I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time." I wish to share my time with Deputy Ó Cuív.
Private Members' Business. - Heritage and Cultural Events (Televisual Access Protection) Bill, 1997: Second Stage.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle
Is that agreed? Agreed.
This Bill is important. Its central aim is to protect sporting and cultural events from satellite and television providers. This is an important consideration, especially in view of the feast of sport planned for 1998. This feast includes the usual spectacles like the All-Ireland series as well as rugby and soccer internationals. There is also the World Equestrian Games, the Tour de France and the Tall Ships race, which was such a spectacular success in Cork on its last visit there. Because of the growing power and dominance of satellite television companies, there is a danger that the televising one of these three special major events in 1998 will fall into the grips of a television mogul. People would then have to pay treble the amount to see an event of great national and cultural importance. This already happens in relation to big boxing matches where the television viewer must pay their licence, a subscription to Cablelink and then an extra fee of approximately £9.25 to watch one event on the pay-per-view system.
The necessity for this Bill is clear. As well as the almost daily technological advances in broadcasting and telecommunications, represented by the digital television revolution, there is a parallel development in the manner in which those who control broadcasting present their service and product to the viewing public. The most recent significant development is pay television, a new television service to which viewers may choose to subscribe either on a regular basis or for particular programmes. A sub-category of pay television is pay-per-view where subscribers pay for particular programmes.
Subscription based television is big business. It has resulted in one broadcaster having a disproportionate influence on those responsible for organising events which are to be televised. The organisers of events are attracted by the huge financial gains on offer and are willing to yield to the broadcaster's demands. The impact of this commercial relationship or open cheque book policy is apparent to those viewers interested in soccer, golf, cricket and boxing. Some sports have gone so far as to reinvent themselves at the behest of the broadcaster. Irish viewers have been denied access to such events as the Ryder Cup, live premier league football and to Stephen Collins's defence of his WBO super middle weight title.
The change from traditional television services to satellite-delivered subscription and pay-per-view services for covering national and international events is not in the public interest. Organisers of events are in a seller's market which can result in public service broadcasters being outbid for the rights to cover events. The increasing number of international satellite-delivered television channels has implications for public service broadcasting, given the importance of sports events, in particular, in attracting audiences of sufficient size to interest advertisers.
This Bill aims to ensure that the public interest in broadcasting continues to be served. That interest was served by the International Olympic Council's decision to award the contract for the Olympic Games held in Atlanta to the European Broadcasting Union, of which RTE is a member, rather than Sky television. This was a policy decision based on a view, which we support, that the greatest number of people should have access via television to one of the major sporting events in the world. Public access to designated events by way of television cannot be left to the altruistic, or otherwise, nature of the organisers of those events. Fianna Fáil believes the State has an obligation to ensure that the televising of certain events should, in the public interest, be available free of additional charge, irrespective of commercial interests. This Bill achieves that objective.
Despite the additional financial costs to the viewer of subscription based television, this Bill is not aimed at one broadcaster but is universal in its application and is predicated on the cultural importance to the nation of certain designated events. It deals specifically with the exercise of the televising rights of an event only. The commercial and technological reality of television in the 21st century cannot be resisted. This Bill seeks to balance the rights of organisers of events and broadcasters on the one hand against the interests of the television public and the cultural significance of those events on the other hand. It is designed to regulate this area and to address people's concerns about the untrammelled growth of pay-per-view television particularly as far as sport is concerned. We have followed the EU Commission model in which certain events, mainly sporting ones, will be designated as being of national importance.
Our proposals deserve support from all those who love sport and culture and believe in the right to free speech. This Bill introduces broadcasting restrictions to ensure certain sporting and cultural events will be available to everyone. It adopts the EU route and those taken in Britain, France and Australia where legal frameworks have been developed to ensure the universality of access to major events and to restrict the monopolisation of events by minority paid channels.
This Bill, unlike the Minister's proposals, is not contrary to competition law. The Minister proposed in mid-December that major sports bodies would be required to provide land based stations, such as RTE, with first option on big sporting events and at reasonable terms. Under EU competition law, this would be open to challenge. In his document on broadcasting, Clear Focus, the Minister gives another version of what he plans to do in this area but there is little detail. A Bill will not be published for at least six months. We have proposed an anti-siphoning system which overcomes the competition difficulty. Our key is universality. The listed events are not reserved exclusively for any one type of broadcaster but their de facto operation would mean that a pay-per-view system would have no commercial gain because exclusivity would be taken out of the equation.
We are introducing this Bill because of the Minister's inactivity in this area: there has been nothing but aspiration to date. There is less detail in his document, Clear Focus, than there was in the Green Paper 18 months ago. Fianna Fáil believes we cannot wait any longer. The speed with which this matter needs to be tackled was clearly emphasised early this year. On the same day as the EU Commission proposed new broadcasting restrictions to ensure certain sports events will be available to everyone, Mr. Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB announced profits of £130 million for a half year.
Mr. Murdoch has built his global television empire by securing exclusive rights to sporting events. His presence has changed the nature of both rugby union and rugby league and he was the driving force behind the formation of the English premier soccer league six years ago. Last year, the premiership completed a four year £670 million deal with BSkyB. With the onset of digital television, the potential for further profit appears virtually unlimited.
Charging customers to watch individual matches on television is already in the pipeline. Research in Britain suggests that television subscription revenue will overtake that from advertising, reaching over £3.5 billion per year by the year 2001. Against this background, any sporting event, no matter how venerable, can be enticed to "pay television" by the lure of Mr. Rupert Murdoch's deep pockets. Such a development could have major implications for RTE. If it lost coverage of major sporting events, it would lose significant audience and earning potential. It would also be seen to fail in its public service remit.
The remarkable growth in the popularity of Irish culture on a European and world-wide basis and the associated economic benefits is a development of which Fianna Fáil is proud. We face the challenges of modern technological communications and the urgent needs of the mass media in the promotion of our culture among wider audiences. We must also recognise that the control of television can give enormous political and cultural influence to a small number of wealthy individuals. Whoever controls television is in a powerful position to shape thinking and ideas, especially when media education is only developing.
We must face the reality of the expression of our culture in an economic environment where price increasingly dictates access and quality. One has only to look at the problems faced by the Five Nations Championship and the dominance of Sky television in broadcasting English premiership soccer to ascertain the benefits and disadvantages of these developments in broadcasting sport. The lifeblood of culture is participation. Any developments which seriously threaten participation must be counteracted.
Undoubtedly the financial gains to sporting bodies in negotiating exclusive broadcasting deals with satellite broadcasters and consequent gains in investment in these sports are an unarguable benefit. However, the opportunity cost of this exclusivity and financial gain is participation and the expression of our identity via our culture.
This Fianna Fáil Bill sets out a course to maintain the expression of our unique culture and identity. Arguably, there is a constitutional imperative to do this as Article 43.2.2º states: "The State, accordingly, may as occasion requires delimit by law the exercise of said rights [private property rights] with a view to reconciling their exercise with the exigencies of the common good." The rights of the Irish nation to share in the ownership and expression of its culture and the duty of the State to ensure the universality of access has to be addressed.
Our Bill is an anti-siphoning one modelled on a similar legislative initiative in Australia, the Australian Broadcasting Services Act, 1992. To ensure that Australia's free-to-air viewers are not disadvantaged by the loss to "pay TV" of significant sporting or cultural events covered by free-to-air television, section 115 of the Australian Broadcasting Act enables the relevant Minister to specify a list of events, an anti-siphoning list, which should be available to be televised free to the general public. The Minister is enabled to protect the free availability of certain types of programmes by way of a notice published in the Australian Gazette. An event specified in such a notice is deemed to be removed from the notice 168 hours after the end of the event unless the Minister deems otherwise. The anti-siphoning list is not reserved solely for free-to-air television and does not guarantee exclusive rights. The Australian Broadcasting Authority has a role to monitor and to report to the Minister every six months on the availability, acquisition and use of broadcasting rights to listed events. In its report to date the Authority stated the anti-siphoning list has worked effectively.
Britain has also moved in this regard. In sections 97 to 105 of the English Broadcasting Act, 1996, the Secretary of State is given power to designate sporting or other events of national interest as listed events. Pursuant to those provisions a contract entered into for exclusive rights to televise certain listed live events for reception in Britain is held to be void. The Act also gives the Broadcasting Standards Commission, established by section 106 of the Act, power to impose penalties in certain circumstances. The listed events under the terms of the Act, known as the "jewels of the crown", are the FA Cup Final, the Scottish FA Cup Final, the FIFA World Cup Final, the Derby, the Grand National, the Olympic Games, Wimbledon and certain test cricket matches.
Ireland has been slow off the mark despite many promises. The Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht promised legislation on this as far back as 28 November 1995. However, nothing has materialised. In the Seanad on 28 February 1996 the Government put forward a sinister amendment to a Fianna Fáil motion calling for legislation. The Government amendment stated that the solution to the problem "can only be achieved in an international context". In his speech the Minister said: "it is futile to think of addressing such an issue in the context of national broadcasting legislation alone." This does not inspire confidence that we will ever get legislation. The Minister wants to pass the parcel to other sovereign governments rather than face the issue head-on. Throughout his term he has shown a preference for the soft PR focus rather than being known for tackling the tough issues.
In the Clear Focus document, which gives the heads of a proposed broadcasting Bill, the issue of protecting sports events is lumped in with all the other matters. It merits only three paragraphs in the document and this detail is very different from what was proposed last December by him. The question must be, which route, if any, he will go.
The Minister also suggests that where sporting organisations are grant aided by the State,"provision is made that the question of whether broadcasting rights are available to non-subscription channels can be taken into account in deciding whether to make the grant or not". He fails to recognise that Irish sporting organisations realise that they have a social and cultural role that transcends pure commercial considerations. His bald statement in this document insults the honour of Irish sporting organisations. Fianna Fáil is sure that all sporting organisations will want to comply with what is proposed. They do not need the Minister, Deputy Higgins, waving a big stick at them.
The Clear Focus document is very disappointing. Heads of the Bill and a glossy booklet are no substitute for the legislation. It is like Hamlet without the prince. It is unprecedented that a follow up document to a Green Paper would have less detail than the Green Paper. There can be no doubt that the object of the booklet is an attempt to build a defence against inaction. There are oversights in the booklet. For example, even though the Minister requires RTE to provide one hour of programming to TnaG each day, this is omitted from Clear Focus as circulated. The introduction of the Broadcasting Bill remains six to nine months away because of the lead time required by the parliamentary draftsman. The Government acknowledges this as the Broadcasting Bill is still on Appendix C of the list of promised legislation which means there is a promise, but it may not be introduced for some considerable time. The Bill will not be introduced this side of an election.
The Minister, Deputy Higgins, with the heads of a Bill is attempting to shape the political agenda without introducing legislation. This is a cynical manoeuvre by him. The Green Paper was published 18 months ago but there has not been a move to introduce a White Paper. For the past year he has promised a Bill. Now we are told that all he has is a few headlines of a Bill. This is pure electioneering. The Minister wants to give the impression of action without doing anything. It is amazing that he could produce a 33 page booklet but not a Bill. Even though the Opposition has limited resources, Fianna Fáil introduced this Bill in the Dáil to provide a legal framework to ensure the universality of access to major sporting and cultural events and to restrict the monopolisation of events by minority paid channels. Given that our Bill is ready long before the Minister's, we are asking the Government to support our legislation.
On the detail of the Minister's proposals, his plan for a broadcasting super authority is opposed by Fianna Fáil as such an authority will only confuse the demarcation between public service broadcasting and the independent commercial sector. The Minister's failure to consult RTE on these proposals is disturbing and reflects his attitude to office and his desire to impose rather than to discuss.
Ireland is very much the exception in taking action on the protection of sporting events. Many other countries have already attended or are attending to the problem, namely, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Britain, Australia, Spain, Italy, Germany, Finland, the USA, Austria and Denmark. Ireland must follow suit and our Bill is designed to address the lack of activity so far. Fianna Fáil does not want millions of Irish people to be disappointed when they cannot see a major event because they do not have the gadgetry or the resources. There has been much talk about listed buildings which was discussed during Question Time today. Yet major sporting events are equally important to our culture and deserve protection. I hope that will be recognised by those sitting opposite.
What is proposed in the Bill is close to the hearts and minds of our citizens. People cherish sporting events, especially the Grand National, the Derby, Cheltenham, the All-Ireland hurling and football finals, the Tour de France, rugby and soccer internationals, big boxing matches and athletic finals. The Eurovision, especially the voting section, is keenly viewed by our people, especially given our level of success. The people expect to be able to see these events on terrestrial television, without having to pay a dividend to Rupert Murdoch's companies. We envisage all these events on our hit list for protection.
This Bill, as its long Title suggests, has a simple objective, namely to protect access by the public to the televising in this State of events, whether sporting or not, which are deemed to be of national and cultural importance or of value to the country's heritage. In its approach, the Bill complements the recent attempts by the European Commission and its audio-visual affairs Commissioner to ensure, by way of proposed regulations and amendments to the television sans frontieres Directive, the free televising of major sporting events to the public of the European Union.
In a country such as Ireland, where sport represents an integral part of cultural and leisure activities, Fianna Fáil, through this Bill, is attempting to ensure that certain designated events, which are deemed to be of central importance to the nation's culture, will be available without additional charge to the Irish television public. Under the terms of the Bill, events to be free to the general public for television reception will be designated by the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in Iris Oifigiúil. Fianna Fáil envisages the events to be designated to include the all-Ireland football and hurling finals, rugby and soccer internationals, athletics finals, major boxing matches, the Grand National, the Derby, the Eurovision Song Contest, Cheltenham races, the Tour de France and major golf events. The Bill provides for penalties of up to two years' imprisonment, a five-year ban on television contracts and fines for those found guilty of offences under the proposed legislation.
Section 1 sets out the definitions in the Bill. "Free" is defined in the Bill as without an additional charge or cost other than those charges or costs which relate to the regulation of licences made under the wireless telegraphy Acts.
Section 2 provides for a commencement date to be set by the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht.
Section 3 gives power to the Minister to designate events that should be available free to the general public for reception within the State. The designation will be made through Iris Oifigiúil and, before making the order, the Minister shall consult with the person from whom the rights to televise an event may be acquired, the RTE Authority and the Independent Radio and Television Commission. The Minister could also invite submissions from the public on the events that should be designated.
Section 4 defines the type of events that will be protected. These include sporting, cultural or heritage events of national importance.
Section 5 prohibits any contract that grants exclusive rights to a designated event. It also provides that contracts will be revoked if the Bill is infringed.
Section 6 provides for penalties, including imprisonment, fines and bans on entering contracts in connection with the televising of any event. The penalties are similar to those in the Broadcasting and Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1988.
Section 7 gives the short Title of the Bill.
This Bill is worth accepting for a number of reasons, not least the fact that it was drafted with considerable legal advice. I heard before I came into the House that the Minister is prepared to accept the Bill and I thank him. In accepting the Bill, the Minister has recognised that such legislation is both necessary and urgent.
I hope we will be able at least to protect the televising of sporting events with this Bill despite the fact that the Broadcasting Bill, the heads of which have been published, is still at the drafting stage. The full text of the Minister's proposed broadcasting Bill is not expected for up to six months but this issue needs to be addressed urgently. That is why I, on behalf of Fianna Fáil, have introduced this Bill. In accepting this Bill, I hope the Minister recognises the urgent need for it.
I am disappointed that the Minister, with all the expertise available to him, did not see fit to introduce such legislation in the broader context of broadcasting or on the specific issue of the protection of certain cultural and sporting events because Fianna Fáil believe that major sporting events should be recognised as part of Ireland's cultural heritage and that legislation should be forthcoming. That is why we believe that a separate Bill brings about clarity of purpose in this regard.
This Bill is necessary to ensure the State's commitment to the true nature and values of public service broadcasting. It is a simple yet decisive Bill, essentially predicated on the principle of proportionality, the protection of the public interest and the urgent need of the common good.
The current Minister has made a myriad of promises and delivered nothing in terms of broadcasting legislation. This Bill, however, delivers to the Irish people a commitment to protect those designated events which are deemed by the Minister of the day to be of significance to the culture and heritage of the State. Therefore, I commend the Bill to the House.
Ba mhaith liom comhgáirdeas a dhéanamh le mo chomh-Theachta, an Teachta Síle de Valera, as ucht an Bille seo a thabhairt faoi bhráid an Tí.
Táimid uilig cleachtach ar an seanráiteas "a stitch in time saves nine" agus sílim gur fearr i bhfad tabhairt faoin bhfadhb seo sula n-éiríonn sé ina fhadhb ró-mhór, agus tá sé sin tosaithe cheanna féin mar a luaigh an Teachta de Valera i gcás na troideanna ina raibh Steve Collins páirteach. Má scaipeann an nós sin, beidh sé an deacair dul siar agus an nós a bhriseadh. Tá seanfhocal a deireann "ná déan nós agus ná bris nós" agus seo nós nach ceart a dhéanamh.
Is Bille tábhachtach é seo ar gach uile bhealach. Tá sé tábhachtach mar déanann sé cosaint ar chearta an gnáthphobail. Tá sé tábhachtach mar d'fhéadfadh easpa an Bhille seo athrú bunúsach a chur ar nádúr an spóirt sa tír seo. Tá sé tabhachtach mar déanann sé cosaint ar dhaoine bochta ar a gcearta i dtaobh cláracha teilifíse a fháil.
I congratulate Deputy de Valera on introducing the Bill and I am delighted the Government has decided to accept it. It is a Bill of major importance. There is much talk of citizens' rights, the common good, ordinary people, the less well-off and poverty. Access to sporting events has always been available to everybody as long as they could afford a television and a television licence. One of the great developments of the modern era has been the availability of major televised sporting events on television and the pleasure that has given particularly to those who have been housebound and unable to attend events. If we were to stand back and allow any further incursion by television into this sphere, we would be depriving ordinary people, many of whom have limited means, of much enjoyment and entertainment. Therefore, this Bill is about the common good.
I compliment Deputy de Valera on the way she has approached this problem as it could have raised difficulties under Community competition law. She has addressed this in a way which not only gets over that difficulty but is in line with the direction the European Union is taking.
I am very concerned at the extent to which commercial forces can change or influence sporting and other activities than may be apparent at first glance. For example, within a few years, a radical, fundamental change has been wrought in the ethos of Rugby Union, largely influenced by enormous investment in television. I am convinced that many Irish people regret that inexorable, speedy change of direction leading to an overall loss of control.
Two great national sports attract huge audiences and will attract even greater international audiences since they are action-filled, spectacular sports from a television point of view. Nobody would wish to see the manner in which those sports are organised changed fundamentally, to an extent that players or administrators would lose control over their direction. I have always favoured a relatively liberal view in terms of compensating players, in terms of travel and limited rewards, and I have lobbied continuously for the provision of facilities for sports people. The Gaelic Athletic Association, like every other sporting body, will encounter radical changes in ensuing years. Nonetheless I hope that its membership will retain autonomy in the implementation of any change. Finance-backed television takes away that control, and vests it in various television companies.
It is difficult for any sporting organisation to resist an unbeatable offer. An organisation like the GAA, with such a huge amateur ethos, would find it very difficult to refuse, bearing in mind that the money would provide for extra facilities, pitches, stadia and support for its players. Were it to accept such an offer it would undoubtedly lose control. The large promoters would be interested only in big events and the manner in which the organisation is run would be totally altered. While change will inevitably take place, control must remain with the parent organisations.
This Bill has wider, far reaching consequences than control of television broadcasting. Its provisions safeguard a way of life, access for ordinary people, organisations' rights, ensuring that the benefits that accrue from televising sports are made available to as wide an audience as possible.
If the pay channels are allowed to siphon-off large events, Irish spectators will exert ever more pressure on RTE and Teilifís na Gaeilge to broadcast league, and county finals. However if those channels do not have access to big events, they will be unable to support smaller, less significant ones.
All of us would welcome greater television access to Irish sporting events. I have argued consistently that one of the greatest mistakes of the GAA in the past decade was that up to a couple of years ago, it did not allow the live television coverage of major provincial matches in the course of the All-Ireland series. That association always argued that such coverage would harm club matches whereas I always argued the opposite. Now that it has witnessed the huge interest in such events, particularly among the young wrought by extra broadcasting, it recognises the need for additional coverage, the day being long passed when it would refuse access to or television rights to television companies to broadcast its matches.
Inevitably, we shall look to those organisations to make more of these matches available to viewers nationwide but if we allow cherry picking of those events by international companies and ignore not so attractive events, it will not be to the advantage of the majority of our people.
Mar a dúirt mé ag an tús is Bille tábhachtach é seo ar go leor bealaí. Tá tábhacht leis mar deineann sé cosaint ar mhionlaigh, ar na rudaí nach mbéadh éileamh orthu chomh maith leis na rudaí a bhfuil éileamh an-mhór orthu. Déanann sé cinnte go mbeadh ceart agus cosaint éigin ag an dream atá sásta chuile cineál imeachta taobh istigh den tír seo a chur ar fáil. Ba chontúirt an-mhór é dá mbeadh deis ag na comhlachtaí móra rogha a dhéanamh ar na h-imeachtaí a thógfaidís agus go bhfágfaidís na rudaí nach mbeadh an oiread sin tarraingt orthu faoi na comhlachtaí náisiúnta.
Tá an-saibhreas imeachtaí ar siúl sa tír seo. Tá saibhreas do-chreite spóirt do thír chomh beag léi. Tá fóirne maíthe idirnáisiúnta againn i réimse mór leathan spóirt idir rugbaí, soccer, cursaí capall agus mar sin de.
Mar sin tá an-saibhreas againn le roinnt leis an domhan. Is maith an rud é go bhfuil glactha anois ag an Rialtas go bhfuil gá leis an mBille seo. Tá súil agam go ndéanfar cinnte go n-achtófar an Bille roimh scoir na Dála seo bíodh sé sin luath nó mall.
Ba mhaith liom mo chomhgháirdeas a dhéanamh le mo chomhleacaí an Teachta Dé Valera as ucht an Bille seo a chur faoi bhráid an Tí.
Fáiltím roimhan seans an t-ábhar seo a phlé. Tá sé tábhachtach.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the important issues to which this Bill refers. I and the Government have a great deal of sympathy with its broad objectives. In this Bill Deputy de Valera is attempting to address one of the many issues confronting broadcasters in an increasingly complex technological and entirely changed regulatory environment.
Successive Governments have operated an open skies policy vis-á-vis reception of television broadcasts from other countries, resulting in Irish viewers having the benefits of a national public service television station and, to some extent, of United Kingdom broadcasting with the same public service tradition offering what was and is still regarded by many as the best television programmes in the world.
Viewers throughout Ireland have had access to programming provided by a range of broadcasters operating in the public service mould. Within that tradition broadcasters have sought to deliver a diversity of quality programming catering for minority and mainstream tastes, have sought to inform and educate public opinion, and have clear roots in the communities they serve and clear statutory responsibilities.
In the 1980s the possibility emerged of providing broadcasting services by satellite, initially for delivery to cable systems, and very speedily thereafter direct to homes via satellite dishes. Countries moved to deregulate broadcasting as the capacity provided by satellites lifted the constraints on the radio frequency spectrum in relation to the establishment of terrestrial broadcasting. Unfortunately, with deregulation, most of the satellite broadcasting services now delivered are purely commercial with no other motive than to maximise returns to investors. We are now faced with an explosion of services through the potential of the application of digital broadcasting, often referred to as the next revolution.
We have all seen reports of the imminent introduction of 200 or 500 channel services. I must emphasise that "channel" used in this context does not mean the availability of 200 channels of the quality and diversity of RTE 1 or BBC 1. Rather we are talking about 200 opportunities to invite the general public to pay more. We are talking about perhaps five or six so-called "channels" being devoted to a single football match, depending on how much one has decided to pay, or a host of niche channels offering very little in terms of diversity of services, such as shopping channels, which hardly fit into the concept of a television programme as understood by most people.
I have yet to be convinced that the increased capacity brought about by satellite or the promised explosion of channels through digital compression will necessarily improve access to or increase the quality or diversity of programmes available to viewers in Ireland. On the contrary, put simply, there will be more choice to see more of the same.
The coverage of significant sporting events, while always an important part of television schedules, is just one of a number of broadcasting policy concerns which face us as we move towards the next century. The concern underlying the Bill is not confined to sport. The reality is this is happening in other areas with the exclusive acquisition of film libraries and programme archives by the operators of subscription and pay-per-view services. It would not be unreasonable to say that the assumption of a monopoly power in this area would be rather like securing the position of gate keeper to a form of communication.
It will be obvious to Deputies that as the capacity for delivering different broadcasting services becomes almost infinite by today's terms and as the capital cost of providing that capacity is reduced, the competition for programme material of mass appeal is set to become more intense. Many of those competing for audience share are entirely commercial operations without any shred of public service ethos. Popular programming is seen by such organisations as something to be bought, protected and sold at a premium.
Sport always has been an integral part of public service broadcasters' schedules. It is a prime example of popular public service broadcasting. The coverage of hurling and football matches is, for many, a part of our broadcasting heritage. The vast majority of viewers and listeners would feel an incalculable loss if they did not have access through our national broadcasting services to live coverage of the All-Ireland finals on television and radio. There are important international competitions where the exploits of the teams and individuals representing Ireland are shared by substantial numbers through live coverage of the events on national television. For many it would be unthinkable if coverage of such events was not freely available, or more accurately for the price of a television licence, on our national broadcasting services.
Before turning to the complexity of this issue, Deputy de Valera, with whom I agree, referred to the importance of premiership soccer, the Steve Collins boxing title defence and the Ryder Cup. The legislation as drafted — I say this positively — would not cover any of the three events because premiership soccer is not an Irish event, the Steve Collins boxing title defence was not organised by an Irish body and the Ryder Cup is an international event. I say this, not to score a point but because in making legislation work in this area one is facing challenges that are driven by the fact that the speed of technology has outstripped the regulatory speed in legislation as drafted previously under terrestrial conditions. That is why in my proposals for broadcasting legislation which have been cleared by Government and published in the document "Clear Focus", the Government's proposals for broadcasting legislation, I have sought to strengthen and enhance the position of public service broadcasting and the broadcasting structures for this country into the next century. In dealing with the specific issue of sports or special event coverage we must ensure, in order to give such attempts meaning and context, the ethos and values of public service broadcasting are safeguarded and restated. In the context of the general shift towards a consumer model of broadcasting, the value of public communication as a public good needs to be retained and reconciled with the increasing pressures that seek to treat it merely as a commodity.
One approaches broadcasting legislation from entirely different perspectives. On the one hand, one is speaking of potential pools of consumers of product within the entertainment industry and, on the other, the rights of citizens to communicate in conditions of increasingly rapid and complex technological change. It is not a cliché to say — I do not think there is disagreement on it — we are left with the choice of being consumers of services or citizens in a communication order. We have to try to see the relative levels of urgency and how to approach them. The idea behind "Clear Focus" was that when we use the term "public service broadcasting" we speak about a broadcaster and a service carrying that full range to which I have referred rather than aspects of public service which are diffused in different systems.
We all accept we will be living with a mixed model in the future. Commercial services are here to stay. Their task is to deliver the highest audience for the lowest price. They have no concerns about equality of access nor have they stated that was their purpose for coming into existence or enhancing their power. They offer one choice — to pay or not to pay. One of the fundamental principles of the public service broadcasting ethos is universal access to transmissions. It is through the retaining of this and other values we can ensure equality of access to quality and diversity of programming. In this context I propose to introduce measures designed to ensure that the rights to broadcast coverage of major sporting and other events do not become the exclusive right of subscription or pay-per-view services but are available to all. I propose the Minister of the day will be empowered, after consultation with the Minister for Education who has responsibility for sport, to designate certain events as part of cultural heritage and of national importance. Deputy de Valera's Bill would give the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht an extraordinary power, for which I would be criticised if I had aspirations to it.
As with the European model under discussion, my proposals deal mainly with the activities of broadcasters as they are proposals for broadcasting legislation, which is where my emphasis lies, rather than the rights or operations of sporting organisations. The process of arranging the television coverage will have to be licensed in advance by the Irish Broadcasting Commission which will be established under the proposals. The example quoted by Deputy de Valera referred to an equivalent commission in the jurisdictions from which they had research. The commission to which I refer would have the power to place conditions on the licence requiring that the rights to broadcast the event must be made available to a non-subscription, generally available television service or a free to air service.
As well as placing moves to protect access to major events in a national context, it is important to create and work within a European context. When I first started to attend meetings of the EU Council of Ministers with responsibility for broadcasting policy, I was virtually a lone voice in my support of the concept of public service broadcasting. People spoke about its days being numbered and it was referred to as an old fashioned concept. The commercial services were in vogue and regarded as the flavour of the period. In the intervening years, many of my ministerial colleagues in other countries have expressed grave concern at the effect of the so called "de-regulation" of broadcasting on their public service broadcasters and the quality and diversity of television programming available to their citizens.
At a meeting of Ministers which I chaired in Galway last September, there was considerable and strong support for the maintenance of the concept of public service broadcasting. There was also a clear message that public service broadcasters must continue to have access to major popular programmes comprising, in particular, sports events and that pure commercialism cannot be the criterion. I have today returned from an informal meeting of Ministers in Maastricht where these issues were debated and discussed further. Broad support for the strengthening of the concept of public service broadcasting is increasing. Following meetings this afternoon in preparation for the technical response to the concerns of the European Parliament, I hope to see great advances in respect of these matters being brought to a conclusion.
The specific issue of access to television coverage of major sporting events is also being addressed in Europe through a proposed amendment to the television without frontiers Directive. Following an amendment, agreed unanimously by the European Parliament on the question of the exercise by broadcasters of exclusive rights to broadcast coverage of major sporting events, which I introduced for discussion by Ministers with responsibility for broadcasting policy at our meeting in Galway last September, there was a response from the European Parliament which is being followed through. As late as today we were looking at the conclusion which is quite likely in European terms.
The issue is being addressed urgently and comprehensively at European level. The likely outcome of the European debate may be if particular events are designated at national level as being of such importance that it must be possible for viewers to follow them via live coverage on unencrypted, universally available television services, such designations must be recognised and reciprocated by broadcasters and national authorities in other member states. Without international co-operation — this is an important dimension — it would be possible, regardless of national regulations, for a broadcaster operating outside this jurisdiction to simply ignore such regulations. This results from the gap between the regulatory environment, the jurisprudence behind legal measures and technological capacity, in terms of its commercialisation and changed ownership structure.
The objective of the amendment by the European Parliament was to ensure that the viewing public would continue to have access to major sporting events live on universally accessible television services. The Council of Ministers which took place last December during the Irish Presidency endorsed the objectives of the amendment in principle. Work has continued at Council working group level to devise an acceptable wording which will effectively meet the objectives of the Parliament. I instructed my officials to urge that the strongest line possible is taken at these discussions. The European Commission met on 5 February 1997 and adopted a position which focuses on the exercise rather than on the acquisition of exclusive rights, with a view to safeguarding the public's right of access to the transmission of events of major importance for society. The emphasis is falling on the exercise of the right to broadcast as opposed to focusing of acquiring rights to the sporting event. The Commission will promote this approach in negotiations with the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.
Deputies will be aware that the revision of the Television without Frontiers Directive is subject to the co-decision procedure. It will be necessary for the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers to agree on the nature of any revision to the directive. It seems at this stage that all parties are agreed on the objective and I hope conciliation procedure will lead to a successful revision of the directive on this topic in particular. When the directive is finalised, it will be a matter of transposing it quickly into national law.
Deputies will conclude from my contribution that I have considerable sympathy for the broad objectives of the Bill and the Government is not opposing it. From a legislative point of view, it is much better to agree that it is a matter upon which we share concern. Therefore, our differences are of a methodological nature rather than of principle. For that reason, I advised the Government of my intention to accept the principle of the issue to be addressed and we do not intend to oppose the Bill.
Deputy de Valera's Bill addresses issues of significant importance and it should receive the detailed examination which can be provided on Committee Stage. However, I have serious misgivings about the methodology in the Bill and the attempt to deal with the issue out of context. My proposals are designed to address the question of broadcast coverage of sporting events in the context of establishing new structures for broadcasting into the future and within a European context. There is a danger in singling out one, admittedly urgent, topic and stretching it to the point at which it must be treated separately and, in doing so, stitching it on to an already out-moded structure. One should not pretend that this is a simple matter. There are complex issues involving ownership, the rights of sporting organisations and competitors, competition, the rights of broadcasters and those of the viewing public as citizens rather than consumers.
The provisions of the Bill owe much to the United Kingdom Broadcasting Act, 1996, to which, with the Australian example, Deputy de Valera referred. I acknowledge that the Deputy's approach has the advantage of simplicity. However, I am not convinced that the constitutional, legal and broadcasting environments are the same here as in the United Kingdom. I have reservations about the practicability of the UK model in an Irish context.
The United Kingdom Broadcasting Act, 1996, which was referred to, is designed to deal with a situation where there is an abundance of broadcasters, both of the free reception and the subscription and pay-per-view variety. The Broadcasting Act, 1996, defines two distinct categories of broadcasters. One category includes free services such as those supplied by the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV, while the other includes all other services including subscription and pay-per-view services. The Act requires that any contract for televising live coverage of an event listed under the Act, which is entered into by a broadcaster, must state that the rights are available for showing the event on a service falling within only one of the two categories. This means that a separate contract must exist for each category of broadcaster. A broadcaster providing a service in either category — including a broadcaster offering free reception — is prohibited from showing exclusively live coverage of the whole or any part of a listed event without the previous consent of the Independent Television Commission, unless a broadcaster in the other category has acquired the right to show live coverage of the event or the same part of the event. I refer to the British legislation, the distinction between the multiplicity of players in that environment and the two categories identified in the 1996 legislation.
Under the terms of the UK Act, the Independent Television Commission is required to draw up a code giving guidance on the coverage of sporting and other events of national interest which are listed under the Act. The code covers a number of areas, such as the nature of any invitation to express interest in televising an event; the process of negotiation; the nature of the package of rights — live coverage, highlights, delayed transmissions etc. — which are on offer and a requirement that the package on offer must not be more attractive to one category of broadcaster than another — this involves the requirement to which I referred to go to both sides of the house even though it might have different roof profiles; the conditions of, or costs attached, to the acquisition of rights; the fairness of the price sought for rights and a host of other matters associated with the purchase of broadcast coverage rights. Account is also taken of the possibility of exclusive coverage of an event by a broadcaster in either category where there is no interest on the part of one category of broadcaster or where a broadcaster does not respond with a fair and reasonable offer.
I have dwelt to some extent on the provisions of the United Kingdom Broadcasting Act, 1996, to illustrate two points. In the first instance, the 1996 Act acknowledges the complexity and variety of issues associated with the acquisition of broadcast coverage rights. If these issues are not dealt with in their entirety in legislation, there is a danger that any such legislation will be at best simply unworkable and at worst leave broadcasters and sports organisations in an impossible situation of uncertainty. Second, apart from the different constitutional and legal environment, the Act illustrates the fundamental differences in both the broadcasting environment and the statutory structure in relation to broadcasting in the UK. This brings me back to my earlier point regarding the need, as I have proposed, to deal with this issue in the context of a fundamental revision of broadcasting structures so that any legislative steps taken will operate within a secure and workable context and stand the test of time.
This Bill takes a direct approach. It indicates to sporting and other event organisers that the public wants the major events; it expects that they will continue to be organised and it expects that RTE, as the only television broadcaster based in the State, must be allowed to transmit these events live without any guarantee of compensation if they are to be televised. Offences and severe penalties are created for those who do not adhere to these provisions.
It is not always easy to interpret the legal language of a Bill but I am concerned at the wording of section 5 (1) which seems to make a contract with RTE void unless it is offered to another person who provides television without charge for reception. As no other such broadcaster exists at present, does this mean that if the Bill was brought into force today RTE could no longer enter the same contracts with, for example, the GAA or the IRFU? This may simply be a question of drafting and no doubt Deputy de Valera will deal with the point when she responds to the debate. I would be interested to learn if she has received any advice on the constitutional and other legal issues raised by her proposals.
We owe a debt to the many people who organise sporting and other events from children's young persons' and senior competitions and leagues at the grass roots level to the most important and fashionable national and international events. I have tried to respond to the Bill by concentrating on the positive agenda which we might adopt as we legislate in this area. In the context of sport, for example, it is interesting to think of the distinction between those who focus on the glamour events yet who turn their eyes away from the children's events which people organise voluntarily, often not supported sufficiently by parents. Sport is part of the lives of these people and comes from the community. If people are interested in sport and their curiosity is encouraged it is part of their citizenship to expect to be able to have access to the culminating high points of the sports code in question.
This issue is inextricably linked with the version of broadcasting which we wish to prevail in the future and the future of public service broadcasting. If there is an emerging consensus, which I hope is the case, that the future of broadcasting here and in Europe will be driven by citizenship rather than our future role as consumers, I welcome it whichever Government caries out the negotiations nationally or internationally. I introduced many of the issues in this debate with the Green Paper on broadcasting and in the heads of legislation. Internationally, the debate in parliaments, the response of jurisprudence and the future forms of possible or necessary regulation have lagged behind the changes in the concentration of ownership, the convergence of technologies and the international delivery of increasingly complex technological systems.
The voluntary efforts of those who hold office in sporting and other organisations are the inheritors of a proud tradition of selfless and unpaid services to communities, participants and the public. I am often moved by those who make the case, rightly, that for many people this may be all they have. This is an opportunity to break many different forms of cycles of deprivation. Apart from that, the idea that a component of one's life should be defined entirely in commercial terms is not acceptable. The issue is how to make certain we will have a system in place that can assure the future of broadcasting.
I hope people will share my view of Deputy de Valera's Bill as an important contribution to the debate on the serious issue of broadcasting coverage of major events rather than simply a threat because of the provisions of sections 5 and 6. Her optimism allows her to say that her proposals will be seen as an invitation whereas if I made a fraction of the suggestions she makes to the sporting organisations it would be seen as a big stick, so to speak. However, so be it. The important thing is to do what is required, to do it well and in as certain and contextual an environment as possible.
The Government will not oppose the Bill because Deputy de Valera's approach deserves the in depth consideration which it can be given on Committee Stage. I look forward to the issues I have raised being thrashed out at that stage.
I commend Deputy de Valera for the time and effort she has expended in bringing this important Bill before the House. It is a significant achievement for any Deputy to produce such an in-depth Bill. She deserves our thanks for the depth of research and analysis which went into its production. I thank the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht for his generosity. I would not have expected less from him because generosity has been a hallmark of his ministry. I am sure I express my party's appreciation that he has taken a positive and realistic view of Deputy de Valera's proposals. I commend him on his attitude.
It is important that we take account of the fundamental importance of the Bill. The present situation is nothing short of an outrage. It is awful that an gnáth duine cannot access coverage of some of the most important national, European and world sporting events because of the need to pay a "fat cat" media baron who sits on a pile of gold in a remote part of the world and dictates the events that people may see on the basis of greed rather than the needs of the individuals who wish to view the events. It is wrong that people are excluded because of the power and exclusive ownership of a particular medium. My party strongly opposes this greed philosophy. I am glad the Minister agrees with us. This is deeply appreciated and I would expect nothing less from him.
It is almost impossible to explain to my children and young people and Members of the House who were not born when people like myself were first elected, the Acting Chairman included, that there was a time when television did not exist. Golden oldies like myself can remember the days when people listened attentively in the sittingroom, or drawingroom as it was then called, to the commentary on the wireless by the great Micheál Ó Hehir on the Sunday game between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. It was an extraordinary occasion and it is difficult to contemplate that it happened, given the technological advances in the communications sector. We gleaned information from the wireless and newspapers.
Before the birth of RTE, those who lived north of a line from Sligo to Dublin enjoyed free access to BBC and Ulster Television broadcasts. Those who were affluent and could afford the cost of a television set could switch on and enjoy whatever was broadcast. Following the advent of RTE, those who owned television sets were suddenly charged a licence fee which gave them the right to view anything that was broadcast. More channels appeared in the following years, the latest being Teilifís na Gaeilge which has my strong support. I commend the Minister for holding his nerve in the face of outrageous criticism from certain sections of the media to which he is entitled to respond. Teilifís na Gaeilge is populated by people with the strongest of ideals and it is unfortunate that it has not been given an opportunity to get off the ground. It was almost as if an attempt was being made to kill the baby at birth, but sanity and good sense prevailed. Radio na Gaeltachta, after 25 years, is an outstanding success and I believe Teilifís na Gaeilge will achieve the same level of success once it is given an opportunity to resolve its teething problems.
Developments in technology, including satellite relays and soon to embody digital transmission technology, have allowed access to hundreds of television stations to anyone with the technological wherewithal to receive them. However, they come at a price. There was a time when a broadcasting company transmitted all of its programming on one or two channels but we have now reached the stage where specialised channels, for example, sports, movie, history and news channels, have altered the fundamental character of broadcasting. Cable television has allowed access to a greater variety of television channels to many more viewers for a weekly or monthly fee.
The rights for many events of major interest are being "bought up" by multinational broadcasting agencies. Anyone who wishes to see these events must first subscribe to the cable service. All but a handful of live sporting events have been removed from ordinary television channels to specialist satellite channels. We will soon be left with minority events of minimal interest available free of charge.
Some sporting events, in particular boxing matches, have been hived off into a sector known as pay-per-view television. Sky Television has attempted to hoover up the Five Nations rugby matches. Given the vast sums invested in sponsorship of major events of this nature and the increased demand for access to these events, the moguls of the broadcasting industry are ready to spend whatever it takes to control who can watch what and at what price. Once they gain control they can dictate the fee to be charged.
Let me give a simple example. If Sky Television is allowed to buy the rights for the five classic horse races, all four home international rugby matches, the all-Ireland hurling and football semi-finals and finals, the four major golf tournaments and the Wimbeldon tennis championships and decides to broadcast these events on a pay-per-view basis, how much will it cost to view them?
The viewer has to pay for their television set, say, £500; their television licence, £63; their satellite dish or decoder, say £200, and an annual subscription to the cable company, say £300. The indications are that a fee in the region of £10 will be charged for pay-per-view events. Talking this as an average and assuming that a viewer wishes to view all of the sporting events mentioned, he or she will need to come up with an additional £200 per annum. Assuming that a television set will last for five years and excluding the cost of electricity, the annual cost will be almost £700. A television set will soon become an expensive item. This takes no account of whether it is proper that market forces or, to put it another way, the power of money should be allowed to control what people can see on television. Pay-per-view television is tantamount to censorship on economic grounds. Many people can barely afford the cost of a television licence and the imposition of additional and punitive charges for viewing major national and international events would be iniquitous.
We have no control, unfortunately, over events which take place outside the country. This means that Sky Television can and does exercise control over access to many events which used to be available free of charge. This appears to have become acceptable in some countries, including the United States, yet I am not convinced that it is acceptable or proper that we should become hostages to Rupert Murdoch or his ilk, the so-called media fat cats.
While the availability of more channels should allow greater viewer discretion, the effect will be to restrict viewers of a basic television service, those who do not have access to a cable service, satellite dish or are located in a multi-channel viewing region, to programmes or events which the multinational broadcasting corporations deem unworthy to buy. This can hardly be right and would not be in the interest of viewers or the national interest.
For the reasons outlined, I commend the Bill to the House. It is unfair that people should be expected to pay more to watch a sporting event on television. One has a basic right to watch whatever is available at a particular time. The cost of viewing has increased following the advent of cable television which, to a certain extent, can be justified given the increased availability of television channels. What cannot be justified, however, are the attempts to lure people into subscribing to a cable service on the basis they will have greater access to more channels and then, by a trick of the loop, close off access to the most popular events. This is tantamount to fraud and blackmail. It is a form of three card trickery —"now you see it, now you don't".
The Legislature has a duty to ensure public policy reflects the public good. Fianna Fáil and the Minister are of the view that the Legislature must act quickly and decisively to fill what is a dangerous gap in the law. This is where Deputy de Valera's Bill comes into play. At present money can dictate what events are seen on television. That is the law. This legislation will limit the freedom of an individual to buy or sell the right to broadcast events of significant public interest or importance. As a limitation on the freedom of the individual, this must be justifiable on the grounds of public policy, must not be exercised capriciously or arbitrarily and must not be used excessively. This Bill provides for such controls.
For this or any other legislative power to be effective it must be enforceable. The Bill proposes a system of enforcement which would effectively punish any person or organisation who breaches its provisions. It may be argued that the stakes are so high in the broadcasting business that the level of punishment or penalty should be higher than that proposed. This matter can be discussed further on Committee Stage and if this is the wish of the House then I retain an open mind on this aspect of the Bill.
The Bill accords with similar measures introduced in Britain, France and Australia. It will not contravene any domestic or European legislation and, more importantly, will come into operation immediately and will not, as the Government proposes, be deferred until after the general election. I am not sure if this is the Minister's intention but if the general election intervenes then the Bill will automatically fall and will have to be introduced de novo by the next Dáil.
The Government's inactivity in this area has been disappointing. The Minister refused to introduce proposals to nip this issue in the bud but now proposes to put the matter in order by accepting this very worthy Bill introduced by Deputy de Valera. He supports the Bill and I ask him to give legislative effect to our fundamentally important proposals. Deputy de Valera has effectively done the job the Government failed to do. Members of the Government are perhaps more concerned with their imminent trial before the electorate. However, to be honest, this is a matter about which we are all concerned.
The Government has the power to ensure that major cultural and sporting events remain accessible to all who wish to view them without the additional penalty of "pay per view". I hope major events such as the FAI Cup Final and All Ireland Final remain available to those who wish to watch them from Caherciveen to Clogher Head without any additional viewing fees or charges.
I like to think that I am still a sporty person even at my advanced stage of decay. I have been a sports fan all my life and last Sunday I attended a very important league match between my team, UCD, and Everton-Homefarm in Whitehall. Thankfully UCD won the match on a score to three goals to two. The last time I visited this club was when I played in the Dublin school boys soccer league. Clubs like Home Farm——
They are fine nurseries of talent.
Yes. These wonderful people have dedicated their lives to their communities. This applies to all codes of football. The GAA, which is part of the fabric of our society, has carried out a magnificent job in many communities and given young men and women a sense of dignity and responsibility. This also applies to rugby and boxing. I have very strong views on boxing and the annual championships which are held in the Stadium are a must for me.
While many citizens can attend major sporting events other people are less privileged and depend on television to see them. It is too bad if this service is provided by foreign broadcasters but that is the way of the modern television network. These broadcasts should be available to the poorest of the poor free of charge. It is very important for the well-being of the nation that the public can watch Michelle Smith and other great athletes in action. I am not sure if we had television coverage of Ronnie Delaney's 1,500 yard race in Melbourne in 1956 but we have seen films of it. It is very important that these events can be seen by those who can least afford to pay for their television sets and licences.
I respectfully submit that this is what Deputy de Valera's Bill is all about. She is to be highly commended and congratulated on this. It is vital that we retain control of the broadcasting of events which are important both culturally and popularly to the public.
(Laoighis-Offaly): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and compliment Deputy de Valera on introducing this Bill. The protection of access for viewers to the televising on generally available services of major sporting and cultural events is one of the most important issues from the point of view of broadcasting policy. The growth in broadcasting capacity brought about by technological change has led to increased competition for popular programming. Competition in this case has led to spiralling costs. As even the most casual television viewer knows, quality television programming with mass appeal can be very difficult to find. Sport, with its capacity to fire the imagination of a community or country, presents a major opportunity for broadcasters, particularly for those with no other motivation than the generation of profits. Rupert Murdoch described sport as the battering ram for the establishment of his “pay per view” services.
There is justifiable concern at national and European level that major sporting events which have an attraction and value far beyond that of the committed sports fan may disappear from the screens of traditional broadcasters who provide their services for free and be swallowed up by subscription or "pay per view" services and thus be available only to those who can afford to pay for the necessary receiving equipment and the ongoing fees. Accordingly, I am happy the Government will not oppose the Bill on Second Stage. This will give us the opportunity on Committee Stage to examine in detail the approach suggested by Deputy de Valera.