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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 19 Apr 2018

Vol. 257 No. 6

Public Service Broadcasting and Social Media Regulation: Statements

I thank the Seanad for the invitation to discuss a number of topics relating to public service broadcasting and social media regulation. The issues raised include public service broadcasting in general, RTÉ’s strategy plan, RTÉ advertising, licence fee income, the sale of RTÉ State assets and the regulation of social media. The opportunity to discuss our views on these issues is both timely and welcome. Senators will be aware that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment recently considered the future funding of our public service media and launched its report in November. The recommendations made in this report are an important input into the deliberations by me and my Department.

Before I go into these issues, I wish to make reference to the issues raised in the other House in the past 24 hours. I am in a difficult position, in that I have to comment on an alleged reference to me in an alleged affidavit that is supposed to be before the courts. We have all been cautioned by Mr. Justice Peter Kelly on the issue so I am constrained in what I can say. However, I want to let this House know that the view I gave to Mr. Ó Neachtain was based solely on information that was in the public domain at that stage. I did not have any information as Minister when I spoke with Mr. Ó Neachtain in early November and the view I gave was as a result of reading media reports, like any other Member of this House or Dáil Éireann. I pointed out that he was the person who had informed me of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission's decision and the discussion I had with him was in advance of the file coming to me as Minister. When I spoke in the Dáil, approximately a month later, an active file in my Department was under consideration and I was awaiting a report from my officials. I stated in the Dáil that I would make my decision based on that.

I also stated clearly to Mr. Ó Neachtain, in the very brief conversation I had with him, that I would decide solely on the advice given to me by my officials and I would not deviate from that. That is exactly what I did. I am not responsible for the way Mr. Ó Neachtain interpreted that conversation or how he fed it back to his clients. I sincerely regret expressing my view on this at that time. I did not see anything wrong. Anybody who knows me knows I am an accessible Minister to my constituents, to colleagues on all sides of both Houses in Leinster House, and to the media. In fact, my mobile phone number is on my website. I sincerely regret expressing a view on it but I am absolutely clear that I said I would abide by the recommendations of my officials and the files clearly show that that is exactly what I did. The files are there for anyone who wishes to inspect them and I would facilitate that.

I hosted a very interesting and successful open policy debate on online safety in March of this year and I am looking forward to hearing Members' views on these important issues today. 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, RTÉ and TG4, and provides the companies’ statutory obligations. They include the specific objective of providing national, free-to-air public service broadcasting services. They also include the 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.

Public service broadcasters play an important part in our democratic society. Their role is more important than ever in a world of fake news where having credible, Irish sources of news and factual information is vital in protecting our democratic values and national perspective. I believe that Irish audiences value our public service broadcasters in this regard. Survey results in the Reuters digital news report of 2017 show that 66% of respondents used RTÉ as their main source of news. This is significantly higher than the international average of 49%. For example, at the peak of Storm Emma, 950,000 people tuned in to watch RTÉ’s "Six One News".

It is not only news and current affairs that are critical elements of public service broadcasting.

With the increased availability of international channels and the advent of online content providers such as Netflix and Amazon, it is more important than ever that we invest in Irish content. We need strong public service broadcasters that have the resources to produce and broadcast material which says something about who we are as a people and which helps to sustain a distinctive national identity. Public service broadcasters are important, not just for raising the level of awareness on topical issues but also because they support a vibrant independent production sector in Ireland. In any given year, the majority of Irish television programming is made or commissioned by RTÉ. This ensures that Irish audiences have access to high-quality Irish programming and is also vital to sustain and grow Irish talent on screen and in the independent production sector. Both RTÉ and TG4 support thousands of jobs across the Irish economy, not just those of people directly employed by the broadcasters. Both public service broadcasters spend millions of euro each year on independently produced programming that has a significant impact within local economies.

All of this requires significant funding. RTÉ is dual funded through a proportion of television licence fee receipts and the commercial revenue it generates. TG4 is funded by way of a combination of direct Exchequer grant, television licence fee receipts and commercial revenue. As the House is aware, public service broadcasting is in serious financial trouble. Substantial falls in commercial income and advertising revenue and increases in television licence fee evasion have all had a negative impact. For example, RTÉ earns €100 million less now in commercial income than it did in 2008. TG4 has suffered cuts in its public funding levels and is facing a major challenge to increase its audience numbers and commercial revenue.

There are a number of reasons for this reduction. The impact of regionally targeted opt-out advertising has had a serious negative effect. This is the practice whereby UK-based broadcasters create a mirror version of their channels for broadcast into Ireland. While the content is the same, the mirror channel contains advertising content directed at Irish viewers. These channels are created at a marginal cost and once this cost is met from advertising revenue, the channel makes a profit. This allows the channel to sell advertising at a reduced rate. In 2016, 39 of the 49 channels selling advertising in Ireland were opt-out channels and it is estimated that this form of advertising takes between €40 and €50 million in advertising revenue in the Irish market each year.

The growth of online advertising is also having an impact on commercial revenues available to the Irish broadcasting sector. For example, the share of advertising spend in the digital sector has risen from 7% in 2007 to the current figure of 40%, representing an increase from €100 million to €445 million. Of this, Google and Facebook obtain 75% of spend in the digital sector. One step I have taken to counter these issues is my intention to seek Cabinet approval to further amend the Broadcasting Act 2009 to remove the hourly limit on advertising for commercial radio stations. In conjunction with this, and to ensure fairness across the market, I will allow RTÉ greater flexibility in respect of its hourly limits on radio advertising.

Both RTÉ and TG4 have prepared five-year strategies for the period 2018-22. These are currently being considered by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland as part of its five-year review of public funding and I expect its view on these documents shortly. RTÉ has committed to focus more on digital platforms in the coming years. It is no secret that online streaming services have become more popular than traditional broadcasting for younger people. Making Irish-made, quality content available online is an important strategy for ensuring that younger audiences will continue to watch and listen to RTÉ. This work will be carried out by a new production unit called Digital Lab, which will create online content, bite-size video shorts, podcasts and digital series. This is the way forward. I believe RTÉ has recognised that times are changing and it is moving with the times. However, in order for RTÉ and TG4 to carry out the objectives required of them and remain relevant in an increasingly digital world, significant additional resources will be required in the years ahead. This is something my officials and I are examining at present.

RTÉ concluded the sale of part of its Donnybrook site in July 2017, a sale known as Project Montrose. As the House will be aware, the gross proceeds from the sale of the Donnybrook lands were €107.5 million. However, considerable costs and related taxes are required to be deducted from the gross proceeds in order to arrive at the net land sale gain. RTÉ has informed the Department that the land sale will not solve ongoing operating challenges but the proceeds will likely be spent across three strands, namely, capital investment, organisational restructuring and reducing borrowings. The sale of these under-utilised lands at Montrose is welcome and will provide RTÉ with an injection of capital funding to reinvest, allowing for upgrades to technology and facilities, restructuring and reducing debt, ensuring it can compete with international broadcasters and continue to deliver on its public service broadcasting remit.

RTÉ is funded through a mix of licence fee and commercial revenue. In 2008, its total income was €440 million. Today, it stands at €340 million. RTÉ returned an operating deficit in 2015 and 2016, there were further operating losses in 2017 and deficits are inevitable for the coming years. This is a scenario that cannot be allowed to continue. The current television licence system faces a number of challenges, the current unacceptable levels of evasion being the most obvious. While the rate has fallen from 15.3% at the end of 2013 to the current rate of 14.6%, it is very high. Effectively, everyone who pays the television licence fee pays €39 to cover the cost of those who will not pay. This affects both the public service broadcasters and the independent sector. Reducing the evasion rate would provide a mechanism to support a vibrant broadcasting sector without imposing additional charges on the public. The high level of evasion represents an annual loss of approximately €40 million to public service broadcasting. Ultimately, members of the public are the losers here as the lack of funding means they are not getting the quality Irish content to which they are entitled, especially the majority who pay the television licence fee.

While the existing television licence fee model has provided a measure of stability to date, the rapid changes in technology, altering the traditional way in which television is watched, together with economic pressures generally, mean that a serious question mark exists over the ability of the current funding model to provide continued stable funding for public service media in the long term. In addition to this review of future funding, I obtained Government approval to draft a number of legislative amendments to the Broadcasting Act 2009, including amendments for the tendering of the television licence fee collection system. Once this legislative amendment has been enacted, it will be possible to hold a public procurement competition to tender for a new collection agent. However, we are protecting the mechanism whereby people can buy their television licence through local post offices.

I have also made a number of proposals which, once implemented, will assist the broadcasting sector. For example, the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill provides for the introduction of a new funding scheme to offer bursaries to journalists working in local or community radio stations. It also provides for a reduction in the broadcasting levy, which will alleviate the burden on broadcasters. This proposal will reduce the overall levy to be paid by the sector and would be applied evenly across all broadcasters, with community broadcasters being completely exempt. The committee issued its pre-legislative scrutiny report on these proposals on 8 March. My officials are considering the report and it is also being considered by the Parliamentary Counsel in the drafting process.

The Leader asked me to refer to online safety, a complex matter in respect of which many Departments have responsibility. A wide range of initiatives from the Government, the European Commission, non-governmental organisations, NGOs, industry and others, are in train. However, as a Government, we recognise that we must demonstrate and deliver a more joined-up approach in respect of this matter for our citizens.

When we speak about online safety, we are seeking to address a wide spectrum of content and behaviour. At one end of this spectrum are the most heinous criminal acts committed by criminals. At the other end, we find abusive or hurtful comments posted by individual users, some of whom are children. On 8 March 2018, I hosted an open policy debate on the subject of online safety at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin which was opened by An Taoiseach. Over 120 representatives from a range of stakeholders participated, including NGOs, industry, parents' groups and young people. The event was supported by five other Ministers and organised in conjunction with the Departments of Justice and Equality; Education and Skills; Health: Business, Enterprise and Innovation; and Children and Youth Affairs. A recording of the event is available to view on my Department’s website.

In opening the event, An Taoiseach announced that it was the Government’s intention to prepare by June of this year an action plan on online safety with an integrated set of measures which we will use to ensure we support online safety at all levels. My Department will actively contribute to the preparation of that plan and a report on the open policy debate will form one of the inputs to the plan. The actions contained in this plan will be complementary to the initiatives being progressed by the European Commission, including the communication regarding illegal content on online platforms, the revision of the audiovisual media services directive and the EU Safer Internet programme. Ireland believes we are in a much stronger position when we work with our European partners to agree a set of harmonised measures to address our common concerns.

I must also recognise the excellent work which the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs has carried out since September 2017 in considering the subject of online safety. The committee held a series of meetings and heard from a number of academics, industry practitioners, young people themselves and departmental officials. I must highlight one meeting in particular which was held on 21 February this year when four senior Cabinet Ministers gave evidence to the committee together. I believe this is unprecedented and it is a clear sign of this Government’s commitment to the subject of online safety. The committee’s report and recommendations will also be considered by the relevant Departments in the preparation of the action plan.

In the context of social media regulation, I should also mention the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill brought forward by Deputy James Lawless. We are all aware that in various electoral processes around the world, social media has been misused to seek to manipulate public opinion through targeted advertising. During the Second Stage debate on the Bill, I acknowledged that Deputy Lawless had identified a very important issue which goes to the heart of our democratic processes. However, as currently drafted, the Bill has some significant flaws that could give rise to a number of unintended consequences. For example, the legislation fails to recognise the role that should be played by the Standards in Public Office Commission in the regulation of such matters. Its definitions are drawn too broadly and it could potentially lead to restrictions on the advertising of matters that are clearly not in scope, for example, constituency clinics.

With regard to all online regulation, we need to ensure that we strike an appropriate balance between free speech and clear and proportionate regulation, and that we draw on relevant national and international expertise in this matter. With this in mind, the Government has established an interdepartmental group to consider the issues arising from recent experiences in other democratic countries with regard to the use of social media by external, anonymous or hidden third parties. It will focus on the risks arising from disinformation spread by social media and other means, particularly in respect of safeguarding the integrity of electoral processes. My Department is represented on that group which is chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach. We are faced with the reality that the speed of innovation in media generally, and online media in particular, poses real challenges for legislators worldwide. We need to ensure that public service broadcasters and traditional media continue to thrive and that there is an effective but proportionate regulatory regime of the online world that allows for innovation and freedom of expression while protecting citizens and young people. I would be happy to hear Members' views and questions on these important matters.

I welcome the Minister to the House, particularly when he is in the middle of difficulties in his Department. We will not add to those difficulties today because they are being dealt with in the Dáil. I respect the Minister for coming in today knowing that these issues might be discussed or considered. He has also outlined to the House the current situation regarding the proposed acquisition by INM of Celtic Media. The Minister will be aware that on 7 February 2017, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment spent a considerable period of time taking submissions which we were then to submit to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland under competition legislation from 2002. We held public sessions that were attended by Robert Pitt, the then CEO of INM; Gerry Lennon, managing director of INM regionals; Frank Mulrennan, CEO of Celtic Media; and Séamus Dooley, secretary of the National Union of Journalists. We spent a considerable period of time-----

Forgive me for interrupting but I should point out that Members should exercise restraint in making their contributions and should not stray into the merits or details of any cases currently before the courts or into matters that could directly encroach upon the functions of the courts.

I appreciate that. I am not making any reference whatsoever. I am just pointing out that the media has not picked up the considerable debate we had on 7 February. It might be of assistance in terms of current contributions. At that stage, I was in favour of INM buying Celtic Media. Nobody else was queuing up to buy it at the time and 98 jobs were involved, including at The Anglo Celt and newspapers in Westmeath. I am just making a point. It is all on record so if the media wishes to investigate what is there, it is on the Internet. We made our case. It was not unanimous.

I appreciate that the Senator is making his case but we are dealing with statements on public service broadcasting and social media regulation.

I am just saying that we sent our deliberations to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. That is all I am saying on that particular issue. The reality is that the horse has bolted; the deal is off. It is no longer relevant as far as I am concerned.

I do not wish to go into the deal.

This is a very current issue and this Seanad must be current.

I know but the Chair must be careful.

I am just making a contribution to be helpful. I am reminding people that this matter was debated for hours and we-----

This is about public service broadcasting.

Will you leave me alone for God's sake. The Minister outlined the situation and I am responding to be helpful in this regard. I am not making any accusation about the Minister, who is a constituency colleague of mine in Roscommon.

I know you are not.

I respect the fact that it is a very difficult task and Ministry.

I think we should avoid it.

I know what it is like being in government and the pressures I was under at particular times. There were issues in my constituency.

The other point I want to make, and I do not think the Leas-Chathaoirleach will be able to comment, is that The Irish Times proposes to acquire Landmark Media Group. That is being considered. I certainly have an interest in this. I am sure the Minister cannot express an interest anymore on an individual basis. The Roscommon Herald is part of this proposed acquisition of Landmark Media Group by The Irish Times. The agreement has been reached. I hope this matter will be processed expeditiously because there are far too many delays. The Irish Times and Landmark Media Investments signed a shared purchase agreement whereby The Irish Times will acquire all of the publishing and media interests of the Landmark Media Group. The transaction is subject to a number of conditions, which include receipt of regulatory approvals from the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, the Minister and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

The process is too slow. Business moves very fast. Independent media outlets are vital but commitments were made by INM to Celtic Media that there would be freedom. Like me, Senator O'Reilly is a member of the committee and he might recall the very detailed debate we had at that time. We were very anxious to protect the integrity of the organisation.

I welcome the Minister's comprehensive contribution. I wish to say "Well done" with regard to An Post and the record profits. I was not very anxious to pay €1 for a stamp and said at the time that it could be a case of the law of diminishing returns, but the chief executive said on "Morning Ireland" earlier that it was very successful and raised extra revenue. Parcel delivery is a growth area, which is very exciting. This is a good news story. The Minister's efforts to protect the sub-post office system are also welcome. I understand he is to make a statement on Friday or at the weekend. That is very positive. It is part of the Minister's portfolio and I welcome that. There was a period during which there was some concern. An Post was in dire straits when the Minister came to office but he took action. It was not particularly popular but it is working out well. The point has been made that we have a national postal service with deliveries every day to every part of Ireland, from Killybegs to Killaloe. Every place gets its post. That is a major achievement and it should be recognised.

I was formerly a Minister of State at the then Department of Posts and Telegraphs in the 1980s. It was an exciting time in that area at that stage, but Departments did not really recognise the advent of the Internet. They should have been more active in that regard and should have had Internet units at every post office to assist people. Even now it would be a great service to offer to farmers and others who do not have access to the Internet. Quite a number of people do not have the capacity to go through the system. That is an area of development.

I compliment our public broadcasters, RTÉ and TG4, TV3 and all the radio stations. Any additional revenue the Minister can generate from the TV licence should be concentrated on local radio, particularly local radio's coverage of current affairs and sport. The Minister's heart is in that area as well. People in Roscommon, Monaghan and Cavan basically get all their information from Shannonside Northern Sound, MidWest Radio and Midlands 103.

Hear, hear. I agree.

The stations are finding it difficult to survive in a competitive environment. The news they generate is being taken by all the other platforms and broadcast around the world. They have to generate the news but they do not get any payment for it, other than from the listeners.

I thank the Minister. He has done well.

I warmly welcome the Minister. I thank him for setting out some of the issues and difficulties, which I do not propose to discuss in detail. I certainly do not wish to speak about INM, Celtic Media or any other media outfit. I am conscious that there are proceedings and affidavits before the court so it is not appropriate to comment in detail on them.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive report. Incidentally, my colleague, Senator Billy Lawless, asked me to apologise for his absence. He had to go to a meeting. He wishes to support the Minister and to thank him for coming to the House. He asked me to put that on the record for him. I thank the Minister for outlining his strategy for RTÉ. He dealt with RTÉ's advertising, the licence income - and he spoke in detail about the loss of the substantial sum of €40 million in potential income - and the sale of RTÉ's assets, as well as the cost of regulating the social media.

I do not have many questions. The "Oireachtas Report" programme is now gone; RTÉ has ceased broadcasting it. A number of Senators met representatives from RTÉ in recent weeks in a meeting organised by Senator Norris and the rationale was teased out again. The RTÉ representatives had already come here previously to speak to the political groups in the Oireachtas. I am aware of how RTÉ is changing in terms of online, digital and other new mechanisms for broadcasting but, as the previous speaker indicated, there are still some people who do not have access, or who choose or do not wish to have access, to other forms of media. Those individuals liked "Oireachtas Report". I accept that there is a substantial cost factor and that a number of staff are directly involved. However, as is its right, RTÉ has taken that commercial decision.

I have a suggestion, although I do not know how it could be worked through. Perhaps RTÉ, through the Minister's good offices in contacts with the station, would look at the excellent Oireachtas service here. There is already a brilliant Oireachtas service so could there be some synergies or an arrangement between Oireachtas TV, which is ongoing here in any event, and RTÉ or, for that matter, with other broadcasters in that regard? There are plans to have a new studio for political broadcasts on the Leinster House campus. It is important that this does not become an exclusive facility for RTÉ either. There must be a level playing field. That is another issue the Minister could examine because it is important. We have to give access to independent broadcasting companies and independent radio stations to communicate. It is all about communication and broadcasting. At some stage, where it is appropriate, we should look at what already exists here and whether there can be some type of synergy between independent broadcasting and RTÉ, if it so wishes and if it considers it appropriate, because I believe there is something good in that.

Perhaps the Minister might clarify a matter regarding Project Montrose. We know that is €107 million was realised and that legal fees, taxes and other obligations must be paid from that. However, they will not be very substantial in terms of the €107 million obtained on foot of the sale of lands at Montrose. Is the Minister saying that the money is being retained wholly and exclusively for RTÉ? I am not sure if that is right because there are other calls on some of the money. The Minister will recall that there was a call for an audit of all State lands - I am not suggesting that it should all go to the delivery of social and affordable housing - and I would have considered the lands at Montrose to be owned by the State. I am not sure that is necessarily a good way to spend the money. Why is it all being retained by RTÉ? The Minister might explain the reason for that.

I acknowledge the potential loss of €40 million. Ultimately, the public will be the loser if people do not pay the licence fee. The Minister said he is going to look again at the issue. Will he confirm or rule out the possibility of a digital tax for each home, which was something one of his predecessors proposed? That proposal did not go down very well. What are the Minister's views on the matter?

The Minister said that the Government will establish an interdepartmental group to consider issues arising from the recent experiences in other democratic countries regarding the use of social media by external, anonymous and hidden third parties. I welcome that initiative. Perhaps the Minister would share the timelines for that work, indicate when it will deliver some strong recommendations and outline how all of that will be bedded down in some type of legislative format. That is important.

I wish the Minister well. I have always found him to be a man of probity and high integrity in his work. He said that he runs a very open system. That is true. I wish to give testament to that fact and to acknowledge that any dealings I have had with him or his Department have been open and transparent.

I welcome the Minister and thank him for doing the House the courtesy of making a statement on recent events. Without engaging in wrong practice in respect of the event, all I can say, as Senators Leyden and Boyhan have said, is that as a member of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment and having had the privilege of working with the Minister in both Houses of the Oireachtas over a number of years, I know him to be a man of absolute integrity who engages in absolute due process in all his dealings and who is above reproach. If an error was ever made it would be in methodology, it would never be an error in due process. The Minister is a great colleague and an excellent, proactive Minister. I believe that is the view across the House and in many ways it is reflected in the response in this debate.

It is interesting that the Minister on this occasion was exhausting all investigative procedure and was allowing complete due process to take place. Were he to have had a vested interest, he could have operated in a different way at the outset. He is a man of absolute probity and personal decency and somebody I know very well on a number of fronts and it is a privilege to work on the committee with him.

I turn to the events of today and the matters under discussion. It is important we have a strongly resourced, independent national broadcasting service. That is sine qua non. It is something that should not even be considered a matter for debate. It needs to be resourced and supported. Local radio is also important, and Senator Leyden talked about this. In my area Northern Sound is extraordinarily important to a lot of people and it is their source of news and information. I am delighted that the Minister has decided to bring forward legislation to remove the hourly limit on advertising. That will be helpful. I welcome that there will be new funding for journalists working in local radio stations. It is important and it would be negligent of me to represent the people I represent and not cite the interest they have in this question and in having a strong local radio service.

I am happy to know that by June the Taoiseach has committed to an action plan on online safety and that the reports will be looked at. Deputy Lawless's Bill, which he talked about at the committee the other day, is a very helpful input, albeit needing the amendments cited by the Minister.

I refer to cyberbullying, abuse, misinformation, wrong information and, in some instances, pornography, etc., becoming available to young people. Action is needed and the Minister is committed to this action, but as a parent, teacher and public representative, I can only stress the horror that is involved there, the real fear parents have around this and the need to deal with it.

I refer to recent events in relation to Facebook and social media. It must be recognised that the basic premise on which social media operates is how they make their money. The commercial premise on which they operate is to have names - two billion persons in the case of Facebook - who are the recipients of potential advertising. That is fair enough and that is how it works. It cannot be otherwise and we support that. We recognise our domestic interest in the success of Facebook, what it means to Dublin and to Ireland.

Having said that, I refer to a situation where the private information of individuals can be harvested by sinister groupings and used to manipulate democracy, thwart the natural electoral processes and damage how elections function. I know this is more prevalent in America and that, through the European Commission, there are rules which make it more difficult here. However, at the same time, one has to state in this House that we have to be sure. I appeal to the Minister to look at this in the context of the upcoming referendum. We want to be sure that nothing untoward happens in the referendum on the eighth amendment and in the next general election and that that kind of information could not be manipulated, or voters exploited in this fashion. That is extraordinarily important.

I mention something of which I and former and current Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas have been victims, namely, the use of fake accounts on social media to disseminate falsehoods, to play on a vulnerable audience and to present untruths. Thankfully, in my case I had the mental resources and strength to cope with it. That was not always the case for colleagues and it can be very difficult. I know of many colleagues who have suffered a lot emotionally and personally because of this kind of online activity. I refer to the elimination of fake accounts and rigorous processes being adopted by the social media outlets to eliminate fake accounts, recognise them and deal with them. If there is one thing about which I feel very strongly and which the Minister might take from my contribution to today's debate, it would be that. That is extraordinarily serious, as is the harvesting of information, without people's willingness to provide it, to thwart democracy and to target advertising towards vulnerable people in a way they do not understand and to focus advertisements on their emotional conditions. For people who are naturally fearful, there is a set of political advertising creating a fear in them and telling them untruths or manipulated truth based on that. It is important we have control of our social media and that people know their private data cannot be used. In some instances, it was even being used years after they had left the social media sites. That should not happen.

I am heartened the Minister recognises, and once again commits himself to, the critical importance of an independent national news service and the augmenting and supporting of RTÉ and TG4 to provide that and that he recognises the importance of local radio and the new services they provide to the people I represent and to people right across the country.

I also welcome the fact cyberbullying is recognised as a problem to be dealt with head on and that social media outlets would be controlled in a way that the data presented by people, and given in good faith, cannot be wrongly used.

I will not touch on the issues raised in regard to media mergers, except in so far as the Minister raised the question of his regret about the phone call that he made to Mr. Ó Neachtain. I accept the Minister has regret over the phone call, but I appeal for us to be careful about the language we use. It is important if we are to restore the confidence of the public in politics that we do not suggest, for example, that it is personal when we talk to a key stakeholder who is affected by a decision and we are the decision maker. That has to be really clear. It is not personal in that context. It cannot be considered to be personal when we are talking about a specific power of the Government in that regard.

I refer to the phrase "we are not responsible for how information is used". If we were to send out a signal to the public that we send information and we are not responsible for how it is used, that would be a really negative message to send. We need to be clear and careful. I have worked with the Minister on other issues and I respect that he is trying to move forward, but let us be very careful because we need to send a signal to the public that we recognise that is not an adequate excuse.

We also need to ensure nothing is done to undermine the important role the independent institutions set up as checks and balances to how politics is done in this State, be it the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, the Comptroller and Auditor General or the Data Protection Commissioner, play in politics and democracy in Ireland. I will not speak further on this. I simply wanted to respond because the Minister had raised that issue himself.

I welcome the Minister's recognition of the deep importance of public service broadcasting, of what it says to us as a nation and of its importance in how it shapes our shared discussions and narratives. There are wider issues I had hoped to address on public service broadcasting because we need to ensure public service broadcasting represents all the voices of the nation. There have been issues of diversity within public service broadcasting. I refer to diversity in all its forms in terms of ensuring a range of voices from people from different parts of the country, from different economic backgrounds, with different abilities and from different ethnic backgrounds. One of the key areas is in gender.

I was working with the National Women's Council of Ireland when we produced the voices of women on air report and I recognise that RTÉ has taken steps forward regarding its presenters and the participation of women in that media. One aspect of that research that struck me, because the figures on direct participation were so stark it is a qualitative aspect that got buried, was that women were often on radio or television to describe what had happened to them and then men came on to explain what had actually happened to them and what the policies were. We still need to dive a little bit deeper, not only around who is brought on but that we are bringing on those who have expertise and analysis and understand their experiences.

We also need to look to the voices of civil society. Often civil society, NGOs or trade unions, are brought in to talk about the experiences of those they work with and yet the experts who tell us about how the economy works, often framed as neutral experts, are also interested parties. Many of those experts are deeply imbedded and working closely with those who have high stakes in the business sector who, for example, are investing in property or the financial advisers to major corporations. We need to look at that expertise and we need a little bit of transparency when persons, such as Mr. Ó Neachtain, are popping up on radio programmes so that we know where they are coming from in that context and bring the strong economic analysis that many in civil society can bring into the mix. That is a side point. I will go straight to my other points now.

In its public service role, it is important that we recognise our investment in public service media and broadcasting. It is not about making this a functional business. In the investment we make in public service broadcasting, the dividend comes out in society, for example, through our orchestras and their role.

Local radio, which was mentioned, is important. Community radio needs more of a focus. In that regard, I am worried by the Minister's proposal that we would seek to increase the time given to advertising on both private and public channels. What we are doing is making the public not the beneficiaries but the target. The public is then the product that is being sold. Besides, we know that when one increases space for that product, the price will go down and the competition will increase. I oppose that proposal.

There are other fora in which I will discuss other aspects of online regulation but in the limited time I have, I want to address an issue which directly affects the Minister, Deputy Naughten, and is related to online advertising. The proportion of advertising in the digital sector is 40%, up from 7%. It is a huge market of almost €500 million. This needs urgent regulation. While I recognise that there are other issues around fake news and abuse online, the key issue, that we have 40% of the advertising market unregulated, cannot stand. That needs immediate action.

In our debate, we talked about the online advertising targeting of young people, for example, whether there are any regulations about what kind of online advertising can reach or be targeted towards young people. Crucially, because it is immediate in relation to political advertising, I absolutely support Deputy James Lawless's Bill. It does not affect constituency clinics. It does not impact on their conduct. We can debate that but I do not believe it does because what it says is that one needs to be transparent about who is placing an advertisement, and that is the key factor. Once there is transparency in political advertising, so be it. Right now, we have a situation where online advertising regarding the referendum is taking place. The Transparent Referendum Initiative has produced information that tells us large amounts of money is being spent anonymously, large numbers of organisations outside Ireland are buying advertising, and money is being spent on misleading and untrue content. A large number of those advertising are hidden, anonymous, not traceable or not registered anywhere. This is directly related and I have a question for the Minister. In the context where that is unregulated right now, should Facebook increase its early roll-out of transparency on who is purchasing advertisements or perhaps not sell advertisements? On those platforms for which RTÉ, the national broadcaster, is responsible, Google advertisements are appearing at present.

This is a final, simple point. It is possible for any website that accepts Google advertisements to determine at present that they do not want to receive political advertisements. Does the Minister believe that RTÉ, RTÉ Junior, TG4 and other public service broadcasters should not accept political advertisements in the period leading up to the referendum at a time when those advertisements are completely unregulated? That is a specific request. It is something that we could do in the interim. I would like to hear the timeline and ask that there would be cross-party input into the committee. I would suggest that differences should be put aside-----

Senator Higgins is eating into other Senators' time and I ask her to conclude.

I would suggest the Minister amend Deputy James Lawless's Bill if he needs to, but we need legislation on this before the summer.

I welcome the publication last month of the report on the future funding of public broadcasting. My colleague, Deputy Brian Stanley, is a member of the committee that produced the report and I acknowledge the role of many stakeholders in the sector that made submissions.

What Sinn Féin certainly does not agree with is any increase in the licence fee. There is currently a two-year review under way.

One part of the report that we are totally opposed to is using Revenue to collect licence fees. While we accept that there is widespread evasion - that is clear for all to see - and that this means increased amounts for those who pay, we believe that having Revenue collect it will simply lead to those already paying and those on low incomes being hit the hardest.

During the committee's deliberation, there were many alternatives to Revenue as the main collector put forward, such as a registration scheme. There could also be a registration scheme once consumers sign up for various services, such as cable or satellite. Therefore, we argue that An Post should continue to collect the fee and that there needs to be better methods of collecting data as well.

Public service broadcasting, far from becoming outdated, is becoming more vital in light of recent developments. The era of fake news both on TV and online means that news providers in which the public has a stake are more important than ever. While we may not always agree with what the national broadcaster shows or with the opinions expressed, at least there is a complaints mechanism and some form of monitoring. I take the opportunity to commend RTÉ on its recent "National Treasures" show. That was a valuable exercise, an all-island initiative that reached out to all of the communities on this island.

In Ireland, there have been many attempts by individuals to gain control of a large portion of the media. As a result, we need greater oversight of the handling of media mergers by the Government. It is essential that Ireland has a diverse media that can accommodate broad political and civil debate and the free exchange of ideas.

A free and open media requires the Irish language, gender representation and ethnic and religious minorities should be allowed adequate space in the media market. The promotion of the Irish language in broadcasting is essential to the language as a whole. TG4, broadcasting under the "Súil Eile" slogan, has done sterling work, not only in promoting Irish language and culture, but in offering an alternative narrative. TG4 is highly respected and the Government should be willing to offer its support. We also need pressure on the British Government to ensure the permanency of the Irish language broadcast fund and the ongoing production of Irish language programming from the Six Counties.

Another issue the report dealt with was the possibility of using licence fee revenue to support local radio stations. Even though these are technically commercial entities, there is a valid argument that they provide a vital public service element through news, announcements and promotion of community projects.

On the issue of social media and its usage, I wholeheartedly oppose the abuse, trolling and vilification of individuals on social media platforms. In the world of politics, two women, Ms Carla Lockhart MLA of the DUP and my own colleague, Ms Michaela Boyle MLA, have been the subject of nasty and anonymous abuse on Twitter.

This is wrong. I also appeal to those who think that engaging with politicians in such an abusive and dehumanising way will ever achieve anything. It merely diminishes us as a society if this is how we get our messages across. Amnesty International recently published a report on the abuse faced by women, especially on social media such as Twitter. An Irish News journalist in her story told of how criticism of her articles was mostly followed by sectarian and sexist abuse. The role of journalists is vital and it is important that they feel safe in doing their job. Twitter also has a responsibility to make its platform a safer and less toxic space for women.

I realise that we are very tight on time, that another speaker wishes to come in and that the Minister needs to be gone by 2.05 p.m. I will be as brief as I possibly can.

I acknowledge the Minister's presence in the House and his first statement to this House on the issues he clarified in the Dáil. They are a very appropriate and honest reflection of what happened in those events. I acknowledge the Minister's contribution on this issue. I believe he has been a very honourable Minister and I fully support him in his endeavours.

The Minister has two major problems with regard to the proposals on where we are going with public service broadcasting and social media. I see two real issues, one of which is the sustainability of RTÉ in the next decade and where RTÉ will fit into the global media. The other issue is the regulation of social media. On Tuesday we had a very interesting debate with a vice-president from Facebook at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The space has moved so much in that way in the last few years. One would have to question where we are going with RTÉ as an entity going forward.

Consider the amount of money going into social media platforms and the changes in people's behaviours. How many people do not even have a television set now? People have a tablet or a mobile phone. People do not even want their television sets. When they speak of TV it is about Netflix and not RTÉ. The Minister has said that there are exceptions such as when there is a storm and people want to see what is happening locally. On average, however, people watch their Netflix and their box sets and that is how they get their information. This is how fake media will have an awful input to society, especially if people are looking at Facebook and Twitter. This will be a huge issue for us to regulate in the next few years. The challenges are immense and this portfolio brings exceptionally important challenges to us as a society.

With regard to RTÉ and the failure to collect TV licence fees at an appropriate level, it is really the elephant in the room. We have had a sale of land at Montrose in the last few years, which brought in €107 million. That will not happen again. We need to look at the long-term vision of how RTÉ is to be sustainable. The broadcaster got that injection of cash but I cannot see any more lands being developed unless it takes the amazing step of moving away from the Donnybrook site. RTÉ can broadcast from any location in the State. Why does it need to be in the exclusive environment of Donnybrook? Should we look at moving the RTÉ complex to a more suitable site and develop the entire complex itself? Is that the injection that is required for RTÉ to get a footing, or a leg underneath the table, so it can move on to become sustainable? The word "sustainable" in the context of RTÉ is the big issue in the room.

Revenues are falling. We have seen where the advertising is going. We need to keep our national broadcaster. This is going to be the strategy for the boss there; I was going to say the new boss but she is far from being the new boss as she has been in the position for more than 18 months. That is going to be the long-term strategy if we are to ensure that RTÉ stays in that space, with a real dimension of social media and where our news is to come from. If five years ago I had said that most of our news was going to come through Twitter and Facebook people would have laughed. We must be able to see where RTÉ is going to be in ten years' time and where that space is. This is a real dilemma. The strategy for RTÉ must be planned out and it must be an evolving and changing strategy. The broadcaster has money coming in through the sale of land but it is only a stopgap. A change to RTÉ practices or perhaps a move to another site to start with a clean bill of health might be the appropriate way of moving RTÉ forward.

I shall now turn to Internet safety. It is a huge issue. There were more than 100 parents at a public meeting about the issue in Clonakilty last Monday. It is a massive space affecting children's ability to access data. Teenagers' ability to gain access to information will take a lot of education for parents - not for the children. The kids know more about this space than their parents. This will involve a whole generational change and will involve parents taking ownership of the issues. I do not believe they have taken ownership of it. It is a huge debate given that a child aged eight, nine or ten years could can have a phone with Internet capability and a parent who does not know what the child could look at or what the child is looking at. First we must educate the parents on what needs to be done with regard to Internet safety. Is it right that children have data or Wi-Fi around the house 24 hours a day? To me that is nuts. Would a house have the TV on 24 hours a day? No. It would, however, have data and Wi-Fi on. There are so many issues such as this that need to be debated. It will be a huge space for us to try to get a handle on.

I am being beckoned at now so I would like to thank the Minister.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House and for his paper on public service broadcasting and social media regulation. It cannot be easy for the Minister to sit and listen to Senators, especially today, as the Minister has other things on is mind. It shows something about the Minister's courage and tenacity that he can sit with dignity and do this when he must face other issues later on. I know he will come through them.

I congratulated the Minister earlier for the role of David McRedmond as chief executive officer of An Post. I am absolutely thrilled that An Post is now turning over a profit. All Senators agreed because it means so much. A post office is such a communicative and engaging place for people all over the State, in cities, towns, locales and villages. Mr. McRedmond's ideas for the future with regard to community banking will elevate the place of the post office. They are so essential and very much a part of ourselves. I congratulate the Minister on this because this is a huge part of his portfolio.

I absolutely agree with Senator Boyhan on the "Oireachtas Report" programme. The Senator made a very good point about the synergies of our own Oireachtas TV and the Oireachtas communications. One aspect on which the Seanad has been very weak is communicating who we are and what we do. We expect other people to come in and communicate it, rightly or wrongly, badly or well. Senators should be far more proactive in how we communicate. I take that point.

The TV licence fee and non-payment is discussed in the pubs, clubs and bus stops of Ireland. I am interested to hear the Minister's comments about legislation on collection of the fee. How will the Minister pursue that in the future to make sure that people who have a television set and who have media in their homes are paying for it? This is very important because it gives back trust to the community that something is actually happening in that everybody else is also paying the bill.

I am delighted to see provisions for the development of local community radio and the bursaries for journalism. I come from a radio background. Radio is the most engaging, the most available, the most economical and the cheapest medium for everybody. Irish people are great radio listeners so I welcome that proposal.

Senator Warfield made a brilliant point about the pornography of social media in the way people are treated. It is about how pornographic language and pornographic images invade the whole media area. The late Neil Postman was a wonderful writer who wrote a book in the 1980s titled Technopoly. He also wrote The Disappearance of Childhood and Amusing Ourselves to Death. When one thinks of these they go together. Neil Postman said that one of society's problems was going to be pornography and the second problem was how we were going to store all the information that we now have. He wrote of society being in a chaos or a glut of information.

This is a difficult area to navigate and previous speakers pointed out aspects of the problem. I agree, however, that legislation is urgently required, although one cannot legislate for morality or what takes place behind closed doors. Young minds can be educated and I would like the national broadcaster to have more young people on radio and television. I got into terrible trouble when I stated recently that 16 year olds should not be allowed to vote. What I meant was that the kind of politics in which we engage may not be for young people. However, young minds are alive, creative and imaginative and young people should be seen on television and heard on radio. Elderly people - I am fast becoming one - are another group who we do not see often enough on panel and discussion programmes. We do not hear them much, yet they make up a large proportion of the population. It is within the gift of public service broadcasting to ensure our elders are heard.

I also agree with Senator Higgins that public service broadcasting is extremely important because it reflects who and what we are and how we see, investigate and place ourselves on our island and outside of it. It is also important for music, orchestras, language and politics. It is sad that RTÉ must sell land to survive. It must be gifted and kept alive. RTÉ has a great deal of competition and it is important it remains the core broadcaster because much of our broadcasting has been commodified. We now have the same programme repeated at the same time, with the same advertisements and providing a supermarket type view of what and who people are. Broadcasting should be individual, unique, fresh and creative, just like the Minister.

I wish the Minister luck and thank him for coming to the House. I appreciate everything he is doing across a wide divide.

Before calling on the Minister to reply to Senators, I welcome students from Dublin Institute of Technology who have come all the way from Guatemala with the prestigious Network of International Business Schools, NIBS, trophy. I understand they participated in tackling real world international business challenges and came out on top, bringing the first ever world title to Ireland and only the second ever to Europe. They are being hosted today by Senator O'Reilly. They are very welcome and I wish them continued success.

Only a short time is available to me as I must be in the other House in seven minutes. I thank Senators for their contributions. One of the major issues facing us is that of online content. Senator Higgins raised the issue of advertising, a complex area that can probably only be regulated at European Union level rather than domestically. Having said that, I take the Senator's point regarding RTÉ. We will write directly to RTÉ and other public service broadcasters on the specific matter she raised.

I had some engagement with Facebook and I understand the company will soon implement new standards. We are all conscious of developments in respect of the referendum next month, as are all of the online platforms. There is no doubt but that our legislation needs to be modernised. Some action can be taken domestically and we need to do as much as we can. Last year, at a conference on online safety on Facebook, I noted that legislation is a 17th century tool being used to deal with a 21st century economy. Regardless of how quickly legislators move, we will always be behind the curve. The challenge facing us is difficult as enacting law requires us to go through ten Stages in both Houses, which means by the time legislation is enacted, it has been superseded by technology. We need to try to get ahead of the curve. I honestly do not know what tools are available to achieve this, whether they are global principles or core values that can be enshrined in some form of legislation. However, I accept that this is an ongoing challenge and one we must seek to address.

I will ask my officials to revert to Senators with replies to their detailed questions.

The general data protection regulation, GDPR, will address much of these issues arising in the area of data harvesting.

Senator Lombard raised an important point when he noted that we do not have our televisions switched on for 24 hours each day, whereas we have Wi-Fi switched on 24 hours a day in our homes. As adults, we must learn some lessons from our children regarding the way in which technology has advanced. In fairness to the Department of Education and Skills, it has a valuable resource. The objective should be to try to bring this out into the wider community, rather than confining it to the Department.

I accept that we face a major challenge in respect of public service broadcasting, which faces a funding crunch. When I was appointed, a number of issues were causing headaches throughout the Department, one of which was the deep crisis in An Post. There is now light at the end of the tunnel regarding An Post. The Department is working closely with the director general, Ms Dee Forbes, and her team in RTÉ to see if we can plot out a clear future and create daylight for the organisation. RTÉ should not be about the footprint of its buildings but what it can provide to society as a whole. RTÉ, TG4 and other public service broadcasters are providing a vital public service and they will be very much part of what we are culturally in future.

Senator Marie Louise O'Donnell stated that Irish people listen to more radio than people in any other country in the world. My colleagues in the rest of Europe do not even know what community radio stations are. I was glad to be the first Minister to take a proactive step in supporting community radio stations and I will continue to try to do so.

I ask Senators to propose constructive suggestions and ideas for moving this issue forward as I do not have all the solutions. Some thoughts and ideas have been proposed at the joint committee but I would welcome and will listen to further proposals and ideas.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 24 April 2018.

The Seanad adjourned at 2.10 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 24 April 2018.