As I have stated previously in this House, I fully recognise the contribution of the independent radio sector in bringing diversity to the airwaves, and serving the needs of communities, often at a very local level. However, it should be borne in mind that these stations were founded as commercial operations, with the profit motive as their primary objective.
Station owners sought and accepted licences on clear terms; terms which included a limited amount of ‘public service’ type content. Moreover, 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 accepted in full knowledge of the current system of public funding. The fact that some of these stations are now undergoing an understandable degree of financial stress does not mean that the State should immediately step in and provide funding – they are and remain commercial enterprises.
Moreover, it should also be noted that their very popularity in the communities they serve is, in many cases, as a distinct result of the local news content and current affairs type programming that they provide and which, in turn, gives them a strong advertising presence and thus earning potential.
The rationale for providing State funding for the Public Service Broadcasters is to provide an independent and reliable income flow that allows these corporations to attain their public service objects while ensuring they can maintain editorial independence. This is especially important in the context of news and current affairs.
The overall aim of Public Service Broadcasting is to provide services and content which cater for all interests in society, while ensuring that the varied elements of Irish culture and its intrinsic values are protected. Through the obligations placed on the Public Service Broadcasters, which are established in legislation passed by the Oireachtas, and the criteria set for the funding of content through the Sound & Vision Scheme, the production of quality indigenous programming and the production of minority interest programming is strongly promoted.
I am, of course, willing to consider proposals from other broadcasting organisations in relation to the future distribution of funding. However, I have to be convinced that the distribution of public funds to independent commercial broadcasters represents a sound proposition in terms of policy for the sector.
Also, I would like to clarify that, even if I were minded to provide public monies to private investors, as the Deputy seems to be suggesting, EU State Aid rules very definitely apply.
It is categorically not possible for the State to simply decide to fund a set of incumbent licence holders during a licence period. Such a move, quite apart from the reaction of the European authorities, would expose the State to the risk of prosecution from other operators who may have considered applying for a licence were the revenue stream available.
The Deputy may wish to note that the Programme for Government commits to review the funding of independent broadcasters to ensure a healthy broadcasting environment in Ireland and work is ongoing in this regard. In line with its legislative obligations, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) is currently undertaking a review of the adequacy or otherwise of the public funding provided to the public service broadcasters. In this context, I have asked the BAI to consider as part of this review the potential impacts to these broadcasters if television licence receipts were further distributed to the independent broadcasting sector.