I differ from other speakers, and do so as a former Minister with responsibility for broadcasting. The legislation is fundamentally flawed. It blurs the distinction that should exist between the national broadcaster, the national broadcasting authority, the Minister and the Government. As I listened to the previous speech about how the proposals in the Bill will advance culture, I restrained myself from remembering how the Ministry of culture was abolished by the party opposite which could not live with the word "culture" in a Department's title. Having removed the word "culture", lest there ever be a Minister for culture again, it went on to demolish the Department.
I wish to illustrate clearly what I mean by the flaws at the heart of the legislation. I addressed these in February 1997 when I produced anaide-memoire on broadcasting for Government. In my time, we prepared a Green Paper on broadcasting. I published heads of a Bill and sought approval from the then Government for a broadcasting Bill to be prepared. I am probably precluded by the Supreme Court from referring in detail to the documents which I brought to Cabinet, but I am glad that I retained a sufficient amount of notes and drafts to be able to say exactly what we proposed.
Fundamental to my thinking was a distinction between the concept of the national broadcaster and public service broadcasting on the one hand and public service programming within a broadcasting service on the other hand. It is dishonest to suggest there is any similarity between the same. For example, as regards the latter, one could say that the announcement of death notices or the times of funerals on a radio station make it a public service broadcaster.
If one takes, for example, the criteria that have been used to define the public service broadcaster, where it exists, eight principles of public service broadcasting have been set out by Michael Treacy in his book on the BBC and the decline and fall of public service broadcasting. These criteria included: universality of availability, universality of appeal, provision for minorities, especially those disadvantaged by physical or social circumstance, servicing the public sphere – the nation speaking to itself in Lord Reith's terms, a commitment to the education of the public, and the distancing of public broadcasting from all vested interests. I pause on that sixth one to ask why these three areas of archives, culture and Irish identity will be looked after in this special way and why the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland will have to seek approval from the Minister. Does the authority of the national broadcaster not carry the burden of these responsibilities? This is satisfying the argument by firing in a reference to additionality.
The seventh criterion is that broadcasting should be so structured as to encourage competition and good programming rather than competition for numbers. I cannot emphasise sufficiently that the public service broadcaster has a duty to the citizens and that public service broadcasting is an act of citizenship catering for citizens rather than for consumers of a product in a commodified market. The eighth criterion is that the rules of broadcasting should liberate rather than restrict the programme maker. Can anybody who has spoken in favour of the legislation tell me that there is not a breach of autonomy between the Minister and the broadcasting authority in the first instance? Is the specification of the different areas in sections 3 and 7 not an invasion of the programming function? Section 7 could also constitute editorial interference. If section 7 undermines autonomy, interferes with programming and constitutes editorial interference, it is unsatisfactory.
I should say something else about the authority that will run the national broadcaster in any circumstance. One of the reasons I abolished the order under section 31 on proscription was that there was an incredible lack of trust involved – a lack of trust of the public to exercise discrimination, a lack of trust of the programme maker and a lack of trust of the authority to exercise functions as regards broadcasting. The Bill, irrespective of the number of people who say they are in favour of what it suggests, considerably erodes the trust which should be placed in the authority that is responsible for the national broadcaster. It interferes with autonomy and erodes trust. What it begins to make possible is quite tragic.
As it happens, I have supported some initiatives taken by the Minister in the past year or two. I entirely side with him on the disgraceful attempt by Rupert Murdoch's anti-democratic and unaccountable organisation to acquire sporting rights and I repeat my view, often offered at that time, that, as president of the Council of Broadcasting Ministers dealing with this issue, there was never a legal basis for anyone to sell as a commodity rights to sporting events which citizens had a right to view or hear. That is why I supported the Minister. However, I am afraid I cannot do so in respect of this legislation which flies in the face of some fundamentals of the integrity of public service broadcasting.
The Minister of State's speech made some unfortunate references to the Government's relationship to digital broadcasting. As rapporteur for the previous committee with responsibility for heritage and the Irish language, I was preparing a report on digital broadcasting when the then Minister, Deputy de Valera, made a dramatic announcement that Cabinet had decided on the digital question. As they would say down the country, "They had gone for digital terrestrial". They rejected satellite, cable and all the other interactive technologies. Of course, nothing came of it.
I agree with one person's speech here that if one has a ramshackle proposal, one is better to abandon it before it costs too much. The principles behind that proposal were equally interesting. It was not that they constructed a model of digital delivery that would, for example, follow the principle of universality in that one should not open a new fissure in society between the information rich and the information poor. Digital should be rolled out early. It should be an advantage to the State and it should carry other services and so on, but this did not happen.
I listened earlier to well-meaning Deputies speak as if the world were changing through some kind of great cosmic effect like the ice age or something similar. What is happening in Europe in regard to broadcasting, to which reference was made, is very knowable. I remember that, during my time as Minister, the then Commissioner with responsibility for competition wanted broadcasting regarded as a commodified entity. We had an enormous battle with the United States on the issue. In 1994 some 68% of all the fiction viewed in Europe came from the United States. That was not accidental. Audio-visual media was the second most important export from the United States to the European Union. There were different measures to deal with that. What Mr. Monti wanted was for audio-visual media to be regarded as a new service, a commodity to be treated by market principles. We argued, when we had a Ministry of culture, that broadcasting was much more than a commodity. It was a cultural expression of a people and the right of people to deal with each other.
We had the great advantage of living in the shadow of one of the finest broadcasting services in the world, the BBC. Whether I agree with Lord Reith or not, his principles of informing, educating and entertaining were important. However, the commodified regime reduces everything to the entertainment end. Thus, Mr. Murdoch was able to say he would use sport as the battering ram for what he intended to do with regard to broadcasting.
I supported the Minister in standing up to Mr. Murdoch and I would do the same tomorrow. I cannot, however, agree with the Minister with regard to the blurring of the distinction between Government, the Department responsible and the RTE authority. Neither can I countenance the interference in sections 3 and 7 in the work of the authority where the Minister says he will take responsibility for culture, heritage and Irish identity. Has the Minister relieved the authority of that duty? He has not. Therefore, this contradicts in a curious way some of the fundamental principles at the heart of the basic broadcasting legislation.
I will be charitable about the digital television issue and leave it aside for another day. I agree with Deputies raising practical issues. They are right to raise the issue of subtitling etc. I hide a reluctant hesitation to air my view that RTE has not always been excellent at delivering its public service function. If anything, RTE has lived with too much of a commercial shadow over it. It is a scandal that the market insists that we cannot put a ban on advertising directed at children as we approach Christmas. Sweden thought of doing this but was threatened by the vested interests of the European Union. Toymakers, for example, have threatened to take court cases. These are the people with whom we have to deal.
People describe the changes taking place in broadcasting as if they are grasping nettles. Mr. Berlusconi is a monopolist. He abuses broadcasting. He does so because of the three tendencies of the industry towards fragmentation of audiences, convergence of technologies and concentration of ownership. It is one of the most disgraceful failures of the European Union that it never defended the principle of the diversity of broadcasting in the face of the kind of onslaught that came from those who wanted commodified entertainment as their version of broadcasting. This is a scandal.
It came to a point where, for example, the European Parliament instructed the Commissioner responsible to do something about monopoly. He failed to do so and the President of the Commission said he supported the Commissioner and would leave the issue to be decided by the market. That is a case of Europe rolling over. It is not a case of something happening or evolving. It is a conscious decision to do nothing about the damage to public service broadcasting.
What was the function of the European Broadcasting Union when Ireland was a much poorer place than now? Its function was to ensure that all citizens of a country which was part of the Union had the right to see something of interest to them. We paid according to our capacity to pay. That folded under the threat of the purchase of rights by German conglomerates, which in turn went broke and rolled on. Some people think it is acceptable that four or five multinationals should dominate broadcasting. Three companies are responsible for more than 80% of the world market in animation. This does not happen by accident.
The situation I inherited in 1993 was a time when the right had gone down the road of reducing everything, including broadcasting, to the neo-liberal version of the market. We were fighting a rearguard action for public service broadcasting. That is the reason all the little mimics here who wanted to attack me about Teilifís na Gaeilge, now TG4, were saying it was a waste of money and the reason they were asking why I was introducing a nativist station, etc. The reality is they were little less than lackeys for Murdochism, with regard to broadcasting.
This is the reason I defend the principle of public service broadcasting and retaining the concept of the public service broadcaster. We are not shaking pepper on what everyone else is doing or saying that, because the deaths are reported here and the weather there, we will have a bit of "come all ye" here. We are not saying this is an equivalent or alternative. It is not and we should stop the nonsense of pretending it is. If the Minister is going to require under the section that people come back to him with a scheme under three or four headings, he is interfering. If he decides to specify three or four criteria above everything else or among many he could have specified, he is interfering with programme making. In turn, that leaves him open to the future possibility of being able to change the scheme altogether.
The totality and philosophy of content is important. I remember well the suggestion for the principle of ministerial interference. I spoke against it in the Seanad in 1974 when Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien spoke in its favour. I recall being heavily criticised in this House as Minister when I abolished the order under section 31. Some people in Government with me would have liked me to retain the idea so that I could use it again as a threat to make people behave. That is not the function of a Minister with responsibility for broadcasting.
Broadcasting is healthy where a non-linked principle is respected and there is a distance between the Minister and the broadcaster. The role of Government policy is to lay down cultural policy while the Minister with responsibility for broadcasting must lay down broadcasting policy. There is also the broadcasting commission. I proposed a super authority, but it would have had total autonomy. The role RTE and that authority would have in what I proposed in February 1997 did not infringe any principle of autonomy.
It must be asked why the taking of the 5% of the licence fee is happening. It is a condition that was extracted in return for an increase in the licence fee. I would like to explain something about the licence. When I last went to Cabinet and secured an increase for the television licence fee prior to the most recent increase, it was granted on the basis of a formula agreed between my Department and the Department of Finance. In other words, I wanted the increase indexed. Indexation was agreed by Cabinet. I asked my successor, Deputy de Valera, if the decision had been cancelled. She said it had not been cancelled but nothing would be done about it because they did not agree with it. The Government wanted to keep it as a conditionallien on RTE when it came to look for a television licence fee increase.
This 5% is a further condition extracted from the national broadcaster and this is a dangerous road to take. I do not disagree with the people who have paid tribute to their local radio, local television, broadcasters and writers or with those who want more subtitling or more Dáil coverage. These details can be discussed another day.
We are making law and that law must respect boundaries. We do not run the country's broadcasting service. If we say that we do not trust the broadcasting authority, that is a serious situation. I trust it. I have said other decisions I took related to restoring trust. This distance is incredibly important.
I would like to conclude by speaking about the interesting subject of the star system in RTE. I agree with Members who have argued against the presence of such a system. We are told that there is such a system because advertisers want a name. The reality is that dozens of talented people are coming through. Why can they not all be given a chance? Why should 100 people not bloom in RTE, rather than a few nettles being allowed to thrive? Many are right to ask this question.