Broadcasting Bill 2008 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Is cúis áthais dom é cuidiú leis an díospóireacht seo a leathnú arís. Mar a bhí á rá agam an lá cheana, is Bille an-tábhachtach é an Bille Craolacháin 2008.

In reflecting on the broadcasting legislation before us, it is important to look back at the history of broadcasting in Ireland, its contribution to our community and whether we are being served by the State broadcasting corporation, RTE. As far as I am concerned RTE is a left wing organisation that has not committed itself to enunciating and promoting policies laid down by Government or Parliament. Following the recent budget, in the post-budget discussions RTE had all left wing commentators on programmes without any balance. Audiences were loaded against Government representatives.

Where is this fellow coming from?

A Government representative is brought onto a panel on either radio or television where all the other panel members hold opposite views. That situation is distorting the balance. It is time for us as a Parliament to ensure that whatever we do we fulfil the constitutional duty of equality, fairness and balance in the interests of our citizens. That is very important.

I remember going onto an RTE radio programme one morning with a celebrated broadcaster who was highly paid. He enunciated to the nation how the world should proceed as he saw it. He had 17 staff assisting him. The questions he asked on-air were automatically generated on a computer screen and he had only to read out the questions. That gave the impression to the world that he had researched all those questions himself and that he was a highly intelligent man. Perhaps he was a much more intelligent man than I. Members must be accountable for their staff and the amount of money that is spent, including Ministers. It is time we examined that situation.

I am aware of serious invasions of privacy when families in my constituency were bedevilled by trauma. In sad situations involving misadventure, houses were surrounded by the media. The State broadcaster sent couriers to push messages through letter-boxes stating that if a special interview was given by the family at an arranged location to it alone then all of the other media could be looked after, that one interview would solve the situation, and that the family should do that in its own interest. On the two occasions with which I am familiar the two families did not give interviews, they withstood the pressure, sustained themselves and stood together. One family was confined to its own house for a week.

Another woman was confined also in her home as a result of utterances in a debate in this House, which RTE covered in almost its entirety because it involved more drama than fact. That woman, whose house was surrounded by the media, died a few weeks later as a result of the pressures that were put on her following the unfortunate allegations made against her beloved son. In both cases there was no wrongdoing, there was just sadness and trauma in a family situation and they were exploited and exposed to unnecessary public mire.

I abhor radio programmes, be they in the independent radio system or on RTE, where people can telephone anonymously and make allegations and statements but nobody knows who they are. If a broadcaster licensed by Parliament and the State authorities broadcast such pronouncements the people who make them should be named on those programmes. If people are not prepared to put their names to the comments they should not be read out.

I abhor also another situation in which I feel RTE has failed the State. I worked for a period as Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Our remit was to ensure the creation from foreign direct investment of as many jobs as possible and to assist IDA Ireland, which has done an outstanding job in attracting foreign direct investment in this country. On one occasion the senior Minister in my Department travelled to a provincial town to announce 400 jobs. RTE was there and showed the Minister at the opening but it did not cover his speech. It interviewed the president of the local chamber of commerce who complimented the Government and the IDA on the investment in the town but that interview was not shown. The RTE team drove 40 miles to another town and spoke to the president of the chamber of commerce of that town who made a negative comment about the 400 jobs that were awarded to the other town. The implication was that it was wrong to give the 400 jobs to the first town when they should have gone to the other town.

That was not balanced or fair. It was not an equitable coverage of a situation. The town that got the investment was fully entitled to it as the enterprise suited that location, yet the coverage of the massive investment by the State on behalf of taxpayers with the support of the IDA in partnership with a foreign company was distorted by RTE. What view would the company have taken when it played the clip back in its boardroom and saw the type of coverage the State broadcaster gave to its investment and commitment to our country? How could the board be satisfied it was getting proper, fair and equitable treatment? It is critical that we examine such situations carefully.

The State has supported RTE over the years and the public pays a hefty licence fee. It is time we revisited that situation. TG4, which is doing an outstanding job, should be an independent entity. It is time for one third of the licence fee to go to TG4, another third should remain with RTE and one third should go to TV3 and the independent radio sector. That would ensure there is an equitable playing field and that there is fairness across the board in all aspects of broadcasting.

Successive Governments have enacted legislation which has resulted in the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, acting in conjunction with the broadcasting authority, issuing licences for local radio. This Bill should be amended to ensure that if the companies that are licensed are sold then a percentage of the profits made on the sale should accrue to the State.

The Deputy has one minute remaining.

I was hoping the Acting Chairman would say one hour.

If Deputy Treacy wants to change the Standing Orders he should try to do so.

I cannot do that. I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak.

A famous Irishman who was chairman first of CIE and subsequently chairman of RTE was asked a question on his retirement about the difference between the two organisations. He said, "Regretfully, I think the latter carries more passengers". That was a serious indictment from a man who helped to build up many semi-State corporations. It is time that we as legislators ensured there is fairness, equity and proper scrutiny, and that Members of Parliament, no matter what party they belong to or none, and, similarly, members of Government, are treated with dignity and respect in order that such situations as we witnessed recently do not re-occur, when the Taoiseach and two former Ministers were ridiculed by way of satiric comedy on a national broadcaster. I do not have a problem with satire and comedy in their rightful place but if a show is broadcast nationally to families, including young children, in a world of global communications, the Members of this Parliament and all people holding public office deserve due regard and respect. Loading audiences and having unbalanced programmes is no way to serve politics, the Parliament, the public or the nation.

Deputy Stagg also has 20 minutes.

I will not need them. I could have given some to Deputy Noel Treacy, who was very entertaining. I am sure the members of the board of RTE, who are appointed by Fianna Fáil, would be very excited at the prospect of being described as left wing by one of the Fianna Fáil Deputies.

I never described them as such.

Maybe they are some of the leftover socialists from the time of former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, who described himself as a socialist. The idea that the RTE board is a left-wing organisation is crazy. I am not on RTE very often but any time I am in its studios, I am treated with respect and as any human being should be treated. I have no complaint in that regard whatever.

The reason I am intervening in this debate is an announcement made yesterday by Cathal Goan of RTE regarding the decision to broadcast RTE programmes to the diaspora, particularly in Britain. The Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen, announced yesterday that he is postponing that project, indefinitely I would say.

The Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, supports the project and I will recap for him the history of the decision. The Labour Party tabled a Private Members' motion in the House concerning the implementation of a task force for the Irish abroad. One aspect was the broadcasting of RTE material so that it would reach the Irish who live in Britain. Very many Irish live there who were forced out of this country for economic reasons in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Most are now very old but they long to have contact with home and to be informed about what is happening here. RTE was to be the vehicle to meet this demand. For some time, the commercial channel Tara rebroadcast some of the RTE programmes but it was discontinued for commercial reasons.

I raised this matter in the House with the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, and got a very receptive response. He told me a broadcasting Bill was due and that my proposal would be contained in it. This is the Bill we are debating today. Given that I knew the gestation period of such legislation, I asked the former Taoiseach whether he would agree to producing a short Bill simply to deal with this issue. The Minster responsible at the time was the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and he was not as responsive to my pleading as Deputy Bertie Ahern. I kept pressing the matter and the former Taoiseach convinced the Minister in one way or another — I am not sure what method he used — to introduce a short Bill. He did so and the Bill had two purposes, the first of which was to deal with broadband and the second of which was to authorise RTE to broadcast outside the island of Ireland. RTE was very unfavourably disposed to the idea of broadcasting outside the island and it dug up the old Broadcasting Act and found an excuse therein for not doing so.

However, the Government and Parliament changed the law, on foot of the task force report, to enable RTE to broadcast to Britain. This was a positive development. RTE is obliged to implement Government policy in this regard. If it wants to find areas in which to make cutbacks, I will find some, as would Deputy Noel Treacy. I would save €2 million for it without any difficulty and I am sure Deputy Treacy would save €10 million quite easily in its very large budget.

At the time the legislation was considered, RTE representatives told me the proposal would cost money and would not be commercially viable. It stated it did not want to implement it. The Government, with the support of Parliament, changed the law and told it to do so. Broadcasting was to commence on St. Patrick's Day this year. Mr. Goan stated to the Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources yesterday morning that RTE would save money by not implementing Government policy in this regard. Will the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, use every bit of authority he has to address this matter? He has the full support of all sides of this House, which supported the campaign to implement the proposal that RTE should broadcast to the Irish in Britain at an early date. I ask the Minister of State to use all his authority, with the backing of all parties in this House, to make RTE reverse its decision and make €2 million in savings elsewhere. It should implement the decision that the Government changed the law to allow for in the first instance. The Minister of State is positively disposed towards this, as is the Government.

I thank the Deputies who have spoken during this debate for their valuable contributions and constructive approach.

The general thrust of this Bill is to ensure a regulatory environment that will sustain and develop the broadcasting sector in Ireland, and the component parts of that sector, including public service broadcasting, commercial broadcasting, community broadcasting and the independent production sector. The Bill aims to strike a balance between the needs and interests of the various sectoral players, but at its core is a belief that the interests of viewers and listeners are paramount. This is reflected in a number of initiatives, including amendments to the framework for the children's advertising code, as referred to by a number of Members; the requirement for RTE and TG4 to maintain a focus on children's programming; the requirement for RTE and TG4 to maintain audience councils; the enhanced right of reply; and empowering the BAI to conduct audience surveys at the start of the broadcasting contract award process.

I will respond to some of the issues raised by the Deputies during the course of this debate and I acknowledge their very constructive approach. Most of them were very supportive of what we propose and had some suggestions and ideas for improving the Bill in some areas. This was also the case in the Seanad, whose Members were also very supportive of what we are proposing. They dealt with the Bill in a very constructive manner.

A debate on broadcasting standards took place in the Seanad earlier in the week. It arose as a result of audiences feeling they were insulted by comedians on television in recent times. It is obviously difficult to try to strike a balance without interfering too much but it is important that we have certain codes that would be adhered to. There will always be an expectation of standards, particularly when watching the programmes of the national broadcaster. People do not want to be insulted or offended when watching programmes in their own kitchens or sitting rooms.

Deputy Durkan stressed the importance of the development of an Oireachtas channel as a means of making the workings of our democracy transparent and as widely available as possible. I noted the support of Deputies White, Kenneally, Naughten and Creighton for this position and I wholeheartedly agree with them. The recent debate in these Houses on the Credit Institutions (Financial Support) Bill would have drawn a significant viewership, as would Private Members' debates over recent weeks. Making the work of these Houses accessible, even in the case of a small audience with a specialist interest, is a proper public service. None of us expects that thousands of people will be tuning in every day to hear what we are saying in the Houses.

The Minister of State should not undersell this. One can never tell. I know many people who——

Perhaps with the exception of when Deputy Durkan is speaking.

——would be interested in knowing what goes on here all the time. Does the Acting Chairman agree with me?

The Minister of State, without interruption.

Especially people in Tallaght.

The types of material to which Deputy Durkan refers and material on the Internet fall to be addressed by existing criminal law rather than within the context of the Broadcasting Bill. The aim of the Bill is to ensure that broadcasting standards are maintained. Viewers and listeners have a general expectation of high standards from Irish broadcasters and we must ensure that this trust is not breached.

Regarding Deputy Durkan's comments on the right of reply, I agree with him that this is not a panacea for all ills. However, a right of reply will assist in mitigating the damage done to a person's reputation by means of a broadcast of inaccurate facts. I concur with Deputy Clune's and Deputy McGrath'spoints that if this recourse is to work speed is of the essence. Those who feel they have been unjustly treated on television or radio always wish to have the matter dealt with as quickly as possible.

In respect of Deputy McManus's and Deputy Coveney's observations on whether the BCI and ComReg might be merged into a single entity, this issue was considered in the formulation of the legislation. The principal argument against is the requirement for separate knowledge sets. In essence, ComReg is a network or platform distribution regulator and the BCI and BCC are content regulators.

Deputies McManus and O'Higgins are correct in saying that the Bill contains no general definition of what is meant by public service broadcasting. However, there are very specific definitions of the public service broadcasting mandates of individual public service broadcasters, namely, section 114 for RTE, section 118 for TG4, section 125 for the Oireachtas Channel and section 127 for the Irish Film Channel. The mandates of RTE and TG4 continue to encompass the public service formula of Lord Reith, the first chairman of the BBC, whose definition of what public service broadcasting should be was: "to inform, to educate and to entertain". The approach taken in the Bill mirrors that of jurisdictions with strong traditions of public service broadcasting.

Deputies McManus, Coveney, Kenneally and O'Flynn also raised the concerns of broadcasters in respect of any levy introduced in order to fund the activities of the BAI. Section 37 of the Bill requires the BAI to publish estimates of expenditure in advance to allow broadcasters to assess the likely extent of the levy. Expansion of this provision is being considered in order to address some of the concerns expressed.

Deputy McManus made a point regarding archiving. The Bill leaves it to the BAI to decide upon the appropriate balance of funding from the broadcasting fund as between programme making and archiving. Archiving is necessary if we are to maintain for future generations a sense of who we are and of the road we have travelled. However, the process of developing archives, and, more important, the process of developing a culture of archiving among all broadcasters, is a long-term one. We would all agree that the preservation of archival material is a progressive development and it is one we would all support. The older we get the more important archival material becomes.

As is evidenced by subsections (6) to (12) of section 69 the emphasis in this Bill is on the initial tentative step in that process, that of preservation. Concerning analogue switchover, Deputies will be aware that the Broadcasting (Amendment) Act 2007 set the framework for the roll-out of digital terrestrial television by RTE and, subject to contract finalisation by the BCI, by Boxer DTT. The roll-out of digital terrestrial television services in 2009 will afford the opportunity to begin the process of informing viewers of the process of analogue switch-off. Section 11(8) of the Broadcasting (Amendment) Act 2007, which is restated in section 139(6) of the Bill, provides that RTE must take steps to ensure that viewers are made aware of analogue switch-off, the reason for it, the consequences of it, and practical information on how viewers can receive services by digital means after switch-off.

Perhaps the Acting Chairman will allow me to intervene very briefly if the Minister of State permits me. Section 3 of the Act of 2007, as mentioned by the Minister of State, is the section that empowers RTE or gives it authority to broadcast to Britain. I ask the Minister of State that, in his response, he might say something about this. If he does not, RTE will say that the Minister ignored Deputy Stagg in the Dáil.

I have taken note of Deputy Stagg's comment and I shall refer to it later.

I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Mary Wallace, and Deputies Clune, Andrews, Kenneally and White for their comments and support in respect of the strengthened provisions on children's advertising. These provisions will serve to protect the general public health interests concerning children. We are all aware that significant budgets are provided for programming aimed at young people and also that many young people believe that everything contained in such programming is true. We must be very careful about what we allow and about the type of advertising aimed directly at children that we permit on television. The finalisation of the national nutrition policy as outlined by the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, is something I welcome.

I concur with the views of Deputies Nolan and Coveney in respect of the need for a focus on the development of children's programming. Section 101 specifically requires RTE and TG4 to outline on a regular basis their proposals for children's programming. Section 96 of the Bill empowers the audience councils of RTE and TG4 to conduct research into the programming needs of children and young persons.

I welcome Deputy Calleary's support for the added transparency measures outlined in the Bill in respect of contract award processes. These legislative changes are intended to reflect the outcome of the 2004 radio licensing review. I agree also with his point about the critical role played by local radio in reporting local news and current affairs. As public representatives, we can all appreciate the importance that locals play——

They tune in on a regular basis to keep in touch with what is going on in their area, and to know about the functions, the roles and the contributions of their Deputies in this House. I feel, and I am sure Deputies Durkan and Stagg will agree, that the coverage local radio gives us is fair and well-balanced.

Absolutely. It is very important.

In respect of the 20% news and current affairs quota, it should be recognised that all broadcasters benefit from the allocation to them of very valuable radio spectrum. The quid pro quo for such an allocation is that certain public service obligations attach, particularly with regard to the news and current affairs quota which will also apply to RTE under this Bill. The rationale for this quota is, and continues to be, the importance to our democracy of ensuring independent news sources and debating fora.

With regard to Deputy Coveney's observations on the television licence, at some stage in the future we may have to move away from the television licence as a basis for the funding of public service broadcasting, given the pace of technological developments. This is an issue with which many European countries are attempting to grapple. However, the licence fee has served us well over the last half century, despite its limitations. It ensured some measure of independence for RTE from both political and commercial pressures. It has also acted as a direct link between audiences and RTE, reminding the national public service broadcaster to whom its public service duty is ultimately owed. As such we must review proposed alternatives with caution and due diligence.

Deputies Naughton, Creighton, Andrews, Coveney, McGrath, Clune and O'Flynn raised concerns regarding religious advertising. As the Deputies will be aware, the prohibition on religious advertising was subject to a lengthy public consultation in 2004 during which over 150 submissions from the public were received by my Department. The conclusion from that consultation process was that the existing prohibition should be retained.

Section 41 of the Broadcasting Bill continues the prohibition on religious advertising but does so in a less restrictive manner. The provision focuses on advertisements that address the issue of the merits, or otherwise, of adhering to any religious faith or belief, or of becoming a member of any religion or religious organisation. The existing broader restriction relates to advertisements directed towards a religious end. The section also maintains the clarification that permits advertisements which provide information about a religious magazine or periodical being available for sale, or about a religious event or ceremony taking place. This is a difficult and sensitive issue, and is one that merits further discussion by Deputies on Committee Stage.

I wish to acknowledge the important role played by Deputy O'Flynn in chairing the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, which oversaw the innovative eConsultation process that informed the formulation of this Bill. The committee's role was important and committee members worked together in a genuine and helpful way.

Deputy Treacy was very critical of RTE in his contribution this morning, as he was some weeks ago. Yesterday RTE made a presentation before the joint committee and outlined the serious financial situation in which it finds itself. There is no doubt the organisation must make difficult decisions in the months ahead.

Deputy Stagg expressed dissatisfaction regarding RTE's decision to postpone the RTE international television service and the Freesat system to Britain. The organisation has an obligation to provide RTE international under the Broadcasting (Amendment) Act 2007. RTE wrote to the Department to indicate that RTE international would not launch as planned by March this year owing to cutbacks but that the matter would be reconsidered later in the year. The Department has written to RTE underlining the organisation's statutory obligation and seeking clarity on when the service will be launched. The broadcasting needs of Irish people overseas are also being discussed with the Department of Foreign Affairs. We are conscious of the commitment we gave in this regard and we will continue with our efforts with RTE to have the matter resolved.

Will the Government provide RTE with more money?

As with many organisations, RTE receives money, albeit not enough.

I thank Deputies from all sides for their constructive contributions to the Second Stage debate. I look forward to Committee Stage which will provide an opportunity to tease out and address many of the issues raised by Members.

Question put and agreed to.