a particular geographical location.
The Bill does not address — it would be difficult to address it in a short Bill — what exactly is meant by dominant position. Deputy Higgins is trying to relate it to the objective test of ownership. Perhaps that is the only way to deal with it. If there is only one radio station or one newspaper in a particular geographical location, it is in a dominant position. It will not amount to an abuse of a dominant position until the owner or editor or both decide to peddle a single political line or a single line on a particular issue.
What we should be trying to create within the media is intellectual freedom, a sense of one's own worth among those who write, prepare and broadcast the news, a willingness to stand up and occasionally to be wrong. Political correctness has descended on the media. This distresses me. It is terrified to praise or to blame. My party has come in for more than a fair share of the blame. I do not like demonisation of politics, although occasionally in the heat of debate I may engage in it. All political sides have a viewpoint which should be capable of expression. Deputy Michael Higgins is a political realist and I hope that if the Bill is voted down he will not believe his labours have been in vain. The Deputy's efforts have provoked some thought in respect of an area with which we have failed to deal. I commend him for that. There are elements in the Bill which are wholly praiseworthy and I look forward to their incorporation with equal vigour in the legislation the Minister proposes to introduce.
Tá áthas orm seans a fháil labhairt sa díospóireacht tábhachtach seo. Tréaslaíame le mo chomhbhaoile i bPáirtí an Lucht Oibre, an Teachta Micheál D. Ó hUiginn, as ucht an Bille seo a ullmhú agus a thabhairt os comhair na Dála. Bhí sé go hiontach an teachtain seo caite nuair a bhí sé ag moladh an Bille seo don Dáil.
Does Deputy O'Shea propose to share time?
Yes, I propose to share time with Deputy O'Sullivan. It is my pleasure to speak in support of the Bill which was ably introduced last week by Deputy Higgins. While the Bill deals with media matters, it also raises issues which must be addressed in the context of the expanding global acceptance of the market economy. Since the fall of the command economies, this has been the dominating feature of the international economy in general.
How often is the cliché "competition is a good thing" repeated by commentators? In broad terms this cliché represents a fundamental truth but, in saying that, we must define our terms. When we discuss competition, we mean fair competition. There are serious implications for competition where monopolies exist. Markets can also become distorted where a sole provider of goods or services holds an overly dominant position. There is a growing emphasis on consumers and the cliché that the "consumer is king" is also often repeated. The consumer is king where there is a truly free market. However, where a market is distorted due to a monopoly or an overly dominant position, then the monopolist or the holder of the overly dominant position is king.
Equally, there is a danger of seeing our citizens as mere consumers. Subsidiarity is a term which the EU has added to our vocabulary. In essence, it means that the decision-making process in brought as close as possible to those affected by it. The other buzz word in this regard is "empowerment". The concept of subsidiarity is laudable and it is something towards which we must strive. However, in order that the community at large is stimulated to engage in comprehensive debate and arrive at informed and balanced decisions, it is imperative that wide-ranging information and views are promulgated in the media.
Creative, radical, challenging and conservative views all have a place in what is fundamentally an educational process. This is in no way to suggest that there is not a worthwhile range of diversity in the indigenous media and from non-national sources. Legislation, however, has a lasting effect and, in many cases, it is most valuable in its fire brigade role. On the global scene there is a propensity towards monopoly in the ownership of single media or more than one media form. This is apparent in the print media in Ireland.
The emergence of an information culture rich and poor in terms of media consumption is a further concern which leads me to deal with the other part of the Bill. Media consumption has become such an integral part of the lives of citizens that the guiding principle must be equality of access. To put it another way, access should be within the comfortable financial reach of all citizens. This is particularly true of television. It is nothing short of outrageous that many people could be denied access to major sporting events unless they pay a further direct charge or pay it indirectly by being obliged to attend particular licensed premises.
There is a broad debate here which relates to the area of sport and television. Against the background of accepting that everything has a limited lifespan, one must seriously question the long-term effects of the vast sums of money involved. The great strength of sport is that it belongs and is accessible to everyone. If this ceases to be the case, one must fear for the long-term. Over-commercialisation must be avoided.
A problem exists in my constituency which has it origins in injudicious decisions made in respect of the rebroadcast of multi-channel television. The introduction of MMDS technology and the granting of monopoly licences has led to a situation where many of my constituents are without a service. The Government has a responsibility to ensure universal availability of service to those people. Deflector systems which were forced to close down can supply a service which can be brought into action at short notice. I call on the Government to take appropriate action to rectify this completely unsatisfactory situation.
In a recent conversation with me, Deputy Michael D. Higgins pointed out a salient fact, namely, that US domination of the audio-visual media has cost the EU 23,000 jobs. While canvassing in respect of the GATT agreement, US representatives sought to have audio-visual media included under technology rather than culture.
Having listened to other contributions to the debate, there appears to be general acceptance of the need for a pluralist media. There are many points of view here. If one considers the national question, there are two definite points of view and there is a great need to bring them together to allow the country to make progress and move away from past difficulties.
Minority interests can sometimes be forgotten but, nonetheless, they are very important. On the initiative of the former Leader of the Labour Party and the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Spring, Ireland is in contention with Argentina to host the Special Olympics in 2003. In my opinion areas relating to people with disabilities must be given adequate coverage in the media. In terms of television, where motivation and profit are the bottom line, areas of this sort are not as attractive as those which boost viewing numbers and attract increased advertising revenue.
With regard to diversity, I grew up in Waterford at a time when evening newspapers were published daily. That is no longer the case but in many ways local radio stations have helped to fill the gap. Putting the question of monopolies to one side, people should not be marginalised or excluded from access to media or to sporting and cultural events. There is another aspect to this issue. People who are disadvantaged or on low incomes already experience a general level of exclusion and marginalisation in their lifestyles. If they cannot afford the cost of access to major sporting or cultural events it will have a continuing and dramatic effect on their self-esteem. Building personal self-esteem is a forerunner to true citizenship through which people participate in the system, so to speak, in an informed fashion. They will have confidence in themselves because they consider themselves important. There are two sides to citizenship — the rights and responsibilities. We all need to review constantly what is meant by citizenship. Citizenship requires redefinition as progress is made in technology and communications.
This Bill seeks to address an important element in the change from analogue to digital television broadcasting. Great amounts of money are involved in this change in technology and great amounts of money can be made by it. It would be in the community's worst interests if commercialisation were to be the determining factor in access to events.
I understand that since just before the last general election conditions have been ripe for the introduction of legislation to list special events, a list which could be added to as appropriate. I am bewildered that the Minister has not taken the opportunity to bring forward a Bill. If the main party in Government still purports to represent the disadvantaged and the poor the delay in legislating is inexplicable.
Since Deputy Higgins departed as Minister, the Department seems to have suffered a general paralysis. It is incumbent on the Minister to accept this Bill. She may feel it can be amended but we are approaching the summer recess and there is no sign of a Bill from the Minister on this issue. Given the speed of change in communications media I am concerned that we will find ourselves constantly trying to catch up with it. The Government is not anticipating change or being active in that regard.
Members cannot dispute seriously the principles which underlie this Bill. The Government may seek to be political and not accept an Opposition Bill. This is a very important issue. We tend to underestimate how great a role television plays in people's lives. This issue has caused strong feelings of anger and alienation in my constituency. Many people there do not have a multi-channel television service.
Monopoly licences were granted to the MMDS service and a monopoly in any field of the media is a bad starting point. A deflector system was available in many areas which was satisfactory and affordable. The MMDS service cannot be provided in all areas and it is much more expensive. Many households have more than one television set and with the deflector system one could connect as many television sets as desired to the deflector input. However, with the MMDS system one needs a separate connection for each television set. In addition, with the deflector system one could watch one channel while recording another but that is not possible with the MMDS system.
The situation is an intolerable mess. My constituents are deprived of a service which was withdrawn due to a court injunction. The Government has chosen to ignore that; no action is being taken and the problems are being passed to the regulator.
I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Higgins, for introducing this Bill and stimulating this debate. I hope the debate will continue outside the House through the media in its various manifestations. Some of the basic elements of democracy relate to access to the airwaves and the print media. It is the essence of democracy that people are open to a variety of opinions and information. If not, we do not have the freedom to make decisions for ourselves, to develop our culture and to achieve our full potential. Debate on these issues is important and positive and decisive actions should be taken as a result of it.
All parties have stressed the importance of pluralism with regard to the variety of influences to which we are subject via the media. Those influences are very powerful. I do not know the average amounts of time spent watching television, listening to radio and reading newspapers or magazines but I am sure it is a large proportion of a person's day and, therefore, constitutes a large proportion of the influences upon that person.
There is an urgency about this issue of access partly because there is an EU directive to be implemented and partly because of the arrival of digital broadcasting. However, it is also urgent because there are moves afoot to control the airwaves and to take over many sporting and other events. People will be denied access because they cannot afford to pay to see the events. The question of access has been widely debated. Another side of access that needs to be protected if our culture is to be preserved is access for producers and for creative people, young musicians, writers and artists. There is such a dominance now, particularly in American culture, that if our own culture is not protected we will all be subjected to outside influences and our own culture will not be appropriately developed. This is instanced by what has been done about archival material by our national broadcasting service, RTE.
Aspects of our culture, of our music and literary heritage, would have been lost forever if we had not had a national broadcasting service and very good broadcasters, particularly on radio, who took the time and trouble, to gather these elements together. That access has to be extended to those who are being creative now. Somebody playing music who does not have access to the national or local airwaves will never be able to break through. That is another aspect of access that I have not heard developed by other speakers.
There is an urgency not to allow ourselves to be taken over by globalisation of attitudes and culture. There is an obligation on us to decide to what extent we can and should control that. We have a tradition of characters and idiosyncrasy, for example, the Skibbereen Eagle keeping an eye on what was going on in Eastern Europe at the beginning of this century. We do not have so much of that any more, and it is important that we preserve what we do have in that regard. Local radio and local media have a role in ensuring that cultural differences within the country are preserved and have access to the media. As Deputy Roche said, there is also an obligation on our national broadcasting service to ensure that it is not too “Dublin 4” oriented and that various aspects of our culture are incorporated in it.
I spent a couple of years living on the other side of the Atlantic at the end of the 1970s, and I remember being struck by the sameness of television channels, particularly the American ones. I lived in Canada, and the American channels which were available there were hugely similar. This was a cultural shock. I realised that, despite the smallness of our country, we had more diversity at that time. People felt the need to set up public broadcasting in that environment to ensure variety. There is an obligation on us as legislators to ensure that we do not go down that road.
The power of the media is huge. This is evidenced by the fact that throughout history dictators have tended to take over the airwaves and the newspapers when they wanted to control the public.
Many contributors to this debate have referred to the question of access to important sporting events. There is a real danger that we will lose access in this area unless we take decisive action quickly. Deputy Michael D. Higgins referred to the fact that this year the World Cup is twice as dear as last time around. The Kirch company in Germany has bought the rights to the World Cup for the years 2002 and 2006. To ensure access for European citizens, the European broadcasting body will have to buy back these rights from that company — already public money has to be used to guarantee equality of access. It is essential that we move quickly.
The Commission on the Newspaper Industry had certain things to say in this regard. Like Deputy Higgins, they took the view that control of competition should include radio, television, magazines and newspapers. In his Bill, Deputy Higgins brings the various elements of the media together in terms of controlling dominant positions. I support that approach because if the various elements are separated it would enable the taking of dominant positions which would not benefit anybody.
I support Deputy Roche on the need for diversity of opinion, not just on ownership but in terms of the various people who form opinion — columnists and opinion-makers on various levels of the media. Ownership is extremely powerful and any domination will distort people's access to diversity of opinion. That is something on which we also have to take action.
Our own national broadcasting company, RTÉ is very much aware of the importance of keeping up-to-date with technology. It is important that we back it up and do not let it fall behind by not being quick enough to take advantage of the huge opening up that will happen.
As well as newspapers, magazines, satellite and digital television, cable and MMDS services, Internet service is listed in the Bill in terms of cross-ownership. We are only beginning to come to terms with the huge influence of the Internet which is bound to grow because it is being so widely used now in a positive way as well as there being the potential for it to be used in a negative way. I am not competent to say how it can be controlled. Nevertheless, to the extent that we can have some involvement that will protect us from the negative side of it, that should also be done.
We live in a globalised world. In the not so recent past, watching television, one would see differences in style of dress and appearance between various parts of the world and even within this country. I remember going to school in the city and feeling that I looked like a country girl compared to the city girls. That is not so now. People from thousands of miles across the globe are wearing the same designer label T-shirts. In some ways this is inevitable. However, it is crucial that we preserve our right to be different and give whatever protection we can to those who wish to and who are gifted in developing our own distinctive differences. One of the most powerful ways in which we can do that is by ensuring the maximum amount of pluralism in terms of access for producers as well as consumers who are watching television, reading newspapers, listening to radio and so on.
On the one hand we have globalisation and on the other subsidiarity. The two have to be balanced. Things that happen at local level particular to individuals, individual cultures and individual areas, must be protected as well. I have a horror of all of us having the same attitudes, the same tastes and the same culture.
I congratulate my colleague on producing this Bill and hope it will be supported.
I wish to share my time with Deputies Brendan Smith and Noel O'Flynn.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the opportunity presented by the submission of this Bill by Deputy Higgins. I would have expected an eminent social scientist to provide this opportunity. The fact that the vast majority of people in Ireland are sitting in front of their television sets watching England play Argentina is an indication of the power of the media.
The way society has developed mirrors the way the media has expanded. We are moving from a safe, staid, State-controlled broadcasting system, namely, RTE. Many people believe that was an excellent system which produced and continues to produce some fine material. How many commercially oriented companies and stations would be prepared to broadcast Cathal O'Shannon's programmes on 1798 or many of the other marginal quality programmes produced over the years? RTE has provided a sterling service for this country and it continues to do outstanding work. Under the guardianship of RTE, TnaG has blossomed and developed which proves that there is much in public service broadcasting that needs to be preserved and developed.
There are opportunities for change, however, and we must examine those. Deputy O'Sullivan referred to the way the influences of globalised television quickly permeate Irish society. From my limited reading of social science during my university days I recall there was a significant timelag between developments in US society and those developments reaching Irish shores, fashion and food being two examples. It is now clear that whatever is prevalent in the US media will be popular on this side of the Atlantic within a few weeks.
Many programmes deal with the actualisation of police activities and so on. Copycat versions of those programmes are now broadcast on commercial radio. Last night, the Adrian Kennedy programme on FM104, in its attempt to be outrageous now that it has lost Chris Barry, regrettably decided to go to Finglas to meet five or six young men and women who appeared to have a record of anti-social behaviour in that they stole cars, etc. The programme had a very large audience and, within half an hour or so, at least five stolen cars were being driven recklessly around Finglas. A police helicopter hovered overhead while the reporter shouted into his mobile phone that the grills were being torn off the windows of the police van. I spoke to the gardaí this morning and they told me that nobody has been arrested as a result of those incidents. These type of stations are guilty of the most outrageous manipulation of their audience. That cannot be countenanced and I utterly condemn it.
The recently completed internal review of RTE is timely and appropriate. It refers to the need to shed jobs but I wonder if an internal review of RTE is what is required. If there is to be a better mix of the commercial and public service ethos, would it not be better for an outside person to carry out an objective assessment of RTE's needs? I would not like to see RTE submerged in the avalanche of commercialism and digitalisation which is on the horizon.
I read an interesting article in the Sunday Tribune last week about the advent of TV3 which is targeted both in its audience and in its programming. It is clear that TV3 is aiming at young people with money to spend who will switch from channel to channel and who are prepared to pay. When it comes to paying for television we must bear in mind that not everybody can pay for the cluster of programmes on offer because it is almost impossible to buy one particular channel. One has to buy a certain package but many of the channels in that package may not be of any interest.
In any legislation the Minister brings forward we must ensure that we preserve the best of what is available while providing the best range of programming to as wide an audience as possible. That must be balanced with the commercial needs of television because we are talking about business.
I reject Deputy O'Shea's comment that there has been general paralysis in the area of legislation since Deputy Higgins left office. This debate is important because it provides us with an opportunity to reflect, get our thoughts together and come up with the correct proposal. Future broadcasting legislation will have to stand the test of time. If it does not, there is little point in introducing it.
I regret I cannot wholeheartedly support Deputy Higgins's Bill. I compliment him for affording us the opportunity to have a broad debate on the media and television in particular. I trust he will understand that there are other aspects of the debate which he might find are worth including when he has an opportunity to reflect on them.
The Bill deals with a number of issues which we are all anxious to address, though not in the way specifically outlined by Deputy Higgins.
The issue of broadcasting and the media is very important. We must be careful that we do not interfere in the area of the media beyond ensuring it is not used by any sectional group for its own narrow interests. The media must be responsive to the people and serve their interests before any other.
The technological developments in the past number of years complicate matters even further. Anyone trying to place controls on the media must come to terms with the transient nature of these technological developments. We have hardly taken on board the implications of the latest technological advance before it is swept aside to be replaced by the next generation. Those who try to introduce legislation in this area must realise that the task has similarities to building a house on shifting sands.
Most of us will remember, perhaps with fondness, the old days of broadcasting — a small black and white set with an aerial capable of picking up one station, our national broadcaster, Telefis Éireann. Those of us in the Border areas were able to sample the varied delights of BBC and Ulster Television. We are now faced with the prospect of digital television with dozens of television channels being offered. We do not know what the implication of this and other technology will be for society or broadcasting itself.
The first section of Deputy Higgins's Bill seeks to provide legislation to introduce a section of the European Union directive, Television without Frontiers. As Members are aware, this section of Article 3(a) is an attempt by the European Union to deal with the problem of cheque book television coverage where large media companies which own satellite broadcasting networks buy up the broadcasting rights to important events, especially in the field of sports, thereby denying access to traditional television broadcasters and those who do not subscribe to their respective TV companies.
Deputy Higgins's Bill proposes that the Minister draw up a list of events that are to be considered as being of national importance and which the Minister should then seek to protect from prospective poachers. The Bill does not mention the yardstick and criteria that are to be established for making these decisions.