In my speech in Seanad Éireann on the Second Stage of the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Bill, 1974, on 18th December, 1974—columns 261 and 262 of the Official Report — I referred the fact that the drafting of an amending Bill providing for important changes in broadcasting legislation was far advanced and that I intended to initiate the Bill in the Seanad. This is the Bill now before the House. The original Bill, that of 1959, was also introduced in the Seanad, so I am following precedent in introducing this Amendment Bill here too. I think the then Minister, Mr. Hilliard, set a good precedent on that occasion and I am happy to follow it now.
Before I come to the new Bill it may be worthwhile to look briefly at the background to the 1960 Act which this Bill proposes to amend. Up to the 1950s the broadcasting service was governed by the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1926. The legal position was that the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs was responsible for the detailed control and operation of broadcasting. In 1953 the then Minister, the late Erskine Childers, set up Comhairle Radio Éireann, a committee of five persons appointed in a part-time capacity, to advise and assist him in the conduct of the broadcasting service and to be responsible under him for the general control and supervision of the service. From then on, despite the legal fact of detailed ministerial responsibility, Radio Éireann was in practice free to manage its own affairs and to spend the moneys allocated for broadcasting purposes. This de facto achievement of a large measure of practical autonomy for Radio Éireann was a very significant step in the history of broadcasting in this country and one on which it is appropriate here to pay tribute to the creative work, in this field as in others, of our late President.
Towards the end of the decade the pros and cons for establishing a national television service were being discussed and proposals had been received by the then Government from commercial interests to establish a service without cost to the Exchequer. The Government announced their intention of considering proposals from private interests for a television concession and subsequently the Television Commission was set up to consider such proposals and the relations between the proposed television service and sound broadcasting. Their terms of reference were on the basis that effective control must be exercised by a public authority and that there must be no charge on the Exchequer either on current or capital account.
The commission reported in May, 1959. The majority expressed their misgivings about entrusting the operation of the service to any private organisation and indicated that if the necessary capital were available there was little or no doubt that television should be established as a public service. The majority of the commission estimated the capital required to establish the television service at about £1½ million and were of the opinion that a service based on a reasonable licence fee and advertising revenue should pay its way within a few years.
In the event the Government decided that the two public broadcasting services—sound and television—should be under the control of a single statutory authority, that the television service should be operated without ultimate cost to the Exchequer, and that £2 million to cover capital expenditure — mainly on the television service — should be made available to the authority by way of repayable advances. The Broadcasting Authority Bill, 1959, was initiated in the Seanad to give effect to these decisions and when passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas became the Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960.
On the whole that Act has stood the test of time remarkably well but, as might be expected, the passage of nearly 15 years has both shown the need for certain improvements in it and brought about a need to modernise it in certain respects. The present Bill is intended to meet these needs.
This amending Bill has two main purposes. The first is to clarify and expand the duties of the RTE Authority in fulfilling their task of providing a national broadcasting service in the light of developments, experience and new insights since the authority was established. The second main purpose of the Bill is to provide greater autonomy and freedom for the broadcasting service within clearly defined statutory restraints and obligations, while at the same time improving public control in certain areas. The Bill also contains a number of provisions in regard to financial matters. Finally it provides for certain amendments to the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1926, the main one being to facilitate statutory control of local programme origination for distribution on wireless broadcast relay stations — cable systems.
At present the general duties of the authority in regard to providing a national broadcasting service are laid down in section 17 of the 1960 Act, which reads as follows:—
In performing its functions, the Authority shall bear constantly in mind the national aims of restoring the Irish language and preserving and developing the national culture and shall endeavour to promote the attainment of those aims.
The two main concepts in this section — restoring the Irish language, and preserving and developing the national culture — are ambiguous in a particular way. That is, they assume as obvious and acceptable to all the people certain concepts which are not in fact clear and which, if understood in a narrow sense, are not acceptable to many people in Ireland.
Section 13 of the present Bill is intended to reflect a considerably wider consensus, based on the growing recognition of the diverse interests and concerns of the people of Ireland, the paramount need for peace and understanding and the variety and richness of our culture. The authority are required to have regard to this broad spectrum in their programming while at the same time having special regard for those elements which distinguish our culture from those of other countries, and particularly for the Irish language. They are also required to uphold the democratic values enshrined in the Constitution. And finally, to guard against our being too inward looking, the authority are asked to promote understanding of the values and traditions of other countries. I hope that this general conception of what our national broadcasting service should reflect will commend itself to the Seanad. If so, Senators may well, in this as in other parts of the Bill, help me to formulate this concept with greater precision.
As to the second main purpose of the Bill, the statutory restraints on the authority are contained in section 3 of the Bill. This section restates and expands the provision in the 1960 Act concerning objectivity and impartiality. It imposes on the authority the obligation to apply the same standards as regards objectivity and impartiality to any written, aural or visual material they may publish or distribute and it gives statutory backing to the present practice whereby the impartiality requirement is considered to be fulfilled if all significant views are aired in two or more related programmes if these are broadcast over a reasonable period. The section also prohibits the authority from broadcasting or publishing any matter likely to promote, or incite to crime or to lead to disorder. This new provision is intended to replace the directive issued by my predecessor under section 31 (1) of the 1960 Act as well as that section itself. That directive will therefore lapse with the passage of this Bill. Normally, the authority will be left to apply this new provision independently, in accordance with its own judgment. However, because the Government responsible to Parliament must retain the final say in the particular difficult and sensitive area of the security of the State, I propose to retain, while modifying, the power to issue directions. I will refer to this again later, both when talking about section 16 of the Bill, and in more general terms in the final part of my remarks.
Section 3 also prohibits the authority from unreasonably intruding on the privacy of an individual. This gives statutory recognition to a problem on which the authority already has an internal code.
The Bill contains a number of other provisions conferring additional powers and independence on the authority. Section 2 confers greater security of tenure on the authority; it provides that the members of the authority may be removed from office by the Government only by resolution passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas.
This is an important and unusual provision. The old section 6 of the 1960 Act, which gives the Government power to dismiss any member of the authority without reason given, was not unusual in that respect, as similar powers exist in relation to other statutory bodies. It was no doubt for this reason that this provision gave rise to no discussion during the Seanad debate on the 1959 Bill.
Members of the Seanad may also have been influenced to some extent by the knowledge that the British Government possess similar powers in relation to the BBC, which nonetheless is widely regarded as one of the most independent broadcasting authorities in the world. However the British Government have not made use of these drastic powers. The previous Government did use these powers, dismissing the entire authority on 24th November, 1972. It is not relevant, and would not be appropriate, for me here to discuss the wisdom or unwisdom of that decision. What is certain is that the Government did have the legal power to take that action and was not required to justify it before the Oireachtas. This Government believe that, in view of the peculiar complexity and delicacy of the responsibilities to Parliament of the RTE authority, it is desirable that during the term of its appointment, its members be removable only by the Oireachtas itself. By requiring the Government to justify any proposed dismissal to the Oireachtas, this provision seeks to ensure that the authority, and through it the broadcasting service generally, will be protected against penalisation on any ground other than specified failure recognised by the Oireachtas — for example failure to discharge one or more of the duties imposed on the authority by law. This provision should tend to enhance the autonomy of the authority and to clarify and improve its relations to Parliament and to the democratic process.
Section 5 empowers the authority with the consent of the Minister to appoint advisory committees and advisers — a power which rests with the Minister under the present Act. Section 9 provides for payment of net receipts from broadcasting licence fees to RTE for an unlimited period — rather than for a limited number of years as has been the case under the 1960 Act and later amending Acts — hus giving the service greater finanial security.
Section 14 gives the authority more flexibility in settling the hours of broadcasting and when advertisements will be broadcast, while, under section 21, the consent of the Minister will no longer be necessary before the authority can publish and distribute books, magazines, or recorded aural or visual material.
One way in which the authority's freedom may be eroded lies in complaints to the Minister that the authority has been in breach of its statutory duty of impartiality, and in the Minister's present unlimited power to judge and act on such complaints. Since the Minister is and presumably always will be a political figure it is clearly undesirable that he be left sole judge of impartiality in cases which may involve comment on party politics and politicians and even on his own Department. Nor could the authority be left as the sole judge as to whether or not it was properly discharging this responsibility. The Oireachtas itself, by virtue of the power proposed to be attributed to it by section 2 of this Bill, must of course be the ultimate judge of the authority's conduct generally. But it would be impracticable and undesirable to bring every instance of alleged failure in this area before the Oireachtas.
In recognition of the problem I appointed the RTE Complaints Advisory Committee last year headed by Judge Kingsmill Moore. This system seems to have worked well and the commission provided for in the Bill is to give a statutory basis for this solution.
The commission will be an impartial statutory body which will be independent of both the Minister and the RTE Authority. As an earnest of the Government's determination to maintain the independence of the commission, the Bill provides that a member of the commission may be removed from office only by resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas. Here much the same principles apply as apply to the removability of members of the authority itself. The commission will deal with complaints alleging that RTE have not complied with the statutory obligations as regards objectivity or impartiality, that they must have breached the prohibition on the broadcasting of matter which might reasonably be regarded as likely to promote or to incite to crime or to lead to disorder, or that there was a breach of the prohibition on intrusion on the privacy of any individual. The commission will also deal with complaints that advertisements broadcast by RTE were in breach of the code of advertising standards.
Anybody, including any Senator, Deputy or Minister, who is dissatisfied with a particular programme or programmes broadcast by RTE in any of the foregoing categories and who is not satisfied with RTE's response to a complaint will have access to this impartial independent body which will replace the Complaints Advisory Committee I set up last year under section 21 of the 1960 Act. That committee was of course equally impartial: the only difference is that the independence of the commission is here established and protected by statute.
I mentioned earlier that the Bill provides for retention of power by the Minister to issue a direction in regard to one particular area of broadcasting. This is dealt with in section 16 of the Bill, which provides that the Minister may issue a direction by statutory order to RTE to refrain from broadcasting a particular matter or matter of a particular class which in his opinion would be likely to promote or incite to crime or to lead to disorder. A statutory order so made would be subject to annullment by resolution passed by either House of the Oireachtas. The order, if not annulled, would remain in force for a period not exceeding 12 months but could be renewed by order or by a resolution passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas.
In proposing this I had in mind that the Broadcasting Review Committee, in dealing with the nature and scope of the control which should be exercised over broadcasting, say at paragraph 4.5 of their report which was published in May, 1974, that there should be:
statutory provision for Government directives: any use of such directives should be public, clear and specific and should be subject to subsequent parliamentary confirmation and review.
I agree with this recommendation of the committee and have accepted it.
The Minister's power under section 31 (2) of the 1960 Act to direct the authority to allocate broadcasting time for ministerial announcements will of course remain.
I should like to say a word at this point about the general character of the differences and resemblances between this new legislation and the old, in relation to the powers of the Minister over broadcasting.
Under the 1960 Act the Minister had the unrestricted power to prohibit the broadcasting of any class of matter —section 31—and the Government had also the unrestricted power to dismiss any member or all members of the authority—section 6. This combination of unrestricted powers is a very formidable one: it has proved too formidable, in my view, to continue to be entrusted to any Minister in relation to so sensitive a matter as broadcasting.
The powers of the Minister will accordingly be restricted if this Bill becomes law. The Minister will no longer have power to prohibit the broadcasting of any matter whatever; he will only have power to prohibit the broadcasting of matter falling into certain defined categories. He will be obliged, as he is not obliged under existing legislation, to lay any such directions in the form of a statutory order before both Houses of the Oireachtas, either House of which can annul it by resolution. The period during which the order would remain in force is also now to be limited.
Finally, the setting up of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission represents an implicit and indirect, but real, new limitation on the powers of the Minister. Under the existing law there is no judge, other than the Minister, of whether the authority was complying with its responsibilities— for example in relation to objectivity and impartiality.
It is true that the existing legislation does not explicitly make the Minister the arbiter on question of objectivity. But it provides no other arbiter, and it gives the Government power to dismiss the authority without reason given, and presumably for some failure or failures in relation to any or all of its responsibilities under the Act, including its responsibilities in relation to objectivity and impartiality. In the Broadcasting Complaints Commission there will now be an independent arbiter of these questions, relieving the Minister of a power which should not lie in executive hands, while thus at the same time providing a proper protection for the authority, and serving, and being seen to serve, the interests of broadcasting generally and of the people.
The new legislation then restricts ministerial powers to a significant extent. More important, it seeks to ensure that these powers be more clearly defined, less open to arbirtary use, and subject to closer democratic scrutiny. The most important factor is not so much the restriction of these powers, as the greater exposure of their workings to the light of day. For the ministerial powers here retained and defined are still—and I wish to emphasise this—very important. In so far as they relate to broadcasting likely to "promote or incite to crime or to lead to disorder" the powers retained are not less, within that particular category, than the powers which were available in relation to that category—as well as all other categories—under the present section 31, subject only to the requirement of laying the order before both Houses of the Oireachtas and the power of the Oireachtas to annul the order.
Those whose main objection to the old section 31 was its blanket character, and therefore its susceptibility to arbitrary abuse, will regard the present amending legislation as constituting at least a significant improvement. Those, however, who reject any power of Government censorship applied to the State broadcasting system—even reserve powers to be exercised in the interests of the security of the people— those who take that position will certainly regard the legislation which is designed to replace Section 31 as constituting little or no improvement on that Section. And there is plenty of room for other views in between— for example the view that while the State should have some authority to intervene—that is to say to censor, let us not be afraid of the word, whether or not we are afraid of the thing—yet the State's powers should be more strictly limited than they are in the draft legislation before you. There may also be those who think, on the contrary that the present legislation goes dangerously far in limiting the State's powers to intervene, that the State requires a great reserve of latitude in this domain, and that this is here unwisely and uncautiously reduced.
I believe that it is on this issue— briefly the issue of State censorship— that the main debate precipitated by this legislation is likely to turn. I propose, therefore, in the closing part of my remarks, to come back to this question, and to consider some of the basic problems and principles involved. I am afraid the nature and complexity of the subject will require me to treat it at some length. I hope that Senators will not consider this an abuse of their time and patience, but I believe that one of the advantages of introducing such a measure in the Senate is that there is more room for calm deliberate consideration of issues of principle than tends to be favoured by the tempo and atmosphere of the other House.
Before returning to those thorny and interesting matters let me say something about the remaining, perhaps less controversial, though not entirely uncontroversial aspects of the Bill. Section 6 gives the Minister power after consultation with the authority to direct the authority to rebroadcast the programmes of other broadcasting organisations. When I refer to programmes here, I mean the whole service, not any individual item. As Senators are no doubt aware, a network of transmitters is being erected to provide viewers in the present single channel regions with an alternative to the present RTE programmes. It is hoped that it will be possible to begin transmissions over the second network about the end of 1976.
The Government favour using the second network for transmitting BBC 1 or UTV if, as we hope, negotiations with the British authorities, which have been going on for some time now, are successful. This would of course be a step in the direction of my open broadcasting concept, under which programmes broadcast in Northern Ireland would be fully available throughout the Republic and RTE programmes would be available throughout Northern Ireland.
In this connection I should like here to reiterate what I said in the Dáil— Official Report of 13th June, 1974, column 1153 — as regards the effects on RTE of retransmitting one or more of the British services, and my intentions in relation to RTE in that regard. I quote from the Official Report:
I am interested in defending the standard of service provided by RTE as against outside competition. I believe also in permitting more outside competition. I agree that it increases the financial burden on RTE. I think the State should meet that burden in order to support not merely present standards but an improvement of the standards.
I also believe that the natural and proper way for RTE to meet this competition — the way in which it can in fact serve its natural audience even in competition—is by extending the number and improving the quality of home-produced programmes. I personally would like to see the emphasis on development in RTE go on to that. I do realise that it takes money.
I now turn to financial matters. The Bill contains a number of important financial provisions. Section 10 provides for an increase of £11 million in the amount that may be advanced to RTE from the Central Fund for capital purposes. Section 23 of the Broacasting Authority Act, 1960, authorised the Minister for Finance to make repayable advances not exceeding £2 million in the aggregate to RTE for capital purposes. The limit was increased by £1 million to £3 million by the 1964 Act and to £4 million by the 1973 Act. The present Bill proposes to increase the limit by a further £11 million to £15 million.
The initial capital cost of providing the television service was financed by Exchequer advances, and a few small advances were made in the early 1960s. No advances were made to the authority in the years 1964-65 to 1970-71 apart from a small capital advance for the Ballymun multi-channel communal aerial system. During most of that period the authority's revenue from licence fees and advertisements was buoyant, mainly because of the increase in the number of television sets in use, and necessary developrents were financed almost entirely from internal sources. However from 1969-70 onwards there was a falling off in the increase in the number of television sets and the increase in revenue slowed down while expenditure increased rapidly, mainly as a result of inflation.
The authority's financial position deteriorated sharply and, despite a number of increases in both advertising charges and licence fees, they did not generate sufficient income to finance capital needs. In the five years 1969-70 to 1973-74 RTE earned a net surplus of about £500,000 out of a total income of some £36.5 million. Capital expenditure, including expenditure on renewals, in the same period totalled £4.2 million, the bulk of which had to be financed by the Exchequer. When approved advances to meet RTE's commitments on capital works during 1974 were made, the £4 million limit authorised under existing legislation was exhausted.
Heavy capital expenditure on broadcasting over the next few years must be envisaged. RTE's approved capital programme for 1975 amounts to £3.5 million, which includes nearly £1 million expenditure on the second television transmitter network, and £1.5 million on renewal and extension of TV production facilities and regional studios. RTE have estimated their capital requirements for the five years 1975 to 1979 at £14.7 million at current prices. This does not include the cost of the extra production facilities which would be required if a choice of television programmes were provided by way of a second RTE channel which, of course, is one of the possibilities.
Of this £14.7 million the transmitter network for the second television programme will cost about £3.7 million when completed and existing TV transmitters must be renewed at the same time at a cost of about £1.7 million in order to avoid extensive co-channel interference. Additional television production facilities and extension of regional studios planned by RTE would cost about £2 million and improvement of coverage of the existing television service in those areas where reception is below average would cost a further £2 million.
Renewal of other television plant at a cost of £2 million is envisaged and miscellaneous works on improvement of radio coverage, monitoring and control equipment, buildings, and so on which RTE consider to be necessary, is estimated at over £3 million. There is no prospect that RTE could finance a programme approaching this magnitude from internal sources. Moreover it would be unreasonable to expect any organisation to generate sufficient surpluses to finance a major development programme of this kind over a relatively short period. It must be envisaged therefore that much of future capital investment in broadcasting will have to be financed from outside sources, including repayable advances from the Exchequer.
The increase of £11 million on the limit of advances that may be made to RTE from the Exchequer provided for in the Bill will enable the Minister for Finance to make available the necessary repayable Exchequer advances to help finance RTE's approved programme for 1975 and capital investent in broadcasting in subsequent years. Other financial provisions contained in sections 11 and 15 of the Bill enable RTE to borrow in foreign currencies for the general purpose of broadcasting and for current expenditure. This power can be exercised only with the consent of the Minister and the Minister for Finance.
I mentioned the fact that an increase in the licence fee will be necessary to pay for the second television programme. In addition to meeting the annual charges on the capital costs involved, the licence fee will have to cover the operating costs of the second programme. It is not possible at this stage to estimate with any degree of accuracy the increase that will be necessary.
RTE's present financial position is not particularly healthy despite the significant increases in television licence fees which were applied as from 1st October, 1974. While they earned a relatively modest profits of about £260,000 in the year ended March, 1974, they ran up a deficit of an estimated £250,000 in the nine months April-December, 1974. This was mainly due to cost inflation. They will reap the full benefits of the increased licence fees during 1975 however, and they hope this, combined with stringent economies they have planned and, I believe, are beginning to put into operation, will enable them to break even this year, even though the buoyancy of advertising revenue may be adversely affected by the general economic situation.
I referred earlier to the provision in section 9 of the Bill which provides for payment of net receipts from wired broadcast relay licence fees to RTE for an unlimited period. These fees which are payable by cable operators under the Wireless Telegraphy (Wired Broadcast Relay Licence) Regulations, 1974, comprise 15 per cent where there is no identifiable income from a cable system. Provision is contained in this section too for charging the expenses of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission against receipts from television licence fees.
The amendments to the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1926, contained in the Bill are mostly of a technical kind dealing with a widening of the definition of wireless telegraphy and of the Minister's powers in relation to control of interference caused by electrical appliances.
The exception is section 17, which provides enabling power to regulate local programme origination for distribution on cable systems. As Senators are probably aware, certain experiments in relay on cable systems in the Dublin area of locally originated programmes have taken place. In general I favour this development and regard its potential with considerable interest. It is essential however that, if local programme origination develops on an extensive scale, it should be subject to statutory regulation and control, particularly in relation to programme content.
I have in mind that local programmes should be subject to the same type of restraints as those applicable to the national broadcasting service. It will be possible to arrange this under section 17, which empowers the Minister to make statutory regulations for the licensing of local programme origination for distribution on cable systems and laying down the conditions to be complied with by licensees in regard to such matters as programme content and so on.
Before concluding this part of my remarks I should mention that those recommendations in the report of the Broadcasting Review Committee published in May, 1974, which, if adopted, would involve amending legislation, were considered by the Government in conjunction with their examination of the question of new broadcasting legislation. While some of the main recommendations of the committee — for example, regarding a legislative declaration of the purpose of broadcasting in Ireland and the restructuring of RTE to separate the public control function from the day to day management of the service by creation of a broadcasting commission — were not adopted, quite a number of the recommendations in the report have been implemented and the intent behind others has been incorporated in this Bill.
For example, their recommendations about the statutory regulation and control of cable television are implemented almost in toto as are their recommendations about colour television. The definition of the duty of the authority in fulfilling its task of providing a national broadcasting service contained in the Bill reflects some of the concepts in the legislative declaration which the committee recommended.
I mentioned at the beginning of my speech that the Bill had two main purposes — to clarify and define the obligations of the authority in fulfilling its task of providing a national broadcasting service in the Ireland of the 1970s and, secondly, to provide the maximum possible freedom to the broacasting service within clearly defined statutory restraints while improving public control in certain essential areas. I should now like to discuss this vexed question of control, in terms of the general principles involved and the problems which arise in attempting to apply these principles.
Any legislation on broadcasting, even limited amending legislation as at present, necessarily raises very fundamental issues: essentially those of freedom in a democratic state and the limits of such freedom.
When the original Bill was debated, according to the record, there was relatively little discussion of these fundamental issues and the debate concentrated in the more immediate and practical aspects of the legislation, which was of course generally, and in the main rightly, welcomed.
There was, I believe, still at that time in our Legislature a certain reluctance to discuss fundamental issues, based — as often among us — on the contradictory but simultaneously — held assumptions that we all, as decent people, thought alike on these matters, and that it would be dangerously divisive to discuss them. These assumptions and the habits generated by them still linger in various departments of our national life, but the degree to which they inhibit parliamentary debate is very much reduced. The way is open for us now, if we wish, to debate these matters in a more ample and far-ranging way than would have seemed appropriate in the past. I think it is right that we should do so, and I hope that Senators may agree with me on this point at least.
I would hope that, when we come to discuss the Bill in detail and amendments to it, that debate will have been illuminated in advance by a thorough discussion here of the basic principles involved. That discussion may appropriately take place at this stage of the consideration of the Bill, and it is that discussion I now wish to initiate.
I hope that as I approach these very large questions, unavoidably touching on central issues of political philosophy, Senators will not feel that I am in any way attempting to lay down the law to them. It is for the Oireachtas to lay down the law, and quite literally so. As Minister I am simply bringing before the Seanad, as a contribution to the discussion, my own view of the principles involved in such legislation. Some Senators may well support and seek to improve the Bill, as a reasonably workman-like measure, while not choosing to follow into the more speculative area which I am now entering, or indeed while rejecting some of my formulations of the principles involved. Others may on the whole accept these formulations but feel that the Bill itself does not adequately correspond to them. Both point of view and others could enrich the debate and help to chasten and improve the Bill.
The seven basic questions which I would put, and to which I would offer tentative answers for your examination, are the following : Has the democratic State the right to pass repressive legislation? Has it the right to restrict freedom of expression? If so, what limitations should apply to such rights? Should the State have greater rights of restriction in relation to broadcasting than to the Press? What limitations should there be on the State's right to intervene in broadcasting? When we speak of freedom in broadcasting, whose freedom do we mean and how is it to be defended? Finally, whatever principles we hold valid in relation to these general questions, are there any special circumstances prevailing in our society in our time which make it necessary or prudent to apply these principles in particular ways?
As regards the first question, I do not suppose there can be many Members of this or any other Legislature who hold the doctrine that the State should never engage in any kind of repressive legislation. Most of our laws seek to repress something or other, whether it be abuse of drugs, exposure of workers to unnecessary risks, ill-treatment of children, murder, or other undesirable practices.
The reason I raise this question first is that in the form of a pejorative slogan it has very often been launched against the legislation I am seeking to amend and will certainly be launched against some parts of the amending legislation. There are of course weighty arguments against such legislation as I am now introducing, and I shall come to these. But I begin with this particular argument, which is clearly invalid, because I am concerned about the implications of its fairly wide use, especially among young people.
Those who use this slogan suggest that, whenever the liberal and democratic State uses repressive legislation, backed as it has to be by the power to coerce those who will not obey the laws, that then it is departing from its own principles. The underlying argument, which has often been used by fascists and communists, but is also used by others, is that the liberal and democratic State, by reason of its own principles, has no right to defend itself or the citizens who look to it for their defence.
This is of course an invitation to the liberal and democratic State to commit suicide. It may be asked in parenthesis whether ours actually is a liberal and democratic State. It is, I would say, as democratic as the most democratic country in the world, and about as liberal as that democracy is prepared to stand. It is less liberal than other western European countries but is undoubtedly growing more liberal than it was. Unfortunately the wish to be liberal, or to demand liberalism from others, is often accompanied by only the vaguest notions of what liberalism is, as the slogans about repressive legislation show. The debate now opening would be particularly useful if it helped to clarify ideas in that regard. The simple principle which came to be at the heart of the liberal democratic State was laid down for Athens more than 2,000 years ago:
Neither excess of rule nor anarchy That is the mean my townsmen shall observe.
From the Oresteia of Aeschylus.
All liberal and democratic states have tried to observe that mean, always differing strongly within themselves as to what particular measures may involve "excess of rule" and what may lead to "anarchy", but always accepting that anarchy is to be abhorred and that the State must maintain, and where necessary use, an apparatus of repression.
It may be well to distinguish here between what one might call practical work-a-day anarchy and the anarchy of the philosophical anarchists. The latter would be a highly desirable thing, if the assumptions on which it were based were true, or could become true. And of course they may one day come true. It may come about, as a result of technological developments and wiser use of that technology, stabilisation of world population, elimination of poverty, vastly improved education and understanding of our own psychology, that aggression, cruelty, greed and exploitation of the weak by the strong will disappear altogether from human behaviour and all people will devote their energies to helping one another rather than winning advantages for themselves. In those conditions, anarchy would be a benign state of affairs and repressive legislation would be unthinkable.
Whether humanity as a whole may conceivably be moved in that direc- tion I would not care to guess: the question is related to that of the perfectability of man, and might bring us to the perilous fringes of theology. But we are certainly nowhere near such a Utopian state of affairs now, and this country is not noticeably nearer to it than any other country. In present conditions, human nature and the human situation being as they are, anarchy—that is, the breakdown of the State—simply involves disseminated retail-tyranny: forms of rule unchecked either by civilised tradition or by constitutional or conventional safeguards of any kind. Of that, too, we have experience, but I shall come back to that.
I have encountered, in different parts of Africa at different times, in parts of a great American city, and more recently in parts of Northern Ireland, situations in which the gunman for a time is absolute ruler over a given area, fairly large or very small: where the gunman's mind is the sole legislature and judicature, and his armed hand the executive. In comparison to conditions in these squalid and barbarous little empires, the abuses which prevail in the daylight of the effective jurisdiction of a democratic state, serious as they are in absolute terms, pale into relative insignificance.
The democratic State has the duty to defend itself and those whom it represents against such threats and such encroachments, and the duty moreover to do so effectively. It has the duty also to defend and where possible extend the general liberties of the citizens to the maximum extent compatible with the secure survival of that on which both the liberties themselves and the prospect of their growth ultimately depend: that is, the democratic State itself.
There is obviously a tight-rope situation here: the democratic State has to save itself on the one hand from being pushed by fear of anarchy into "excess of rule" and on the other hand to save itself from falling into anarchy through fear of excess of rule. This is a perennial problem. How the balance is best kept at any time and in any place depends on one's judgment of the circumstances prevailing then and there. I shall come later to the question that concerns us most closely: the application of these principles to our own situation, and the balance most appropriate to our conditions.
I imagine that all Senators, or almost all, will agree in general with the answer to that first question: that the democratic State has the right to enact repressive legislation, provided that it represses the right things in the right way, and by means that are adequate but not excessive. Opinions may well be more divided on the second question: Has the State any right to restrict freedom of expression? It is possible to hold that it is best not to do so at all: that the State should restrain, where necessary, overt and material actions, but should leave purely verbal utterances strictly alone. Language, it is urged, can be a safety valve for feelings which might otherwise find more dangerous expression; debate, using even the most heated forms of argument, has a cleansing power; even the most detestable ideas —the advocacy of genocide for example—should be allowed the widest possible public expression, and then be met by reasoned argument.
Obviously, I am presenting here an argument with which I am in agreement. This is undoubtedly an attractive concept, especially to those who have an absolute faith in the force of rational argument, as capable of overcoming appeals to the passions. Those who hold to this view often quote with approval certain well-known lines of John Milton, including the famous "Let her (truth) and falsehood grapple! Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"
This and other fine sayings have been adduced to support a doctrine that freedom of expression is an absolute, whose untrammeled exercise will necessarily be beneficial to society and that the State has no right to interfere with it. The weakness of the doctrine is that it tends to assume that all discourse consists of rational argument and to ignore the rather obvious fact, not unfamiliar to us in this country, that a word can lead to a blow.
In wider terms, language can be used to inflict pain and arouse cruelty; to instil fear into one group and arouse hatred in another; it can be used to whip up feelings conducive to pogroms; it can be used to exploit revulsion against one atrocity in order to justify the commission of other atrocities; it can be used to legitimise a sustained campaign of violence, to raise funds for that campaign and to confuse or intimidate those who tend to question or oppose such a campaign.
Incidentally Milton, who did not in fact favour absolute freedom to publish with impunity, was well aware of the violence with which words can be charged. "Books," he wrote, "are as lively and as vigorously productive as those fabulous Dragons' teeth: and being sown up and down may chance to spring up armed men." What was true of the printed word in the seventeenth century is certainly no less true of the words far more widely "sown up and down" today by broadcasting—an emotional appeal is not capable of being dispelled by rational argument alone. An insult, backed by a threat, is not adequately answered by a syllogism.
For these and related reasons all states, even the most liberal, have in fact placed some restraints on freedom of expression and indeed liberal states continue to add new restrictions, notably, and rightly, in the field of racially offensive language. The effectiveness of such restrictions is open to question—as is the effectiveness of laws in general—but the placing of legal curbs on defamation, insults, threats, incitement to violence and racial smears is generally accepted as having on the whole salutary effects, as tending to establish desirable norms of behaviour and as being conducive to the peace of society and the well-being of individuals and families. Words are in fact an integral part of many patterns of action. If this is accepted, the absolute distinction between words and actions is broken down, and words and actions together become part of a pattern of behaviour which is and should be amenable to law.
If we accept, then, that some restrictions may be applied to freedom of expression, we come to our third question: what limitations should apply to such restrictions? A line which one might legitimately seek to draw— though it is very hard in practice—is that which would set apart, as belonging to the sphere of action amenable to law, all forms of play on the emotions, through words and images, in ways likely to arouse fear and hatred, to cause acute distress, or to endanger the lives of citizens, and the security of the state responsible for those lives. All other forms of discourse should be the domain of freedom of expression. Any restriction on freedom of speech should have to be shown to be desirable in the general interest, not just the interest of the Government of the day. That is very important. Not merely its formal wording, but its actual working should be exposed to continued scrutiny and to renewed debate, so as to ensure that a restriction accepted for the protection of the citizens is not abused for the exclusive benefit of their rulers. I hope this new legislation may meet these tests. I am certain that it meets them better than the legislative provisions which it replaces.
Coming now more closely to the nub of our discussion here, we consider the fourth question, that of what particular rights the State should legitimately exercise in relation to broadcasting, and in particular what restrictions the State may legitimately require in this sphere. Our democratic State does, for example, exert much greater control over broadcasting than over the Press. This arises from the nature of the situation: the fact that the electro-magnetic spectrum, unlike newsprint and ink, is public property and cannot readily be bought and sold in separate consignments and that therefore broadcasting has to be controlled, in some degree at least, by the State on behalf of the community, basically through an inherent monopoly in the allocation of frequencies, combined with responsibility to the people in the matter of how these frequencies were used.
If the State allocates the use of a public asset and if it requires citizens who wish to benefit from use of that asset, to pay for their privilege, then the State, on behalf of the citizens who pay the licence fees and elect the Government of the State, has a particular responsibility in relation to broadcasting, and specifically the responsibility to ensure that broadcasting is not used to endanger either the security of the State which licensed it, or the lives of the citizens who pay for it. These considerations are greatly reinforced by the fact that broadcasting, of all the media, both through sounds and images, has by far the most immediate impact on people and situations, has by far the greatest capacity to generate emotion, and that its capacities in these regards have aroused and held the fascinated attention of people interested in promoting and justifying violence, and strongly desirous of access to broadcasting for precisely these ends.
Professional broadcasters have themselves publicly noted that, in certain conditions, the mere appearance of a television camera on a street may tend to speed up the action of a riot —the speeding up being clearly aimed at the television camera and through it at television screens throughout the area, the presumed object and probable effect of this being to spread similar patterns of conduct more widely. I am aware that the issues raised by this pattern of the potentiality of broadcasting and in particular of television, are extremely complex and I shall return to them later, in part in this statement and in my reply to this Stage of the debate, and more specifically during the later Stages of the Bill in this House and in the Dáil. At this stage in my argument I wish only to draw attention to the basic reasons why some form of State regulation of broadcasting is required.
This brings us to the fifth question of what limitations there should be on the State's right to intervene. As in other cases the power to regulate needs itself to be regulated carefully so that the response is not excessive and that broadcasting remains free to cover the flow of news adequately and to discuss current affairs intelligently, probingly, comprehensively and with access to a very wide range of opinion. The difficulties involved here are probably never entirely soluble. Dr. Johnson implied as much when he wrote: "The danger of such unbounded liberty, and the danger of bounding it have produced a problem in the science of government, which human understanding seems hitherto unable to solve". I hope Senators will take that durable "hitherto" as a challenge.
This question of the limitations on the State's right to intervene is closely linked to my sixth question: When we speak of freedom in broadcasting, whose freedom do we mean and how is it to be defended? Some people— quite a few people, indeed—have written and spoken as if implying that freedom of broadcasting meant the freedom of any individual broadcaster to broadcast just what he liked. It is not easy to see how this could be defended; to begin with, the general considerations I have already mentioned apply here too. If an individual broadcaster should take it into his head to engage in hate propaganda against a minority, or a majority for that matter, there ought to be someone there to stop him—at least if we accept the essentials of the foregoing argument. In broadcasting, as in other forms of collective activity—in newspapers, for example—no individual is entirely free to do what he likes; and, as in every valid, creative, collective enterprise, each individual involved in the creative process has a considerable say in what goes on: that is to say, the freedom involved is a collective freedom, under law.
There is no doubt that this kind of freedom would be—and was here for some considerable time—stifled by direct day-to-day governmental control over broadcasting—the system which the late Erskine Childers ended. It could also be damaged by indirect covert governmental pressure, exercised nominally in the public interest, but actually in the interests of a person or persons holding power at a given moment in time. Broadcasters have to be protected from that type of interference, just as the public has to be protected against the possible use of broadcasting in support of violent groups hostile to democracy by the exploitation of emotions, through the use of words and images, in such a way as to promote the objectives of such groups.
I believe that, on the whole, the present structures, whereby the Director General is nominated by and responsible to an authority nominated by the elected Government, have tended in general to serve these two purposes—never wholly compatible or wholly attainable—of protecting both the public and the broadcasters. But I believe also that these structures can be improved by defining what might be called the reserve powers retained by the Government and Parliament as relating to security—and security only—and by doing everything possible to eliminate the danger of covert interference for reasons other than those basic reasons on which I have laid stress here.
I believe that the strengthening of the authority and the clarifying of its relation to the State are in fact the best means both of upholding the collective freedom of broadcasting and the principle of responsibility to the State. That, at any rate, is the objective sought in this part of the legislation soon to be open for discussion here.
The final question which I posed and which I would now like to discuss, is that of whether any special circumstances prevail in our society in our time which make it necessary or prudent to apply these principles in particular ways?
I think our history, both in the more remote past and recently, has placed us today in a situation where the defence of the democratic State, together with the liberal values and civil rights for all citizens which that kind of State alone sustains, requires a high degree of intelligent vigilance and that such vigilance should be turned on our use of words and images and particularly on the broadcasting of these.
Our Irish relation to democracy involves elements which we hold in common with the citizens of other democracies, and also other elements peculiar to our own condition, which, in turn, give a special tincture even to that which seems to be held in common. Like many other citizens of democracies, we practise democracy; but we do not greatly esteem it. We are extremely conscious of its failings, which are many. We see its ridiculous side—and we in Ireland perhaps see that more persistently than most—and certainly that side is there.
We elect our representatives, but then we treat them like scapegoats, and rather shabby scapegoats at that. The casual, rather slighting relation of the citizen to the State is a part of democratic life, and even a part of why we value democracy. This is the only form of Government in which the citizens can with impunity treat their rulers with contempt, and this is no small part of its drab but real glory. Those who express themselves cynically about democracy ought sometimes to remember that democracy is the only form of Government about which it is possible to be cynical in public while continuing to live in safety under its jurisdiction.
Commentators insist on the failures of democracy and yet tend to assume the survival of democracy as something to be taken for granted. A strong overt commitment to democracy is less than general: indulgent attitudes to certain of the enemies of democracy are frequent. A free Press, whose life-span can be no longer than that of the democratic State under which it exists and under which alone it can exist, has on the whole turned its critical attention more closely on the faults of that State than on the forces which threaten it.
This is right, of course, if the faults are great and the threat is slight. The faults are great no doubt, though less I believe than in any other form of organised State that we know. Is the threat slight? There are many thoughtful people who do not regard it as slight today, even in Britain, perhaps the most solidly established of all the world's liberal democracies. It is not regarded as slight either in Italy and Germany. If that threat is significant in western countries under the economic and social stress of the time, is it likely to be less significant in this land, cursed as it is with private armies and menaced as it is by the appalling situation which these private armies have precipitated in the North? I do not say created there; I say precipitated.
In our conditions there are forces at work which tend to turn the normal sturdy sulkiness of the democratic citizen into something rather more disturbing. There are, to begin with, the lingering elusive doubts about the legitimacy of the State itself. The actual denial of that legitimacy is now confined to a very small, but significant, minority of the population; but the effects of past denials are much more widespread, partly in the forms of doubts, disengagements and disparagements about State and Parliament, and partly in ambivalence towards anti-democratic bodies which arrogate to themselves powers rightly belonging to the democratic State.
To speak more plainly: too many people speak and write as if the armed conspiracies known as the IRA, have a legitimate or quasi-legitimate, though usually unspecified, role to play in our society. This permeates the language that is used about them and that language in turn reinforces the peculiar kind of authority which they have held, which has done enormous damage, which may seem perhaps at the moment to be on the verge of decomposing but still requires vigilance, plain speaking and determination in combating it.
I know that in certain circles, it is regarded as somewhat "paranoid" even to refer to armed conspiracies. It would, indeed, be paranoid if these conspiracies did not exist. Unfortunately they do exist: one of them murdered a Member of this House last year, and they continue to murder, maim and intimidate—especially intimidate—people every day in this island. It is paranoid, I agree, to see armed conspiracies where none exists. What word is there for a failure to see armed conspiracies where they do exist and are murdering our neighbours? But, of course, it is not really a question of a failure to see them but of an unwillingness to use words that accurately define their nature. We prefer woollier appellations; thus the words "the Republican movement" are vague, convenient, give no offence to the conspirators, and are in frequent use.
I think it would be fair to say of many—though certainly not of all—of those who write and broadcast in this country that they have fallen over the years into a cautiously propitiatory habit of reference towards armed conspiracies within the Republican family.
Members of these conspiracies when apprehended, tried and duly convicted are generally referred to as "Republican prisoners", as if they had been jailed for their opinions and not for their crimes, up to and including murder. Their more spectacular crimes are, indeed, strongly condemned and the armed conspirators are frequently implored to desist from violence. Such condemnations and such pleas are very often mingled with tributes to various virtues imputed to the conspirators, and a generous attribution of space to all their communiqués and all the hand-outs of the numerous associations whose only significance derives from the consistency of their alignment with the position of one or other wing of the IRA.
There is also a disquieting tendency to attach credence, or the appearance of credence, to statements by the propaganda wings of these conspiracies, in spite of the fact that they have lied, and been caught lying, on so many occasions. I would attach only symptomatic importance here to various individual phrases. One could compile a long list of them; I will mention just a few — the use in a newspaper of the word "execution" to describe an IRA murder; the uttering by a columnist of a "shout of joy" at the news of the Portlaoise escapes; the placing by a Dublin periodical very recently of inverted commas round the word "convicted" in relation to a convicted criminal of Republican tendencies; the use by a commentator of the phrase "subversive organisations, as the Government calls them".
None of these items is of much significance in itself: what is significant is the frequency with which language of this kind is used, the ease with which it is accepted, and the widespread equivocal approach to the IRA in our society which this implies. It is rather rare to find any explicit total rejection of the IRA as having any legitimate role in our society; any explicit recognition of the fact that, in a democracy, there is room for only one army, the army responsible to the people through an elected Government and that the citizens should co-operate with the Government in breaking any private army.
I put not long ago to the editor of one of our Dublin newspapers—I speak of newspapers here because I am situating the journalistic context in which broadcasting occurs—the question whether he regarded the IRA as soldiers fighting for Ireland or as murderers. He published my letter but made no answer. From his editorials I would infer that he would regard them as murderers when they kill people in the Twenty-six counties but as soldiers when they kill people belonging to certain categories in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, there are quite a few people, in politics as well as in journalism, who share that attitude; and give it oblique expression.
Indeed, if I have laid here an emphasis on journalism, it is by no means because I would suggest that journalists are primarily responsible for our present predicament in relation to armed conspiracies. I do not think anything of the sort. I am discussing journalists here because of the specific bearing of this legislation on journalism and broadcasting is a form of journalism. I would agree that people coming from a number of other categories—clergy, teachers, businessmen, trade unionists—bear responsibility in this area no less than those of journalists. I am not indicting journalists as a class, nor am I indicting the general membership of the other categories I have mentioned. I would agree with journalists fully when they say that the prime responsibilities rest with the politicians. I would be glad to discuss the responsibilities of politicians in this matter, and how I view the distribution of these responsibilities, at another time and place. But here, on this Bill, we are concerned with broadcasting and with the journalistic content of broadcasting.
I believe that our public are now clear sighted enough about the IRA, that they see its danger generally, detect the falsity of its promises and want nothing to do with it. The IRA's senseless destructive campaign in Northern Ireland has accomplished that much at least. But a certain miasma of glamour about these organisations still lingers in the channels of communications. This is not entirely due to the way in which explicit communications tend to lag behind the intuitive processes through which ordinary citizens reach their conclusions. There are also, as in the question of attitudes to democracy, factors of more widespread application, not confined to our island. Just as violence is attracted to the camera, so the camera is attracted to violence; it is a case of love at first sight on both sides.
This is, of course, due not just to the perversity of cameramen or broadcasters generally, but to the fascination which violence has for so many people—especially for people who can witness or hear about it happening to others from the safety of their own livingroom. The fascination too may have diminished for viewers in the Republic, as the violence has come nearer. The news value of violence in itself confers an authority of a kind on those who can dispense violence and even on those more remotely connected with it. The utterances of Sinn Féin would certainly not attract one-fifth the attention they do if their spokesmen were not rightly felt to be speaking for the gunmen, in spite of their ritual denials that this is so.
These sympathies, these half-sympathies, these equivocations have their roots in history. This is true, but it is not a reason for not trying to eliminate them—as many European nations who also have a history, have eliminated their equivalents—if we now find them to be noxious to our own lives and those of our children.
Many people who originally cherished such sympathies have already weighed them and found them altogether wanting, as far as our life now is concerned. Others, perhaps, while not really supporting the armed conspiracies, would concede them a sort of privileged role, sanctified by historic precedent, existing on a plane above normal judgment and enjoying, if not a legal immunity, a kind of moral immunity for acts which, if committed by ordinary citizens, would be crimes. This attitude, understandable enough perhaps in the 1920s and 1930s, seems now, in 1975, surely to have something sickly and retarded about it. In any case the State has to reject firmly any such concept of historically privileged crime, and this rejection will necessarily be reflected in legislation and regulations affecting the State broadcasting system.
This is not because there is any serious danger at the present time that material sympathetic to the IRA would cause the citizens of the Republic to engage in widespread violence. The results, the dangers are more long-term, and therefore all the more appropriate to be guarded against by legislation.
Basically, if the State broadcasting system were in any way to accredit the idea that the IRA is a quasi-legitimate institution or that it is appropriate for citizens to be neutral as between the democratic State and the armed conspiracies which seek to usurp its functions—and have on occasions actually usurped some of them — then that pattern of presentation coming from that source—that is, a source closely associated with the State itself—would tend to confuse the citizens, by intensifying the false air of legitimacy with which the IRA has managed to surround itself and would thereby under any propitious conditions which might occur and there might be such conditions, further the criminal purposes of that organisation.
Of no less importance than this is consideration of the impact of our broadcasting in Northern Ireland— and, of course, our sound broadcasting can reach virtually all of Northern Ireland and our television some 14 per cent or 15 per cent of viewers there—where there exists among the majority a widespread impression— greatly, understandably and most ominously strengthened by certain events of five years ago—that this State is in some kind of collusion with the IRA. Anything in our broadcasting that would seem to confirm that false impression, is directly dangerous to life, both in Northern Ireland and here, and I think Senators will know that I do not exaggerate there. In normal circumstances, and I hope in all circumstances likely to arise, it is for the broadcasting authority itself to ensure that a proper balance is kept, through the discharge of its responsibilities under law. But in view of the serious implications of these matters for the State and its people, it is necessary for the State to retain a reserve power of intervention which may never be used, but is there in case of need.
This legislation seeks at one and the same time to retain that reserve power and to ensure that it is not misused for purposes other than those for which it is intended. The actual wording of that reserve power, both in section 16 (1) and also in the parallel prohibition to the authority contained in section 3 (1A) will rightly be carefully scrutinised by the Seanad and has already been subjected to some criticism in the Press and by broadcasters. It is criticised as being unduly wide and the objection is understandable. It is fair to point out however that, wide though it may be, it is far less wide than the power conferred by section 31 of the existing Act—a power which is without limitation of any kind whatever. I wanted to get rid of this absolute power, so obviously capable of manifold abuse, but I wished the power substituted for it to remain wide in the area where its exercise is justifiable: the area is that of security.
The wording used in these sections closely resembles the wording used in the British Independent Broadcasting Act of 1973—and similar prescriptions applied to the BBC—which have generally not given much concern to journalists and broadcasters. The wording has, I think, to be reasonably wide if it is to be effective in application to the many unforeseen situations which may arise, to the ever-changing nature of crime and associated forms of disorder, and to the complex relationship of broadcasting to these.
I think it likely that Senators will seek to amend sections 16 (1) and 3 (1A). I can promise any such Senators that the most careful consideration will be given to their amendments, if they offer them, and that wherever it can be shown that different wording would tend to eliminate possible abuse, without seriously endangering the objective sought in these sections, and which I have tried to explain in my foregoing words, then I will have no hesitation in accepting that different wording. But I do not want, either, to hold out any excessive hopes of major change. That the Government shall retain an adequate reserve power, for security reasons, is a principle which the Government are determined to safeguard and, therefore, any amendments seriously weakening that would be resisted.
I am not under the illusion that any restrictive provisions embodied in broadcasting legislation can be 100 per cent effective. The 1960 Act, which in its present form is considerably more sweeping and drastic in its provisions than it will be if these amendments are carried, was yet by no means always successful in restraining the kind of manifestations which it was presumably intended to restrain. Legislation is static; broadcasting fluid and volatile; broadcasters always impatient of curbs and on occasions ingenious in evading them.
Restraints work only in a clumsy, intermittent and painful fashion unless those concerned are themselves convinced of a need for some restraints. If of course it were certain that all broadcasters were convinced of such a need and would in all circumstances remain so, then there would be no need for any external legislative restraint. However, this is not likely to be the case. The broad-caster's professional instinct, I believe, inclines him or her towards exposure of what is exciting, even sensational and to regard the possible social effects of such exposure as conjectural and outside his or her sphere.
Instances of active sympathy with the armed conspiracies and desire to promote their cause by propaganda are rare, though not altogether unknown. A kind of neutral professionalism, indifferent to social consequences, is much more widespread and lasting. It is for this reason that the public interest has, in the Government's view, to be protected. The old legislation, and the amendments to it which I now propose, both aimed to serve that end. If legislation is to serve that end as effectively as possible, broadcasters and other interested citizens should have the opportunity of understanding, not just the nature of the steps the Oireachtas is taking, but the reasons why it judges such steps as it will eventually decide to be necessary.
In this respect I think that the weakness of the old legislation was not just the unrestricted power conferred by section 31, but the failure to offer reasons why restrictive powers were needed at all. As a result of this it was natural for broadcasters to regard the section in question as a kind of arbitrary big stick which might be brought down on them at any time, in any way, and for any reason. I do not believe broadcasters generally will like my sections 3 (1A) and 16 very much better than the old section 31, but at least they now have some idea —though they may say not yet a clear enough idea—of the category to which the restrictive power is itself restricted, and the reasons for all this.
They will also have had an opportunity of learning the framework of ideas in which the legislation is set and the intent and frame of mind of the Government with regard to it. It is my belief also and my hope, that when the debate here and in the Dáil is completed they will have a very full idea of the mind of the Oireachtas on these matters. They have also their opportunity both as citizens and experts to influence—I am referring to broadcasting—our debate and perhaps also the ultimate form of the legislation. Some of their representatives have been in touch with me on this matter and I believe they will also have been in touch with some Senators about amendments which they consider desirable. Any such amendments which Senators may think worthy of adopting and submitting I shall be prepared to study carefully with a view to improving the wording of this Bill, always subject to the safeguarding of its essential substance.
It is my greatest hope that this debate may lead to a better understanding between the Government, the rest of the elected representatives of the people, the broadcasting authority, the executives of RTE and professional broadcasters generally, with regard to the legislative framework of broadcasting in this country. The thinking behind a law, as expressed during a debate on a Bill has to be considered irrelevant by the judges who interpret the law. It will not however, I think, be felt to be altogether irrelevant by those who have to work under that law.
The latter part of my remarks has tended to dwell upon those negative aspects with which it is the duty of the Government to concern themselves I have not wished to gloss over those limitations and restrictions which this Bill retains. At the same time it should be kept in mind that this is not a more restrictive Bill than those provisions which it seeks to change. It is distinctly less restrictive in relation to the authority while it delimits the powers of the Government more strictly, and provides for parliamentary scrutiny of these. It reinforces the authority's security of tenure during the period of its appointment. It limits the ministerial orders which may be issued to the authority both in the scope and in duration, and makes them subject to annulment by either House of the Oireachtas.
By providing for a Broadcasting Complaints Commission it protects the authority from a possible situation under which a Minister, armed with the altogether unrestricted powers available under the old Act, could have made himself arbiter on impartiality, even in a case with which he was concerned politically, departmentally or personally. The authority gains greater financial autonomy under section 9, and in a number of additional minor ways its position is strengthened. Section 13 gives a wider interpretation of the duties in relation to culture, and this also is a relaxation of the existing position.
As well as providing in these ways for a widening of the area of freedom of the RTE Authority, the Bill also aims at clearing the way to enable Irish viewers to have wider freedom of choice. This is the meaning of the provisions for rebroadcasting—section 6 — and in relation to cable systems — section 12.
In short, I think this Bill could be fairly described as one of the moderate liberalisation. To revert to a passage which I quoted earlier, the Government are not prepared to ignore or minimise the threat of "anarchy" but not prepared, either, to allow that threat to push it towards what would in present circumstances be "excess of rule". In fact we aim to reduce a certain "excess of rule" now existing under the present Act.
I should like to thank the Senators for their patience in listening to this lengthy introduction of the Bill. I now look forward to the debate. I believe that a discussion of these issues in depth both in the Oireachtas and in the Press and media is likely to be no less significant than the actual legislation itself.