I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White.
Broadcasting and Media in Ireland: Statements
I thank the Seanad for the invitation to address it.
Public service broadcasting is provided for in Part 7 of the Broadcasting Act 2009. The Act sets out the principal objects of the public service broadcasting corporations, RTE and TG4. These objects provide the companies' statutory mandates and reflect national policy on public service broadcasting. They include the specific objective of providing national free-to-air public service broadcasting services. They also include provision of a broad range of other additional services that are seen as fundamental to the role of the public service broadcaster. The Act subjects the public service broadcasting corporations to a range of additional requirements in their pursuit of these objects.
Licence fee funding for public broadcasting provides an independent and reliable income which allows the two public service broadcasters to meet their public service objectives with a high level of editorial independence. The licence fee also allows some funds to be made available to commercial broadcasters and independent producers. As in many other small EU member states, a mix of commercial and public funding is used to support public service broadcasters. This model is not unusual in a European context and the funding balance of many European public service media organisations is similar to Ireland's. Under this model, RTE is statutorily obliged to use its commercial revenues to further subsidise its public service obligations.
RTE and TG4 are accountable for the public funding they receive. They publish detailed commitments on an annual basis setting out how they intend to meet their public service obligations and objects as set out in the Act. The extent to which the commitments entered into by the two public service broadcasters have been met is reviewed annually by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. In addition to the annual review and five-year processes, RTE has been subject to a high level of independent scrutiny of its efficiency and performance in recent years, notably through the NewERA review, published earlier this year. These reviews benchmark operating costs against the public service semi-State sector, private sector and other public service and commercial media organisations. In a competitive and converged media marketplace the availability of public service broadcasting on various platforms has implications for other media. This means that the structure and mandate of public service broadcasters needs to be continually monitored in order to ensure they meet their objects but do not unfairly constrain commercial media which have their own equally vital role to play. Commercial broadcasters, while bringing choice and competition to the market, are privately-owned and funded companies that have entered the market on the basis of a commercial proposition.
In terms of radio, station owners sought and accepted licences on clear terms which included the requirement to broadcast a specific amount of public service content. In many cases their success in the licence application process was assisted by the voluntary commitments they gave in regard to the provision of public service-type content over and above that required by the relevant legislation. The licences were bid for and accepted in the knowledge that public funding was not available. That said, I fully recognise the contribution of the commercial sector to broadcasting in Ireland, including that of many local radio stations, both rural and urban. These broadcasters perform a very valuable function in the communities they serve, adding value particularly in the reporting of local news and current affairs. I recognise that many of those stations face financial pressures, particularly but not solely those in rural Ireland. Public funding is available to all public, community and independent commercial broadcasters through the broadcasting funding scheme which encourages programming on Irish culture, heritage, adult literacy and global issues. Funded by 7% of net TV licence fee receipts, sound and vision II funded 477 projects worth over €3.6 million from commercial radio stations. This represented 40% of the total radio allocation. By contrast, allocations to public service broadcasting stations in the same period were worth less than €1.6 million or 18% of the total allocated.
The question of further distribution of public funds to independent commercial broadcasters beyond the supports already available would constitute a major change to broadcasting policy. It would have to be justified and, of course, require legislation.
As matters stand, the net effect of such a move would be to reduce the funding available to all other broadcasters, community and public.
It may well be worth considering whether the obligation on commercial radio to provide a minimum of 20% news and current affairs remains either necessary or desirable. At the time this provision was introduced, there was a concern that commercial radio stations would only broadcast so-called "wall-to-wall" music, but in the spirit of the debate we are having, if there is a demand for music stations, why would there necessarily be a statutory requirement for all of them to have 20% news and current affairs? This is an issue that we should, perhaps, discuss.
Senators will be aware that other groups have also been calling for public funding to be allocated to their members, including those representing community radio and the print media. There are continuing challenges confronting all media organisations in Ireland and none is immune to the changes that are taking place. As with the national economy, the television and radio advertising markets are showing signs of recovery and some small degree of growth, but it is universally accepted that, as a result of continued fragmentation, revenues will never reach the levels that prevailed prior to the economic collapse.
The media landscape has been transformed and is increasingly fragmented, with the proliferation of new services, devices and providers available to audiences and consumers. In this rapidly changing environment, the core public purpose of RTE and TG4 is as important and relevant as ever. Irish audiences need strong, independent public service media organisations that can both compete with international media and provide a distinctive Irish voice and perspective, culturally and in news and current affairs. In this regard, our independent content creators have been badly affected by the fall in RTE's revenues. RTE needs a thriving independent production sector if it is to produce challenging and high quality programming. In turn, the independent sector needs RTE as the key commissioner, funder and broadcaster of Irish-made programming, yet while it is obliged to spend approximately €40 million a year on independent commissions, its capacity to invest in additional Irish programming of any kind is now severely diminished
The Government is committed to providing funding for public service broadcasting, as all Governments have been during the years. A public service broadcasting charge would contribute to this, while reflecting the changing ways that viewers now access public service broadcasting. More and more, proposals for similar charges are being developed and introduced in other European countries. It is inevitable that a public service broadcasting charge will be introduced here. However, this will not happen before we build the necessary public understanding and support for such a charge.
In the meantime, I recognise the limitations of the current licence fee system. Work needs to be done in the short term to ensure that the stability of funding is maintained, at least at current levels. It is my intention to bring forward a number of proposals to amend the current regulatory framework for advertising. In regard to commercial radio advertising, I propose to give the BAI oversight and control of the amount of advertising minutes allowed to such broadcasters. I will also bring forward amendments to ensure the BAI's reviews of public service broadcasting funding will always take account of the impact of its recommendations on the broader advertising market. These proposed changes, with others I intend to bring forward in respect of licence fee collection and the database, will lead to a more sustainable financial, advertising and regulatory framework for all broadcasters. In the context of an improving economy, these measures will help deliver a viable future for everyone in the sector, public service and commercial. I welcome the opportunity to engage with Senators on this important issue and to hear their views and suggestions.
Before I call Senator Paschal Mooney, I am sure Members will join me in welcoming Councillor David Maxwell to the Visitors Gallery.
I fully endorse what An Cathaoirleach said.
I welcome the Minister. He and I had an exchange of views earlier on this topic under the mechanism for reviewing his Department's performance at the Joint Committee on Transport, Communications and Natural Resources and I was grateful to him for the clarification he brought to a number of issues. However, I would like to outline a number of them in this House.
I applaud and welcome the Minister's reiteration of his support for the concept of public service broadcasting, of which I am a firm supporter. People might say, "He would, would he not?" because I spent most of my broadcasting career in RTE, but I had the honour of representing the country as a member of the Council of Europe during which time I acted as a rapporteur in producing a report on public service broadcasting across Europe. It brought home to me the challenges facing public service broadcasting which the Minister has outlined and also the threats to it across the Continent, particularly from the commercial sector. I am totally convinced that if there was a free market in broadcasting, there would be a significant dumbing down. Italy is a perfect example of that under Mr. Berlusconi. Radio and television has been dumbed down to such an extraordinary extent that people have no knowledge of public service issues or current affairs.
It is welcome that the Minister has continued the proud tradition of his Department in supporting public service broadcasting. I acknowledge that he would do so on an ideological basis apart from the fact that he also spent time in the public service broadcasting sector. He has a valuable insight into how it works. For those who criticise RTE, one only has to consider the popularity of the organisation's programme every year. Nine out of the top ten programmes annually in terms of audience share are broadcast by RTE. They relate not only to sport but are spread across the gamut of television programming.
The Minister has certainly opened a debate on how we go forward in this regard and the focus in this political arena, in both Houses, is on RTE's licence fee. There are people in my party and Fine Gael who would like RTE to be emasculated and they believe it would be in the wider public interest to do that. I do not share that view. RTE should be protected but not cosseted. As the Minister said, management has embarked on a severe cost-cutting exercise in the past five or six years. I was a victim of that in that I was one of the foot soldiers in RTE doing programmes on a freelance basis. I was never a member of staff and I operated at freelance rates, which were reduced so drastically and radically that I reached a point that I did not think it was financially worthwhile for me to be doing the programme anymore, when I took tax into consideration. I am aware at ground level of the impact of the cost cutting. I hope the organisation has reached a new dawn and is moving forward. It will, I hope, have a trading surplus soon. Any diminution of the income it receives from the television licence would be a challenge for RTE and management would resist this.
However, I am also a firm supporter of local radio and I recognise its value. The Minister stated: "In terms of radio, station owners sought and accepted licences on clear terms...". In other words, this is the argument that has been used since 1990. They knew what they were getting into and now they are coming crying to the Government looking for money as commercial operators when they knew what the playing field was from day one. They were going into a commercial environment and it was going to be sink or swim. I am sure the Minster will agree, however, that the radio landscape has changed dramatically since 1990 and the Broadcasting Act which introduced local radio. It has changed in such a dramatic fashion that not only is there a number of commercial broadcasting stations but, as a result of the setting up of the BAI, there are specific music interest stations throughout the country, as well as community-type stations, short-term stations and so on. A constant throughout, particularly in rural Ireland, is the enormous bond generated by local radio between the listener and the local station. That bond has grown, strangely enough not because of the fact they are playing music but because they are reflecting the community in which they are broadcasting.
That bond is then exemplified by the highest listening audiences given to mid-morning programmes, on which the Minister in his capacity as Minister and a politician would have appeared around the country and continues to do so. That is the 9 a.m. to noon slot. There is a Gay Byrne in every local authority area and they are all very good people. A great deal of research goes into those programmes and most importantly there is engagement between the listener and the station in order that they feel they own the station.
That is the context in which I am putting forward the view that the IBI has put forward about them continuing to provide the type of programming we are discussing, which is news, current affairs and sport which, as the Minister knows from his time as producer, is very labour intensive. To put it in simple terms, any one of us here could walk into a radio station with a bunch of CDs under our arm and spend two hours playing music. There is no cost other than the cost of the transmission. All one is doing is chatting and playing music. However, running a story or finding out about a local issue requires drilling down to the detail in order to convey to the listener what the story is about. That requires manpower, skill and expertise. Therefore, I believe the IBI is justified in suggesting the Government should acknowledge that fact. They do so in the context of the broadcasting levy proving to be a very heavy financial burden on them. I declare an interest in that I present a programme on Ocean FM in the north west. I have been told that the cost of the levy to Ocean FM is €30,000 a year. At local radio pay rates that would employ one if not two extra people, who would almost certainly be used in a research capacity rather than an on-air capacity in order to expand the news or sports service the radio station is providing. The single biggest source of advertising comes from the 9 a.m. to noon slot. That is where the money is generally being generated by local stations because they have such high audience figures.
I believe the Minister quoted figures from surveys indicating that 85% to 95% are listening to local radio. Dublin is a different kettle of fish. While this had nothing to do with the Minister, at the time I could see it. The licences given for Dublin stations were licences to print money because they are primarily and almost exclusively music-driven stations and the Dublin market has become very competitive. I do not know what can be done about it.
Dublin Deputies and Senators look with envy on the rest of us down the country as we can get our points of view on local issues across on local radio. However, there is no comparable station in Dublin that represents Dublin interests. I do not know how the BAI can address this; it is such a vast conglomerate. At the same time it is a flaw in the entire radio landscape that there is not what might be termed a "local" radio station in Dublin to which Dubliners can relate on current affairs issues. That is no reflection on the existing stations. God bless them and good luck to them; they are making money under the terms of their licences.
I support the IBI's suggestion and ask for the Minister's response. I know that he will be very protective of the licence fee and any dilution of it. The IBI has suggested the broadcasting levy be absorbed by the licence fee which it believes could be cost neutral. An Post's experience to date of collecting the licence fee raises serious questions about its efficiency. At this morning's committee meeting some of my colleagues pooh-poohed the notion of any dilution of An Post's involvement. I do not suggest for one moment that the business should be taken away from An Post. Every day on television and radio we hear very clever and imaginative An Post advertisements exhorting people to get a television licence and predicting the direst circumstances if they do not, yet we have a 20% evasion rate which equates to approximately €30 million per year. In the United Kingdom the equivalent evasion rate is only 5% and I understand a private company is involved. I am not suggesting this service should be taken away from An Post. I believe the Minister has indicated he would like to have discussions with An Post as to how it can improve the rate. There must be some logical reason for such a high evasion. If that evasion rate could be reduced even by 5%, it would provide the financial flexibility to fund the local radio network specifically in the areas of news, current affairs and sport.
There should be a parallel concept to sound and vision. The Minister said 7% of the net licence fee income under the concept of sound and vision funded 477 projects worth over €3.6 million from commercial radio stations. My information is that most of that money is going to the independent production sector rather than to local radio. Local radio stations have found it extremely difficult to come up with the criteria necessary to provide the type of programming under the heading of sound and vision. Therefore, it has been taken over to a large extent, on the one hand, by RTE which is able to access the fund and the resources it has and, on the other, by the independent sector which should be flourishing because it is creative and entrepreneurial. The Minister should make it a more level playing field by promoting the concept that local radio has changed to such a dramatic degree that in order for it to be maintained at its current level in news, current affairs and sport, radio stations desperately need some financial injection in order in some cases for some of them to survive.
People will point out that no radio station has given up its licence voluntarily. However, everybody in the entrepreneurial world lives in hope. The last thing somebody involved in business wants to do is to go bankrupt; therefore, they will continue to try to keep going. However, they are cutting costs to such a degree that they are leaving nearly a skeleton staff operating in the key areas of news and current affairs. It is also encouraging local radio owners to dumb down or take out of the schedule news, current affairs and sports coverage in order to have the cheaper form of broadcasting which is playing music.
I am concerned that by putting in the figure of 20% the original creators of the broadcasting landscape could find increasingly owners of radio stations saying, "We cannot do it anymore. Change the figure of 20%." However, they are not saying that; they are asking for a bit of a leg-up and it can be done by making it cost neutral in the budget if the evasion rate can be reduced and we can use some of the money found. Not only would local radio stations benefit from this, but RTE would also benefit, as would the entire country.
I could go on. I am grateful for your indulgence, a Chathaoirligh. I thank the Minister. I know that his heart is in the right place. I know tjat he wants to get the right balance between the national and local broadcasters. I wish him well in that regard.
In the time left.
Perhaps he might do something to leave a legacy.
I welcome the Minister and this debate on public service broadcasting, its cost to the taxpayer, its fairness and balance to those who provide broadcasting services for citizens.
What value for money are we, the citizens, getting from the licence fee imposed on us? On average, €220 million is collected. In the main, €180 million goes to RTE and TG4, providing approximately 50% of their required operational funding. The national broadcaster spends €11 million on its orchestra. We talk about transparency. It has recently confirmed, without naming the individuals, that two of its presenters are paid between €400,000 and €500,000 a year. Two more are paid between €200,000 and €300,000 a year. Seven contractors are paid between €150,000 and €200,000 a year and five RTE staff members are paid between €200,000 and €250,000 a year, with most of those at the higher end of the scale. It is wrong for RTE to withhold information on who is getting what from taxpayers' money. RTE is a commercial radio and television station. From now on, its State-collected funding must be reduced and ultimately at some stage discontinued.
We no longer live in a world that can be State subsidised. I fully respect the Minister's views, but we must move away from State subsidies in all State-subsidised bodies, including RTE.
Currently, local radio stations, in the main, contribute a 2% levy on all their turnover. This levy should be abolished or, at the very least, reduced. Local radio stations are an integral part of the public service network. If one were to check the JNLR figures, local radio stations have a greater listenership than the national broadcaster and Clare FM would be pretty high up on the list. There is an onus on us, as legislators, to support local radio stations - if we are to continue to collect the television licence fee as it stands - by abolishing the levy. If we could reduce the television licence fee for hard-pressed taxpayers - I do not believe this can be done in 2015, given the Minister's statement - to in or around €100, we would be making a reasonable start.
I do not believe that long term we can continue to subsidise State entities. A note of caution must be sounded to many subsidised State bodies, including RTE. If a far left Sinn Féin Government was to be elected in the next general election, bearing in mind that that party promotes paying its Deputies and Senators the minimum wage or a working man's wage of around €30,000, many in RTE and other State bodies might find themselves earning €30,000 a year and their salaries would be reduced fairly quickly.
The issue of the introduction of a broadcasting charge was raised. I would like some feedback on how it would be collected and distributed fairly. I would not be in favour of any new charge or burden on the taxpayer while we currently collect in excess of €200 million a year from the television licence fee. If one likes to watch rugby - I was watching the RaboDirect league in the off-season - one has to pay six TV channels to watch the PRO12 or the RaboDirect league to watch every game. It is hard to believe that, but that is a fact. I tend to watch one or two of them because one could not pay six television channels.
I respect the difficulty in trying to find a balance. I come from a business background and the concept of somebody handing me €200 million a year to run my business does not wash and cannot wash into the future. I do not believe we can do it. I know we do it for Iarnród Éireann, Bus Éireann and other entities. I would like to hear the Minister's view on that matter, but these are mine. I do not believe we can continue to do it.
I welcome the Minister. This is a timely debate and it is important that we are having it in a public space in order that we can tease out these issues. I would like to broaden the discussion. It is listed on the schedule as broadcasting, communications and media. When we talk about this issue, we tend to boil it down to a discussion about RTE and the television licence fee and get sucked into that space.
In the first instance, I would not be in favour of abolishing the television licence fee. I would have to stoutly disagree with my esteemed colleague because that would be tantamount to not only pulling the plug on RTE but to pulling the plug on public service broadcasting and everything that goes with it and what we expect to go with it. This is not an issue about RTE or the television licence fee. For me, it is about standards, public service broadcasting, diversity of ownership and content and the quality, credibility and independence of that content. That would be a very dangerous road to go down.
It is through no fault of the Minister but successive Governments have failed during the decades to address the thorny and complex issue of media ownership and control. As a result, the media mergers and the media competition legislation that we ultimately introduced last year was a classic example of closing the stable door after the horse had well and truly bolted. It is immaterial to me who owns the commercial media, broadcasting or print, in this country. It is immaterial to me whether it is Johnston, Mooney and O'Brien or any other O'Brien. What is important for me has never been what is printed or broadcasted but what does not. It is what is prevented from being printed or broadcasted for whatever reason that is important.
Very often some of the best programming can take months, if not a year or more, to research and finally be printed or broadcasted. If we were only to assign commercial criteria, we would not be getting the standard of programme we do, to be fair to RTE. It is easy to beat it up. I agree with some of the comments made by my colleagues in that regard. RTE is in place in part to hold public bodies to account, certainly to hold the Government of the day, politicians and public figures to account, but, by the same standard, it should not be afraid to hold up the mirror of accountability and transparency against its organisation and operation. It is also a public body, but sometimes it bristles when we dare to ask a question or probe its activities and standards. That is unfortunate.
The commercial stations have a very valid public service broadcasting remit throughout the country. We have all become fond of our local stations. As I drive through the country, I like tuning into local stations to hear what is going on in a community and get a flavour of what is happening in an area. We have very good stations in my community. We have Midlands 103 and, in Kildare, KFM. As Senator Paschal Mooney mentioned, we have our own Gay Byrnes, Pat Kennys and Seán O'Rourkes in Will Faulkner and Shane Beatty who do tremendous work for the community by holding the public system and the State to account on a daily basis. People tune in and enjoy this.
It is not a question of beating up RTE to help other local stations. The two aims of supporting RTE in its remit and helping local stations are not mutually exclusive and we should not see them as being at opposite ends of the spectrum. However, I add a note of caution. I come from a background in which I worked for 30 years in the regional press, local newspapers, which also performs a very strong local function within local communities and parishes across the counties. It would be unfair on them in a competitive and commercial context to put them at a disadvantage by, for argument sake, subsidising or supporting commercial radio stations at the expense of small local newspapers which are also struggling in the current climate of change and challenge for the media sector.
The Minister has been around for as long as I have and will remember the famous song, "Video Killed the Radio Star". It seemed like it at the time, but video is no more and radio services have survived and are prospering. We do not know how this is going to pan out or where it will end up, but we are entering a new era. It would be wrong to pull the plug on RTE and try to undermine it. Certainly, it should be challenged and expected to present and produce programming of the highest standard in current affairs, news, the arts, agriculture, on the spectrum we expect from a strong State public service broadcaster, but to do this and at the same time abolish the licence fee outright would not be compatible or sustainable. That would be a dangerous place into which to venture and, certainly, it is not a view I support. While it is easy to beat up RTE and some of its precious presenters, we have to look beyond and behind this and see the quality programming on television and radio and the information provided for the public on a daily basis in an independent fashion, regardless of who is in government or who is the Minister. Certainly, RTE puts it up to the Government of the day, which is good. It does so across a range of public bodies and public services that need to be held to account.
RTE cannot have its bread buttered on both sides and with jam with both the licence fee and commercial revenues and then not fulfil its public service remit. The Minister should instruct, or at least advise, RTE management that it is high time it provided space on the Saorview band to broadcast the Oireachtas TV channel. Under the provisions of the Broadcasting Act 2009, sections 125 and 126, RTE is obliged to do so. It is getting millions in what my colleague, Senator Tony Mulcahy, refers to as a subsidy, yet it refuses to broadcast Oireachtas TV. It wants another €1 million from the Exchequer, the Government or the taxpayer before it will agree to do so. It cannot have it both ways. The Ceann Comhairle and the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission have engaged exhaustively with it and ComReg for four years. I am of the view that the station has failed to live up to its public service broadcasting remit. There is a provision in the Act for the Minister to advise and direct RTE to do so.
Ironically, RTE went to the courts to seek permission to broadcast elements of debates in the Dáil. Those elements were already being broadcast constantly on the Oireachtas TV channel via the Oireachtas website, Sky, UPC and Eircom. While those three commercial channels broadcast Oireachtas TV, the State broadcaster, although it is its duty and responsibility to do so, continues to dodge the issue and refuses to broadcast it. It is time it lived up to its status as the State broadcaster. It must accede to our request and, if it does not, some intervention from the Minister would be timely.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire. Tá lúcháir orm deis a fháil tagairt a dhéanamh don ábhar díospóireachta seo, a bhaineann le cúrsaí teileachumarsáide sa tír seo agus an táille atá gach teach ag díol fá choinne an tseirbhís phoiblí atá á chraoladh trí RTE faoi láthair.
I have just been listening to the debate in my office. I am glad that it is taking place because this is an issue of concern to the independent radio stations, in particular, of which I understand there are 34 throughout the country. We must ask whether the moneys collected through the licence fee by the Government and given over to one particular organisation are serving the public good, in economic terms or from the point of view of the taxpayer. The figures suggest this is not the case and that those resources could be used more effectively and efficiently by making them more widely available to other providers. The independent radio stations commissioned a report which was published recently. Taking a snapshot of time in July, 68% of listeners were listening to local radio stations. The listeners are tuning in because the content is relevant. Very often it is locally based. We saw a programme recently on which death notices were discussed. I think Ardal O'Hanlon edited and produced it. The topic is so relevant in rural areas. People tune in to hear the death notices, local news, sports news and current affairs. The figures are backing this up.
Is it right that a pot of money is collected through the licence fee which is now being revised and given over to one organisation which is also operating in the commercial field? RTE is using that taxpayer-funded resource to compete against other commercial organisations. That is not right. There has to be a levelling of the playing field.
While RTE provides an excellent public broadcasting service, I certainly question many of the salaries it pays. They are excessive and, in some cases, extreme. However, that is a matter for the RTE board. The fee being charged could be used much more effectively if it were divided among other radio and broadcasting providers, some of which are struggling to make ends meet. They are struggling to cover local council meetings and local events because they do not have the resources. Many have actually diversified into other activities in order to make themselves financially viable.
There is an obligation on the State to make the playing field a little more relevant. It should either withdraw the fee entirely - I do not think that would be the right thing to do - or level the playing field. This is an issue which needs to be addressed. The area was identified in the programme for Government and I know that the Minister is working towards a solution.
Irish-language broadcasting and the work which has been done by go háirithe TG4 agus RTE Raidió na Gaeltachta, atá faoi bhrú faoi láthair. Cé go bhfuil lucht éisteachta Raidió na Gaeltachta ag méadú de réir a chéile, tá an stáisiún faoi bhrú ó thaobh buiséid. Ós rud é go bhfuil brú orthu, tá sé tábhachtach nuair atá airgead á thabhairt d'aon eagras cumarsáide sa tír seo go mbeadh sé de dhualgas ar an eagras sin céatadán áirithe den airgead sin a chur ar fáil do chláir Ghaeilge agus do Raidió na Gaeltachta agus na stáisiúin eile anseo i mBaile Átha Cliath atá ag craoladh trí mheán na Gaeilge. It is about providing for fairness and developing the most effective use of the resources that are available.
I welcome the Minister and acknowledge his recognition of the contribution the commercial radio sector is making to broadcasting, including by the many local radio stations in operation. In that regard, I should declare, as I have already, a small interest in one of them.
I commend the Minister's realism in the rapidly-changing environment and note his point that it is worth considering whether the obligation on commercial radio stations to provide for a minimum of 20% news and current affairs content is necessary or desirable. I was struck by what Senators Paschal Mooney and Brian Ó Domhnaill said. The JNLR figures are huge for the programmes provided by these stations, particularly their news content and morning slots. That is the case for Highland Radio, Midlands Radio, Radio Kerry, thanks be to God-----
The Senator should declare his interest in it.
I am sorry; I was distracted. I was suggesting to Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill that he look for more money for TG4. I ask Senator Paul Coghlan to forgive me.
It is quite understandable. I liked what the Senator said about public service broadcasting and the bond between the listener and a station.
County and regional loyalty is huge, thanks be to God. As Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill said, the services they provide such as death notices are vital. Many people do not read the newspapers anymore, but they know the times at which they should tune in three times a day to hear the death notices and they never fail to tune in. That is very important.
I welcome the Minister. He had called for a debate and I am glad that this discussion is now taking place on the definition of public service broadcasting and the 2% levy payable by the independent stations. It is time to have a serious and meaningful conversation, as is happening, about the definition of public service broadcasting. The fact that local radio stations which undoubtedly play a role in public service broadcasting must pay a 2% levy on all of their turnover, as Senator Tony Mulcahy said, while RTE benefits from national licence fee income, is unfair. We recently met representatives of all 34 local radio stations and they were of one view. I accept that the Minister is looking at the matter, but there is public service broadcasting not only by the national broadcaster, RTE, but also by the independent stations. They broadcast news programmes that are of interest to the public and fall within the remit of public service broadcasting. I have referred to the JNLR figures which support them hugely in what they are doing. While I appreciate the high quality programming RTE produces, its monopoly-like treatment does a major disservice to local stations, as has been said by my opposite number, Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill. We must level the playing pitch and address this issue without delay and I appreciate that the Minister is looking at the entire matter. He called for a debate on this issue and I am delighted that it is now happening. It is ridiculous that local radio stations provide such a high quality service and receive nothing in return. They feel very aggrieved, as I think the Minister is aware.
A redefinition of public service broadcasting is needed. I am glad that this discussion is taking place and I very much welcome it, as well as the Minister's realism and the fact that he has stated he intends to bring forward a number of proposals to amend the current regulatory framework for commercial radio advertising. That is very much to be welcomed. The Minister proposes to give the BAI more control over the number of advertising minutes allowed to such broadcasters and is prepared to bring forward amendments to ensure the BAI's reviews of public service broadcasting funding will always take account of the impact of its recommendations on the broader advertising market. The Minister is very well qualified in the role he is in and he will be both fair and objective.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Is díospóireacht iontach tábhachtach í seo. Ba cheart dom a admháil ag an tús gur chaith mé riar mhiath blianta ag obair in earnáil na meáin idir TG4, RTE agus mar sin de. Bhain mé an-sásamh as an obair sin.
Media are a major factor in shaping the ideas, opinions and debates on political, cultural and civil topics. Therefore, in a democratic society the ownership of media has an important impact on how debates on issues of national and local importance are framed. In democracies the source of political legitimacy is citizens and their political choices. Since citizens make many political decisions on the information received from media, the media's role as a source of news and their ability to influence ideas translate into a capacity to shape governance. If media limit information or narrow the breadth of political debates, citizens are precluded from properly exercising their two political powers and political control is more likely to shift into the hands of a single constituency or a small elite. This threatens not only the integrity of a democracy by limiting informed consent but also undermines the role of the citizenry within democratic society.
Since the 1980s, across Europe, there has been a move away from public broadcasting towards more private ownership of broadcast media. This has meant that newspaper companies have been able to enter the broadcast media arena and create multimedia corporations. We have seen examples of this here. A number of the larger players have turned Ireland into a profit centre where some of the bigger players, for example, TV3 and 3e, have been bought out. They are seen as profit centres, from the profits will leave the country. UPC has been bought and rebranded as Virgin Media. UTV Ireland was set up and we can see that it might be sold in the future also. It is all part of the global picture that we see of media ownership.
The advance of online media and news sources has furthered the reach of many of the media holding groups. In Ireland, in recent times, it appears that one particular player has attempted to gain control of a large portion of the media. As a result, it is clear that changes must be instituted in terms of how media mergers are handled by theGovernment. The current position on media control in Ireland will remain the same because the new guidelines will not be applied retrospectively. Only mergers considered in the future will be under new scrutiny.
It is essential that Ireland have diverse media. Diverse media should not only be defined as a variety of entertainments in a commercial media market but also encourage political and civil discourse and the exchange of ideas. Free and open media require that as many diverse voices as possible be heard and that areas such as the Irish language, gender representation and ethnic and religion minorities be allowed adequate space in the media market.
It is important that we commend the national broadcaster, RTE, for the work that it does and the high quality programming broadcast to the public. Caithfimid bheith cúramach freisin ó thaobh an róil atá ag RTE. An bhfuil an Rialtas chun stiúir a thabhairt dóibh le bheith mar chraoltóir náisiúnta, nó an bhfuil an Rialtas díreach ag féachaint ar an lucht féachana atá acu agus mar sin de? Is RTE only to be seen as a competitive profit-making entity or are we also going to look at the high quality programmes it provides and its public service remit? It has produced some fantastic programmes during the years and recently its coverage of the GAA championships, its news and current affairs shows and dramas such as "Love/Hate" stand on an international stage. However, as it receives substantial funding from licence fee income, it is not unreasonable for the Government to ensure the public receives value for money from its broadcasts. High quality broadcasting should be seen as a priority. This is the direction in which RTE should point itself in the future.
Maidir le cúrsaí Gaeilge, tá sé luaite cheana féin go bhfuil sár-jab amach is amach déanta ag TG4 ó thaobh cur chun cinn na Gaeilge le riar bheag blianta anuas. Sílim go bhfuil éad ar chuid mhaith craoltóirí eile, ní hamháin anseo go náisiúnta ach go hidirnáisiúnta freisin, ar an gcaighdéan ard atá bainte amach ag TG4. Tá sé fíorthábhachtach aitheantas a thabhairt don ról sin agus don obair sin. Tá sé suntasach go bhfuil gearradh siar déanta ar an mhaoiniú do lucht TG4 in ainneoin cé chomh maith agus atá ag éirí leo agus cé chomh feiceálach agus chomh tarraingteach don Ghaeilge atá siad. Tá daoine ann a déarfadh gurb é an rud is fearr a tharla do chúrsaí Gaeilge le blianta fada anuas ná bunú TG4. Is deacair dul ag troid leis sin. Nuair atá an Rialtas ag ullmhú do chomóradh an chéid 1916, caithfidh siad breathnú ar an tábhacht a fheiceann siad leis an chraoltóireacht Ghaeilge inár bhféiniúlacht mar shochaí agus mar Phoblacht. Ar chóir don Rialtas, dá bhrí sin, tuilleadh tacaíochta a thabhairt do leithéidí TG4 mar gheall ar an ngean atá i measc an phobail orthu?
Ba mhaith liom rud eile a lua ó thaobh na craoltóireachta Gaeilge de. Tá an ciste craoltóireachta Gaeilge i dTuaisceart Éireann tar éis an-tacaíocht a thabhairt don earnáil físe ó Thuaidh. Tá TG4 ag baint buntáiste as sin freisin. Ba chóir don Rialtas níos mó brú a chur ar Rialtas na Breataine le cinntiú go bhfanfaidh an ciste tacaíochta sin ann. Tá an ciste iontach tábhachtach seo mar chuid de Chomhaontú Aoine an Chéasta.
Ní dóigh liom go raibh Raidió na Gaeltachta luaite beag ná mór go dtí seo. Silim go ndéantar beag is fiú den ról atá ag Raidió na Gaeltachta, i ndáiríre. Tá caighdeán idirnáisiúnta bainte amach ag na cláir den chéad scoth, cláir chúrsaí reatha ina measc, atá curtha le chéile ag Raidió na Gaeltachta ar mhaoiniú an-bheag. Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar an Aire agus an Aire Stáit ó thaobh an tsoláthair airgid atá ag Raidió na Gaeltachta. An dóigh leo go bhfuil dóthain maoinithe á fháil acu le leanacht leis an ardchaighdeán atá ann? An mbeadh sé i gceist acu go n-ardófaí an méid airgid a bhíonn ar fáil?
An bhfuil TG4 nó Raidió na Gaeltachta i gceist ag an Seanadóir?
Is é an ról sonrach atá ag Raidió na Gaeltachta atá i gceist agam. Sílim go bhfuil siad thar a bheith tábhachtach sa phictiúr iomlán. Dá bhrí sin, cé go bhfáiltím roimh an pholasaí nua Gaeilge atá á chur chun cinn ag RTE, tá ceist fíorthábhachtach ann i ndáiríre píre faoin ról seirbhíse poiblí vis-à-vis an ról tráchtála atá ag na meáin, agus an tionchar atá ag an gceist sin ar na polasaithe eagarthóireachta atá acu ó thaobh na nuachta agus cúrsaí reatha ach go háirithe.
I have listened carefully to what my colleagues have said. There have been some extremely interesting insights which will be very helpful to me in surveying the legislative environment and considering what changes it would be appropriate to make. In the first instance, there is a philosophical debate about public service broadcasting. Although all of the contributions were excellent, Senator Paschal Mooney, with his background and knowledge of the area, and Senator John Whelan did justice to the underlying philosophy in the funding of public service broadcasting. As I said to the committee this morning, it dates back through Governments of all hues and does not just involve this Administration. I stated that it dated back to the 1960s, but, of course, we have had radio broadcasting from the 1920s. There has been an ethic of public service broadcasting running through the approach taken by all Governments throughout that period.
There are no issues that are off the table or that cannot be debated. However - Senator Tony Mulcahy probably put it at its sharpest - the notion that one would remove or abolish the licence fee and take away public funding for public service broadcasting has not been widely canvassed during the years. It is an argument the Senator is entitled to bring into the debate.
Unless one is in Renua.
I understand, but it is not a proposition that has really featured.
Personally, I believe it would be a huge pity if we decided to alter the perspective that all parties and people who are not members of any party have always had of public service broadcasting. They have always recognised the importance of having, as Senator John Whelan described it, the public service broadcaster - of course, it is not peculiar to it - stand up for high standards, strong content, quality broadcasting and editorial independence. These are all qualities we associate with public service broadcasting and all the things we expect from it. However, it must be funded in some way. The method of funding in this country is the television licence fee. It is already an anachronism because there is no radio licence. However, let us consider how enormously the world has changed since the 1960s and even since the introduction of commercial radio and television services in Ireland. People use many platforms to watch television, to say nothing of how they listen to radio stations. They can listen to radio stations on their mobile phones. They can even listen to American radio stations on them. The debate about a broadcasting charge has grown from this acknowledgement that the pattern of viewing, where people view television, how they do so and all of the different devices they can employ to watch it have changed and expanded remarkably.
To return to the basic philosophy, if we are having a debate, we must discuss all issues and admit all points of view. However, my strong view is that public service broadcasting is as important now as it ever has been. Arguably, it is even more important. It requires funding and the method of funding should be subject to debate in the Oireachtas because the funding mechanism is a statutory one and this House has a role in setting down the law and changing it, if that is what we decide to do. That is my first general point.
The second point, arising from what Senator Paschal Mooney and others stated, relates to how, while recognising and upholding the importance of public service broadcasting, we recognise the critical role played by commercial broadcasters and, in particular, although not solely, local radio stations and those outside the main cities, although Senator Paschal Mooney referred to those outside Dublin. We must recognise that many of these stations face real commercial pressures, notwithstanding that they are commercial propositions. This is a point I made earlier and which irritates people sometimes, but it must be made. People entered into a bidding process for a licence with their eyes wide open, knowing that this was a commercial proposition and that they would either rise or fall on that basis. They needed to make money and presumably they had a business plan to ensure they would. That aside - I do not wish to labour the point because it might not be helpful to remind people of it all of the time - let us consider how one could get more support and recognition for commercial local radio stations. There are two ways. Either one reduces one's overheads in some way or finds a way to ensure one's overheads or costs are reduced or else one finds ways of channelling more money to them. There are not many ways to do these things. People here and elsewhere have canvassed the idea of having more of the licence fee go to commercial radio stations. I will return to that issue.
The other option, as Senator Paschal Mooney and others suggested - I raised it previously and I am prepared to debate its merits - is to see if there is a case to be made on the levy raised to fund the regulator, which would then remove the requirement for stations to pay out or write a cheque, as it were, to the BAI periodically. There is a case for this. The problem is that we have a limited pot in terms of the funds derived from payment of the licence fee. We had this debate this morning in the committee. My view is that we would have to grow that pot before we could contemplate migrating the levy away from broadcasters and into the licence fee fund. There is a good case for it. It emphasises even more the need to look quickly at how we can increase compliance with payment of the licence fee. If the new broadcast charge is introduced - I believe it will be - it will be down the road. It is certainly not something the Government will introduce, as we have made clear. It may well be that the next Government, whoever it will be, will consider it. It is coming but not very quickly; therefore, we must work out ways in which we can increase compliance with payment of the licence fee. I intend to bring forward proposals in that respect. I have mentioned them previously. Until we grow that pot, we cannot really contemplate the idea advocated, that the regulator be funded from licence fee income. Otherwise, one would have to reduce the funding going somewhere else.
It is within the context of increasing the compliance rate.
That is very good. People have put it on the agenda and, as far as I am concerned, it is very much on the agenda. That is the idea, as it were, in seeing if there are ways the overheads could be reduced.
The other option is to consider whether there are ways of channelling more money to the commercial broadcasters. This is where we get to the proposal or argument that more of the licence fee income should go to local radio stations. There is a conceptual and a definitional problem in respect of public service broadcasting and what it constitutes. We have been arguing about this for decades. What constitutes public service broadcasting? Can one come up with a definitive statement of what it is? The responsibilities of RTE in the context of its public service remit are set out in the Act. Can an individual programme, be it a sports, music or current affairs programme, be definitively categorised as public service broadcasting? Many programmes are both and many have a commercial value. They can attract advertising because people want to listen to them and they are popular; therefore, advertisers will advertise during them. They are commercial propositions. They are also fulfilling a public service remit. Sport is a perfect example. We would all regard the coverage of sport as a public service, but it is also where some of the biggest pots of money can be made in the commercial sector in the transmission of sports events.
One could not say a sports event was either one or the other, or at least it would be very difficult to do so, but it would require one to do so because one would have to analyse each and every programme, or each and every strand of programming on each and every station, to try to ascertain how much public service broadcasting there had been and on that basis work out each company's entitlement to licence fee income. At a very basic level, that would be extremely difficult to do. One can ask why we have not done that historically or what approach has been taken previously. The approach taken is not to spread the licence fee funding so thinly around the place and across all the players such that it might end up not counting for very much because it would be so dissipated. Historically, the licence fee has been regarded as funding the public service broadcasters, namely, RTE and TG4. Historically, that was the decision made, not by me, but that has been the approach taken by all Governments. The view is that what one needs to do is have a broadcaster with sufficient critical mass and independence to ensure a menu, as it were, of public service programming, be it orchestras, as one speaker indicated, or sports, would serve all audiences, not just audiences from whom a commercial return could easily be derived. The public service broadcaster has a responsibility which is reflected in all audiovisual directives in Europe. The BBC is the classic public service broadcaster. The remit is to serve all audiences, not just those one can commercialise quickly. That has been the philosophy during the years. If we want to change it, we must be very careful about how we do so and about whether we can really define this or that programme on this or that station as having public service merit and that it is, therefore, deserving of a subsidy from licence fee income. That is the issue.
I agree that we must reduce the evasion rate. I have proposals which I will bring forward in that respect. Senator Tony Mulcahy made some very strong and interesting points and I have touched on one or two of them already. Removing the licence fee would constitute an enormous change. It would be an immense change to the basis of our broadcasting regime. It would be a mistake because what we want is strong public service broadcasting side by side with, as another speaker - perhaps Senator Paschal Mooney - said, a thriving commercial sector. We want both. We must get away from the idea that it is one or the other, that it is a zero sum. It is not. We must maintain the objective of promoting both and trying to ensure both thrive.
Senator John Whelan has set out the basis for why public service broadcasting has been funded and should continue to be funded. As he rightly said, that does not mean that RTE should be immune from criticism or accountability. Some have criticised the Act as being overly onerous and detailed, but it contains the basis for very rigorous scrutiny of the public service broadcasters. The reason we have the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, and we must fund the regulator is there are so many elements to the accountability we require of public service broadcasters. The BAI produces reports every year which are laid before the Oireachtas. The five-yearly report of a couple of years ago led to the NewERA report. I then had the Indecon report. There are constant reports. In recent years there has been considerable scrutiny of RTE for many years, in particular on the financial side.
It is not my role to trespass into the area of programming and I will not do so, other than to say there is a robust regime in place for complaints, including those brought to the compliance committee of the BAI. We know that complaints are brought because we periodically hear the BAI reporting on them. Speakers are correct in saying RTE is not and cannot be immune to criticism. It must be prepared to take criticism. I agree with Senators in that regard.
I have much sympathy for what Senator John Whelan said about Oireachtas TV and Saorview. Others raised the point also. There is a provision in section 130 of the Act which provides for the possibility of ministerial intervention. However, at the same time, there is a recent decision of ComReg on regulating tariffs under a European directive. There is a legal question on the relationship between my power under the Act and that of ComReg to regulate tariffs. I have been asked to address the issue and intervene. I hope we will be able to resolve the matter quickly. We are taking legal advice on whether my powers under the Act override the provisions in the European directive or vice versa. Once we receive that advice, we will be able to respond to the Senator and the Ceann Comhairle. That is the position on Saorview.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill also raised the philosophical question of whether it was right that one station, RTE, should be the recipient or beneficiary of licence fee income. That is exactly the point we are debating. That has been the basis of the funding regime for public service broadcasting for a considerable period and if we want to change it, we must be very clear about what we want to replace it with and how or on what basis we would seek to divide such scarce funding from the licence fee. I do not hear anybody arguing for an increase in the licence fee. I was listening carefully and nobody mentioned it.
It was a unanimous decision.
I can take it that there is consensus on there being no interest in the licence fee being increased. That being the case, therefore, the pot of funding is limited, until such time as we manage to enhance compliance and bring in more money.
The Minister could get the Department of Social Protection to give back the €5 million it took away last year.
I proposed that it be decreased initially for a period.
That is right. In fairness to Senator Tony Mulcahy and in the spirit of debating the matter with him, I do not wish to sound like I am being remotely dismissive of any of the issues being raised, but a temporary reduction in funding would mean a temporary reduction in services. It would affect staff, jobs, programmes and services, what would go and for how long. We need to look at the implications of any of the proposals made.
I agree with the points made by Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh on TG4 and Raidió na Gaeltachta. There is a direct nexus between the Minister and TG4 in terms of the funding provideed but not between the Minister and Raidió na Gaeltachta which is funded by RTE within the limits of the funding available to it.
We discussed the media merger guidelines in the legislation at considerable length last year when I published the guidelines. They are just guidelines; they follow the legislation. As Senator John Whelan pointed out, the critical decision of the Oireachtas on how to approach the issue was made in the legislation in July 2014. On how the guidelines will work, in time they can work and they will be seen to do so.
It is the first time any Government has addressed the issue of media ownership, concentration and media mergers. I am confident that the guidelines will work and we must give them time to do so.