Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 18 Dec 1974

Vol. 79 No. 4

Minister for Posts and Telegraphs

The drafting of a main amending Bill providing for important changes in broadcasting legislation is far advanced and it will be circulated in the new year. I intend to initiate this main amending Bill in the Seanad and Senator will have the opportunity of discussing broadcasting in depth at that stage.

The present short uncontroversial Bill now before the Seanad is merely an interim measure to enable the existing financial arrangements in regard to RTE to be continued for a short period. Legislation providing continuing statutory authority to pay RTE the grant in respect of net receipts from broadcasting licences fees is required before the end of December, 1974.

The arrangements for paying grants to RTE in respect of net receipts from broadcasting licence fees have existed since the establishment of the authority. Section 22 (1) of the Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960, provided for the payment of such grants during each of the five financial years ended 31st March, 1965. Section 2 of the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1966, and further amending Acts in 1971 and 1973 extended this period up to 31st March, 1974.

The Exchequer financial year now ends on 31st December so the present Bill provides for a further extension of a little less than two years, that is up to 31st December, 1975.

In practice the gross licence fees collected by the Post Office are paid into the Exchequer, and the Vote for Posts and Telegraphs contains provision in a special subhead for a grant-in-aid equal to the gross receipts less the collection costs and any amounts incurred by the Department in connection with prevention of interference to reception of radio and television programmes.

Pending the passing of amending legislation, RTE's grant for general purposes for the nine-month period 1st April to 31st December, 1974, was calculated in the usual way and was included in my Department's Estimate which was approved in June, 1974. The present Bill provides for payments made since 1st April, 1974, and for further payments to be made in the period up to the end of December, 1975.

Over the last five financial years, RTE's income has been a mere I.4 per cent greater than current expenditure and the small surplus was quite inadequate to finance their capital needs. The higher licence fees which came into operation on 1st October, 1974, and the increases in advertising rates which were applied from the same date will merely enable them to break even on current account in the period up to end March, 1976.

As I mentioned earlier, Senators will have the opportunity to discuss broadcasting in depth when the main Broadcasting Bill is going through the House early next year. In view of the non-controversial but technical nature of the present measure it might be more appropriate to defer a general debate on RTE until then.

Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá faoin rud seo. Níl sé ar intinn agam mórán a rá, ach sílim gur ceart dom cúpla focal a rá mar gheall ar an seirbhís agus na cláir a chuireann siad amach don ghnáth-dhuine.

I wonder if the Minister is aware that there are many parts of the country where Radio Éireann is not available. That is a technical fault and in particular applies in Northern Ireland. It has been announced that it is the intention of the Minister to provide a second channel to ensure that BBC will be available all over the country. I am liberal enough to concede that there are parts of the country where television viewers are able to get the three channels: ITV, BBC and RTE. It is ridiculous that any Minister or any Department would fall over backwards trying to bring an alien culture into every part of the country at a time when there are many areas where they are unable to get their own national broadcasting system, either Telefís Éireann or Radio Éireann. The people of all Ireland would expect that our national broadcasting organisation would cater for the whole country and that that should be a top priority.

It is well known that in many parts of our neighbouring country, England, they are unable to hear Radio Éireann. I am not a technical man but I remember the time when the broadcasting equipment which were purchased to provide a short-wave radio station was sold by a former Coalition Government. That was a backward step. I know of thousands of people from all over Ireland who were forced to emigrate to England and Scotland and who would take an immense pride in being able to listen in to an All-Ireland Final or listen to some of the news from the home country. Unfortunately, they are unable to do so because of these technical matters. If any extra money is being provided or if any improvement is envisaged that is one area that should be seen to. Our exiles, as well as those living all over the country, would be thankful to us for doing it.

I do not intend going into the question of programmes in detail but a national broadcasting system should reflect the national image. I believe that the vast majority of our people would like to have our own way of life portrayed in our national broadcasting system. I shudder to see the youth of Ireland switching on and listening in to all this canned material that comes in from abroad. We must remember that the present day youth will be the citizens of tomorrow. While I do not think there should be any strict censorship nevertheless we should be able to identify our broadcasting with our way of life.

We often overlook the fact that the Irish language has been taught here for the past 50 years. We overlook the fact that now there is almost free post-primary education up to university level available in many areas. We are an intelligent people and many many thousands of our people are bilingual. I do not expect changes overnight, but the people providing our broadcasting services should avail of every opportunity to use our national language, particularly in school programmes and in wishing happy birthdays to young children and so on. This is something no public representative should have to ask them to do. It should be more or less expected of them that they would do that.

I put tremendous stress on the spoken tongue. Recently Senator West moved an excellent motion asking for oral examinations in French or German. I believe that our people are very much influenced by what they see on Telefis Éireann and what they hear on Radio Éireann. For that reason tremendous use could be made of the services.

On the educational field other countries have programmes such as the "Open University." Such programmes would be very useful to the citizens of this country. In view of the fact that the Government do not seem to have any money to provide vocational committees with sufficient funds to give any adult education in the schools it is necessary that Radio Éireann and Telefis Éireann devise useful educational programmes for adults. They could be a kind of semi-entertainment. It is reasonable to ask for that.

It was a good thing that Radio na Gaeltachta was established. Whatever the technicalities of the matter are, it is a pity it is not available in the rest of Ireland. It is available in a very limited area. It is matter to which the Minister should direct his attention because there are many people in the rest of Ireland who would like to follow some of these programmes.

Another thing that is very important, so far as television and radio are concerned, is that people even yet have not sensed the influence these media can have on those who are listening and watching. Telefís Éireann is now received in a great percentage of the homes of Ireland. It comes into the privacy of sitting-rooms, kitchens, wherever there is a television set. Those charged with controlling broadcasting have a duty to ensure that a certain amount of censorship is exercised on and certain amount of moral teaching introduced into these programmes. In other words, we should ensure that all that we held sacred and valuable in the past is not destroyed overnight. We have a duty to the citizens who are to follow us to give them good, clean material—something that will be useful to them in the educational field, something that will give them a pride in their own country, in their own history and in their own race, and something that our exiles would be proud to hear or see. They are always interested to know how the people at home are doing.

There should also be more programes of the type enjoyed in rural Ireland. I am not trying to divide city and country, but I say from my own experience that there is not a very large number of people enthusiastic about high-class music. I am not trying to lower standards. But we have a tremendous fund of good native Irish music. We have musicians all over the country and many of them never get a chance to broadcast one tune on Radio Éireann or on Radio Telefís Éireann. The country owes a debt of gratitude to Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann who strove in the past to have recognition given to our native culture, our native music and to our native songs.

We have not had in the past the facilities enjoyed by other countries for the study of music, because of our unique history. That does not mean that we were not an intelligent or musical people. More time should be allotted to that kind of programme. I do not like to mention programmes by name when discussing this Bill, but from my own knowledge these programmes would be very entertaining. They also have a high viewing content. Some time ago when there was talk of playing down entertainment there were many protests against removing a particular programme.

The Minister said in his opening speech that there would be further opportunity for discussion of the subject of broadcasting in the new year. I hope the Minister will keep these points in mind. I want to say that I am not a fanatic as far as the Irish language is concerned. I feel strongly that the people who wish to pass the Irish language on to their children should be enabled to do so. To be fair to the older generation, they did not have the opportunity of learning it. The younger generation have had this opportunity. They should be encouraged to speak not only Irish but other languages as well, because we are now a member of the European Community. The Minister will realise the advantage of having a second or third language. People representing this country and taking part in negotiations should be able to converse in different languages.

I welcome the fact that the Minister has had something to say of encouragement to Senators. We complain that sufficient attention is not paid to Bills introduced in the Seanad and therefore that full use is not made of the Seanad. We would be able to make a very useful contribution to legislation introduced in this House before it would go to the Dáil. This view is shared by Senators on both side of the House. The Minister has stated that he intends to introduce an amending Bill, in which he provides for important changes in broadcasting legislation which is at an advanced stage, in the new year, and that we shall have an opportunity to discuss broadcasting in depth when the main Bill goes through the House early next year.

Not only is the Minister introducing the Bill in the Seanad, which we have criticised other Ministers for not doing, but he also tells us that the Bill before us is merely an extension of existing legislation in accordance with the various amendments to the Acts over the years from 1960 to 1971. I would urge the Senators on the far side to read the explanatory memorandum and just deal with the subject matter of the Bill. If we abuse the privilege, instead of setting an example by dealing with the relevant subject matter, we shall discourage Minister from introducing Bills in the Seanad. Therefore, I would urge Senators to confine their comments to the measure before us.

I join with Senators Dolan and Harte in welcoming this Bill. I should now like to see the Minister ask for more money for reasons I shall explain shortly. I cannot agree with Senator Harte that, just because the Minister has promised us another Bill and another chance to discuss the organisation of the authority and the structure of the operation of which the Minister is in charge, we should confine our remarks purely to finance, because we get very few opportunities to discuss anything in the Seanad. We have met only twice since the beginning of July. Therefore Senator Harte cannot accuse Senators on either side of the House of wasting anybody's time since the beginning of July. We have just been earning our money and doing nothing in a legislative sense. We do our best, but perhaps we shall get more opportunities in the new year.

I should like to see the Minister asking for more money for the reason that I feel our broadcasting service is too dominated by the advertising revenue it receives. I know this is a difficult point and one on which a balance must be struck. The balance is not quite right at the moment. It is something we should constantly examine. I have before me a Press release from the authority's report for 1972, and I quote:

The inadequacy of the licence fee levels caused the Authority to become increasingly dependent on advertising income. In the past year advertising accounted for almost 52 per cent of total RTE revenue and licence fees for just over 45 per cent. The Authority believes that the degree to which broadcasting has become financially dependent on advertising revenue is excessive and undesirable.

The report states that the authority believe the licence fees income should provide at least 60 per cent of total revenue. I would support that view. It is essential that we do not allow advertising to dominate the media operated by the State. There would be very undesirable effects if advertising became too prevalent. I am reminded of McLuhan's statement that the medium is the message.

If you watch RTE television for a sufficient length of time the overall impression is not of the quality of the programmes, not of the standard of the interviews or the problem of bias in the news, but of the constant battering one gets from advertisements. The philosophy behind most advertisements that one sees on television is that self-satisfaction is the chief end of man. I am worried about this and the effect it has in a subliminal way.

While I realise that we cannot do without advertising, I would like to see it controlled more strictly. I would like to see the time for which advertisements run very rigidly controlled. I would like to see the establishment of a body which would have two functions. For instance, I would like to see a press council which could mediate on the more subtle problems that arise between the journalists and the organisation, to try to preserve the freedom of the press which is essential but to ensure that it works within the limits that are set out, and I would like to see the advertisements monitored by some independent body which could act as a buffer between the authority and the medium itself and could express public feelings about the sort of problems that arise in advertising.

I also endorse Senator Dolan's plea for more use of television and radio educationally. I wonder if we could not spend more money on this side of our broadcasting. I would like to see some sort of deal being done between the authorities in the Republic and the open university—perhaps sharing some programmes or doing a swap. There are many programmes which RTE produces on Irish topics which now have considerable international interest. It is one of the better effects of the publicity that this country has received. Because of the troubles in the North one of the better effects is that there is a great deal of international interest in this country. I think that many of the RTE programmes have a much wider potential audience. They could be sold or exchanged with organisations such as the Open University. We could relay some of their programmes in return for some programmes produced in Ireland. I would like to see more done to develop the spoken tongues, not just Irish but the other modern continental languages. We would like to see some work being done as is done on networks in Britain on the use of television and radio to develop the facility to speak foreign languages.

Senator Dolan also mentioned the problem of transmitting to Northern Ireland. I know this is one of the things that the Minister is concerned about. I certainly think this is tremendously important. I would like to see a special vote of money by the Oireachtas for the establishment of full transmission facilities in Northern Ireland. I spent a good deal of time in Northern Ireland and I know that there are a number of places where the RTE signal is very poor. Surely the Northern Ireland geographical area is not so big that we could not overcome this situation. If we cannot do a deal with the BBC, can we not establish transmitters on the Border and beam the signal in? When that is done I would like to see something being done to have a weekly programme of northern cultural interest transmitted from RTE in Dublin. I would like to see it going over the Thirty-two Counties.

There are many fine and worthy aspects of northern culture—their music, their own way of speech, their poets, their writers and their own very distinctive tradition. I feel it would do our people here good if they got hit with that for an hour every week. A good programme of Orange music now and then would help in conjunction with a sensitive treatment of the northern cultural scene, to increase understanding. If we are serious about beaming our programmes to Northern Ireland let us beam them something that will sell. Let us give them some northern cultural programmes which will appeal. My viewing of BBC Northern Ireland and UTV, which is not very extensive, does rather seem to indicate that northern culture is not very well catered for. I think that the particular tradition up there which is very strong could be used by RTE with advantage. I would like to see it beamed countrywide.

I am particularly pleased that we shall get an opportunity to have a more detailed discussion on the structure of broadcasting on radio and television in the new year. It is appropriate that the legislation which the Minister intends to bring in is being introduced in this House. We could give it a sensitive and in-depth debate. I look forward to it very much.

There are problems of organisation in RTE which do need an airing and which we read about in the press. We see not so much the problems but their effects in disputes, in walk-outs, in clear tension between management and the journalists, producers and various other people employed. I do not think tension is a bad thing. In fact in an organisation such as this where there are talented people, people with strong views and people with prejudices, tension is inevitable. What I would like to see is this tension being channelled creatively. I look forward to a debate in which we can give this the detailed discussion it deserves. A good deal could be done by a fairly careful study of the roles played by the producers, the journalists and the organisation. I have talked to people in the different categories and they have very different views of each other's roles. An in-depth study of this could be very rewarding.

In RTE there is this category of producer-director which seems to ask for a combination of qualities in one person that even the most talented people do not have. You can be a good producer—the ideas man behind the programme, the man who thinks it out, the man who looks at the wide spectrum—but the director is the person who actually puts on the show and does the technical detail. He is in charge of the actual operation of getting the thing on to the road. Some of the problems in RTE are caused by the fact that people are asked to combine both roles. This is not wise. It comes about through lack of finance. We do not have enough money to pay separate producers and separate directors. This sort of problem should be discussed and I hope we shall have an opportunity to do so later. I remember travelling on the No. 10 bus to Donnybrook one time. I was interested to observe that a number of RTE executives were on this bus and alighted at Montrose. The busman remarked to me later: "You would think sometimes that that place was bloody Hollywood".

I know the problems that have to be faced. I spoke to several people involved, and sensitive discussion on the problems would be welcomed. I do not wish to say any more on this aspect until the next debate. I hope the Minister will introduce the Bill early, and I am certain he will find a ready response in the Seanad for an opportunity to have a wide-ranging debate on the problems of our broadcasting authority.

Like Senator West, I should like to open my brief speech by assuring Senator Harte when it comes to a Bill which gives money to Radio Telefís Éireann that not only are Members of Seanad Éireann entitled, but in normal circumstances have a duty, to discuss the manner in which this money will be used. Therefore, there would be a discussion on general affairs and policies of Radio Telefís Éireann. However, the Minister has told us, and I should like to thank him for this, that he is going to introduce in this House in the new year a Bill of a general nature which will enable such a debate to take place. When he says the new year I take it in its literal sense, not meaning before the end of 1975, but in January. He says also that the Bill will be of a general nature which will enable a full discussion to take place. On this basis one can let this Bill pass without the type of discussion which, normally speaking, would have had to take place.

There are three points I should like to refer to briefly. First, the question of the long-awaited new transmitter for the main Athlone radio wavelength. It was good to hear from the Minister on various occasions recently that, while there has been some delay, this transmitter will be brought into operation before too long. I should like to ask him whether there is any possibility that, on the introduction of this new transmitter, we shall be able to use a sole national wavelength. The Minister will agree that one of the bad things about Irish radio has been that in the 50 years since 2RN started operating, we have never had a national wavelength. We have always had to share our wavelength with other transmitters. At the moment on the same wavelength as the Athlone transmitter there is a station in West Berlin, another one in Italy and, indeed, there may be others. Because of this, in England and also in parts of Ireland after dark it is extremely difficult to have any kind of good reception from the medium wavelength at Athlone. I do not know whether the power of the new transmitter will be increased, but its effectiveness will inevitably be limited if we continue to share this wavelength with other countries. I hope the Minister will be able to tell me—although I doubt it—that we shall have a national wavelength and, if not, that another opportunity will arise before too long for us to put our case at some international conference to cover this matter.

One of our problems in this regard is that we have perhaps gone too far in obeying the rules. Other countries who did not have national wavelengths have taken them. There are various propaganda radio stations operating in western Europe which have usurped wavelengths to which they are not entitled. I am not suggesting that we should do the same, but it raises problems for us.

I should like to say a few words on the pending second television channel. Some of the Minister's pronouncements over the past year have aroused considerable uneasiness. I admit that those of us who live on the eastern coast have access to three or four channels—the Irish channel, UTV, HTV, and either one or two BBC channels, and we are in no position to tell people who live in the west or in the south that they should not look at foreign channels. Nonetheless, there is a serious issue here which ought to be considered more carefully than the Minister has done to date. Do we really want the Irish national television network to be distributing ad lib throughout the country live broadcasts from a foreign television transmitter, including the news and political commentary of all kinds? The fact that people on the east coast can see and hear these things is a gratuitous matter of geography which does not necessarily commit the national television station to distribute these programmes. In part, they are very good—I think the BBC programmes are the best in the world—some are extremely good and one would have no hesitation in suggesting they should be transmitted, but others are propaganda, sometimes of a rather nauseating kind. Also, in many cases there is sheer vulgarity which there is no particular reason for us to distribute any further.

My view is that the second channel ought to be given to Telefís Éireann on the basis that all or part of it will consist of the best programmes available, not merely from Britain but from other countries in the world, particularly from Europe. RTE could take some of the best British pro-gammes and some of the best of the American ones. I am sure the Minister will agree that, in general, American television programmes are diabolical. At the same time, on their educational network there are some extremely good programmes that could be used. We should take some of their news programmes and documentaries which can be very good. Some of the best programmes from the European television stations could be brought in. There would obviously be language difficulties, but these, in some cases, could be overcome by the use of subtitles or by dubbing. Other programmes such as music, could provide entertainment irrespective of the language problems. We should proceed along these lines rather than subjecting our people, holus bolus, to the sort of ever-present British cultural propaganda which already puts us in risk of becoming a mere provincial enclave of the larger country next door.

The third point I should like to make arises out of what Senator West said about advertising. Although it was a Fianna Fáil Government who introduced the original Bill, I have always felt they made a great mistake in allowing Telefís Éireann to be financed in part from advertising. It is a great pity but it has been done now; we are stuck with it and I do not think we can get rid of it. I agree with the television authority that we should try to limit, as far as possible, the proportion of revenue that comes from advertising, if only because the main effect from advertising clearly is that programmes must appeal to the lowest common denominator; otherwise, TAM ratings go down and advertising falls off. Revenue from advertising is undesirable, but at this stage there is nothing we can do about it.

I do not know why it is—not merely in this country but in other countries also—that the general run of advertisers seem to assume the public are half wits. The mind boggles sometimes at this sort of thing. Whom on earth can these advertisers think they are talking to?

I have often wondered—and I hope the Minister can enlighten me—why Telefís Éireann allow such advertising to be made abroad at a time when Irish actors and Irish film studios clearly are having a difficult time. I am unable to see why it is not possible for Radio Telefís Éireann to lay down a rule that from a certain date all advertising shall be created in Ireland. At the very least I should have thought that when products made in Ireland are being advertised. the advertising should be made in Ireland. In many cases it is not. The advertising matter of a well-known Irish commodity advertised on Irish television is made abroad. This seems quite wrong. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what problems there are in the way of ending this situation. I have nothing further to add at the present. Early in the new year we shall have a further opportunity of dealing with these matters.

I should like to thank the Seanad very much for their approach to this whole problem. This was a preview of the main debate which we will have early in the new year. Senator Yeats mentioned January. I hope he will not fault me too much if it turns out to be February, but I mean early in the new year at any rate.

The discussion we have had today is just about right in that Senators have covered the main topics without getting into very great depth. The remarks that Senators have made will be studied in my Department and no doubt also in RTE between this and the main debate. I should like my own answers to the points made by Senators to be taken also as temporary answers before a more substantive answer in the main debate.

The main amending Bill which I shall be introducing in the Seanad— and I cannot claim the merit of innovation in bringing that before the Seanad, as it is my understanding that the original Bill, which has stood the test of time well in many ways, the Broadcasting Act of 1960—came before the Seanad in the first instance. I am merely continuing a tradition. This Bill will be the first substantial amending Bill, as distinct from technical and minor amendments, to come before the Oireachtas in 14 years, and the debate on it can be an important one in the history of broadcasting.

Though not a very long Bill it will enable every main aspect of broadcasting to be relevantly discussed in depth with particular propositions before the House. The question of open broadcasting as affecting both Northern Ireland and the reception of outside channels in this country will be relevant. The general question of culture will be relevant, including the question of programmes in Irish. There will be a proposed amendment of the existing law there.

I agree with the principle that the Seanad has every right to discuss the full range of broadcasting policy on a proposal affecting licence fees. That is a basic proposition. The Seanad has exercised that power with restraint. I was amused by the zeal of Senators on the question of raising licence fees. Such zeal is not easily found in the directly elected House, for reasons which are clear.

The wide range of bringing certain channels in here and bringing RTE into Northern Ireland is one which I should like to discuss at considerable length when we are discussing the main Bill.

Radio na Gaeltachta is available throughout most of the country on VHF but of course not all sets as yet have VHF. It is generally available on new sets. The new transmitter will greatly increase the strength of our signal and together with other developments should mean that during the coming year RTE radio will be widely receivable with a strong signal in most parts of Britain.

On the question of the second channel, Senator Yeats made many of the most important comments on what is a continuing debate. I have been in touch with many people in the present single channel area and undoubtedly the demand there is for the right to receive one or more services from overseas, not filtered and not censored in Dublin. A good case can be made for the other concept: build up, edit the best that is done abroad and bring it in. Unfortunately the people in the single channel area are not keen on Dublin making that selection for them. That is a basic thing and I regard their wishes as of very considerable importance in a democracy.

They are of considerable importance in Cork.

That is one of the many ideas that we can discuss. I realise that my reply is necessarily inadequate at this stage to the many issues raised by the Senator but I hope he will accept this as a preliminary to what is essentially a preliminary debate. I hope in January or February to treat these matters at the length which the observation of the Senators deserve.

Could the Minister give some indication of whether there is any rule which prevents RTE from making known the regulations about advertising?

I do not think so. It is a question of sordid economics. That is an off-the-cuff reply. I hope to give a more sustained verdict later. They give preference, when they can, to Irish made advertising.

I take it in the present economic conditions they need all the advertising they can get, so preference does not arise.

I am afraid that is so.

Agreed to take remaining Stages today.

Bill put through Committee, reported without recommendation, received for final consideration and ordered to be returned to the Dáil.

Business suspended at 5.25 p.m. and resumed at 7 p.m.