Earlier I adverted to the very complex nature of the debate on broadcasting and the rapidly transforming technologies that have been emerging in recent years which makes it all the more complex. Last week I had an opportunity as a member of the Joint Committee on Education and Science to visit the science museum in San José in the US. In the past 18 months an area on the Internet and emerging technologies was opened there and, as somebody who is not altogether at ease with some of the new technologies, I was quite amazed at how far we have come in such a short period. I was even more amazed at the age of some of the younger children who were there and who seemed totally at ease with the Internet and what appeared to be extremely complicated technologies.
Earlier I spoke about the innovative video programming and information services which are emerging and which will be fuelled in no small way by the convergence of personal computer and television technologies. It is difficult to know whether we can legislate in this regard. I sympathise with the Minister as there are times I wonder whether another era of technology will have passed us by the time this debate has concluded.
Undoubtedly, the arrival of digital television will bring enormous changes to television broadcasting, most of which will be clearly positive. Obviously there will be much improved sound and vision and the elimination of interference. However, there must also be dangers, and there is no point in us pretending that such dangers do not exist. Until now it has been possible to regulate the broadcaster quite rigidly to ensure certain standards are maintained. I suppose public opinion, in many ways, has had a part in establishing certain standards. However, I think this will no longer be the case. In the new era of broadcasting, regulation will be much more difficult. The new technologies, in particular those emerging on the Internet, will mean that it may not be possible for a single country to prevent undesirable content being viewed by the consumer. Again if one keeps a weather eye on actions which have been taken, even by countries where deregulation is the order of the day, such as the US and countries in mainland Europe, it will be found that communities are worried about the emergence of this phenomenon and the impossibility of regulation, particularly in regard the Internet. I am not in favour of censoring to any great extent, but this is something which will increasingly occupy our attention in time to come.
Another issue is that in broadcasting terms more often means less, something we have seen in the US and mainland Europe. Although consumers' choice in viewing will be increased enormously, the quality of the material available may not improve and there are real fears that the quality of programming will diminish in the new world of broadcasting. I have heard Deputy Michael Higgins speak on numerous occasions at the Joint Committee on Education and Science when it discussed digital broadcasting about the wholesale buy-up by Murdoch, Fox and others of virtually all that can be bought and the services being programmed into multichannels throughout the world. To say the least, some of the material concerned is not intellectually challenging. The Minister referred to the danger of the dumbing down of TV channels. To some extent we are already seeing a proliferation of TV stations appealing to the lowest common denominator. I worry that the standards of television production and programming might follow the trend which is all too obvious and prevalent throughout that sector.
Increased competition means that the free marketplace might not be able to serve public needs. One should tread cautiously in the area of deregulation and other areas of commercial life. In this context it is more important than ever that we maintain the high quality of our public broadcasting. The restatement of the role of public service broadcasting in section 24 is very much to be welcomed. RTE has delivered an excellent service to the State for many years. Indeed, I think it would be regarded as one of the best broadcasters of its type in the world. Perhaps we have often taken for granted the role it has played. We may worry or complain sometimes about the "in your face" approach of Charlie Bird or the slightly frivolous approach of Vincent Browne to issues we might regard as extremely serious, but there is no doubt about the quality of the work produced by RTE in current affairs, drama, comedy and new areas. I compliment RTE in particular on its regional broadcasting service. It is doing a tremendous job and has driven a great amount of change, from which the country has benefited. The competition provided by RTE for local radio stations and vice versa has been all to the good.
In years to come, RTE will face a more difficult marketplace with hugely increased competition for viewers. This potentially threatens its advertising revenue. However, the new technology also presents an opportunity for RTE, TG4 and TV3. In the digital age, Irish radio and television stations will be available worldwide and that should be seen as an opportunity, given the huge diaspora of Irish people. People in the US, Australia, Canada or closer to home in the UK, France and Germany claiming Irish heritage will surely be a receptive new market for our broadcasters.
It is now a daily occurrence to hear on the radio about somebody e-mailing Pat Kenny from Germany. When we were in America last week we were able to check The Irish Times website. I also visited Australia in August and met some Irish emigrants who were making use of the new technology to access the GAA scores. In one centre in Melbourne, the people were able to list almost every score in every match that had been played in Ireland the previous Sunday. RTE should see this as an opportunity to secure a broader market. From the advertisers' perspective, it offers the chance to promote products which have an affinity with Irish people wherever they may be through teleshopping and over the Internet. It is an opportunity for everybody. Our interest in broadcasting should have two general goals. First, we must ensure that broadcasting serves our society's educational, cultural and informational needs. Second, we must foster the commercial development of the industry in Ireland. The Bill creates a framework in which the Irish broadcasting and programme making industry can adapt and flourish in the new environment.
With regard to educational broadcasting, I have always been of the view that RTE made a brave start in this area a number of years ago by establishing educational broadcasting through radio. It was tried on television but it proved extremely expensive and it was more or less dropped. There has been an improvement in the provision of direct programming to schools in recent years but much more can be done. One should also bear in mind the opportunities digitalization will offer. It might offer a school community a chance to set up its own broadcasting station. This can be seen in Ballyfermot senior college and in Coláiste Dhulaigh in Coolock, where much of the media training for the industry is provided.
When we talk about developing partnerships between schools and communities and between parents and teachers, broadcasting techology should be considered. It could be used to forge closer links between schools, parents and communities. The Government decision last year to invest significantly in information technology in our schools and colleges laid the foundation for working towards keeping us at the cutting edge of e-commerce and electronic information generally. The framework is created by this legislation and we should use it. The film industry, small as it might consider itself, is also given opportunities under the Bill.
Article 46.1.1 of the Constitution recognises the importance of organs of public opinion such as radio, press and cinema. For the past 40 years, television has been the most powerful organ of public opinion and it has rendered a great service. It has had an enormous impact on society. Who knows what role it will play in the new millen nium? Will a single television station have the same influence over society as RTE had? The viewing public might be split among a multitude of channels and television might be used in a different way. Already, as Deputy McGennis pointed out, children are as likely to play computer games and surf the Internet as watch conventional television programmes. The convergence of the different technologies, however, will blur the lines between these activities. The technology is fast moving and legislators will find it difficult to keep up with it. However, we must try to do so.
I have a particular interest in community broadcasting. At present, it is a fledgling part of the broadcasting sector but it is beginning to thrive, particularly community radio. I compliment the Independent Radio and Television Commission on its courageous decision to support small community broadcasters throughout the country. Those stations have given a voice to communities who would not have such access otherwise. They have also provided a focus for discussion and debate in communities and have often galvanised opinion on, for example, telephone masts, environmental matters, racism and women's and travellers' issues. Members have been lobbied by that sector about concerns regarding the definition of a community. I do not pretend to understand the ramifications but they suggest that a community broadcaster should be owned and controlled by the community it serves.
I welcome the Minister's announcement that she will put down an amendment to permit the provision of religious broadcasting. Members have been lobbied by interests in that area. I do not suggest that we should support overtly proselytizing stations but in a mature developed democracy we should not be afraid to allow religious broadcasting to thrive alongside other sectors of the broadcasting industry.