I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Broadcasting Bill. I am sure the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, will appreciate that while I hold the very best estimation of his character and personality, he will not misinterpret it when I say I found the introduction of the Second Stage of this Bill to be somewhat disappointing.
What I bring to the Bill is a perspective from my own experience as a former Minister with responsibility for broadcasting and as president of the Council of Broadcasting Ministers of the European Union in 1996. I express disappointment because of the absence of a consideration of the values of broadcasting and some fundamental choices. In the time allowed to me I can go through these only cursorily.
The first issue that arises for any Minister with responsibility for broadcasting concerns how he or she views the population to which broadcasting services are addressed. I can put this simply and starkly. They can be constituted as consumers or as citizens. It is this balance that is always at stake, the preservation of the concept of citizenship within broadcasting. As put by people from Lord Reith onwards, this is the right of people to talk to each other. In other words, broadcasting was defined as a community in conversation with itself. By definition, that is enormously inclusive and has implications for policy, for example, the right of minorities to be represented, the right of both genders to be represented and the right and the duty of broadcasters, as Lord Reith's original description expressed it, to educate, inform and entertain.
I find it necessary to say that public service broadcasting is now not merely challenged, as many write concerning it, but is seriously degraded. I make another distinction, that which lies between the role of a public service broadcaster and what one might call a sprinkling of public service broadcasting. When I was Minister I went through all these arguments. Often people would say to me concerning a commercial station that gave news about weather, deaths and funerals that such material was surely public service broadcasting. Of course this is part of the remit of a public service broadcaster — it is an aspect of public service broadcasting.
Therefore, a distinction is made between the role of the public service broadcaster, which in this case is also a State broadcaster, RTE, supported by the licence fee with certain obligations, and those people who might be performing a public service function. There is a crucial difference. I spent a great deal of my time as a Minister, and it was a great privilege to be Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, a Department that was wrecked after I left, in a rather vindictive sense. It was a great honour to be introduced to the Council of Ministers in Europe and to be president of the Council of Broadcasting Ministers and Audio-visual Ministers, to have the Department represented there and to be introduced as "the Minister for Culture". It was the first time that Ireland had been represented. The Ceann Comhairle will not be embarrassed if I say that he was a distinguished successor of mine in this role.
I have described what is happening in broadcasting in Ireland and Europe as a degradation of the public service broadcasting ethic. It is so in a most comprehensive sense.
While I cannot defend everything I have ever written, I have written about this subject. My last book, Causes for Concern: Irish Politics, Culture and Society, which was published in 2006 by Liberties Press, contains a chapter based on a lecture I gave in New Zealand when the future of its broadcasting licence was under discussion. That chapter could be summarised as the decline and fall of public service broadcasting. It has declined in every sense. It has declined in respect of the application of technology for the benefit of all the people. I mean that universal access as a principle is less than it once was. As for attempts to balance what I described as issues of the population as consumers or as citizens, it has swung over heavily to the side of the population as consumers. I also argue something that I am free to state clearly at my age, namely, that among broadcasting practitioners, there also has been a lessening of practice. One cannot compare celebrity culture, which exists as an alternative, to the fine moments of broadcasting, even in the Irish sense, of the past.
I should state immediately that the Irish broadcaster always has had a fine standard next door to it. Irish broadcasting was built on a comparison with, for example, the standards of the BBC service, which is one of the great broadcasters of all time. Moreover, Irish broadcasting regularly surpassed that standard. However, when one has a station in which people ape commercial programmes brought from across the Atlantic and end up rather pathetically interviewing themselves as celebrities, it is both incestuous and cheap. As for news, current affairs and so forth, it is frightening to think that the new technology in which television is a hot medium is one whereby coverage has changed entirely, in so far as the requirement to have a context for the news that is current has disappeared. The suggestion, for example, that the elaboration of an opinion now is no longer possible but that one must offer sound bites rather than the presentation of an argument and so forth also is frightening. This reveals both a change in broadcasting and a change in broadcasting practice.
The finest book about Irish broadcasting that was ever published is Sit Down and Be Counted — the Cultural Evolution of a Television Station, with its introduction by Raymond Williams. The book’s editors and contributors, Bob Quinn, Lelia Doolan and the late Jack Dowling, were people who were at the cusp of something that was extremely important in respect of the history of Irish broadcasting. They took their stand because they wanted to defend the right of the programme maker with regard to broadcasting values and norms against the administrative direction of programming that later would collapse into being a commercially-led venture. It also is interesting that the person who wrote the book’s preface, the late Raymond Williams, entitled his last paper, “How to be the arrow, not the target”. In so doing, he was pointing to the value of citizenship and the right, for example, of citizens to participate. While Lord Reith’s values have been described somewhere else as a kind of authoritarian paternalism, they were sound broadcasting values. It was the acceptance of the obligation of being able to allow several narratives to be present at the same time and to be treated with respect.
I find it extraordinary that the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, would sail in with the Broadcasting Bill on Second Stage without making a single reference to any such issues pertaining to values. It may be that the values of which I speak are out of date in these cheapened times. I defend my statements in the Green Paper I published on broadcasting when I held office as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, the statements I made before the European Parliament as Minister with responsibility for broadcasting and culture and elsewhere. I contrast such statements with the Minister's up-beat presentation on Second Stage to the effect it is great to be here fixing up all the technical bits and pieces.
This is a Bill of substance that contains good measures. However, if one examines its definitions section to ascertain what is public service broadcasting, the answer is that RTE is a public service broadcaster. While other Members can tease this out for themselves, how satisfactory is it to produce such a Bill? This is akin to asking what is a hen and receiving the reply that a Rhode Island Red is a hen. It is meaningless. There is no definition of public service broadcasting in the Bill. It only goes as far as stating that RTE is a public service broadcaster. That is about as valuable as stating that something that lays an egg might be a hen. It contains no definition and does so by entirely escaping all of the tedious matters about which people are commenting and that I propose to repeat to an extent.
My views in this regard are not only held by me. I refer to further issues that were not discussed in the Minister's Second Stage speech. What is happening in broadcasting globally? Ownership is being concentrated. Does this not matter? Does it not matter, for example, that an oligopoly operates in respect of product? Does it not matter that approximately 85% of all the games that are watched by children and teenagers in Europe are produced by a single company? Does it not matter that Berlusconi, Rupert Murdoch and others dominate the airwaves? Was it not of cultural significance that Mr. Berlusconi crossed over from television and radio to establish monopolies in the print media? Is cross-ownership not important? The issue of concentration of ownership and cross-ownership and its effect within a culture was not worth a single sentence in the introductory speech on Second Stage.
I will turn to the next big issue, namely, the merging of technologies. I called this a convergence of technologies 11 years ago, when one was able to talk about concentration of ownership and convergence of technologies, by which I meant that one was facing into the digital age and also was dealing with new forms of electronic capacity with regard to broadcasting. This was not mentioned either. I will turn to a matter that was going to be most important, namely, the fragmentation of audiences, driven on by commercial pursuits. Members should recall that Rupert Murdoch stated he would use sport as the battering ram, as he made his way towards the destruction of television. While Members may not be able to do much about this in an Irish item of broadcasting legislation, it is a sad day when the issue does not even surface in the debate and is missing from the Minister's speech.
I have stated there are positive aspects to the Minister's speech, to which I now will turn. I welcome the idea of a channel that will cover the proceedings of the Oireachtas. That proposal fits well with my suggestions in respect of accepting the importance of a discourse that is based on principles of citizenship. It is good that this proposal is contained in the Bill. It also is good that there is a recognition of the importance of Bord Scannán na hÉireann — The Irish Film Board, the film industry and its future possibilities. However, I simply state that the philosophical underpinnings of the reason Ireland has a public service broadcaster are missing. I suspect that none of my observations necessarily is partisan. When I became a Minister and attended meetings in Europe, I was the only Minister attending the Council of Ministers who was in favour of public service broadcasting. During the years from 1993 to 1997, everything was going the other way and was going commercial. At home, I was fighting a battle, with support from all sides and parties in the House, to establish a new aspect of public service broadcasting, that is, what then was Teilifís na Gaeilge. However, I was opposed by those who had a vested interest in oligopoly and monopoly in newspapers. The Sunday Independent ran a disgraceful campaign against the concept of Teilifís na Gaeilge and public service broadcasting, and it was directed heavily against me. Individual journalists would later describe TnaG as Teilifís DeLorean and so forth. Against the grain I was establishing and extending public service broadcasting consciously because I believed in it. That is why I feel it necessary to speak now when I see public service broadcasting dragged down into a pit of commercialism and broadcasting practice at its lowest ebb.
On the other side there is the very interesting issue of what happens when the values of broadcasting are not set out as they should be. Broadcasters lose confidence, as so many did when I was dealing with that other controversial matter, the order under section 31 prohibiting the appearance of certain organisations on the airwaves. A third of the organisation felt it could relax under that section and it made life easy as they did not have to take on the burden of what I had argued, that if we wanted to deal with subversion and threats to the State, we would do it in public order legislation. We were not to use broadcasting legislation with a purpose for which it should never have been used and which would deteriorate into an instrument of censorship.
I remember members of the Progressive Democrats, when they were opposite, standing up and saying how the results of my action would be that everybody would join the IRA and denying there was any aspect of censorship involved. I held my views on that broadcasting issue since the time of a very fine intellectual debate between Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien and myself in the Seanad in the 1970s. We laid out our different positions and I respect that.
There must be a debate in what broadcasting is for, who should have access and the space that is broadcasting. It is necessary to make the technical arrangements but they are instrumental to the bigger issue. I recall that after I left in 1998 once again we went through another cataclysm about how digitalisation would happen. I should tell the Minister, in case he forgets with the airbrush approach that the Green Party has to history, that it was in June 1998 that then Minister, Síle de Valera, announced that the Government had taken a decision at Cabinet on the form of the introduction of digital technology. A debate then appeared on the sidelines as to whether it should be a commercial venture and the role of Radio Teilifís Éireann.
It is now ten years later and everything in the "Happy Happy" Ministry is hunky dory. It is all a matter of, gee whiz, everything is so technical, shiny, beautiful and so forth. It reminds me more of an approach to broadcasting that is like somebody going into a toyshop.
That brings me to another issue which did not surface, that of direct advertising to children. It is very interesting that the toy manufacturers of Europe would hold conferences in London and hire psychologists and lobbyists to ensure no parliament in Europe would even dream of forbidding the advertising of toys to children in certain circumstances. That does not arise. It is not just the Labour Party spokesperson on broadcasting who would be interested as many decent Members are concerned with the issue of protecting children against the predation of those who have no standards with regard to commercial advertising.
This is a Second Stage speech but I have many detailed submissions to make on Committee Stage regarding different sections.