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Thursday, 11 Jan 2007

Audience Council.

Mr. Paul Kinsella from the Audience Council's existing structure is here and Deputy Fiona O'Malley has indicated that she would like to put some questions to him.

I am concerned about the Minister giving himself such strong powers, particularly as regards the audience council. Do the delegates see this as dangerous? The legislation for the audience council appears to be based on the BBC format which is now being jettisoned. Is that wise?

The audience council only relates to RTE. That does not make sense; the audience is reached by all broadcast media, particularly the independent sector. Does that sector believe an audience council which acts as an umbrella with all broadcast facilities is appropriate?

We will hear from Mr. Kinsella and then go to Ms Curtin and Mr. Dooley, before asking the broadcasters their views on the audience council. Is Mr. Kinsella a public representative?

Mr. Paul Kinsella


I have been badly advised.

Mr. Kinsella

The audience council has been in existence for four years and worked well. It has 22 members that are split into two sectors: individual members, whom I represent, and a number of bodies such as the Council of Churches and the IFA, which each have one representative. We meet four times a year to discuss recent programming on RTE radio and television. We also request audiences with people from RTE to discuss issues such as future programming.

Linking with the last point made by the SPI and RTE, the submission by the SPI refers to high quality programming. As a licence payer, this is important to me. Programming is sold by the SPA in Australia. Therefore, we, as the audience, accept that we get a grade A programme such as "Home and Away" at 6.30 p.m. but as part of that package we must also accept a programme like "Blue Heelers" which is seen as a grade C programme that would be broadcast at midnight or 2 a.m. As an audience with shift workers and so on, the difficulty lies in the fact that we must accept this programming quality.

I take Deputy O'Malley's point about the lack of representation from TV3 or TG4 and that the input from RTE Lyric FM is not as great as it should be.

RTE runs the audience council set up; is that not the case? We will hear from Mr. Quinn how it is working before going to the other broadcasters.

Mr. Tom Quinn

The audience council was an initiative RTE took four years ago of its own volition. It came up with a model where there would be 11 members representing various social partners married to representatives of the viewing and listening audience. To that end it engaged external recruitment consultants. A public competition was held with a brief to recruit viewers and listeners from the EU constituencies, Dublin, Leinster, Munster, Connacht-Ulster and Northern Ireland. The audience council has 11 representative members, ten viewer members and an ex officio member, who is also a chairman of the authority’s sub-committee on programmes. The council is entering its fourth year. It selects its own chairman from its members. The chair has rotated and it is no secret that the current chairman is not prepared to go forward next year.

The council meets five times a year and discusses all manner of programmes. The council will set its own homework. At a meeting it will be agreed to examine, say, drama programmes. Several members will then research this topic and make a presentation on it at the subsequent meeting. Senior management of those areas that are examined are in attendance for the presentation. RTE has a programme in educating the audience council into how it works in areas such as broadcasting, publishing and Internet activities. The council receives presentations on sports programming.

Members are free to raise any issues they so wish. Deputy Fiona O' Malley referred to the BBC audience council which the Bill uses as its model. The BBC, however, is pulling away from that model and returning to the current RTE type. RTE feels the Bill's proposals in this regard are not very democratic as the Minister will appoint the council and its size is reduced. It takes away the ability for the general public to apply for council membership. Under the current system, people such as Mr. Kinsella are free to apply to the council. RTE feels that the BBC route is the wrong way. It is regrettable and we hope the committee will recommend a change in the legislation.

Mr. Pádhraic Ó Ciardha

Sílim go bhfuil sé tábhachtach a rá gur é an pobal croí na craoltóireachta. The public is at the core of everything TG4 does as a public service broadcaster. It goes without saying that monitoring what the audience wants is crucial. Every broadcaster must be connected with its audience and that can work in many ways. Our comhairle is a council and comprises people nominated from various bodies and groups. Its function has been to advise TG4 management and the RTE authority, give feedback on the station's schedule and make proposals on forthcoming programming. In that way, all our programmes are shown to the comhairle on a general basis. All TG4 commissioning editors have made presentations to the comhairle.

An audience council must reflect all of a broadcaster's audiences. As discussed at the committee yesterday, not all television audiences are resident in the jurisdiction. Given the particular importance of TG4 to the Irish language community in Northern Ireland, any future structure must reflect that community. The audience council should be open to application to members of the public rather than be nominated by a body or a Minister. TG4 did not respond to this part of the Bill because it takes it as a given that an audience council is a good entity. The models of appointment are best left to wiser councils than ourselves.

We regard this proposal as a regressive step. It is a move away from public ownership of broadcasting and in direct conflict with the principles with which the committee operates. There is no reason why an audience council must physically meet. It could operate through e-consultation and there are several imaginative ways in which the RTE model could be developed. The RTE model in terms of the election and expression of public interest will be used for the proposed press council. This regressive step is reflective of a tone in the Bill that centralises at ministerial level a number of appointments in key areas.

It is important that public involvement relates to public service broadcasting. During yesterday's proceedings, it was asked what is public service broadcasting. I was reminded of the Louis Armstrong response to the same question about jazz. If one had to ask, one did not understand it. My answer to the question is one will know when one does not have it. An audience council is important in defining public areas. As a former regional newspaper editor, I understand it is important in ensuring a public service broadcaster is not focussed only on the Dublin area.

The Bill seeks to make the audience council a statutory body. There is nothing preventing other broadcasting organisations setting up audience councils independently. As the Bill may never see the light of day, other commercial broadcasting organisations could consider following the RTE lead.

Mr. McMunn

Mr. Quinn claims RTE established its Audience Council on its own volition. It was set up on its own volition but as part of its application for a 43% television licence fee increase. It stated if it was to receive such a large increase it needed to be more accountable in the use of public funds. The audience council is linked to the fact that RTE receives a large amount of public funding.

TV3 does not receive public funding but is accountable under a statutory regime through the BCI. Our genre of programming and general performance is monitored by the BCI and the process has worked to date. It concerns me that there should an audience council for all broadcasters. Would someone dare suggest that there should a newspaper content council? TV3 is accountable through legislation to be independent and impartial and is regulated by the BCI. As commercial broadcasters we must give the public what it wants. If we do not, we do not get viewers and in turn we do not get advertising. I agree with the need for an audience council for a State-funded broadcaster. There is a mechanism in place to ensure the commercial sector is appropriately regulated.

Is it correct when Mr. McMunn referred to all broadcasters, he was also including radio?

Mr. McMunn


Mr. O’Keeffe

Several of the local independent radio stations have established listener forums on a voluntary basis. It is good for reflecting listeners' views. The principle of audience councils is good, but I am not sure whether they should be voluntary or statutory. There is certainly a mix, and TV3 clearly does not have one, unlike several local radio stations. As a general principle, it is not a bad idea, but I am not sure whether it should be statutory.

Mr. Julian de Spáinn

An féidir liom labhairt as Gaeilge? Tá córas aistriúcháin ann. Is eagras poiblí é Conradh na Gaeilge, agus táimid ag labhairt ó thaobh na gcáiníocóirí agus na gcustaiméirí de sa chomhthéacs seo. Táimid buartha nach bhfuil aon rud luaite go sonrach ó thaobh phobal na Gaeilge de. Tá an baol ann go bhféadfadh 15 duine a bheith ceaptha gan aon suim sa Ghaeilge nó aon tuairim acu maidir leis na riachtanais agus na rudaí atá ag teastáil ó phobal na Gaeilge. Nuair a deirim "pobal na Gaeilge", níl mé ag caint go díreach faoi na 300,000 duine a labhraíonn Gaeilge gach lá. Tá a fhios againn ó shuirbhéanna atá déanta in Éirinn go bhfuil suas go 89% den phobal báúil do chur chun cinn na Gaeilge, agus is cinnte go mbeidh siadsan buartha más rud é nach bhfuilimid ag tabhairt faoin nGaeilge i gceart ar an chomhairle seo. Ba chóir go luafaí rud éigin anseo ionas go mbeidh ionadaíocht cheart ag pobal na Gaeilge freisin.

Are there any comments?

I agree with Mr. de Spáinn that if we take this route, we should seek to ensure that the concerns not only of Irish-speakers, but of learners and those interested in the language are protected and taken into account. The census over the years has shown many people recording some competence in Irish. Most people in the education system who speak Irish every day are learning the language. There has been criticism of the curriculum, but that is a different argument and if we are to protect the constitutional status of Irish, we must reflect it in all legislation.

We will reach that presently. I wish to finish discussing the audience council first.

The audience council must reflect the constitutional position, something true of all legislation. If there is talk of an audience council, the language must be protected at that level. That might mean having people on it who are competent to deal with the Irish-language public, those who are líofa, those learning and those with an interest in learning. That must be reflected and we should always ensure a quota or requirement so that those appointed to State bodies have that competence.