Broadcasting Bill, 1999: Second Stage.
Miss de Valera
Some programming that was available on free-to-air channels has migrated to pay-per-view and subscription channels. Niche services, subscription services and pay-per-view services are already with us and are set to grow. There is now a stronger argument than ever for broadcasting services operating to a strong public service remit providing programme schedules of quality and diversity and catering for minority as well as mainstream tastes.
We must also try to ensure real diversity and choice between broadcasting services. One of the objectives of this Bill is to put in place a regulatory structure that allows private sector broadcasting and public broadcasters to co-exist satisfactorily. Both sectors have much to bring to viewers and each sector can learn and challenge one another. While they have different ultimate objectives, they both have an important place in the range of broadcasting services that can be offered to viewers. This is why the Bill provides that our existing indigenous broadcasters both public and private will have guaranteed access to the new DTT platform. It is essential that these broadcasters have the opportunity to have their existing services available in digital form and to have the opportunity to develop new services. It is necessary also to provide a regulatory structure in which new indigenous services can be encouraged. To provide for this, a structure in which common basic programme and advertising standards can be applied across all broadcasters on all platforms is necessary. DTT, cable systems and MMDS have the potential to provide services at a local and regional level as well as national services. Cable systems in particular have the capacity to provide community channels which will be part of and be produced by the communities which they serve. This Bill is designed to provide a structure for the introduction and regulation of digital television services from a broadcasting perspective and it deals with a number of broad issues. It is intended to facilitate the introduction of digital terrestrial television in Ireland. It enables me, as Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, to designate a company which will be licensed by the Director of Telecommunications Regulation to construct and operate the DTT infrastructure which shall comprise six transmission systems known as multiplexes. RTE will have a minority partner with a shareholding of up to 40 per cent.
The Minister said RTE will "have" a partner, but the text says "be".
Miss de Valera
I thank the Deputy for correcting the record. The entity will be mandated to build and operate the DTT infrastructure and to promote the development of multimedia services and the information society. RTE's existing transmission function will be separated from RTE as a going concern and RTE's equity contribution to the new entity will be met to the extent required by the value of these assets. Certain obligations will be laid on the designated company through the Bill and through the licences which the director will issue.
Universal service is a key requirement in the rollout of the digital terrestrial infrastructure. Apart from access to broadcasting services, access to the Internet and other interactive services are important policy objectives. In this regard DTT has the potential to be an important delivery medium for these services, especially in rural areas. The Bill provides for the Independent Radio and Television Commission to be given expanded powers and functions in relation to the regulation of digital broadcasting on all platforms. To reflect this body's increased powers, its name will be changed to the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland will have the critical function, in addition to the current functions of the Independent Radio and Television Commission, of making arrangements for the provision of broadcasting services in addition to those provided by our existing broadcasters. In carrying out this function, the commission will be required to endeavour to ensure that the number and categories of broadcasting services available in the State best serve the needs of the people of the State, bearing in mind their traditions and cul ture. It is envisaged that the commission will regulate the broadcasting sector with a light touch. However, specifically the commission will draw up codes and rules relating to taste and decency of broadcast programme material, broadcast advertising and a range of other broadcasting related matters and enter into contracts with providers of broadcast content.
The Bill is not solely concerned with the introduction of digital terrestrial television services and their regulation. Another vital provision is the restatement of the public service broadcasting remit under which RTE operates. The Protocol to the Amsterdam Treaty of the EU recognised that the system of public broadcasting in the member states is directly related to the democratic, social and cultural needs of each society and to the need to preserve media pluralism. The public service remit is currently defined only in a general way in the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1976. In the light of the significant changes in broadcasting in Ireland and across Europe, the significant increase in broadcasting capacity which will be brought about by the introduction of digital terrestrial television and the Protocol to the Treaty of Amsterdam on the System of Public Broadcasting in the EU member states, it is appropriate and necessary now to provide greater clarity as to what is expected in fulfillment of the public service broadcasting remit which applies to RTE and to similarly define a public service remit appropriate to the ethos and mandate of Telifís na Gaeilge. The proposal will provide for additional clarity and detail in statute law in respect of the uses to which licence fee revenues and other Exchequer moneys paid to these broadcasters may be put.
The Bill provides for the repeal and restatement of the provisions of the Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960, and the Radio and Television Act, 1988, in relation to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and extends the powers of investigation of the commission to cover all providers of broadcast content. The Bill also provides that the Minister may establish Teilifís na Gaeilge as a statutory corporate body, the members of which shall be appointed by the Government, that the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland shall draw up a scheme for the disbursement by it of a fund of £500,000 provided from the Exchequer in respect of capital expenditure on transmission infrastructure incurred by local and community radio stations; for the repeal of section 14(4)(b) of the Radio and Television Act, 1988, which enables the Independent Radio and Television Commission to impose a levy on the income of independent broadcasters; and for the amendment of section 4 of the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1993 to provide that in the financial year 1999 RTE shall make the sum of £16 million available for independent television productions and that in subsequent years this amount shall be adjusted in line with changes in the consumer price index. I intend to bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage which will link the annual increase in the amount to be made available to the increase in the RTE spend on television programme production.
Section 1 contains the Short Title, collective citation, construction and commencement provisions. Section 2 contains definitions. Section 3 provides for repeal of existing legislative provisions set out in the First Schedule. Section 4 provides for the payment of expenses incurred by the Minister in the administration of the Bill when enacted.
Sections 5 and 6 deal with the mechanics of establishing the separate digital transmission entity. Section 5 provides that I, as Minister, may, subject to certain conditions, designate a company formed under the Companies Acts which has as its principal objects the transmission by analogue and digital terrestrial means of television services and sound broadcasting services provided by broadcasters. The designated company will also have the objects of the promotion of the development of multimedia services and electronic information services. Subject to my approval and the approval of the Minister for Finance, RTE shall transfer its existing transmission infrastructure to this company in exchange for a shareholding in the company. Section 6 provides that I, as Minister, shall have the power to transfer to the company the benefits of certain broadcasting and related licences that have been granted to RTE.
Section 7 provides that the Director of Telecommunications Regulation, on a date specified by the Minister, shall issue a DTT licence to the company that I have designated under section 5. The licence shall authorise the designated company to operate six digital terrestrial multiplexes. One of these multiplexes will be reserved for use by RTE and one half of one multiplex each will be reserved for Teilifís na Gaeilge and the television programme service contractor, that is, TV3. I shall have the power to direct that a multiplex or part thereof be reserved for terrestrial broadcasting services provided in Northern Ireland. The intention is that this power will be used if the British authorities introduce reciprocal arrangements for the carriage in the North of broadcasters established on this side of the Border.
Section 8 provides for the change of the name of the Independent Radio and Television Commission to the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and section 9 provides that the commission can enter into arrangements for the provision of additional broadcasting services. In performing this function, the commission shall endeavour to ensure that broadcasting services made available under the Bill best serve the needs of the people of the State.
Section 10 enables the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland to enter into digital content contracts with broadcasters for the provision of programme material to be transmitted by digital terrestrial means by the company designated under section 5.
Section 11 provides that the designated company shall enter into arrangements to transmit the analogue or digital free-to-air television services of RTE, Teilifís na Gaeilge and the television programme service contractor – TV3 – and to transmit the sound radio services of RTE and of the independent radio stations, some of which are currently transmitted by RTE on a contractual basis. The designated company may also enter into arrangements to transmit other broadcasting services by digital terrestrial means.
Sections 12 and 13 deal with electronic programme guides, EPGs, which are defined as a means of providing information in relation to the schedule of programme material on a broadcast service. It is expected that EPGs will be essential to allow viewers navigate through the array of services that will be available by way of digital transmission. Consequently there is a provision requiring ease of access to information regarding the broadcasting services provided by RTE, TG4, the television programme service contractor, TV3, and certain of the services provided in Northern Ireland. The commission may also enter into a contract for the provision of an EPG covering the DTT, cable and MMDS platforms and may direct that this EPG be carried on these platforms. Accordingly, if the commission is not satisfied that viewers are being provided with easily accessible information on indigenous broadcasters, it can bring this provision into effect.
Section 14 provides for the application, subject to necessary modifications, of certain fundamental existing legislative provisions contained in the Radio and Television Act, 1988, to new broadcasting services provided pursuant to contracts entered into under this Act. These provide for objectivity and impartiality in the broadcast of news and current affairs programmes and prohibit the broadcasting of material likely to promote crime or tending to undermine the authority of the State.
Section 15 provides for the preparation by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland of codes and rules to be complied with by broadcasters with respect to programme material. The commission shall, following consultation with RTE, prepare codes in relation to standards of taste and decency in programme material and broadcast advertising and other forms of commercial promotion. The commission will also make rules with respect to maximum daily and hourly times devoted to advertising and teleshopping on broadcast services provided under a contract with it. The commission will also be required to make rules in order to promote the enjoyment of broadcast services by people who are deaf or hard of hearing and people who are blind or partially sighted.
In relation to the codes of standards for broadcast advertising I intend to bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage designed to relax the existing blanket prohibition on the broadcasting of advertisements directed towards a religious end contained in section 20(4) of the Broadcasting Act, 1960, and section 10(3) of the Radio and Television Act, 1988.
Section 16 provides for the co-operation by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland in the preparation of non-technical codes or standards with respect to the transmission of information by electronic means, including the Internet. Section 17 provides that the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland shall enforce the provisions of the Bill when enacted and the codes and rules and contracts made thereunder.
Sections 18 to 23 provide for matters relating to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Section 18 provides for the appointment, remuneration, resignation and removal of the chairman and members of the commission and provides for gender balance among the members. Section 19 provides for the supply by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of staff, services, accommodation and facilities for the performance of its functions and for the payment of the expenses of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. Exceptional expenses of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission may be reimbursed by the Minister to the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland from television licence fee revenue. Section 20 provides for the grounds for complaint to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, which comprise the existing grounds with the addition of complaints of breaches of the code regarding taste and decency of programme material. The section also provides for the procedures for making complaints and the procedures to be followed by the commission in investigating a complaint.
Sections 21 to 23 provide for annual reports by the commission, for recording of programme material by holders of content provider contracts and for the completion by the commission of existing investigations.
Section 24 provides additional clarity and detail in respect of the public service character of the national television and sound broadcasting service provided by RTE. The basic requirement is that the service provided by RTE should comprise a comprehensive range of programmes in Irish and English, shall be free-to-air and shall be universally available in so far as it is reasonably practicable. Television licence fee revenue shall be, and commercial revenues may be, used by RTE for the purpose of fulfilling its public service remit.
Section 25 provides that in addition to its national service RTE may provide local, community or regional services. Section 26 provides that in addition to its public service broadcasting remit, RTE shall have the power to offer special interest subscription or pay-per-view programme services – secondary broadcasting services – and to transmit programmes by electronic means other than broadcasting.
Section 27 provides for the continuation of the current regime in relation to the approval by the Minister of advertising time on RTE broadcasting services, which are not subject to a contract with the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, and specifically includes teleshopping within this regime. Section 28 provides for an amendment to section 6 of the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1976, under which RTE is required to record every broadcast and to make such a recording available to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission in the event of a complaint. The amendment will require RTE to record visual as well as audio material.
Section 29 provides for an amendment to section 4 of the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1993, which deals with the annual amounts RTE must make available for independent television productions. Paragraph (b) of the section provides that the amount to be made available in the financial year 1999 shall be £16 million. The other provisions of the section currently provide that, in subsequent years, this amount shall be adjusted in line with changes in the consumer price index. As I indicated earlier, it is my intention to bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage that will link the annual increase in this amount to the increase in RTE spend on programme production.
Section 30 provides that the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland may authorise the television programme service contractor, that is, TV3, to provide additional broadcasting services by means of a variation made by it to the contract which has been entered into under the Radio and Television Act, 1988, in respect of its existing service. Section 31 provides for the entry by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland into satellite content contracts with persons for the supply of programme material to be transmitted as a broadcasting service by means of a satellite device. The commission may charge fees for such contracts.
Section 32 provides for measures in respect of the transmission and retransmission of programme material by means of cable and MMDS systems. Subsection (4) provides for the notification of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland in respect of the retransmission of broadcasting services. Subsections (5) to (11) provide for "must carry" status for the television services of RTE, TG4 and the television programme service contractor, TV3, national VHF sound radio services and community channels on cable television systems. TV3's "must carry" status on MMDS systems is maintained.
Section 33 enables the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland to enter into local content contracts with persons for the supply of programme material for local interest channels to be transmitted on cable and MMDS systems. Section 34 enables the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland to enter into community content contracts with members of local communities for the supply of programme material for community channels to be transmitted on cable and MMDS systems. Section 35 enables the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland to enter into cable-MMDS content contracts with persons for the supply of programme material for commercial channels to be transmitted on cable and MMDS systems.
Sections 36, 37 and 38 provide for the establishment of TG4 as a statutory corporate body on a day which the Minister may appoint. It is the intention that these provisions will be brought into effect at the optimum time. Section 39 provides that the function of TG4 shall be to provide a national television broadcasting service catering for the expectations of those whose preferred spoken language is Irish or who otherwise have an interest in Irish. The service shall have a public service character similar to that to be provided for in the case of RTE in section 24 of the Bill with, of course, special emphasis on the Irish language service.
Section 40 provides that the general duty of TG4 shall be similar to that of RTE by virtue of section 17 of the Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960, as amended by section 13 of the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1976. Section 41 provides a statutory basis for the supply by RTE free of charge to TG4 of one hour per day of Irish language programming. Section 42 provides that the approval of the Minister will be required for the total time per year of broadcasting by TG4. This provides for the continuation of the current regime. Section 43 provides that the approval of the Minister will be required for the daily and hourly times devoted to the broadcast of advertising and teleshopping by TG4. This also provides for the continuation of the current regime.
Section 44 provides for the application, subject to necessary modifications, of certain fundamental existing legislation provisions contained in the Broadcasting Authority Acts, 1960 to 1993, to TG4 as they apply to RTE under the existing law. By virtue of the application of section 21 of the Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960, TG4 shall have the power to appoint advisory committees or advisers. Section 45 provides for the payment by the Minister of Exchequer funding to TG4.
Sections 46 and 47 provide for transitional provisions in relation to TG4, including the transfer to TG4 of land, property and other rights and liabilities of Seirbhísí Theilifís na Gaeilge Teoranta. This company is the wholly owned subsidiary company of RTE, which currently provides the TG4 service. Section 48 provides for the separation of accounts and moneys in respect of secondary broadcasting services provided by RTE and TG4 in addition to their national public service broadcasting services.
Section 49 provides for general matters relating to content provider contracts entered into by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland under the Bill and section 50 provides for the charging by the commission of fees for applications for contracts. Section 51 provides for offences in relation to the supply of programme material for the pur pose of its being transmitted as a broadcasting service otherwise than in accordance with a content provider contract, offences in relation to the "must carry" requirements on cable and MMDS systems and offences in relation to the requirements to notify the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland of services transmitted or retransmitted on cable and MMDS systems.
Section 52 provides for the payment by the Minister of Exchequer moneys to the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland in respect of its expenses. This arises from the repeal provided for in section 3 of the Bill of the power of the Independent Radio and Television Commission to impose financial levies on independent broadcasters under section 14(4)(b) of the Radio and Television Act, 1988. Section 53 provides for the operation by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland of a scheme of capital grants to local and community radio stations in respect of their transmission costs to be funded from Exchequer moneys up to a maximum total of £500,000 to be provided to the commission by the Minister.
Section 54 provides for an increase from 14 to 30 in the number of days in a period of 12 months for which the commission can licence a temporary sound broadcasting service. Section 55 provides for amendment in respect of the grounds on which the commission can authorise a derogation by a broadcaster from the minimum requirement of 20 per cent of broadcasting time to be devoted to news and current affairs programmes. Section 56 extends the application of an order made by the Minister under section 31(1) of the Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960, to all new broadcasting services provided under the provisions of the Bill. There is no such order in force at present.
The First Schedule contains the list of enactments to be repealed by section 3 of the Bill. Sections 18A, 18B and 18C of the Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960, provide for the establishment, functions and duties of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Essentially, the powers of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission are being restated for clarity in the new legislation. Section 19 of the Act provides for the hours of broadcasting on RTE radio and television services to be subject to the approval of the Minister. Section 11(3) and (4) of the Radio and Television Act, 1988, provide for the extension of the powers of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission to the independent radio and television sector.
Section 14(4)(b) of the Act provides for the payment by independent broadcasters of financial levies to the Independent Radio and Television Commission. This requirement is being dropped. Section 4 of the Broadcasting Act, 1990, provides for the drawing up by the Minister of a code dealing with advertising, sponsorship and other forms of commercial promotion in broadcast services which shall be complied with by RTE and independent broadcasters. This will now be a function of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. Section 2 of the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1993, provides that the maximum daily and hourly advertising times on RTE broadcasting services shall be subject to the approval of the Minister.
The Second Schedule provides for standard provisions in relation to the establishment of TG4 as a separate statutory body, including the appointment, remuneration, resignation and removal of the chairman and members of the body and the requirement for gender balance among the members. Provision is made for the employment and devising of a superannuation scheme for staff including a chief executive. Provision is also made for TG4 to present annual reports and accounts.
I am sure Deputies will agree that the Bill is a major legislative initiative. The introduction of DTT will ensure that digital television services are rolled out to as much of the population of the country as is feasible. It will guarantee that at least our existing indigenous television services will be available in digital form, free at the point of reception on a universal basis or as near to that concept as is feasible.
In addition, DTT has the capacity to provide information services via television sets to viewers. The company to be designated under the Bill will be required to have, as part of its objectives, the promotion of multimedia services and the development of electronic information services, including those provided by means of the Internet. In this way the Bill will ensure that the maximum opportunity to partake in the information society is provided to as many people as possible. I look forward to hearing Members' contributions during this debate.
It is inappropriate that the Office of the ODTR should close the consultation period in respect of the licensing of digital terrestrial television by 5 p.m. tomorrow by which time the Bill will have been presented at Second Stage, and Committee Stage, on which the Government may table amendments, will not have been reached. The Minister should consult her colleague, the Minister for Public Enterprise, and make arrangements for the consultation period with the Office of the ODTR to continue until Report Stage is completed.
It is probablyultra vires anyway.
Probably. I welcome publication of the Bill and am glad it has eventually reached Dáil Éireann. The Broadcasting Bill, 1999, sets out to construct a legal edifice to cope with and cater for the digital revolution. It is to be the only Bill to be drafted for some considerable time and is, therefore, expected to cater for legislative needs in this area for the foreseeable future.
The Bill is a disappointment. It is weak, lacks imagination, is contradictory in a number of areas and appears to have been cobbled together from a number of different sources. It is, therefore, incapable of dealing with the complex broadcast ing agenda which has to be addressed and it also fails to deliver on dealing with changes that are driven by rapid technological development and the convergence of these technologies.
The Bill does not attempt to deal with the rapid convergence, already evident in many homes, of telephony, computing, television, other video and audio services and screen delivered consumer services such as shopping, banking etc. It does not set out clearly enough the part to be played by the national broadcaster nor does it present for it a secure and well funded independent future.
Broadcasting, along with general telecommunications, is a business in which only one thing is certain – uncertainty. All the media gurus and technological soothsayers can read the signs, peer into the tea leaves, toss the sticks or whatever, but no one can tell us what the market has in store for us beyond the current technological horizon of about 36 months.
The engineers who work in the field of telecommunications and broadcasting have given up trying to predict where it is going and instead have come up with a technology one might call "perfectly neutral", that is, raw digital capacity. We can do whatever we want with it, telecommunication capacity has become a commodity. The Bill does not grasp this fundamental fact. Telecommunication engineering is now concerned with conveying bits from one place to another, regardless of what they represent, be they calls to home, stock prices, baby's photographs, train schedules, "Shakespeare in Love"– all converted to bits, all down the same wire, all down the same optical fibre and all coming from the same transmitter.
The technology is impartial. Broadband, the Internet and the digital video broadcasting standard are all neutral technologies, but this Bill is not in tune with the convergence that is happening around us. The framers of it fail to recognise that the cable TV companies have become telephone companies, the telephone companies have become cable TV companies and broadcasters, the Internet service providers are now broadcasters and telephone companies and the broadcasters have become Internet service providers. If all these operators are not under the uniform regulatory regime, the alternative is a litigation nightmare.
We are, however, faced with the fact that this Broadcasting Bill is before us and must, therefore, be dealt with. I expect the Bill will involve considerable discussion on this Stage and further discussion and amendment on Committee Stage.
I would like to refer to a number of areas with which the Bill deals. What are the implications for the national broadcaster? What are the consequences for RTE in the context of its public service broadcasting remit and the future financing structure to deliver on that public service remit? Does RTE assume additional obligations under this Bill? Yes, it does. Is RTE given any additional funding to discharge these additional obligations? No, it is not. Does the Bill present any threats to RTE's existing income streams? Yes, it does, in providing for a massive increase in indigenous commercial competition. Will the Bill have any inflationary impact upon RTE's core costs? Yes, it will, as RTE will face increasing competition for spots and other rights in the global and domestic marketplace and it will increase its television output by up to 150 per cent. Does the Bill provide for greater resources to be dedicated to independent production? It provides for a maximum transfer, which should be a minimum. If RTE's losses in television production run to £6 million or £7 million on an annual basis with two television stations, this must surely be compounded when having to deal with five stations.
What index mechanism does the Minister propose to introduce on Committee Stage and how will it be determined in making the annual allocations to the independent sector? The Minister's inept handling of section 481 has resulted in a 50 per cent reduction in the production of feature films. This means the home grown diet of television programmes for Irish people will be swallowed up in the globalisation already reflected in the TV diet generally with programmes from Britain and the USA. So RTE will be enabled with its money from the sale of cable to involve itself in the setting up of the digital system, but it most certainly will not be able to run it without a clear, financial structure in place. Under the Bill, as presented, I predict that within three years RTE will be bankrupt unless some financial structure is put in place for its future.
The Bill requires RTE to implement a public service broadcasting remit that is defined in a general way in the Bill. This public service remit is based on the fact that RTE receives State aid in the form of a licence fee and from income derived from commercial advertising. The remit definition in the Bill appears to be drafted as a protective mechanism for RTE, which is seen as some sort of a conglomerate monopoly in a localised indigenous market. This can make for poor competition and inactive indigenous programme-making, leading to unimaginative presentation with a subsequent loss of viewers.
I would like to be proud of RTE. I would like it within its remit to show clearly, and be required to do so, how its licence fee moneys are spent on its public service broadcasting remit. I want it to be one of Ireland's most creative and imaginative broadcasters. I want it to offer the best value for money and to encourage Ireland's most innovative talents. It should be without question accountable and transparent to the public. This does not show up in the presentation of RTE's accounts annually and causes confusion as a consequence. The public service remit applicable to RTE in this Bill should be much clearer, more specific and more defined. The national broadcaster should be able to set out in advance its statement of intent in terms of category and extent of programmes to be carried. This state ment should be measurable and enforceable, in return for which the national broadcaster receives due protection.
The Bill includes a formula of independence for TnaG or TG4 as it is now known. The public service broadcasting remit is different here – TG4 is not charged with a requirement to provide a comprehensive range of programmes in Irish and English, merely to provide news and current affairs programmes primarily in the Irish language. Why is this? Surely TG4 should be seen as the television broadcaster for the Irish language which was why it was set up. Does this mean it is to be turned into Channel 4 or some similar structure? Surely it means that TG4, for all the Government's pious intentions, is to be placed firmly in a desert of economic starvation – alive but being slowly strangled, visible but unable to deliver as it should. Given its remit and lack of financial structure, it is heading down the road to oblivion. Why does this Bill not set out a clear structure of independent funding for RTE and TG4? Given the nature of TG4 and TV3 will the Bill be amended to give ‘must carry status', legally enforced to all Irish TV broadcasters, with primacy of position on all delivery systems – cable, MMDS, and aerial? This is a fundamental question for the future of all broadcasters in Ireland.
The financial mechanics surrounding the designated digital carrier Digico, and RTE's involvement in it, require clarification. If the proposal is to privatise the existing transmission systems as the price of obtaining a digital transmission system, it might be best to say so and debate the proposal. How is the digital carrier to generate revenue? It will have powers to charge broadcasters for transmissions which seems anomalous given that cable and relay companies are obliged to carry the signals of our existing broadcasters for free. This does not seem like fair practice and may well be in contravention of EU competition law. Have plans for Digico factored in the cost of massive consumer equipment subvention, which may be as much as £350 per household? If Digico is to succeed it needs to capture as much of the market of 1.1 million homes as it can. Will it have the £300 million or so necessary for this level of subvention? If its partners, yet to be known, make available the finances to build and maintain the transmission system, what are the implications in terms of levies for broadcasters and RTE's participation?
The very establishment of Digico in this fashion and its granting of all the licences for digital terrestrial television infrastructure is a curious move because there is no distinction between digital terrestrial television and digital cable television except that one uses cable and the other one does not. They both deliver television, internet connections and data broadcasting. They both have set top boxes, tiers of services at different prices, pay per view and a monthly bill. They are and will be healthy businesses in a highly competitive climate. The Minister needs to explain the procedure adopted here and why it is necessary to interfere in this business in this fashion.
The financial projections in the NERA Smith report presupposed that DTT would be an alternative to cable and MMDS. The decision to broadcast free to air has torn these projections to shreds. Should consideration have been given to a series of licence rounds for DTTV operators as there was for cable and MMDS? If this is in any way capable of being construed as being in contravention of European law then the barristers representing cable and telecommunications companies will have a field day. Perhaps Monsieur Charvet should consider setting up a new outlet outside the Four Courts as this will certainly keep people in shirts for a long time.
Transmission infrastructure, as any broadcast engineer would be pleased to tell the Minister, is a relatively small part of the cost of television. So, while the marginal cost for a particular operator to deliver a third or fourth multiplex may be small, it is not clear that there would be significant cost impact to have multiple operators – even in the same region. The real reason for bundling all six multiplexes and deploying them on a nationwide basis is that the new company would have enough combined capacity to compete head-to-head with MMDS in non-cabled areas. With 30 channels, about half the capacity of digital MMDS, DTT would be in the ball park of looking like an MMDS operator, except already neatly consolidated on a nationwide basis. Should it be the Government's responsibility to do this, where the cable companies started out quite naturally as regional operators and are laying down hard cash to bring about consolidation? I can hear the laptops of the barristers humming and what they are typing is as follows:
Whereas in Commission Directive 90/388/EEC, on Competition in the Markets for Telecommunication Services, recitation 6 makes specific reference to information services providing access to databases, message storing and forwarding services, electronic mail and transaction services; financial transactions, electronic commercial data transfer, teleshopping, and telereservations; and whereas under recitation 17 of the same directive it is stated that "The exclusive rights to telecommunication services granted to public undertakings or undertakings to which member states have granted special or exclusive rights for the provision of the network are incompatible with Article 86(l) in conjunction with Article 82 (ex Articles 90(1)/86)"; and whereas Article 2 of the same directive stipulates that "member states shall withdraw all special and exclusive rights for the supply of telecommunication services and shall take the necessary measures to ensure that any operator is entitled to supply such telecommunication services"; and whereas Commission Directive 94/46/EC, which refers specifically to satellite television, makes it clear in recitation 17 that "the provision of network services for the conveyance of radio and television programmes is a telecommunications service.."; and whereas section 7 of the Broadcasting Act, 1999, grants the licences for six digital terrestrial television multiplexes, including the communication facilities to deliver them to a particular undertaking, without an open and objective licensing process, therefore section 7 of the Act is not in conformance with Commission Directive 90/388/EEC, otherwise known as the ‘Services Directive' which is the cornerstone of telecommunications liberalisation in the European Community.
The barristers can rest after that.
In telecommunications licence rounds involving the use of the electromagnetic spectrum, it is interesting that the frequencies are not simply auctioned off to the highest bidder with the money going into the general fund. Such a practice is not actually incompatible with the EU treaty or directives, but it is frowned upon because it is rightly thought that the cost of the licence, inflated by bidding up, would be passed on to the consumer. So the decision as to who gets a particular licence is normally based on proposals and evaluations of the bidder's capabilities, in what is known rather comically as a "beauty contest", rather than on who is willing to pay the most and the licence fee, which could still be a considerable sum, is geared to cover the administrative costs. On the other hand, a public holding like the transmission department of RTE, if it is to be sold on the market, has to be sold to the highest bidder. There is a contradiction. The Broadcasting Bill grants the frequency licences to the new transmission company, the licences become part of the market value of the new company, then the new transmission company is sold to the highest bidder. The result is a frequency auction with the inflated value of the licences passed on to the consumer – which was to be avoided.
There is another problem with granting the remaining four licences to the new television transmission company, without an open licence round. These licences already have a certain monetary value. A communications company in possession of such frequency licences is worth more on the market than one without licences. However, the value of the licences derives from State resources in any form whatsoever. The airwaves belong to the State and according to the Constitution the air belongs to the State. Handing over licences to a company without an open and objective process is a State aid, but such aids are not prohibited. Derogations do apply and I would like to know if the Government wishes to apply for a derogation and, if so, on what grounds? Perhaps the Minister will respond to that point in her reply to the debate. The Broadcasting Bill, in its preamble, states:
.separate provision in relation to the following discrete aspects of broadcasting, namely, the supply of programme material for the purpose of its being transmitted and the transmission of such material that is so supplied.
In the modern lexicon, this means content providers and transmission providers and the idea is to keep them separate for competition reasons. It is a fairly straightforward concept. An Post is a good example of a transmission provider who is not a content provider. An Post, for instance, does not write letters, it delivers them. The company does not decide who sends the letters and it does not have anything to do with what is inside the envelopes; that is strictly for the content providers. There is no sense in complaining to the postman about the quality of the correspondence.
The framers of the Broadcasting Bill, however, do not seem to comprehend that this new division of labour also applies to broadcasting. I have examined the Bill in some detail and the best I can figure out is that the transmission provider is the one who decides which broadcaster's programmes will be delivered.
TV3, whose signal is currently distributed by RTE and would be distributed by the new transmission provider, has expressed some doubts about the arrangements. TV3's misgivings have concerned the involvement of its primary competitor in the delivery of its product. Perhaps TV3 should be more concerned about this new entity instead of RTE, as a potential competitor. The Broadcasting Bill leaves the transmission provider with a lot of room to manoeuvre. It should be borne in mind that the primary responsibility of its board of directors will be to make the most money for its shareholders if that is possible – an elementary fact of business life – and, in the absence of rules to limit its remit, that is exactly what it will do.
If the Bill is passed as presented, the transmission company will have a great deal of control over the content. There is no provision in the Bill to prevent it from arranging with, for instance, a UK broadcaster for a special compilation of programmes aimed at the Irish market, with schedules specifically planned to compete in this market, or even with advertising specifically targeted at Irish viewers. According to the Bill, the company is equipped with at least 20 non-Irish channels for nation-wide distribution. We can expect some of these channels to be dedicated to films in the higher priced tiers of service offering. What is to prevent the transmission company from purchasing the Irish distribution rights for these films and becoming its own film content provider?
There is no provision in the Bill, as far as I am aware, to limit the amount of band-width Digico assigns to home shopping or interactive games if they originate in another EU member state, and deriving the premium distribution fees which could be expected. I have looked for the promised "separate provision of content and infrastructure" but have not found it. Perhaps the Minister can refer to that in her reply.
The new Broadcasting Commission of Ireland is charged with the task of making arrangements for the provision of broadcasting services in the State, additional to the existing services. It will not, however, have any say in the matter of what goes out over the four remaining multiplexes unless they originate in Ireland, which is highly unlikely considering the provisions of the Bill. The digital content contracts do not apply to channels which originate in other member states of the EU, and even where these do apply, the Broadcasting Commission may only exercise a veto. The licences are not to be issued on a must carry basis. There is nothing in the Bill to provide for this, and the transmission company does not have to co-operate with the commission.
The only way the Broadcasting Commission will be involved with the content of the four remaining multiplexes is as a delivery boy for the edicts of the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, when and if she dictates which UK multiplexes should be delivered to Irish viewers. In every other EU member state which has introduced digital television an open licence round has been held to decide which broadcasters should have their programmes delivered over the system. This Bill, however, has no provision for an open licence round.
Given that the Broadcasting Commission will have no say in the matter of the four remaining multiplexes, the Minister's proposed powers are questionable. Given, also, that the ODTR has been relegated to strictly technical matters, it appears the decision will have to be made here in this forum or handed over to the, as yet unknown, majority owners of the transmission company.
There are six multiplexes to be assigned in the initial roll-out of DTT. Is that number an arbitrary one? Supposing it were seven, would Digico then acquire all seven multiplexes? If only one of the six multiplexes is set aside for local and regional television, there could be a television station in every city and major town. As it stands, if one wants to tune into a city-based television station, one must live in Derry because it is the only one in the country. Such multiplexes are commonplace in the United States where many cities, such as Boston, have smaller units with three or four TV channels in its own right. This is where the future lies, not just in local or regional content.
Local and regional television was referred to in discussion document ODTR 99/57, issued on 7 October 1999. On page 9 of that document, the regulator states that "she intends that the multiplex licence would provide the framework for any future licensing of regional or local multiplexes".
If local and regional can be provided for in the future, is there some reason they cannot be provided for now? Would that make the new transmission company less capable of taking business away from the cable companies? Would RTE, perhaps, find the competition from regional TV a bit tough?
Can we assume from the absence of a reference to regional or local multiplexes in the Bill, that the Government has no plans to offer local, on air, independent television licences in the foreseeable future? I hope the answer is not confined entirely to the fact that it has made provision for local television on cable and MMDS systems. I would like to address the definition of community content on Committee Stage.
One of these multiplexes should be set aside for educational purposes. If education is the mother of the Celtic tiger, perhaps we should perceive education as a first priority. It would be much better than transmitting re-runs of "Baywatch". A great number of people would avail of such a facility to learn modern languages, including, French, Spanish, German and Portuguese. Although televised courses are not as good as being there in person, they are better than not having any lectures at all, and the interactive features of digital television can help to bring people together. In addition, the encryption feature can be used to preserve privacy.
Yesterday,The Times of London reported that the British Minister for Education has announced that interactive television will be introduced over the next three years to aid GCSE pupils across the UK. In that way, students will be able to use television and the Internet to pursue their studies. If one takes that idea a bit further, the same multiplex system could be applied to the industrial sector, thus obviating the need for students who work part-time, to travel long distances to attend lectures. This kind of facility is common in the USA, in particular around high-tech areas such as Boston and Silicon Valley where dedicated microwave links are used, operating on frequency bands set aside for this purpose. The courses are taught in the daytime and students attend at the workplace. Anyone who has taught an evening class will know that it is inferior to daytime teaching and it disrupts family households as a consequence. This is an opportunity to expand our educational capacity into the home.
Why is it not possible to receive BBC Radio 4 here? It used to be available a number of years ago? It is one of the best public service radio stations in the world and, while it used to be available in this part of the country, it can no longer be picked up. It was very handy when driving home from meetings to listen to some decent chat instead of being blasted out of it by some wall-to-wall version of pop music. The Minister should investigate that matter.
The Minister should consider the question of deflectors. It is much easier to deflect digital waves than analogue ones. If analogue is to be licensed for a period under the proposed round, why can digital deflectors not also be licensed? There is no method of getting back into the MMDS system from a local area. One has to go back to the city to have it retransmitted. It would be better to have it transmitted by air to include everybody.
What would the Teachta Dála from Donegal say about it?
The Broadcasting Commission is charged with the task of making arrangements in accordance with the provisions of the Bill for the provision of broadcasting services. What say, if any, will the commission have in respect of the four remaining licences, unless they originate in Ireland? Do digital contracts apply to channels which originate in other member states and, if so, what will be the extent of the commission's influence? Why has consideration not been given to an open licence round to decide which broadcasters should have their programmes delivered over the system? How is uniformity of regulation to be operated and monitored? Is it feasible to have three regulatory authorities attempting to operate across a broad spectrum with no uniformity leading to litigation in many areas? An example is the Paddy Duffy incident before the last election. What are the capacities of a half multiplex and will TG4 and TV3 have capacity for all services such as data transmission, etc. if required? Why have Internet services been excluded from the broadcasting definition, section 2(1), when the remit of Digico includes the promotion of multimedia services and the development of electronic information services, including those provided by means of the Internet in section 5(4)(d) and (e)?
What capacity exists for the provision of city based television stations or regional television stations as apply in the US or Derry? Is it not a fact that if one multiplex was set aside, there could be a television station in every city and major town in Ireland? How is it proposed that RTE will be accountable for its licence fee and what conditions of transparency are to be applied in its being presented to the Minister? Will the Minister clarify the position regarding costs of set top boxes and will she legislate for must carry status in primary position for all Irish based broadcasters on all systems so that when a person turns on his or her television, channel one is RTE One, channel two is Network 2, channel three is TG4 and channel four is TV3? How will this legislation prevent the coming into existence of a two tier society in this information age and will she clarify her guarantees that this will not happen?
RTE in its document, The Future Delivery of Television Services in Ireland, which was presented to the Oireachtas committee and on which Deputy Higgins did a fine rapporteur's report, indicated in its conclusion:
As the UK is introducing DTT and this will overspill into Ireland, we in Ireland need to introduce DTT almost simultaneously with the UK or be faced with a de facto DTT regime imposed from outside the State. This will lead to gradual loss of national control in spectrum management.
Will the Minister clarify the Government's assessment of how much we have been damaged in this respect to date as a consequence of not having introduced DTT here yet and how is it proposed to combat and deal with BSkyB which will move into Ireland shortly in this regard? What guarantees are provided by the Bill that independent film producers will be able to play their full part? This area has enormous potential and the youngest, brightest, most innovative and imaginative want to get involved in it. If there is no clear financial structure for RTE and TG4 to buy productions from the independent sector, this wealth of ability and talent will travel elsewhere. In respect of local radio, what conditions will be laid down by the Broadcasting Commission in respect of the dispensing of the £500,000 for transmission costs? How will that be determined?
The Bill stops at the door of the broadcasting department and does not cross the hall to the telecommunications department. It does not deal with convergence and I regard it as weak, unimaginative and incomplete. It requires substantial amendment on Committee Stage and there is a need for answers to a range of questions. It is the first Bill in this area for many years and it must deal with the long-term future, but it is not sufficiently open ended to cater for it.
Digital broadcasting is a technological advancement and as such should be welcomed. The Government decision is that digital broadcasting will be by way of aerial, that is, there will be digital terrestrial television. I understand the net effect of digital terrestrial broadcasting will be better quality picture and sound. I further understand that television reception will be clear irrespective of distance from the transmitter. It appears that up to 30 channels will be provided and that they will be grouped into what are known as multiplexes. The Bill provides for six multiplexes. One of these will be for the use of RTE and there will be half a multiplex each for TG4 and TV3. The Minister may also reserve a multiplex or part of a multiplex for terrestrial broadcasting services provided in Northern Ireland. This would leave at least three multiplexes and 15 plus channels available for the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland to enter into digital content contracts with broadcasters for the provision of programme material to be transmitted by digital terrestrial means.
When approaching proposed legislation which would regulate a service being availed of by virtually all, if not all, the people living in the State, the fundamental objective should be the provision of the best quality service at the best possible price. The best possible price in this context means that the price is within the comfortable reach of everybody while the best possible quality service embraces the fundamental requirement that programme quality must be maintained and improved against the background of increasing the quantity of programmes. It is essential that the introduction of digital terrestrial television in Ireland does not result in the opening up of a division in society between the information rich and the information poor. Such a division would further deepen the exclusion of many citizens from the means of escaping the poverty trap.
The free market will inevitably cause the most popular television programmes to become more and more the exclusive preserve of subscription and pay per view television. The Labour Party sees this as the first and foremost issue which must be addressed. It is not an overstatement that the introduction of digital terrestrial television is a defining moment not only in regard to television but also in the context of the information age. Equality of access within the digital revolution must be viewed in regard to the convergence of technologies with all the attendant opportunities and difficulties.
The Bill should not be rushed, despite the efforts of the Minister to jockey it through on the basis that it must be passed into law by the end of this year so that £16 million can be paid to independent television producers. My legal advice is that this is not the case. RTE has all the powers needed under the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1993, to make the payment in 1999. It is ironic that in the information age, a community wide debate is not taking place regarding the Broadcasting Bill. It should be further noted that the Bill has not emanated from a notable consumer demand for the introduction of digital terrestrial television. The Government is undoubtedly aware of the low take up of digital terrestrial television in other countries. Will the Minister in replying inform the House whether she expects the take up in digital terrestrial television will be any different in Ireland. Bearing in mind that our population is relatively small, do the economics of the proposal work out? To receive a digital signal with existing television sets, I understand that a set top box will be necessary and that these boxes will cost between £150 and £200. I further understand that the cost of new digital television sets could be as high as £1,000 or as low as £500.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Heritage and the Irish Language published its report on broadcasting last January. It requested the Minister to ensure that the indigenous channels as well as the existing BBC and ITV channels, including Channel 4, would remain available under present conditions. By that the committee meant there would be no additional charges to viewers. Will she give an undertaking in this regard?
I wish to raise another aspect of the communication-rich and communication-poor question. Part II is headed "Standards in Broadcasting". Section 15(1) deals with the understanding and enjoyment of television by people who are deaf or hard of hearing and those who are blind or partially sighted. The Irish Deaf Society does not accept this provision in the Bill is satisfactory. Essentially, it seeks more specific targets in the legislation because it fears there is too long a timescale for the introduction of specific steps. It seeks 100 per cent subtitling of output within five years and the devotion of 5 per cent of air time to the medium of Irish sign language. I ask the Minister to carefully consider this request. The maximum universal access to television output within the State is not alone desirable but in this day and age should be viewed as a right for all of those who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or partially sighted.
Part IV has aroused considerable interest within the broadcasting sector. It is headed "Provisions in relation to the Authority". Section 24 deals with the public service character of the authority's national broadcasting service. In effect, it deals with public service broadcasting. In the 1980s the BBC broadcasting research unit in London published a document setting out eight principles of public service broadcasting. These included universality of availability; universality of appeal; provisions for minorities, especially those disadvantaged by physical or social circumstance; servicing the public sphere, that is, the nation speaking to itself; a commitment to the education of the public; public broadcasting should be distanced from all vested interests; broadcasting should be so constructed as to encourage competition in good programming rather than competition for numbers; and the rules of broadcasting should liberate rather than restrict the programme makers.
Part IV, section 24(1) states: "The national television and sound broadcasting service required to be maintained by the Authority under section 16 of the Act of 1960 shall have the character of a public service, continue to be a free-to-air service and be made available, in so far as it is reasonably practicable, to the whole community on the island of Ireland and the Authority shall have all powers as are necessary for or incidental to that purpose." This appears to cover the first principle set down in the BBC document, Universality of Availability.
Part IV, section 24(2) states:
Without prejudice to the generality ofsubsection (1), the Authority shall ensure that the programme schedules of the broadcasting service referred to in that subsection–
(a) provide a comprehensive range of programmes in the Irish and English languages that reflect the cultural diversity of the whole island of Ireland and include, both on television and radio (and also, where appropriate, any means of transmission referred to in section 16(2)(bbb) (inserted by this Act) of the Act of 1960) programmes that entertain, inform and educate, provide coverage of sporting and cultural activities and cater for the expectations of the community generally as well as members of the community with special or minority interests and which, in every case, respect human dignity;
(b) provide programmes of news and current affairs in the Irish and English languages, including programmes that provide coverage of proceedings in the Houses of the Oireachtas and the European Parliament; and
(c) facilitate or assist contemporary cultural expression.
This subsection appears to cover the third principle of the BBC document dealing with the provision for minorities, but the Bill needs to be strengthened by including a provision dealing specifically with those disadvantaged by physical, sensory, mental or social circumstances. In this regard section 24(2)(b) and (c) are bland and require sharper focus.
When section 24(2)(b) is set against the fourth principle in the BBC document the deficiency in the language of the Bill becomes more apparent. Public broadcasting should service the public sphere, the nation speaking to itself. Implicit in this principle is a proactive, creative role which stimulates discussion on the issues which are of primary importance to the nation. Indeed, when it is viewed against the eighth principle in the BBC document, which states that the rules of broadcasting should liberate rather than restrict the programme maker, the shortcomings in paragraph (b) are the more apparent.
Section 24(2)(c) is so bland it must be asked whether there is any merit in including it in its present form. If the paragraph is to have any meaning, there is a need to explain or expand on what is meant by the term "contemporary cultural expression". With regard to the provision of programmes in the Irish language by Radio Teilifís Éireann, it is imperative the Minister specifies the minimum number of broadcast hours which must be provided in the Irish language by the authority on each of its services and how they will be constituted.
The fifth of the BBC principles would appear to be covered under section 24(2)(a), but the sixth and seventh of the BBC principles must be clearly stated. These state that public service broadcasting should be distanced from all vested interests and that broadcasting should be so structured as to encourage competition in good programming rather than in competition for numbers. These are fundamental principles. The important issue is quality of programming with a focus on citizenship rather than consumerism. Being a consumer is only one part of being a citizen.
Part IV, section 24(3) provides for ministerial power to modify section 24(2) by order. This gives deep cause for concern. It appears to be a wide-ranging provision with the potential to seriously undermine the primary legislation. The Labour Party is totally opposed to this provision and will be putting down an appropriate amendment on Committee Stage. It appears to indicate that the public service broadcasting definition contained in the Act could be completely overturned by ministerial order. I do not suggest the Minister would do this, but the power would be there for future Ministers to act accordingly.
The Bill provides that the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands may establish Teilifís na Gaeilge as a statutory corporate body, the members of which shall be appointed by the Government. However, some of the terminology used in the section which details the functions of Teilifís na Gaeilge makes one wonder what the new body corporate will be mandated to do. For example, section 39(1) states: "Teilifís na Gaeilge shall establish and maintain a national television broadcasting service which shall have the character of a public service and be made available, in so far as it is reasonably practicable, to the whole community on the island of Ireland."
Section 39(4), paragraph (a) seeks to ensure that the programme schedules of this broadcasting service provide a comprehensive range of programmes that reflect the cultural diversity of the whole island of Ireland and include programmes to entertain, inform and educate, provide coverage of sporting and cultural activities and cater for the expectations of those of all age groups in the community whose preferred spoken language is Irish or who otherwise have an interest in Irish. Paragraph (b) seeks to provide programmes, primarily in the Irish language, of news and current affairs.
Apart from the fact that this would seem to indicate that the nature of Telefís na Gaeilge will change significantly when the station is set up on a statutory basis, there is a great need for a national debate on the Irish language. A number of basic questions must be asked against a background of continuing decline in the standard and use of the Irish language throughout the country. The first question is, do we as a community wish to achieve a bilingual society and, if so, why do we wish to do so? There is the question of how the Irish language enriches national life. If there is a free open discussion where those with contrary views to what in many ways is the knee-jerk common wisdom can express them without being subjected to ridicule or abuse, then I believe the Irish people at large will renew their commitment to the Irish language, to its revival and to things Irish. Currently, too much of the support stated for the Irish language is unthinking support, not a thought-out position. There is also a need for qualitative and wide-ranging research to establish what the people of Ireland really think regarding the Irish language.
The language belongs to all the people of Ireland, not to any group or political party. We must face up to this fact. A great deal of State resources have been applied to the Irish language. In the context of revival and increasing the use of Irish as a spoken language, we have singularly failed. We need as a people to have the maturity to engage in a root and branch analysis of the place of the Irish language in the day-to-day life of the citizens of this State. Following that, and the conclusions reached, policies should be implemented which would have the strong and enthusiastic backing of the majority of the people. Without this the Irish language will decline even further. No fundamental changes should be made to Telefís na Gaeilge until the people have been encouraged to state their views in a mature nationwide debate.
Part IV of the Bill states that the Authority – meaning Radio Telefís Éireann – shall ensure that the programme schedules of the broadcasting service facilitate or assist contemporary cultural expression. The functions of Telefís na Gaeilge, or to use its new title TG4, contains an identical clause. However, there is an addition which states, "facilitate or assist contemporary expression and encourage or promote innovation and experimentation in broadcasting". Is it to be deduced from that that there is no obligation on RTE to encourage or promote innovation and experimentation in broadcasting?
The Minister has stated that a new entity is to be created in which RTE will be a minority partner with a shareholding of up to 40 per cent. This entity will be mandated to build and operate the DDT infrastructure and promote the development of multi-media services and the information society. RTE's existing transmission function will be separated from RTE as a going concern and RTE's equity contribution to the new entity will be met to the extent required by the value of these assets. Will the Minister tell me whether the decision to separate RTE from its existing transmission function was taken on ideological grounds or on social, economic and democratic grounds? Can the Minister enlighten us as to how this decision is in the national interest, bearing in mind that RTE will be disposing of an asset which has been provided by the taxpayer?
The Minister has also spoken of a project management group chaired by her Department, including representatives of the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Finance, Public Enterprise and of RTE in overseeing the management of the project. Has this project group, or any group in which representatives of her Department have been involved, evaluated whether the separation of RTE from its existing transmission function is the correct and prudent course and, if so, how was this conclusion arrived at? Will the Minister further enlighten us as to who the one or more strategic partners with the relevant expertise and finance in respect of the operation are? In what way will this course of action strengthen the position of those who can become the information underclass? Will the Minister further inform us as to why, in what is effectively the privatisation of a national asset, it is considered appropriate for RTE to have a minority shareholding? If RTE is to have any shareholding, why would that shareholding not be a majority one? How will the new entity ensure service in transmission blackspots, particularly in mountainous and remote areas of the south, west and north-west? Will the public interest, as in all the public, be served in this regard? In any event, the Labour Party stands by its previous proposal that the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland would set up an agency to maintain the transmission infrastructure of the Authority within the public service. Is the Minister satisfied that TG4 will be able to pay the sort of commercial fees for transmission that the new company would be likely to charge?
Section (8) of the Second Schedule states that a person shall not be appointed to be a member of the body unless he or she has experience of or shown capacity in media or commercial affairs, radio communications engineering, trade union affairs, administration, or social, cultural, educational or community activities, and he or she is able to speak and write proficiently in the Irish language. Who will adjudicate on the proficiency of any prospective member of Telefís na Gaeilge to speak or write proficiently in the Irish language? Does this mean that a person must have an honour in the Leaving Certificate examination or a further third-level qualification? Who will adjudicate on the experience or capacity shown by a person to be appointed in relation to radio communications engineering? Will the person need to have a craft, a national certificate or a national diploma or degree in radio communications engineering? What is meant by a person must have experience of or shown capacity in media or commercial affairs? I submit that this section is unclear in its terminology and to a strict interpretation could virtually eliminate everyone from being a member of Telefís na Gaeilge.
If the situation is reached where 30 channels are available through digital terrestrial television broadcasting, the obvious question is how can all this time be filled with worthwhile programmes? If the whole operation, outside of public service broadcasting, is profit driven, is there not the danger that the Irish public will be exposed to a great deal of rubbish?
Is the Minister satisfied that the £16 million being made available in 1999 by RTE for independent television productions is sufficient? Is this an imposition RTE will be able to carry without serious restriction on the Authority's public service broadcasting role, and should some or all of this funding come directly from the Exchequer?
What has the Minister done to ensure sufficient funding is available for the production of high quality indigenous programmes which will continue to enhance the programming that is available free to air to the public? Can the Minister state, in terms of quality of programming, that the existing cable, MMDS and soon to be licensed, albeit in the short-term, deflector multi-channel television services, are not superior in terms of content to that which will or could become available under the provisions of this Bill?
The Community Media Network sees the Broadcasting Bill, 1999, as offering real progress to community channels, not least by giving legal recognition to them. The Community Media Network fully recognises the positive aspects of the Bill, which it welcomes, but there are some short comings it sees as being detrimental to the development of the best kind of community broadcasting. The point has been made that the Independent Radio and Television Commission definition of community broadcasting should be extended to cover all community media. That definition states:
A community radio operator is characterised by its ownership and programming and the community it is authorised to serve. It is owned and controlled by a not-for-profit organisation whose structure provides for membership, management, operational programming, primarily by members of the community at large. Its programming should be based on community access and should reflect the special interests and needs of the community it is licensed to serve.
The second area of concern for the Community Media Network is that community media should be explicitly formed as non-profit entities whose sole aim is to benefit their community in social, cultural and economic terms. That community media should not be restricted to broadcasting but, where possible, should engage in programme production, training, community capacity building and exchanges.
A third point which concerns the Community Media Network is that the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, which is proposed under this Bill, should provide for research into initial community views and needs, and whether the broadcaster is satisfying these, but that this research should be put in place on a participatory basis and should be geared towards the ongoing improvement of services. The fourth issue concerning the Community Media Network is the definition of community which it contends should include community of interest. The fifth issue is that, because of the not-for-profit nature of community media, the Bill should allow for the setting up of a fund of seed finance for community broadcasters.
The Community Media Network is seeking to have community representation on the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and other statutory and advisory structures. It also seeks a clear statement in the Bill that recognises social, economic and cultural benefits of community broadcasting.
I will conclude with a number of questions. What is the relationship between the Authority, that is RTE, and the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland? Is it intended that RTE will be brought under the control of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland?
Regarding the "Additional functions of the Commission", section 9(1) fails to take account of the fact that there are two official languages in this Republic. As the Bill stands, the Commission is charged with performing its function to ensure the number and categories of broadcasting services best serves the needs of the people of the State, bearing in mind their traditions and cul ture. I put it to the Minister that the final phrase should read "bearing in mind their traditions, languages and culture".
In relation to Part III, section 5(2), I put it to the Minister that the areas in respect of which the Commission shall make rules should include a code specifying the minimum amount of broadcast hours which must be provided in the Irish language on each broadcasting service and how these hours will be constituted, subject to the approval of the Minister. Furthermore, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission should be empowered to investigate and decide on a complaint that a broadcaster is failing to comply with a provision of this code. The Bill does not provide for an assured index-linked funding mechanism for public broadcasters, RTE and TG4.
I further ask the Minister to inform us why the Bill is so woolly on convergence and whether she personally supports a situation where the powers and duties in the area of communications are spread over three Departments. More importantly, the Bill is devoid of vision in the context of the convergence of telecommunications broadcasting and the Internet. Essentially, the Bill approaches the highly exciting future of the Information Age with inadequate and outdated concepts and strategies. The Bill does not indicate what we can aspire to in the social, cultural and democratic sense. Instead of enhancing the agenda of informing, educating and entertaining, we run the risk of an overwhelming diet where repetition and rubbish will tend to dominate.
The Labour Party will reserve its position on the Bill until we have heard the Minister's response to the debate.
The Broadcasting Bill, 1999, is to be welcomed. I support the Minister's proposals and her aims in putting the Bill before the House. There is a pressing need to cater for major anticipated future development. We are all aware that in this age of technology explosion change occurs not by the week or by the day, but by the hour and by the minute. In this context, we must have in place a regulatory system that addresses the needs of today's broadcasting services. The Bill amends the Broadcasting Authority Acts of 1960 to 1993, and it is the first major legislation on broadcasting since 1988. The last really comprehensive survey of this medium took place almost 40 years ago. We are now far removed from the magic of our first black and white television and the wonder of our initial contact with colour television. Compared to those far-off happy days, the television scene, even as it stands, offers a choice and a multiplicity of programmes that would have astounded the viewing public of the 1960s.
The Minister is to be complimented on her perception of the very real need for the presentation of this Bill to the House at this time. Its purpose is to make the necessary preparation to put Ireland's broadcasting infrastructure in place for the next millennium. It will license an authority for digital terrestrial broadcasting. Under this new system hundreds of channels will develop in this new digital TV era. There will be widespread choice on a scale never before envisaged. This is something we all look forward to with great anticipation. I cannot really grasp the possibility of the many uses we will find for DTT. We are limited only by the bounds of our imaginations, and we must ensure the proportion of native Irish programmes provided to the viewing public is not allowed to diminish. We do not want them swamped out of existence by the sheer weight of alternative programmes. It is my belief that all the programmes transmitted on our national network should and must reflect the standards and ethics of the people of all of Ireland.
Increased powers with regard to the drawing up of codes and rules in the context of all broadcasting are in place. These powers relate to the taste and decency of programme material and advertising. We must ensure this new system caters for those values and the views and beliefs of minority as well as majority groupings. Programmes must reflect our heritage and the rich cultural diversity of our people. They should continue to constitute a large proportion of our network capacity. We all have great expectations of the richness of knowledge and information that will unfold when the new technology is on stream. We must ensure our standards of respect for human dignity and our core values continue to be observed on our national broadcasting system. Following the required consultation with the Minister for Public Enterprise, the Bill provides that the Minister may designate a company that will be licensed by the Director of Telecommunications Regulation to construct and operate the DDT structure. The contract will embody stipulations that material in programmes which contravenes Article 22 or Article 22A of the European Council directive or the provisions of the Incitement to Hatred Act, 1989, will result in the loss of the contract. I have asked for copies of that legislation.
Under the terms of the contract, six transmission systems, known as multiplexes, which will be eligible for DDT licences will also be put in place. The Bill reserves a full multiplex for RTE, which is called the "Authority" in the Bill, half a multiplex for the television programme service contractor, currently known as TV3, and half a multiplex for TG4. The other four licences will go to designated companies to transmit services. These companies could represent interests in the television, radio, cinema, Internet, telephone and multi-media sectors. The Minister may provide that a multiplex or a part thereof be allocated to a Northern Ireland terrestrial broadcasting service.
A major change in the Bill is that the Independent Radio and Television Commission will be renamed the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. This new body will have greatly expanded powers and functions. It will control and regulate the DDT infrastructure which con trols terrestrial broadcasting, cable and MMDS systems and satellites. The Bill will clarify the remit of RTE and TG4 under the Broadcasting Acts and the establishment of TG4 as a statutory body whose members shall be Government appointees.
I welcome the provision of £500,000 for capital expenditure on transmission infrastructure by local and community radio stations, the removal of the right of the Independent Radio and Television Commission to impose levies on the income of independent broadcasters, the provision by RTE this year of £16 million to independent television producers and the ongoing provision of such a sum, which will be index-linked, in subsequent years. I compliment the Minister on the breadth and vision embodied in these far-reaching proposals.
Over the past decade the broadcasting landscape has changed dramatically. The development and expansion of TG4 and TV3 has given a wider choice to television viewers. The enactment of this Bill will provide a statutory basis for the continued successful development of world class standards of broadcasting and transmission. We have a mixture of State and independent broadcasters which provide quality programming that is the envy of other countries. The rapid development of independent radio in line with this progress has been greatly welcomed. This sector has now achieved a 50 per cent market share. Who could have foreseen that a few years ago?
This Bill makes provision for expected future developments, particularly in the technological areas. It recognises that such advances, combined with a rapidly changing commercial environment, will ensure a climate of ongoing change and expansion. The new technology will fully service the increasingly sophisticated needs of Irish audiences, particularly at local level. It will firmly establish an independent broadcasting sector in which it is hoped all operators will participate successfully and fairly.
Under the guidance of the Independent Radio and Television Commission, independent radio has been enormously successful. It has developed out of all proportion and it will continue to expand. It is seen as a valued public service and it has become a unique part of communities throughout Ireland, providing quality community access. It sets high standards which will ensure the quality of the independent network will continue at its current high level. The abolition of the broadcast levy, which was long overdue, rightly recognises the public service role independent stations play. The establishment of the £500,000 fund for the improvement of the transmission infrastructure will go some way towards defraying costs incurred by local and community stations.
In my constituency of Cork, 96FM has played an invaluable role not only in providing an exceptionally strong entertainment medium but also in providing the only source of hourly local news. Its current affairs programmes also provide the only outlet for Cork people to discuss issues which affect their lives. Cork issues are rarely dealt with by national stations. 96FM allows Cork people to discuss their home place, of which they are proud. This local radio provides a valuable outlet for us, as politicians, to debate current issues and other matters and to explain our actions and points of views to the public. The people will give both negative and positive answers on what they think of what is being done for them by politicians and local authorities.
Local radio also provides us with a valuable forum for feedback. It gives us the public's reaction to national and local politicians and political events and our constituents' views on our performances in that context. Nobody is left under any illusion as to what the public deems to be important and what it feels we should be doing. They are also quick to point out what we are not doing. It is gratifying that the daily broadcasts are provided by local radio professionals without compromising the quality of the service. That is not unique to Cork. A similar first class public service is provided by the majority of local stations throughout the country.
This Bill firmly establishes the future of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. However, the same cannot be said for the future of the independent radio sector and the 1,000 staff it employs. Stations are now reaching the expiry of their current contracts and their renewal cannot be taken for granted. In the aftermath of the demise of Century Radio, many questioned the wisdom of investing in independent radio stations throughout the country. Shareholders, management and staff of independent stations have invested substantial time and finances in their workplaces. They have shown faith in their stations, which has been justified, and a belief in the widespread public demand for independent radio. They have succeeded in developing independent local radio stations to the heights they have now reached. Their listening public now rivals those of the largely subsidised national radio stations.
Future expenditure in both equipment and staffing in radio stations is being questioned in the light of an unsure future. Clear policy statements regarding the licensing of existing independent radio stations should be issued as a matter of urgency. No business can be expected to operate and thrive in an environment of total uncertainty. It is unfair to the staff who have developed the area and to their families who now face uncertain futures. We must give our full backing to all those who work in the independent radio sector. We must also ensure that stations which operate within the law are not adversely affected by those who work illegally. A large number of pirate broadcasters have begun to emerge. Their broadcasts have, on occasions, interrupted emergency service transmissions. Their existence affects the livelihood of licensed operators. Provision is urgently required to ensure that those who operate legally are subject to the full rigours of the law.
The Broadcasting Bill deals at length with technical issues and the future of digital broadcasting. It is important that all parties play a role in this development and that the independent sector is given a defined role. The Bill provides additional clarity on the public service character of the national television and radio services provided by RTE. This must be closely monitored, particularly in light of the service being provided by independent television and radio. Particular notice must be taken of the 20 per cent quota of news and current affairs under which independent radio stations must operate. We must question whether it is right that independent commercial stations should have more onerous public service requirements than some of our public broadcasting services. I suggest that this Bill incorporates a clear and unambiguous definition of the meaning of public service broadcasting.
RTE will continue to receive a licence fee to finance public service broadcasting. It should provide quality Irish programming which would not otherwise be available. Clear and specific conditions should be attached to the distribution of the licence fee. We must monitor in detail the manner in which this money is spent. This must be done in a transparent and accountable fashion. It is unacceptable that the licence fee could be used to subsidise advertising rates to maintain a low cost advertising environment or to encourage anti-competitive practices. I am advised that RTE has used public funding to aggressively outbid TV3 for programming that does not fall within the public service category. I hope this will not be allowed to happen again.
Section 25 provides for RTE to operate local, community and regional services. There are some excellent programmes provided under this heading. If the independent sector is already providing the local service, it is manifestly unfair that public funding would be used by RTE to satisfy a need that had already been filled.
The Bill provides RTE with the power to offer special interests subscriptions or a pay per view service. The introduction or implementation of this type of service must be stringently monitored. We have to ensure that items of national and general public interest can be availed of and viewed free of charge by the entire population. I refer specifically to our national games and sports. They are not to be confined to those who can afford to pay for selective expensive viewing.
The Bill deals with both television and radio broadcasting. It reiterates the national commitment to provide a comprehensive range of services in Irish and English. It gives well merited recognition to the outstanding programmes produced by the independent production sector and to the exceptionally talented individuals who work therein. Why then is there only a commitment to independent television production? On the broader scene, it is unusual in a European context for national broadcasters to be dual funded. I am advised that this does not happen. If this is so, the scene must change. Heavily funded national broadcasters should not be allowed to have an unfair advantage over their competitors in the independent sector.
It is important that broadcasts from the national system should fully reflect the traditions and values of the people. They must: "Provide a comprehensive range of programmes in the Irish and English language...reflect the cultural diversity of the whole island...cater for the expectations of the community generally as well as members of the community with special or minority interests...respect human dignity". There must be a balance in what we see and hear on our programmes. People have told me that at times they feel they are being preached to by RTE. Many people express unease as to what they see as a preoccupation by some broadcasters on our national station with minority viewpoints that do not respect our traditional values. Those people are entitled to their beliefs and are entitled to express them.
Some of our broadcasters seem to be either unaware or uncaring in relation to the guidelines imposed on them when they speak on our national transmission system. We hear vulgar language used with a fair degree of regularity on 2FM and other stations. This may be acceptable to those who use and promote it but the general public is not impressed by it. Its views are relevant, even though some broadcasters may think they are immune to the criticism of listeners. It is important that the opinions of those in the mainstream of Irish life be given a fair hearing proportionate to their numbers. They take serious exception to the perception of some on our networks that it is fashionable and trendy to criticise and show bias against and a disrespect for the cultural and spiritual values of our people. I do not agree with it. Under Article 40.6 of the Constitution, there is a prohibition against the "utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter". This does not deter the showing of pornographic material on the national screens. I do not agree with this either. Some may consider my views old fashioned. They may be, but I will not apologise for them. There must be a good number of people who share my views. If one needs an indicator, look at the listener ratings.
A section dealing with TG4 states that the station must have "an awareness of the need for understanding and peace within the whole island of Ireland" and "special regard for the elements which distinguish the varied elements of our national culture". This seems to imply that only this station needs to be specifically advised as to how it will run its operation in the field of national broadcasting. No one has anything against the sentiments expressed, but where is the public demand that they need to be explicitly expressed in the case of Irish language broadcasting? Is this because it is a station which promotes the Irish language and culture? Its record of first class, well balanced and responsible broadcasting speaks for itself. We have no need to worry.
I will deal briefly with teleshopping channels. A constituent advised me that almost 50 per cent of Italian television is devoted to teleshopping. I hope the Minister will ensure this will not happen here. I have also been asked about whether people will have to pay for additional channels with the introduction of digital television. I did a great deal of research on digital television. I cannot speak about it as I have run out of time, but I point out that I am well advised on these matters.
The Cork area is the home of high speed electronics for information and telecommunications technology in Ireland.
Hear, hear. High speed everything.
This is true in manufacturing and especially so in the area of research. The National Microelectronics Centre in Cork has led this field for many years. I am aware that this outstanding institute in Cork is engaged side by side with a top class local company on a prestigious European project involving high speed electronics to be used in digital television.
One must give a belated welcome to the Bill. It has been so long in gestation that it came as a shock when it was finally presented to the House. We thought it would never appear. That is not because little preparatory work was done by Members of both Houses on the issue of digital broadcasting. We had committee meetings during which we heard substantial submissions from various interests in the areas in doubt. A sizeable report was published by the rapporteur, Deputy Jim Higgins, in which all the recommendations he put to the committee were accepted. It is regrettable that there was not an opportunity to debate the recommendations in the House when such major legislation as this Bill was imminent. They should have been debated as it would have shown the greater relevance of this House as a debating chamber. It seems there is a desire on the part of Ministers to have their exclusive stand on legislation.
The absence of a debate on the recommendations was a missed opportunity, especially given that the study conducted by Deputy Higgins and committee members was substantial and was finalised in January 1999. We found it difficult to get the technical people from the Department to attend our meetings. While they made a submission, there was no discussion about content and we heard nothing from the Department as to its views on content. When the legislation was finalised, only one or two of the recommendations of the report were briefly touched on. There was a long list of them and the first of them laid emphasis on the fact that broadcasting must be seen as an aspect of cultural life, that further broadcasting legislation must affirm that this is an overriding public interest and that decisions about broadcasting must be made in accordance with cultural and democratic criteria. A great opportunity for a democratic exercise was missed through the failure to debate this report in the House, which would have allowed us to see what was behind the Department's thinking.
Everyone is concerned about the future of RTE, TV3, TG4 and private producers and the significant employment content involved in that. In spite of the increase in the number of channels available to RTE, the station has a problem with costs. In its very fine presentation to the committee, RTE representatives outlined their views on the subject of costs but they do not appear to have been taken on board in the Bill. The financial future of RTE is dealt with in such a trivial manner that one can only conclude that, unless the Minister offers an explanation about its future financing on Committee Stage, the station could be bankrupt in three years' time. That may appear to be an extreme statement but one can only operate on the basis of the limited information available.
This Bill offered an opportunity to produce a radical system which would operate long into the next century. As we have such a huge pool of advanced technical knowledge among our young people, we should have offered those young people some encouragement. Instead, the Bill serves to dampen people's expectations. It does not really say anything about the future of TG4, an inspired development, primarily generated by the former Minister, Deputy Higgins. While all parties have grappled with TG4, the station's cultural thrust is in danger of being lost. In an attempt to boost its viewing figures, the station did a great public service by broadcasting the proceedings of the Committee of Public Accounts DIRT tax hearings. I suppose the hearings had a certain cultural aspect to them – they certainly exposed an inordinate level of lack of culture.
They were an exercise in fantasy illusion.
Indeed. However, we should give credit where it is due to TG4 for taking its opportunity. There was no forward thinking in the Department to indicate that such initiatives could be expanded upon. We are now wondering how funding will be allocated to the station? Initially, it was to be provided in accordance with the cost of living index but, subsequently, it was to be provided in accordance with RTE's production cost index.
RTE, TG4, TV3 and independent radio operators want to see the development of a transparent financial structure for RTE. However, the Bill does nothing to assist RTE in achieving this objective. I am sure RTE executives are pulling their hair out that this great opportunity has been bypassed, seemingly for the sake of expediency. I regret the Minister did not take advantage of this significant opportunity to develop a real definition of public service broadcasting.
Broadcasting services are an element of the fourth estate. A previous speaker referred to minority interests in RTE having an inordinate say and pointed to the fact that they are not controlled. That position seems to vary. The RTE authority should have its own secretariat and should be independent of the RTE company which exists at present.
One of the Bill's main planks relates to the establishment of a company called Digico, of which RTE will acquire 40 per cent. The remaining 60 per cent will be sold off. Many Members of the committee expressed very definite reservations about allowing Mr. Murdoch and his ilk the opportunity to take up that 60 per cent and run riot over us. Committee members were very angry and disenchanted about this issue.
I have no confidence in the advice Ministers are receiving at present, certainly in regard to the sale of State assets. One need only look to the Telecom – now Éircom – flotation for proof of that. Members of the public were massaged by their own money for a three or four month period. I understand that approximately £6 million was spent in an attempt to seduce the public into buying shares. People were given the impression that the shares were the equivalent of a licence to print money. Only the fly by nights who got out in the very beginning made a profit. I do not think there would be a great degree of confidence among the public about investing in 60 per cent of Digico. If the Minister is going to seek financial advice, she should not ask the Minister for Public Enterprise for it.
It might prove difficult to avoid Deputy O'Rourke's advice.
That is true. The Telecom flotation was the most sloppy and unprofessional sale of a State asset I ever witnessed. Now we are preparing to sell off the broadcasting abilities of RTE and the shares will hopefully feature on the New York Stock Exchange.
However one looks at it, public service broadcasting is not a matter of right wing versus left wing or conservative versus liberal. It is the right of the public to communicate. It is something which, if not dealt with it in this Bill, will be put on hold for a long time.
As Deputy Kenny said, broadcasting in the future will involve the Internet and teleshopping and so on. It is necessary that we meet the basic mass communication needs of the majority of the public. That should be the priority of public service broadcasting. We are not demonstrating our ability to communicate in this Bill. I suppose it is the last cry of the older generation in this century. At almost the end of this century, we are not showing much imagination.
I acknowledge the splendid critiques I received from many quarters about this Bill. TV3 provided an executive summary. I am sure the Minister got the same but her response has been rather limited. It spoke about Irish channels for Irish viewers. As Deputy O'Shea said, there is no sense of promotion of indigenous broadcasting services in the Bill. The Minister is not encouraging TV3, TG4 and definitely not the private production aspect.
I do not think TV3 is in a position to give lessons on it either.
Maybe not. It is inhibited. During my short term as Minister of State, I visited many small companies in the Gaeltacht area which were well able to produce outstanding short films. These films provided much employment locally. I did not see any imprint of Údarás na Gaeltachta on this Bill. Did the Minister consult Údarás? Did she ask about these private developers?
Maybe the Aire Stáit did.
Maybe he was consulted, although I do not know.
He talks all the time.
Deputy Kenny likes to listen to BBC Radio 4 on his way to Mayo but I listen to Radio na Gaeltachta on my way home. There was an interesting interview the other night on the radio about a production unit in the Ring Gaeltacht in which the managing director or manager of the company illustrated the advances it had made but also indicated that it would be dependent on the private film producer and the work RTE or TV3 gives it. If the Minister had said £16 million was the minimum figure, that would be something but she said £16 million plus. That is a handicap for the private film producer. As Deputy O'Shea asked, who will guarantee the goodwill of the Minister who follows Deputy De Valera, although this Government believes in keeping Ministers in place for a long time?
They are doing a great job.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Walsh, is the longest serving Minister for Agriculture in the history of the State. Look at the shambles over which he has presided. I hope the Minister, Deputy De Valera, will not allow herself to be walked into the same position. I hope she will look after the industry and the employment aspect of the industry for which she is responsible.
All sections of the industry have moved with the times. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Heritage and the Irish Language received a submission from Film Makers Ireland on 2 March. We were given a breakdown of the proportion of RTE's total revenue. It is clear RTE is turning its back on independent productions because it does not have the scope. How will the Minister deal with this issue? How will she ensure the confidence of people who are prepared to invest in this area? Will she do so in the hit and miss manner in section 481, to which Deputy Kenny referred?
The Minister went to Los Angeles or San Francisco a year or two ago and when she came back she had her knuckles rapped by the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, who said there was no money but decided to extend the section for another year or two.
He was on holidays when she went to Los Angeles.
She returned there recently. Regrettably, for those employed in the industry, the number of new films started has been reduced by 50 per cent. Will RTE be reduced in size or will we have any RTE by the time the Minister is finished? That is the question.
I am rather intrigued by Deputy Carey's reference to the longevity, if you like, with which the Taoiseach allows his Ministers to hold office and a single portfolio. I suppose Deputy McGuinness and I would rather it was otherwise and that perhaps younger people would get an opportunity but the Taoiseach is rather conservative when it comes to reshuffling and reallocating portfolios. One lives in hope that policy might change in the near future.
There are those hoping for preferment, as Trollope would put it.
One never knows. I hope fortune will favour the brave, as they say.
I am one of those lucky people, lucky beneficiaries in some ways, of the new dispensation in broadcasting which occurred around 1989 when the then Government decided to introduce commercial radio broadcasting and introduce the vital element of competition and choice which we now see flourishing throughout the country. In many ways, it gave counties an enormous sense of self-worth with local radio stations in every county – sometimes in two county franchise areas – which was not previously the case. It created greater competition in the large commercial market which existed in Dublin. Next Tuesday, 10 November, I will go to a celebration party for the tenth anniversary of 98FM, a station I worked with for a number of years.
The changes which have occurred in broadcasting over the years are remarkable. We have now come through a wave of new licences, specialist licences in the Dublin area concentrating on news-talk and providing a variety of choice for the listener. We are also seeing the development of a community tier in radio and television broadcasting. All of these are very welcome, particularly as we move into the digital era. It is important competition is opened up fully so that the listener-viewer has real choice in terms of the type of programming available. I hope the digital era will lead to greater choice as well as greater competition and that greater choice will allow for a diversity of programming which will be positive and underpin the democratic values of our State and the cultural diversity the term "democracy" implies.
I welcome the Minister's initiative in introducing this Bill to regulate the new and exciting era in broadcasting being ushered in by digital television. The purpose of the Bill is to provide structures and a regulatory framework which will ensure that the broadcast needs of citizens at national and local level are fully met both in terms of information and entertainment, that there will be fair competition among those providing commercial services and that adequate provision will be made for community broadcasting on television, as well as altering the structures of RTE's operation to reflect this new reality. I will deal with these topics in turn.
The arrival of digital television will greatly increase the number of channels available to consumers. There will consequently be an increase in choices as well as superior picture and sound quality. Areas which now suffer poor quality transmissions due to a variety of geographical and technical factors should benefit significantly from digital television. It is estimated that up to 30 channels, grouped in four multiplexes, can be supplied by digital television, thereby making it possible to provide educational channels, 24 hour news channels, local news channels and additional entertainment channels. This Bill presents an opportunity to foster diversity in programming and to prevent the development, due to commercial pressure, of dumbed down programming, where one channel is virtually indistinguishable from the next.
There must be some concern at the Bill's proposals regarding the creation of a designated company to transmit the digital television signal. It is proposed that RTE transfer to the new company such parts of its real and personal property as it considers appropriate, subject to the consent of the Minister. This will not be an outright sale or divestment of assets, as it is envisaged that RTE will have a minority stake of 40 per cent in the new company. RTE will, therefore, continue to have a significant interest in and influence on the transmissions market. This cannot be described by any stretch of the imagination as an arm's length relationship. The practice in Britain and Australia has been for the transmission operation to be transferred to a separate private company, with the State maintaining no interest in the transmissions business. If there is a strategic rationale for the proposal as it exists, it should be made explicit so that it can be fully debated on its merits.
As there are already a variety of established competitors in the marketplace supplying transmission systems, such as cable, MMDS, satellite and deflector systems, great care must be taken that the new purpose-designed company is not conferred under statute with any privileges or advantages which would distort the market. As it stands, it seems the new company will be granted some advantages. It will be the only competitor with the legal right to charge RTE, TV3 and TG4 for carrying their signals. RTE and the other national broadcasters will not pay other competitors for this service and this is in effect a hidden subsidy for the new company, which will artificially lower its operating costs by reference to their competitors. Cable and MMDS companies are required by law to carry RTE but cannot charge for the service. Cable companies also pay royalties for carrying BBC and UTV. The Bill proposes that the new company should be able to charge BBC and other channels and this does not seem to be a level playing field.
There also seems to be some policy confusion and contradiction in the approach to RTE's participation in the retransmission market. RTE and Telecom Éireann were joint owners of Cablelink until the Government directed in 1998 that they divest themselves of their interests in that operation. The current proposal effectively reverses this decision, as it re-establishes RTE as a player in the retransmissions market by law. The policy consideration underlying this proposal needs to be clarified.
I am aware from my background in the media and telecommunications industries that there is considerable concern among those already providing retransmission services that unless the new company is wholly divorced from RTE by way of an arm's length divestment of assets and operations there will be significant market distortions, and fair competition in the retransmission business will not exist. There is also a strong case to be made for subjecting the new company to the same regulatory principles that are currently applicable to the telecommunications and cable networks. The objective should be to ensure fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory access for all service providers and to avoid different types of regulation for different distribution platforms. As I indicated earlier, the current treatment of those providing such platforms is far from consistent and the current proposals, if allowed to remain unaltered, look set to increase diversity of treatment and consequential anomalies as a result.
A single regulator for the entire communications industry is the most logical and simplest proposal. Failing that, the Independent Radio and Television Commission should retain responsibility for regulation of content, while it would seem reasonable to have the distribution network regulated by the Office of the Director of Telecommunications Regulation. The Bill also provides the Minister with the opportunity to set out a clear and specific definition of the public service remit which would involve specific reference to the type or category of public service programmes to be provided, and verifiable, objective targets could be set for these types of pro grammes, for example, in numbers and the time of scheduling.
There is also a view in the industry that the Bill should carefully circumscribe the ability of RTE to use the licence fees for purposes other than the defined public service remit. This would have the double benefit of ensuring that subscribers get the programming they have paid for and that competitive distortion in the marketplace due to State funding was kept in check to the maximum possible extent. In this context it would also be useful for the purposes of openness, transparency and accountability if the Bill were to require RTE to account separately for its public service and commercial activities, clearly defined by reference to quantifiable criteria.
RTE was established at a time when, through market failures, there was no alternative to State provision of public broadcasting. Times and circumstances have changed and there are now other players in the field. The requirement for fair competition in all sectors of economic activity is an ongoing contemporary concern. The Minister has the opportunity to address these concerns in the Bill and it would be timely to do so, as this legislation provides the fundamental underpinning for the way broadcasting develops for many years ahead.
The Bill contains provisions relating to the establishment of community television stations, which have been broadly welcomed by community representative organisations. However, the proposals as structured raise a number of issues and it is difficult to see how many community interests would be able to establish a sustainable television station in the absence of some start-up funding from the State, as the start-up costs for television are significantly greater than radio. It is also difficult to see, in the light of restrictions on advertising on community and local interest channels, how many of them would survive in the long-term. This aspect of the Bill seems to require further thought. On the other hand, if the restrictions on advertising are mitigated, it is essential that the commercial and content independence of these stations are maintained, as they could, in time, if subject to takeover, become attractive targets for other media interests. In particular, the acquisition policies of regional and national newspaper groups spring to mind. The Bill, as amended, should contain such measures as will prevent an unhealthy concentration of media power and influence. The objective – it is a worthy one – of enabling communities and interest groups to have their own independent voices must be defended. However, they must be given such a measure of commercial freedom that they can become thriving, self-sustaining entities which will not be permitted recourse to the State for ongoing financial support.
As it stands, the Bill represents a good beginning to provide a solid legislative foundation and framework in the communications industry. I hope the Minister will take the caveats and criti cisms I have voiced as positive and constructive. We are entering a new broadcasting era and we must, to use the old cliché, level the playing field for both commercial and State broadcasters. Essentially, we have now evolved a three pillar system, with the State broadcaster as one pillar, commercial broadcasters as another and community broadcasters as the third pillar. I am slightly disappointed that the putative community broadcasters of the future are not included in the new Broadcasting Commission. The Minister may intend addressing that in future. It is important we maintain the integrity and validity of these three pillars of the broadcasting market. The first pillar is State or public service broadcasters, the second is the commercial sector and the third is the community pillar. All these have a validity and integrity of their own which must be maintained.
I passionately believe the public service role RTE played over the years has served the country extremely well. It is fashionable for politicians to criticise the media and say it is biased in one way or another. The media here is not as biased as it is in other countries. The public service mandate and role of RTE must be spelled out in a much clearer way than heretofore to give it the integrity and future it deserves. There is a danger that we may go the route of other countries, such as the US, where public service broadcasting has become something of an extreme minority cult and what is offered on television is not greater choice or variety but a kind of dumbed-down info-entertainment presentation. This should be avoided. We must underpin the State broadcaster, but not in a way which is injurious to the many new commercial players which have come into the market and are selling their wares at specialist, local and national levels.
I do not advocate this should be done tomorrow – I know there was some ribaldry earlier about privatisation – but somebody should consider whether 2FM and Network 2 are perhaps worthy candidates for being sold off or floated and put into the commercial market. Both stations have committed staff and have been a tremendous success and, therefore, could weather the storm in the private sector. The presence of these essentially entertainment stations within the RTE network clouds, colours and, to a certain extent, distorts the pursuit by RTE of its public service mandate. They are great stations and are probably great commercial successes. Their establishment and success is a great tribute to the management of RTE. However, their future might lie in the competitive world of the private sector. This might be helpful in terms of helping RTE to fully fulfil its public service mandate.
Another issue in the Bill is the diversity of programme which will emerge in the digital era. I hope the Minister has in mind the importance of the educational function in the digital era, that what is transmitted becomes genuine access broadcasting and that it provides an opportunity for those who offer access to information, edu cation and cultural matters. I know Deputy Michael Higgins has very strong views on the notion of access to the airwaves for ordinary citizens and I am sure he will develop this in his speech.
I congratulate the Minister on doing a very good job. I know Deputy Carey expressed some disappointment that the Bill is not more definitive or strategic. The world of broadcasting is changing very fast and perhaps this is not the time for definitive or strategic legislation but rather for a Bill which brings us to the new platform. When we see how this pans out, the Minister or her successors, if there are any, will evolve new and more strategic legislation that will set the path well into the next century. We are at a time when things are changing in the world of broadcasting. We do not know in definitive terms to where some of the new technologies and the relationship between the Internet and television and the entertainment industry as it develops globally will lead. It is not clear how this will interact with telecommunications. Perhaps it is to the Minister's credit that she has not produced a definitive, strategic and all-embracing Bill which might put incorrect parameters on the development of broadcasting. A flexible and pragmatic response is necessary.
We must clarify the public service role of RTE and underpin, develop and enhance it as best we can. We must also provide equal treatment for those new commercial broadcasters who will provide new choices for listeners and viewers of the future.
I would like the Minister to explain how we will provide reciprocal access across the Border and how we will provide for the new political dispensation which arises from the Good Friday Agreement. For instance, how will we give BBC Northern Ireland and UTV the proper reciprocal access in terms of what we would ask for in the Six Counties? This is very important, because television, sometimes by its mere existence, helps change attitudes and gives people access to different sources of information and a diversity of opinion which they might not otherwise see or hear.
I again thank the Minister for bringing forward this legislation. We are entering an exciting period and what she has done is commendable.
I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on this important Bill. My colleague, Deputy Kenny, and others have dealt with various issues. Deputy Carey dealt with the nitty-gritty of the Bill and will do so in more depth on Committee Stage. As the Minister said, the Bill aims to facilitate the establishment of physical infrastructure for digital broadcasting and the creation of space in the crowded world of broadcasting for new, indigenous and innovative services.
The constituency which I and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle represent has had access to UTV and BBC down through the years. We have been able to get a much broader spectrum in terms of broadcasting in general than our counterparts in Counties Cork and Donegal and in other areas. I do not believe there is any fear a Deputy will be elected for Cavan-Monaghan purely on the basis of the problems associated with cable television or related issues.
The introduction of digital television creates an opportunity for an increase in the number of services. This will make available all sorts of outside broadcasting, some which will be good and some which may not be so good. It is not fair to blame TV coverage for all our crime, etc., but certainly some of the material broadcast by outside stations, and even on some of our own stations, leaves a lot to be desired.
The Bill also provides for the Independent Radio and Television Commission to be given expanded powers and functions. While I appreciate that much good work has been done by the Independent Radio and Television Commission, I wonder if it is wise to give too much power to independent bodies. We must examine many of the bodies set up by the House, for example, the National Roads Authority. Questions to the Minister on issues for which he provides finance are redirected to the NRA and it is very difficult to get the information or to get things done. I have personal fears about all the different powers the House divests to these independent authorities.
The Bill restates the public service remit under which RTE operates. This is one area I wish to question. RTE gets the licence fee provided by users. Local radio has done a tremendous job since it was initiated some years ago and I welcome the provision of £500,000 in the Bill as a token gesture of Exchequer funding towards capital expenditure for local and community radio. Local radio in my area, namely, Northern Sound, Shannonside Northern Sound and in the south of the county LMFM, provides a tremendous service. It covers the death notices and national issues as well. This is an opportunity for the Minister to give much needed finance to these groups to improve their service further. They give the housebound a valuable opportunity to hear local news. My mother has been blind for some years and this service is particularly important for people in that situation, who cannot read newspapers, to keep up with the news.
For these reasons local community radio should be given a portion of the licence fee. Local radio competes for personnel with RTE, UTV, BBC and other radio stations. Northern Sound, my nearest local station, has a proud record of providing personnel to the national stations and stations in Northern Ireland. It has been a tremendous training ground but it needs extra finance to employ and retain top quality personnel to give the service the local communities demand and deserve.
I refer to another issue which arose recently. Most public representatives from Border counties have received representations from UCB Europe, a Christian radio station, and Dublin City Radio, headed by Dr. Cecil Stewart. Both applied to the Independent Radio and Television Commission for licences but were turned down. In fact, UCB asked the churches responsible for rebroadcasting their satellite radio station to cease on 16 February 1999, before the new licences were awarded. Unfortunately, they both failed to secure licences. Deputy Kenny has met with representatives of these organisations and will deal with this matter in greater depth on Committee Stage.
However, it is important to put before the House the reasons people wanted these stations to be given the opportunity to broadcast. A sample letter from the dozens which I received which was also sent to the Taoiseach, Deputy Ahern, from Rockcorry Presbyterian Church reads:
We are writing on behalf of the members of Rockcorry Presbyterian Church to appeal to you to do all in your power to see that United Christian Broadcasters are granted a licence to broadcast or retransmit their programmes on ordinary radio.
Many of our members are regular listeners to UCB and their programmes are a lifeline especially to the elderly and those who cannot get out and about. Some of our members who are drivers have complained that the UCB programmes are no longer available on 549 medium wave since the station went off the air in February. Some of our children listen in to the children's programmes and the young people in their teens and twenties to "Cross Rhythms".
Today in the media, there is any amount of bad language, violence, explicit sex and material which does not help people to live better lives. UCB programmes are healthy, wholesome, positive and help people to live their lives in a way that is positive and constructive.
I have a personal interest in the case of Dublin City Radio because Dr. Cecil Stewart OBE was born only a few miles from my home in County Monaghan and he headed the group which sought a special broadcast licence. Cecil is a member of the Belfast Cathedrals' Partnership which was set up to encourage cross community relationships and to restore the structure of the Roman Catholic and Protestant cathedrals known as St. Peter's and St. Ann's. He is heavily involved in cross community activities in Belfast at a time when that is most necessary.
He set up the Sandown Group of nursing homes – it has since been sold – which demonstrates his ability to manage a major business. There were approximately 40 homes in Northern Ireland and many people from the South were well looked after in them over the years. He certainly has the wherewithal to manage a first class service. I hope these matters will be taken into account by the Minister and the Independent Radio and Television Commission in future and that these stations will be given an opportunity to proceed.
The Bill presents an opportunity to examine and debate the future of broadcasting. Major media are covered by the legislation. Virtually everybody watches television and few people do not listen consistently to the radio, particularly when travelling by car. Most people are woken in the morning by the early news on the radio. There is a major onus on the Minister to use the opportunity presented by this Bill not only to proceed with the issues identified in the legislation but to listen to and accept amendments from the Opposition parties. These amendments will seek to make this the best possible Bill to bring broadcasting into the next century.
This is a unique and sometimes scary time. The Internet and other communication media means people can contact each other across the world in seconds. On the morning after the last general election I arrived home to find a fax congratulating me on my election from a cousin who lives in an isolated village in British Columbia. She had heard about the change of Government and was obviously worried that it might have been a Canadian style change in which many members of parliament lost their seats. That is an indication of how the communication systems have changed. My cousin was able to pick up the election results on her computer screen and find out what was happening in her home country.
This is an opportunity to make the best possible use of broadcasting technology. With some amendments, the Bill will be useful in that regard.
I welcome this Bill. It offers an opportunity to discuss an area of rapid and major development throughout the world. This is significant legislation, probably the most significant since RTE first took to the airwaves in the early 1960s.
The Bill has extensive implications for the future development of broadcasting. However, although it is modern legislation, it will rapidly become dated. As quickly as people debate this issue and legislate for the changes that are taking place, the legislation becomes dated. Whatever structure is put in place as a result of the Bill and whatever decisions are made with regard to how best to move forward in the context of the development of information technology, it will be important for broadcasting organisations to keep abreast of world developments and new demands in the marketplace.
It might be no harm to look again at the birth of local radio and its emergence from community structured organisations to being the main players in their localities and on the national scene. They now influence how national stations respond to the market. Local radio stations were community driven. They were a response to a need which was discerned by the local communities. The insistence by local communities that they be heard led to the development of the stations. In local radio stations throughout the country there is a daily interaction with people who would otherwise be marginalised.
Some of these stations are celebrating ten years in business. My local radio station, Radio Kilkenny, has been on the air for ten years and I wish it well. It developed from a community driven initiative and it is still community driven. It is still answering the call of its marketplace, which asks it to analyse main events, broadcast Irish games, interact with politicians and community leaders, give a voice to local communities, assist the development of traditional music and the Irish language and ensure they are given a slot in any activity undertaken by the station. That station is supported generously in doing that.
Having regard to the various schemes run by local radio stations, the support for them is widespread. In the context of this Bill, we can learn from what happened with local radio and we should also consider what will happen in this area in the future. Television stations will quickly become local television stations, given that the Minister is providing for the multiplexes and other infrastructure in the Bill.
Recent EU funding for this area was matched by local companies. Such funding was matched by some local companies in Kilkenny. A local service provider is providing fibre optic cable throughout the city and its environs, which will facilitate the broadcasting of local television. It will provide the opportunity for households to interact without requiring people to leave their homes. It will make it possible for households to surf the net and to interact commercially with the world. The provision of a set rate will give them the opportunity to stay on the net for a long time. The provision of a set rate is important for anyone who accesses the Internet from their home, otherwise one would have to bear the cost of outrageously high bills from Eircom.
Local television would highlight the talent we have locally, the many people who are involved in film-making and those with other talents in the community who could become a part of local television. I believe it will come to pass that local commercial interests will provide shopping on line. There will be a good deal more e-commerce activities. All this will be conducted through fibre optic cable from one's television. Videos will be ordered by way of that new development. Local radio and local television have set that scene and long may it continue.
Relating this to what happens nationally, there are so many television channels broadcasting into this country that people are almost turned off them or bamboozled by what is on offer. It is incredible that people tend to flick through the stations, particularly at Christmas, because they cannot find any interesting programme to entertain them. When we had only one television station, we were able to entertain ourselves, but now that we have 100 television stations and 100 ways of accessing them, we find the programmes on offer do not entertain us. We found better ways to entertain ourselves in the past.
Tom Collins of NUI Maynooth in a recent paper stresses that in regard to developing the country in a European context and opening ourselves up to the world, we have almost gone full circle because we are now coming back to the point where we wanted to examine the local scene and the benefits the local scene – be it on a regional or county basis – has for us. That will be the area of focus for television in the future.
We must be careful to ensure that the legislation we introduce will be a clear definition of public service broadcasting because in the initial stages of this development we will have to ensure at national level that our Irishness, our culture and ethos, is protected and reflected through some television channel. We will also have to ensure that Irish performers and producers of Irish programmes and films, such as community producers in Kilkenny, will be given a slot to enable them perform and display their talents and that the public will be able to access such a channel to enable them to judge whether that is the type of channel they want. It is essential to provide that choice. If that choice is given, on the basis of the market research conducted by local radio and local television, many people would switch to the Irish promoted channels, the ones that would give them greatest value for money and a wider view of life on this island.
As technological advances emerge, the gap between how we interact with one another is widening. The sense of community derived from people visiting each other's houses has been lost. People now sit at home and gain access to information by e-mail and e-commerce and through other facilities. The personal touch has been lost in the process.
When framing legislation in this area, we must consider the concept of public service broadcasting. While we cannot stop the march in this development, we must be extremely careful. We must learn lessons from the past and take account of what the viewers want to see.
Investment in digital broadcasting will be enormous. Irrespective of what we provide for in legislation, the pace in this area will be dictated by the BSkyBs of this world. They will set the pace and provide the programmes. They have the money and the backing to influence what happens in the world of technology and television, how people interact with it and the money to be made from such interaction. We must be conscious of that in framing legislation.
This is a challenge, but it is one that is worthwhile because there are major benefits to be gained from it. Job creation in information technologies presents major opportunities for Ireland. If we set up new bodies to examine television and radio broadcasting, many thousands of people who are involved in information technology can take up jobs in this area. They have shown they have skills in this area that are hard to find or match throughout the world. In terms of software design, we are way ahead of others in this field.
As well as forming an opinion on how we should move forward and the structures required, we must take logical steps that will ensure such development benefits the country. We must also consider other related issues. Apart from delivering digital television and exposing everyone to e-commerce and the choice of numerous channels, there are ways within the technology to create new jobs and skills. We exported quite a number of people who can now return to this island and participate truly in the revolution that is taking place in information technology. A great deal can be learned from the EU funded project, which is matched by local funds and helps companies provide local television and access channels. While these channels are being provided, some areas which were serviced by the deflector system still have difficulty with access. When the appropriate infrastructure is being provided, the areas without a service should be taken into consideration. We should invest in ensuring that people without a service can participate in the development of this technology.
I hope people will not be excluded from developments, nationally or locally. Local radio and television has given an opportunity to the disabled to fully participate in the development of information technology. It offers them access to air their views and participate like any other member of the community. Information technology has brought them a step further as they are in a position to interact with the commercial sector and can find jobs whereby they can work from home. However, we are at risk of creating a poverty gap in this regard. We must ensure that the deaf and blind are kept up to speed with this technology and are allowed the freedom to view and understand the world from their homes. The technology should help them surmount these problems so they can fully participate in what we are enjoying.
Economic prosperity can create a gap. The majority move forward and the minority is left behind. This type of technology has exactly the same result. Many people do not understand what one is talking about when e-commerce, websites or information technology are mentioned. There is a need to reach out to these people and ensure that not only are they included in this revolution but that they understand it. Through this legislation and the education system, we ensure they understand there is a place for them in what we are doing. Schoolgoing children at all levels should be taught about technology so they can bring the information home to their parents. Sometimes we hand the remote control to our sons or daughters to show us how to operate the television.
Or to put in a battery.
What will it be like for those who do not have that type of technology at home? How far will they be left behind in these developments? While I admire the achievements of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, many schoolgoing children are falling out of the system because they are challenged by the technology. They would prefer to walk away because of embarrassment or lack of knowledge. We cannot afford for this to happen. There is a huge commercial value in what we are trying to do. This legislation and the commands and directions for the technological infrastructure it contains are the proper way forward. There must be a link to the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and the Department of Education and Science to ensure the legislation caters for others besides those on the fast track who have the money to access technology. Perhaps the definition of public service broadcasting should include a provision whereby we can reach out to those with less educational opportunities or without the ability, for one reason or other, to access what is happening in the real world. Otherwise they will be left behind.
There should be an educational content in what we are trying to achieve. There should be channels specifically geared towards the education of the wider community about business and Government in relation to the development of e-commerce. The Government and State agencies should have an opportunity to explain its policy beyond this House in simple terms to those with whom we try to connect on a regular basis, but perhaps are only successful in doing at election time. We must take more tangible action and use the educational and social welfare systems to create greater access for the public.
There is a community in my city of Kilkenny with 80 per cent unemployment. Their target for the new millennium is that every house in that area will have an e-mail address. A bank of computers is available to the residents who are able to access available technology. I compliment FÁS which has provided an extensive range of courses where one can educate oneself about digital television, e-commerce etc. The community centre is accessible to all.
I commend the Minister on introducing this Bill. I do not relish her position as regards legislation in this area. She will be busy keeping up to speed with all the developments – not that she is not doing that now – and the need to advance funding and legislation so we can take part in the global development of digital television, e-commerce and the information society.
Ba mhaith liom ar dtús báire mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le páirtí an Teachta Kenny, Fine Gael, as roinnt ama a thabhairt dom chun cúpla rud a rá ar an mBille Craolacháin. Is cinnte go léiríonn an Bille cé chomh tapaidh is atá an saol athraithe le roinnt blianta anuas ach é sin ráite, tá daoine ag déanamh cur síos ar an lá ina mbeidh an fón, an idirlíon, an teilifís agus fiú siopadóireacht agus seirbhísí bainc bunaithe ar bhosca amháin i gcúinne an tseomra suite. Beidh go leor athruithe ag titim amach go han-tapaidh amach anseo agus ní dóigh liom féin gur féidir linn iad a shamhlú fiú ag an bpointe seo. Beidh daoine ag féachaint siar ar an díospóireacht seo agus, b'fhéidir, ag magadh fúinn faoin méid aineolais atá thart faoi na rudaí atá le teacht.
Ach fós tá roinnt rudaí tábhachtacha le rá mar gheall ar an mBille seo. Mar reamhrá, ba mhaith liom féachaint ar na ceithre phointe a sheasann amach. Ar dtús báire, tá cuspóir sa Bhille chun an córas tarchuir a phríobháidiú agus tá roinnt mhaith cloiste againn sna coistí eile mar gheall ar phríobháidiú comhlachtaí Stáit agus mar sin de. Ach, ó thaobh cúrsaí craolacháin de, tá roinnt mhaith daoine buartha agus tuigim dóibh mar tá mise ina measc, mar gheall ar chonas is féidir freastal ar thír mar Éire nuair atá roinnt mhaith ina gcomhnaí timpeall Bhaile Átha Cliath agus níl an oiread sin daoine ina gcomhnaí in áiteanna eile.
Bheadh fonn ar pé comhlacht atá i mbun an chórais freastal ar an áit ina bhfuil an chuid is mó daoine ina gcomhnaí. Beidh freastal an-mhaith, mar shampla, ar Bhaile Átha Cliath ach níor mhaith liom a bheith i mo chomhnaí in iarthar na tíre agus a bheith ag brath ar an tseirbhís chéanna. Caithfear dul i ngleic leis an bhfadhb sin agus b'fhearr liom dá bhrí sin gan príobháidiú.
Tugann an Bille sainmhíniú éigin ar chraoladh na seirbhíse poiblí agus tá sé sin thar am. Ag an am céanna nuair atá na seirbhísí eile a luaigh mé ar dtús ag teacht isteach b'fhéidir gur cheart dúinn a bheith ag féachaint ar an sainmhíniú sin mar rud éigin stairiúil seachas rud éigin feidhmiúil mar tá baol ann go mbeidh an sainmhíniú as dáta sar i bhfad chomh maith.
Tá sé ráite sa Bhille go mbeidh neamhspleáchas ag Teilifís na Gaeilge nó TG4 – níl fhios agam cad is ainm dó ag an pointe seo taréis an Bille a léamh. Ach ó thaobh neamhspleáchais de tá sé ráite chomh maith go mbeidh an tseirbhís neamhspleách ag an am ceart ach níl sé ráite go soiléir cathain a bheidh sé sin ag titim amach, nó cé déarfaidh cathain a bheidh an t-am ceart ann. Tá roinnt soiléirithe le déanamh ar sin agus, b'fhéidir, roinnt leasaithe chomh maith. Má tá rud éigin le bheith neamhspleách caithfidh sé a bheith beo beathach agus in ann forbairt. Níl fhios agam an bhfuil airgeadú an stáisiúin neamhspleáigh san áireamh sna tuairimí atá luaite sa Bhille chomh maith. Má tá ciste le bunú nó airgeadú le bheith ann an mbeidh sé ceangailte leis an chostas beatha nó an mbeidh sé ceangailte le forbairt an stáisiúin nó an mbeidh sé socair buan agus ag ísliú dá bharr sin ó bhliain go bliain? Sin a tharla leis na h-údaráis áitiúla nuair a bunaíodh ciste chun iad a airgeadú. Bliain i ndiaidh bliana bhí níos lú airgid á thabhairt go réadúil dóibh mar nach raibh an t-airgead ceangailte le slat tomhais éigin.
Tá obair mhór le déanamh ag an Independent Radio and Television Commission nua agus cén saineolas a bheidh ag an eagraíocht nua seo chun dul i ngleic leis na fadhbanna móra a bheidh rompu? Is cinnte go mbeidh an saol ag éirí níos casta fós ó thaobh cúrsaí craolacháin de agus níor mhaith liom féachaint ar an Independent Radio and Television Commission mar atá sé faoi láthair mar ní dóigh liom go bhfuil dóthain saineolais acu chun dul i ngleic leis na fadhbanna atá rompu.
Mar sin, tá roinnt mhaith soiléirithe le déanamh mar tá an Bille doiléir go leor ar go leor bealaí. Tá fhios agam go bhfuil stáisiúin teilifíse cheana féin againn atá ag iarraidh freastal ar an bpobal. Bheadh sé go maith dá mbeadh na stáisiúin náisiúnta sin in ann a rá go mbeidh siad in áit amháin ar an scála craolacháin – go bhféadfadh daoine, go mór mhór daoine atá ag dul in aois agus gan taithí acu ar an saol nua seo, teacht ar RTE 1 agus Network 2 agus TV3 agus TG4 fós san áit chéanna i ndiaidh seo agus gan a bheith ag iarraidh stáisiún 36 a lorg más é an seanstáisiún a bhí acu atá uathu. Tá sé sin tábhachtach agus níl sé soiléir go fóill go mbeidh sé amhlaidh.
Is cinnte go bhfuil fadhbanna móra ann agus na stáisiúin ag déanamh iarracht freastal ar gach éinne sa tír. Léigh mé san eagrán reatha den nuachtán seachtainiúilLÁ go bhfuil claontóirí nua ag cur bac ar TG4. Tá sé dochreidte ach tá áiteanna i nGaeltacht Thír Chonaill nach féidir leo TG4 a fháil leis na claontóirí atá ann cheana féin, Fiú más mian leo fáil réidh le Eastenders nó le haon stáisiún ina bhfuil cláracha eile acu ní féidir leo, mar deir an t-alt nach mbeidh TG4 á chur ar fáil ar chóras na gclaontóirí teilifíse i dTír Chonaill ainneoin go mbeidh go leor de lucht na gclaontóirí ag fáil ceadúnas go luath. Dhearbhaigh Stúrthóir na Rialacha Telechumarsáide don nuachtán nach ceadmhach do lucht na gclaontóirí ach ceithre stáisiún a chraoladh faoi na ceadúnais nua atá le heisiúint. Fágtar acu féin na ceithre stáisiún a roghnú, dar le hoifig an Stiúrthóra, ach deir daoine a bhí ag fiosrú an scéil go bhfuil cosc iomlán curtha ar chraoladh TG4 mar go bhfuil na stáisiúin leagtha amach cheana féin agus ní féidir iad a athrú. Tá sé ráite le daoine atá buartha faoi seo go gcaithfidís fanacht go haois digital, fanacht go dtí an ré seo chugainn agus tá na daoine sin mí-shásta mar nach bhfuil an ré sin ag teacht go luath agus tá siad fágtha gan a stáisiún féin, stáisiún a cuireadh ar fáil do mhuintir na Gaeltachta. Is scannal mór é sin agus ba cheart don Aire dul i ngleic leis. Ní gá Bille a fhoilsiú chun é a leigheas ach tá sé thar am rud éigin dearfach a dhéanamh faoi.
Níor ghá Bille a fhoilsiú ach oiread chun RTE1 agus Network 2 a thabhairt do roinnt mhaith daoine ins na ceantair seo. Bhí ar dhaoine an dlí a bhriseadh, dul suas ar chnoic agus treallamh a thógáil. Chomh fada agus is eol dom bhí na stáisiúin teilifíse ar nós cuma liom mar gheall air agus thug siad comhairle fiú do na daoine a bhí in a bhun. Ní gá Bille chun an scéal sin a leigheas ach oiread agus tá roinnt mhaith le déanamh seachas Bille craolacháin a fhoilsiú.
Ó thaobh na Dála de, tá roinnt mhaith craolaidh ag teacht ón dTigh seo ó am go chéile agus ba cheart go mbeadh an teicneolaíocht craolacháin den scoth á úsáid chun Dáil dhátheangach a thaispeáint do phobal dátheangach. Baineann an pointe atá agamsa leOireachtas Report agus le cláracha den tsaghas sin. Chomh fada agus is eol dom – agus chonaic mé roinnt mhaith de na cláracha sin agus deir daoine eile an rud céanna liom – níl Gaeilge ar bith ar an gclár sin. Ba cheart go mbeadh stáisiún náisiúnta in ann Dáil dhátheangach a thaispeáint do phobal dátheangach. Tá mise anseo ag labhairt sa teanga náisiúnta agus bheadh an-ionadh orm dá mbeadh sé ar Oireachtas Report. Tá sé in am d'Údarás RTE féachaint chuige go mbeadh cothrom na féinne ag daoine is cuma cén teanga a úsáideann siad sa Tigh seo – Gaeilge nó Béarla. Sin pointe arís nach bhfuil ag brath ar Bhille ach tá sé ag brath ar chothrom na féinne.
Pointe eile atá ina ábhar suime agamsa agus ag roinnt mhaith daoine eile sa Dáil agus sa Seanad agus i gcoitinne ná an pointe a luaigh an Teachta Crawford maidir le ceadúnais a bhí á lorg ag stáisiúin raidio. Bhuail mise leis an ngrúpa a luaigh an Teachta Crawford, UCB. United Christian Broadcasters Limited. Is grúpa iad atá ag déanamh an-mhaitheas agus atá ag obair ar son leas an phobail i gcoitinne. Ní bhaineann siad le creideamh faoi leith agus tá siad ag brath ar dhaoine deonacha chun stáisiún a chur ar fáil do dhaoine. Tugann 200,000 duine tacaíocht dóibh go deonach chun iad a choimeád ar an aeir. Ach is cosúil go bhfuil meascán nó éiginnteacht an-mhór idir oifig an ODTR agus oifig an Independent Radio and Television Commission mar gheall air. Ní thuigim cén fáth gur féidir le dhá oifig a bheith chomh measctha suas mar gheall ar rud éigin bunúsach, sé sin stáisiún raidio atá ag iarraidh ceadúnas a fháil, mar tá daoine in Éirinn ag lorg an stáisiúin sin. Tá an stáisiún á lorg chomh mór sin acu go bhfuil siad sásta craoladh gan ceadúnas fiú. Tá sé ráite ag UCB gan é sin a dhéanamh le grúpaí eaglaise, daoine maithe tríd is tríd nach bhfuil ag iarraidh an dlí a bhriseadh ar chor ar bith. Ach tá siad an-mhífhoighneach mar gheall air agus ní cheapann siad go bhfuil aon dochar á dhéanamh acu. Tá ráite ag UCB leo gan aon rud a chraoladh go dtí go bhfaigheann siad ceadúnas. Dúirt an Independent Radio and Television Commission leo gur cheart dul go dtí oifig an ODTR agus dúirt an ODTR leo dul go dtí oifig an Independent Radio and Television Commission. Tar éis an chruinnithe in oifig an ODTR leis an Regulator Etain Doyle tá áthas orm ar a laghad go bhfuil sise tar éis a rá go bhfuil sí lánchinnte gur ghá dóibh dul go dtí an Independent Radio and Television Commission agus labhairt le Michael O'Keeffe chun an t-iarratas a phlé faoin Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1926.
Tá sé dochreidte go mbeadh ar dhaoine deonacha, daoine atá ag iarraidh seirbhís a chur ar fáil gan brabús a dhéanamh iad féin, dul ó áit go háit toisc nach bhfuil oifigigh an Stáit in ann a rá leo cad is ceart dóibh a dhéanamh. Ba cheart don Aire a bheith cinnte de nach bhfuil siad fágtha arís ar an ngannchuid gan fhios a bheith acu cad tá le déanamh. Ba cheart don Aire cabhair éigin a thabhairt dóibh. Rud atá ag déanamh tinnis do lucht craolachán iad féin ná conas a bheidh an digital terrestrial teilifís réitithe amach anseo. An mbeidh sé ann go neamhspleách ar nós lucht Rupert Murdoch agus eile nó an mbeidh scaireanna ag RTE sa chomhlacht nua? Más féidir é a dhéanamh le comhpháirtíocht an Stáit is fearr é mar tá an-dáinséar ag baint leis an rud a bheith ann gan smacht ar bith. Bheadh "dumbing-down" forleathan i gcúrsaí craolacháin agus ba cheart sin a sheachaint. Tá sé de dhualgas orainn é a sheachaint sa Stát ar mhaithe le pobal na tíre seo chomh maith le cúrsaí craolachán na tíre.
Deirim é sin in ainneoin go raibh mé os comhair cúirte mé féin nuair a dhiúltaigh mé íoc as ceadúnas teilifíse de bharr easpa cláracha Gaeilge ar RTE. Tá súil agam nach mbeidh orm é sin a dhéanamh arís. Bhíos im mhúinteoir ag an am agus níor thuig mé cén fáth go mbeadh Gaeilge á mhúineadh agam agus teilifís sa seomra ranga gan seans a bheith agam an tseirbhís sin a úsáid. Sin scéal eile.
Beidh argóintí eile ann amach anseo. Beidh argóint mar gheall ar chonas is féidir le pobal áitiúil cumhacht craolacháin éigin a bheith acu i dtreo is gur féidir leo a bheith ag baint úsáid as córas craolacháin gan a bheith ag brath ar chomhlachtaí idirnáisiúnta chun seirbhís a thabhairt dóibh. Ba cheart dúinn féachaint ar sin sa Bhille nuair a thiocfaidh sé os comhair an Choiste.
Tá roinnt leasuithe tagaithe ó dhaoine ar nós Chomhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge agus baineann siad le TG4 chomh maith le RTE i gcoitinne agus an córas craolacháin. Dar leo siúd, agus aontaím leo, ba cheart uaireannta faoi leith a bheith luaite sa Bhille go mbeadh ar an Údarás seirbhís trí Ghaeilge a chur ar fáil agus conas mar a bheadh na huaireannta eagraithe.
Maidir le TG4 – ba cheart an t-ainm a shoiléiriú sa Bhille mar tá cúpla ainm in úsáid – teastaíonn ó na leasuithe go mbeadh tréimhse á lua ina mbeadh an stáisiún neamhspleách. Gan sin beidh siad ag sleamhnú ar aghaidh bliain i ndiaidh bliana dar le go leor daoine agus tá dhá bhliain luaite acu mar theora ar an dtréimhse sin. Tá siad ag iarraidh, chomh maith, go mbeadh an freastal ar na Gaeltachtaí an-shoiléir. Ní haon dochar craoladh Public Accounts Committee agus craoladh cluichí peile agus eile ach ba cheart tús áite a thabhairt do mhuintir na Gaeltachta. Ba iad siúd a bhí ag lorg an stáisiúin ar dtús báire.
Ba mhaith liom Raidió na Life a lua mar léiríodh an-drochmheas ar Raidió na Life ó thaobh cultúir agus feidhmiú stáisiúin áitiúil de nuair nár tugadh aon rogha dóibh ach dul ó 102 FM go dtí ard-mhinicíocht eile. Bhí sé uafásach é sin a dhéanamh dóibh agus ní raibh aon chúis láidir leis agus níorbh cheart an drochmheas sin a thabhairt do stáisiún beag deonach.
Tá sé ráite iLÁ go bhfuil an-chuid daoine in Éirinn tar éis a chur in iúl go bhfuil Gaeilge mhaith acu agus gur cheart do lucht fógraíochta níos mó Gaeilge a úsáid ins na fógraí sin. Tá comhlachtaí móra tar éis sin a dhéanamh agus is maith an sampla do dhaoine eile iad. Le cúnamh Dé, beidh seans ag daoine cur leis an méid Ghaeilge a bheidh in úsáid agus a bheidh ar fáil do phobal na hÉireann, nuair a bheidh feidhm dlí leis an mBille seo. Tá súil agam go ndéanfar roinnt mhaith leasuithe ag an Choiste cé nach bhfuil mé féin im bhall den Choiste.
Os rud é nach bhfuil ach nóiméad nó dhó fágtha ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don méid a bhí le rá ag an Teachta Sargent mar gheall ar Raidió na Life. Ní féidir liomsa a thuiscint ach oiread cén fáth go bhfuil aon iarracht á dhéanamh ag éinne an mhinicíocht a bhí acu a athrú. Tá daoine ann a éistíonn le Raidió na Life. Tá réimse maith cláracha acu. Tá sárjob á dhéanamh acu agus bheinnse i bhfad níos sásta dá mbeadh an mhinicíocht chéanna ar fáil acu as seo amach.
With the speed of change in the broadcasting sector, I suspect this legislation may need to be revisited sooner than we realise. The arrival of MP3, which allows for the transmission of CD quality sound over the World Wide Web, is one example of the rapid speed of change. One suspects that the ability of the web, particularly with the introduction of fibre optic cable, to transmit high quality moving pictures cannot be far away. I am told it may be months rather than years away. Over the next couple of years every home in Ireland will have the ability to receive hundreds if not thousands of radio and television channels via the Internet. As a result, some aspects of the Bill are vital to ensure that we continue to have an indigenous broadcaster to reflect our ethos as well as our cultural and political identity.
I welcome the restatement of the public service remit of RTE and TG4. What is meant by the term "public service remit"? We have all received submissions from various bodies, ranging from TG4 to TV3, which deal with attempts to understand what is meant by public service broadcasting. In its broadest terms, I believe it is broadcasting, the sole aim of which is to meet the needs of an audience, and not the creation of profit. Every penny it earns is spent in the interest of its audience, not of the shareholders. In the case of RTE the Irish people are the shareholders.
This remit should allow RTE to produce programmes of minority interest – to be fair, RTE has done that – to fearlessly hold a mirror to our society and to challenge our complicity. Its news and current affairs programmes should be impartial and independent, it should be in a position to encourage talent across an entire broadcasting spectrum and it should develop its own unique programme formats which reflect this island nation of 3.8 million people, rather than slavishly copying formats from across the water.
RTE also has a vital role to play in the national aspiration of ensuring an inclusive society. Television is one way of reaching out to those who feel excluded and alienated from our society. It is a way of giving them a voice and it empowers them by giving them access to information.
The Bill rightly states that the licence fee must be spent for the purpose of fulfilling a public service remit. However, in the past number of years the licence fee as a proportion of income for RTE has fallen dramatically. If RTE and TG4 are to fulfil their public service remit, it is time the House considered index linking the licence fee to the inflation rate or to the consumer price index. If we do not, RTE will be forced to increasingly rely on advertising revenue to the detriment of quality indigenous programming.
We all know the Government is a model of integrity and that the Minister's Department epitomises this. However, Governments change and the opportunity for abuse will always be there. In view of this, is it wise to reserve the right to the Minister, as provided for under section 24, to make an order regarding the inclusion of programming in the Schedule? Would it not be better to leave this to the judgment of the broadcasting commission?
There is no doubt the emergence of a vibrant, independent television production sector has contributed a disproportionate amount of significant programmes on RTE. They have brought a freshness of approach, not only to the content, but also to the way programmes are produced. Pound for pound, programmes produced by the independent sector represent good value for money. Given this, I was disappointed to note that the percentage of RTE's television programme expenditure committed to the independent sector has been reduce by 20 per cent, to £16 million, increasing year on year in line with the consumer price index. This needs to be reconsidered.
I am also disappointed at the small amount of indigenous home produced material that emanates from TV3. While I favour competition, it should be reflected in the programming. What is the point in having an additional national television channel if all it does is to largely replicate what is available from a plethora of satellite channels? I would have reservations about reserving one of the multiplexes for use by TV3 without tangible evidence that the station has an identify which makes it Irish and not merely interchangeable with a television station elsewhere.
In this rapidly changing broadcasting environment, we need stations that the House licences to reflect our culture and ethos and to voice the concerns and aspirations of the people of the island. Is it not also reasonable to expect that among the thousands of channels available there would be some the Irish people could tune into and know by their content they are Irish.
This ambitious Bill sets out a framework for broadcasting policy in Ireland into the next millennium. In the next ten to 15 years, digital television will usher in a sweeping transformation of broadcast television, its programming and services, revenue sources, corporate partnerships and ownership structures. While many existing programme genres and styles will surely continue, many innovative types of video programming and information services will arise.