Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Questions (21)

Mick Barry

Question:

21. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment when the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland will begin its review of the ownership and control policy of media companies; if he will make a submission to the review; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18302/18]

View answer

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Communications)

I ask the Minister when the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland will begin its review into the ownership and control policy of media companies and if he intends to make a submission to that review.

Under the provisions of the Broadcasting Act 2009, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland is the contractor for broadcasting licences for both television and radio stations in Ireland.

In the context of that role and its obligation under the same Act to promote diversity and plurality in broadcasting services and the wider media landscape, the authority operates an ownership and control policy. This policy sets out how the authority will consider applications for broadcasting licences and variations to existing licence conditions in light of its obligations.

The authority is independent in the issuing of broadcasting licences and I, as Minister, have no function in this matter or in respect of the development, operation or review of the authority's ownership and control policy. I am aware that the authority has announced its intention to review this policy and that it has commenced a targeted consultation with relevant stakeholders. Dublin City University has been engaged by the authority to co-ordinate the consultation, in which my Department will participate.

The authority has indicated that this consultation will be completed by mid-July. Following this, the authority is expected to consider if any revisions to the current policy are warranted. If revisions are considered necessary, the authority intends that a revised draft policy will be the subject of a public consultation later in the year.

The authority has also commenced the drafting of a new plurality policy, which will be the subject of a targeted and public consultation later this year.

Both the authority's ownership and control policy and its proposed plurality policy are separate to the authority's role in the media mergers regime, as provided for in the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014.  In this respect, it is worth pointing out that the authority will be producing the second ownership and control report for the period 2015 to 2017 later this year.

This report describes the ownership and control arrangements for undertakings carrying on a media business in the State, outlines the changes to the ownership and control arrangement over the previous three years and analyses the effects of such changes on the plurality of the media in the State.

Does the Minister feel that changes are needed? On his watch, Reporters Without Borders has said that, in terms of press freedom, Ireland has slipped from ninth to 14th in the world. Last year, an EU report raised concerns about press freedom in Ireland. It said that there was a high risk as a result of the concentration of media ownership. The Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014 was put in place but despite its existence, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission gave the green light for the Independent News and Media acquisition of Celtic Media. The Department saw fit to refer that matter to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, which raises questions about whether the legislation is fit for purpose. Does it need to be strengthened? What is the Minister's position and what is that of his Department on the issue?

I will deal with the Deputy's final question first. On foot of the Celtic Media-Independent News and Media phase 2 assessment, I asked my officials to review the process to see if there were weaknesses in it and if it could be streamlined to operate in a better way. One of the criticisms of it and potentially other ones that would come forward is the time lag involved in turning around the reports. I am waiting for that from my officials.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has two functions. One is the ownership and control policy, which is different from the ownership and control report. Under the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has two specific roles in media mergers. One is in the phase 2 assessment, which has been discussed at length over the past four days. The authority's second role is that it must prepare a report that describes the ownership and control arrangements of undertakings carrying on media business in the State. The first report was published on my Department's website and the second is in the process of being compiled.

The Minister is as aware as I that there are serious concerns about media ownership and control in this country. There is the huge role Independent News and Media plays within the Irish media scene. One individual, a billionaire, has a near 30% stake in that company. The information coming out in the courts has raised serious questions. The Independent News and Media servers were handed over to Trusted Data Solutions for what is known in the trade as interrogation. The Independent News and Media board did not seem to know about it. The bill seems to have been paid by a company called Blaydon, which, according to the Paradise Papers, is a Denis O'Brien company. Those servers would have sensitive data, important issues regarding journalistic sources-----

I caution the Deputy about being mindful-----

Yes. The company would have had sensitive data about journalistic sources and yet it seems to be used as a plaything by a billionaire media mogul. This has given rise to serious concerns. Does the Minister have anything to say on the matter?

They are very serious allegations. The Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, is looking into these matters and I have every confidence in her carrying out her inquiry into very serious allegations. There are two processes. One is about to commence and the other, which relates to ownership and control policy, is ongoing. It has implications, as has the ownership and control report. Let us see what will emerge from both.