(Laoighis-Offaly): I wish to share my time with Deputies Lynch and Sean Ryan.
Private Members' Business. - Heritage and Cultural Events (Televisual Access Protection) Bill, 1997: Second Stage (Resumed).
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:
That is agreed.
(Laoighis-Offaly): While I share Deputy de Valera's broad objective in bringing forward these proposals, as we examine the detail of the Bill some questions arise with which I hope she will deal in her response to the debate. In drawing up her proposals did she consult sporting organisations here and, if so, what was the outcome? The Minister in his contribution paid tribute to the efforts of those involved in organising events in the past and I have no reason to believe those who are in charge of those organisations are less responsible and committed than those who have gone before them. It is undeniable that the increased competition for sports programming represents an opportunity for and a threat to sporting organisations. While it is our job to legislate, those involved in organising sports events have a valuable contribution to make and we should seek and listen to their views.
This Bill takes its lead from the 1996 UK broadcasting Act. As the Minister said, this is complex legislation that deals with many different issues. It is designed for a broadcasting environment that is very much different from ours. For example, the British can apply their legislation to broadcasters who come within their jurisdiction. Thus, they can prevent BSkyB from acquiring exclusive rights to FIFA matches — that is World Cup finals, not qualifying matches. Irish legislation cannot be applied to BSkyB with regard to British premiership soccer or the Ryder Cup or any event organised outside this jurisdiction. The fight in which Steve Collins won his world championship was organised to some extent by BSkyB. It is questionable whether it would have taken place without the presence of that company or some other subscription television service. Although he fought in Ireland it is most unlikely it would have taken place in this country if BkyB did not have the exclusive coverage rights. Premiership soccer is not an Irish event, Steve Collins's fight was not arranged by an Irish organiser and the Ryder Cup in golf is an international event. None of those would be covered by the terms of Deputy de Valera's Bill, and for that reason it needs to be examined in detail in Committee.
It is also interesting to consider the environment in which sporting bodies in the United Kingdom are negotiating broadcasting rights. The code of practice drawn up by the independent television commission under the terms of the 1996 Act acknowledges a voluntary code on broadcasting rights drawn up by a number of major sporting bodies in the UK under a central body known as the Central Council for Physical Recreation. The type of sporting body that has agreed to apply the voluntary code includes the FA, the British Athletics Federation, the Lawn Tennis Federation, the Premier League and other bodies which govern golf, rugby, racing and cricket. Those bodies have come together and recognise in a voluntary code that there is a balance to be struck between maximising the benefits from the sale of broadcasting rights and procuring the widest possible coverage of their events in the interests of sports development and the wider sporting public. The code recognises the desirability of providing for the availability of coverage on both channels which are received free of charge and at the same time on subscription channels. The sports bodies acknowledge, as we all do, that the increased broadcasting capacity coming on stream in the near future can provide increased opportunities to generate income for the sporting bodies and that some percentage of the income thus generated should be used for the development of their individual sports. I draw attention to the code simply to illustrate that sports bodies in Ireland may have something of value to say on this topic and that we should listen to them. A forum for such consultation should be set up.
That is not to say that legislation is not necessary, but we should not rely entirely on implementing legislative provisions without listening to those who organise the events. I am sure there are many committed fans of particular sports, such as hurling or Gaelic football, who would welcome the opportunity to follow most of the games at club or league level throughout the season and who would be prepared to pay a modest price to receive the service. Using current analogue broadcasting technology, it is simply not possible to provide this service. However, with the advent of digital technology it may well be technically possible for an Irish broadcaster to provide such a service for committed sports fans without any loss to the more general viewer whose interests tend to be confined to the major events which have a broader appeal. We should not be afraid of the new technologies and try to restrict their uses. It is far better to try to legislate comprehensively for the new broadcasting era that is upon us, as the Government proposes to do with its new legislative proposals recently published. However, we must be seen to be as inclusive of those who have a legitimate stake in these matters, including sports bodies, participants, viewers and listeners alike.
The Government's decision not to oppose this Private Members' Bill must be welcomed. We were all worried that we were quickly nearing a position where we would have to pay per event to tune into sporting and cultural events and wondered what we could do about it. It is in that context Deputy de Valera's Bill must be welcomed. It does not have all the answers, but at least it is an attempt to address this matter and to start the process of consultation and the putting together of a framework within which we will be able to protect the broadcasting of certain national events for which people should not have to pay in excess. This decision is another indication of the co-operative attitude adopted by the Government on legislation. Sometimes that co-operation is not mirrored very positively by the Opposition benches. I have been a Member of this House for the past two and a half years and I believe things should be done a different way. If I have the honour of being elected to this House for another few years I may also fall into the rut, but I believe our business should be organised through co-operation on legislation.
Since television was introduced into Ireland in the 1960s it has become a universally accepted service. There are few households without at least one television and we are increasingly relying on it not only for entertainment but for information about politics, social and cultural events. I am not certain this is a good development but it is a fact. In the past much of that information was provided by broadcasters operating in the broad public service tradition. I include the UK channels to which many Irish households now have access. With the advent of cable and satellite television the range of stations available to viewers at a price has increased dramatically. I still find it hard to believe that I can flick through channels in Cork city and tune into a Spanish or French channel. For a period viewers in Cork city were able to tune into a soft porn channel, but objections soon put paid to that, and that was only right as television is very easily accessed by children. However, despite the number of channels now available there has not been a corresponding increase in the choice available to viewers.
Many of the new channels offer an interchangeable mishmash of third rate programmes with a heavy reliance of reruns of old shows sandwiched between American talk shows of the true confession type. It is said that whatever happens in England will happen here five years later and what happens in America will happen here ten years later. Television, easy access to information technology and being exposed to other cultures ensure those timeframes will continue to lessen, but I am not certain that is good. I hope when it comes to public or private broadcasting we will never see the day when ten or 12 people from Dublin, Cork, Galway or other cities or towns will appear on shows to tell us about the traumatic events in their lives, whether they married a man who turned out to be a woman or married a woman who turned out to be a man, as happens on the type of American chat shows that now seem to be all the rage. It is incredible that people expose their lives in that way and that such programmes should be broadcast. They are neither entertaining nor educational and television should be one or the other. I do not know how one would stop it.
There have been reports that European viewers may soon have access to 200 or more channels, many of which will be devoted to niche markets such as sports, hobbies or film. There is also an increase in the number of shopping channels. I have a great deal of empathy with people who shop from home using television and a remote control because I do not like shopping. Shopping channels have created a market where none existed and I am sure people are spending money which they do not have and there is no visible way of checking it.
Shopping channels, being able to flick through 200 channels, Spanish channels, French channels and other niche channels do not fit into the tradition of public service broadcasting exemplified by RTE or the terrestrial UK channels, whether public or private. It is because of these developments I agree with the Minister Deputy Higgins that the coverage of sporting and cultural events needs to be addressed in the context of a wider package on the development of broadcasting. However, I fully agree with the aims of Deputy de Valera's Bill and I am delighted the Government has decided not to oppose it.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for people to attend many sporting or cultural events. The increased practice of corporate block-booking has reduced the number of seats available to the general public while the cost of travel can be prohibitive. It has now become commonplace for people to watch events ranging from entertainment to major sporting events in the comfort of their living rooms with their families and friends. Television has provided the vast majority of people with easy though limited access to national sporting events and to international events, such as the Oscars. Where the televising of major sporting events is awarded to pay per view satellite channels which charge a special fee to subscribers, it has threatened to reduce this limited access to world events.
Nobody in Ireland or, anywhere else in Europe would want the all-Ireland finals to be seen only on Sky Sports or a designated pub channel. I welcome the fact that this Bill allows the Minister to designate sporting or other events which must be available for general reception. It would be bad in the case of the all-Ireland, but could anybody envisage having the Munster championship available only on a pay per view channel? That is the one thing which would make the people of Munster rise up in revolt whatever about bad Government or high taxes.
This is only one part of the solution. Many of the events which people had traditionally been able to view are not national but international events. The World Cup, the Olympics, Wimbledon, the Eurovision Song Contest are examples of events over which we do not have national control and, as matters stand, there is nothing to stop the International Olympic Committee concluding a contract with, for example, NBC Superchannel for live broadcasts leaving national broadcasters with nothing more than the crumbs of relays. This is an issue which can only be addressed at an international level in consultation with the various bodies organising such events. Deputy de Valera's Bill is not the whole solution but it is an attempt to address an issue which is likely to become more and more urgent and I wish her success with it.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to contribute to this debate. I applaud the decision of the Government not to oppose this Bill. This continues a welcome trend established be this Government of responding positively to Opposition suggestions and Bills. However, this has often proven easy because much Private Members' time of late has been used by the Opposition to try to put a stamp on Government proposals already announced and at an advanced stage of preparation. I suppose the Opposition is now resigned to using the old adage "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em".
That is what the Deputy is doing.
They should not panic unduly as there is still everything to play for. Both football and hurling all-Ireland finals are cultural events, sporting events in the broadest sense. It would be a tragedy if these games and other major sporting occasions were no longer available to the public at large.
In Teilifís na Gaeilge, there is now a unique opportunity for the proponents of the minority sports in Ireland to have their games shown live on that station.
I often wonder at the rationale behind the people involved in sporting organisation who have sold the broadcasting rights to their sports to the satellite channels. By doing so, they immediately deprive themselves of an audience the importance of which should never be underestimated. For example, were it not for "Match of the Day" and "The Big Match", English soccer would never have attained the level of popularity it enjoys today. It is this exposure which down through the years has fed the ambition and enthusiasm of a new generation of players of football, basketball, etc. It is most important to make these sports available on television.
The Minister correctly pointed out yesterday evening that many large sporting events transcend sport. All-Ireland finals, for example, have been played for well over a century. The Epsom Derby, one of the protected events under the latest British legislation, was first run in the 1700s. The list is endless. It is not by accident that the latest cowardly act of the Provisional IRA was the disruption of the Grand National. If the Grand National was merely a horse race, would the Provisional IRA have taken such action? Of course not. It did what it did because by disrupting this race it could strike a blow against the British people so it was critical that the race was finally held. I congratulate all those involved in running the Grand National on Monday afternoon last although I had not backed any winners.
I compliment Deputy de Valera on her Bill. She is correct in saying that events such as the Grand National, the All-Ireland final and so on should continue to be regarded as public events and afforded widest possible exposure and coverage. Nonetheless I am sure she realises, as we all do, there are two competing rights, that of the public to take part in such activities and that of any sporting organisation to secure a fair price for its product. It would be wrong to suggest that sporting organisation act solely out of greed. Many rely on television deals to funds their organisation and their training and coaching programmes which produce the stars of the next generation, a legitimate concern and aspiration.
Some sporting organisations have sought to strike a reasonable balance. I understand the International Olympic Committee sold broadcasting rights for last year's and future Olympic Games to the European Broadcasting Union, the umbrella agency for public television in Europe. of which we are a member, thus guaranteeing that the Olympic Games would continue to be the greatest sporting event worldwide. I should like to think other organisations would follow suit.
The Government has agreed to have this Bill debated in Committee. It has been suggested that Irish sporting organisations should be allowed attend to air their views on what is a crucial issue for many of them, a course of action I support so long as none seeks to sell rights to any event while negotiations are in train.
We must also address the international dimensions of this debate since many events now regarded by the general public as central to its television enjoyment of sporting activities are internationally-orientated, of which the FIFA World Cup is probably the best example. If FIFA took a unilateral decision to sell television rights to that event to one or more satellite providers it would be difficult to envisage how any Irish Government could influence such a decision. Similarly, many sporting events considered sacred by our people are staged in England.
While there is widespread scepticism about pay per view channels, they present viewers with the possibility of increased choice. For example, a Leeds United fan may soon be able to watch its games at home or away and I understand the major beneficiaries may not be Rupert Murdoch but the club itself. If such a team was able to avail itself of new technologies to provide such a service to its supporters, then a pay per view system may not be all that bad. We can hope that trend will develop to the benefit of sporting activities here also. Nonetheless we must learn from mistakes which were greed driven and engage in a comprehensive debate on the issue overall. Hopefully the introduction of this Bill and the Government's response thereto will ensure that such debate will take place. Deputy de Valera and the Minister are to be congratulated. No doubt the Committee Stage debate will attract greater public attention.
The Irish cherish their sporting stars and activities. If the introduction of this Bill results in the necessary debate taking place here and abroad, ensuring that major sporting and other cultural events are made accessible to our people for the payment of the ordinary television licence fee, it will be good.
I should like to share my time with Deputies Séamus Brennan and Raphael Burke.
Is that satisfactory? Agreed. The Deputies will have 30 minutes between them.
In view of the mounting concern about this sector this Bill is timely. We on this side of the House considered the time opportune for decisive action, which is why this Bill was drafted, bearing in mind especially the many impending changes and technological advances so germane to the sector overall. Its introduction forced the Minister to accept its necessity and urgency. We look forward to any amendments he may propose on Committee Stage. There is no more rapidly developing technological sector than that of broadcasting.
In this part of the world, where satellite television has only become available in recent years, there has been some complanecy. Since its inception it has become obvious that the overall objective of Sky satellite television is to focus on major sporting events. No doubt a certain number of sporting activities can and will be carried on satellite television. This development cannot be stymied. Soccer fans will readily appreciate the merits of upgrading the United Kingdom premier league stadia and amenities for spectators attending matches. Television coverage of such events has been of tremendous financial benefit to the sport in general.
There is real concern that events such as the All-Ireland final, FA Cup, Grand National, rugby internationals, etc. will not be afforded sufficient television coverage.
Initially it had been assumed that satellite television would work its way through the cable network but, with ever advancing technology, digital compression of channels and the like, the vast number of channels now being offered place tremendous pressure on the system in general.
I visited RTE some six months ago when I was briefed comprehensively by that organisation's technical personnel. It was staggering to see what a little black box was capable of transmitting through one's television set, how it will be controlled, who will control it and how it will be made available or restricted.
This Bill aims to address that matter and, as Deputy de Valera said last evening, ensures that national broadcasting organisations do not end up with a "cheque book" option but guarantees that major national and international sporting events are not denied to licence-paying viewers. There is a fine demarcation line which the enactment of this Bill will ensure.
The fact that the House is supporting this Bill is to be welcomed. While the Minister has produced his "Clear Focus" document, he has not appeared to follow it up with the requisite detail or urgency in bringing forward his proposals in respect of which he mentioned a timescale of the order of six months. While this matter is left unaddressed there is a possibility that some legal and contractual arrangements could be entered into which could be difficult to overturn. There is a real urgency to ensure this Bill is put on the Statute Book. There is no doubt Sky and various other organisations can have access from mainland Europe, based on the number of channels that may become available. It could be difficult to make legislation apply retrospectively without running into a web of legal complications.
As outlined by Deputy de Valera we are following the proposed amendment of the EU Directive. Other countries have felt the necessity to address this matter and have done so with competence and urgency. We are trying to protect those national sporting occasions that should be available on the national channel and also on other channels which may have some access but not on a pay-per-view basis.
The area of public service broadcasting needs Government protection. The potential of satellite television, as referred to by Deputy Lynch, the US experience, the use by Sky of programmes from the US and the growth of the shopping channel, subject to quality, is desirable and progressive and should not be controlled other than by the level of acceptance by the population. It is obvious that if Sky TV wants to promote the use of its channel here it will sign up with a sporting organisation and get exclusivity. Having achieved that it would then have the power to introduce the pay-per-view concept. That would be most undesirable and the sooner this legislation is put on the Statue Book the sooner we ensure that does not arise.
The Bill is timely and needs to be dealt with swiftly by the House. If the Minister can improve or strength the Bill on Committee Stage we look forward to hearing what he has to say. His co-operation in accepting the Bill will be reciprocated. If improvements can be made to the Bill with the support of the expertise available to the Minister they will be welcome.
For many years radio was one of the great methods of communication. The hallmark of the national broadcasting service has been the concept of Government financial support, setting up and developing what RTE is today. It has been released into a number of commercial areas to grow its business. Given the impending threat and the potential of advancing technology it is necessary to put this Bill on the Statute Book. I support the Bill and welcome the Minister's commitment to it. It deals with the Television without Frontiers Directive and the European concept of what is necessary to ensure there are some restrictions in the availability of television channels.
With the agreement of the House, I wish to share the balance of the time with Deputy Brennan. I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Síle de Valera, our party spokesman on arts, culture and the Gaeltacht, on her initiative in bringing forward this Bill and castigating the Minister for his failure to move on this legislation. There is three in a row for us. Tonight we are talking about sporting occasions. Three Private Members' Bills have been accepted by the Government and a Private Members' motion is being accepted in the Seanad today. This is not a Government. At this stage it is merely trying to hang on to whatever projected date it has in mind for an election. It will accept anything, bow to anybody, bend in the face of any breeze blowing from outside just to get to its target date. This is not governing the country. The country needs a Government and the sooner this lot face the inevitable judgment of the people the better. It is not only the Government, it is its backbenchers.
The Labour Party Deputy in my constituency, Deputy Ryan, had not much to say but agreed with the Bill and congratulated the Minister on accepting it. That was gracious of him. Did he ever think his role would be to ensure the Minister and the Government bring forward legislation which is its duty rather than leave the governing of the country and the initiation of legislation to this side of the House? It is a difficult concept for Democratic Left, Labour and Fine Gael to come to terms with but it is the Government's job to bring forward legislation and it has failed miserably.
I am pleased Members intend to support the Bill. I call on all those who have not yet declared their intention to support it. The objective of the Bill is as simple as it is important. It aims to protect access by the public to the televising in the State of events which are deemed to be of national and cultural importance or of value to the country's heritage. The Fianna Fáil Private Members' Bill succeeds where the Minister has failed, as in so many areas. It succeeds in coherently addressing the problems issuing from the growth of subscription and pay-per-view television, problems which have been consistently ignored and neglected by this holder of office. The Bill succeeds without coming into conflict with European competition law. That is a vital factor and one that deserves credit.
The Bill proposes to introduce broadcasting restrictions to ensure certain sporting and cultural events will be available to all without additional charge or cost other than those which relate to the regulation of licences made under the Wireless Telegraphy Acts. The Bill proposes to introduce anti-siphoning legislation which would prohibit the purchasing of exclusive broadcasting rights of sporting events by any single broadcaster and thus remove the profits accruing from pay-per-view and subscription television. While pay-per-view television is not prohibited the Bill effectively removes the public incentive to pay additional television subscription to watch events freely available on other channels.
The benefits which would issue from such legislation cannot be underestimated. This legislation would ensure RTE and other smaller television broadcasting companies are not forced out of the market by giants such as BSkyB broadcasting. It would guarantee the free availability of access to the wealth of cultural and sporting events scheduled for 1998, such as the All-Ireland series, rugby and soccer internationals, the World Equestrian Games, the Tour de France and the Tall Ships Race, to name but a few.
The Bill fills the void left by the inactivity of this vocal Minister. He has unsuccessfully attempted to camouflage that inactivity through the publication of his pamphlet Clear Focus. Despite promises made as long as November 1995, the Minister failed to introduce legislation which deals specifically with this issue. His broadcasting Bill remains six to nine months down the line at best. This Minister has a record in respect of these Bills. I recall introducing a broadcasting Bill and he had such an urge to go to the restaurant for a cup of coffee that he missed the Second Stage debate.
The waiting period is over and this Bill must be supported. It is fully compatible with the EU Commission's Television without Frontiers Directive and European competition law. Although the Bill is prudently modelled on legislation with a proven track record, it is also innovative in its proposal to invite submissions from the public on which events should be designated. Sporting events are as much a part of our cultural heritage as the contents of our museums and galleries and they must be equally cherished. Before I leave the House to watch Manchester United win this evening, I call on every Member who values Ireland's heritage to support the Bill.
I propose to share time with Deputy Quill.
That arrangement was probably agreed between the Whips. This time slot is due to conclude at 7.55 p.m., therefore, the Deputy has approximately 12 minutes.
I will share that time with Deputy Quill. I congratulate Deputy de Valera on placing a Bill on the stocks which is no mean feat. Our spokesperson's achievement is a great matter of honour and satisfaction to the party. I accept the Government's gracious decision not to oppose the Bill. However, as Deputy Burke stated, it is the Government's responsibility to introduce such legislation in the first instance. In the absence of the necessary action from the Government in that regard, my party has taken the lead.
The record should show that Deputy de Valera has achieved a historic landmark in introducing this Bill. I would not like this legislation to be viewed as a minor technical measure for the arrangment of television programme timings. The Bill is deeply fundamental to the kind of society and country Ireland represents. Without this legislation, American style television will be encouraged, RTE will be discouraged and media moguls will be prompted to use their cheque books to capture our minds with their kind of television is the most important, dramatic and potent influence on society. As a result, Deputy de Valera's Bill strikes a blow by bluntly stating that we will no longer accept the picture projected on our screens at the whim of the media moguls and we intend to protect our culture and citizens in future.
The Bill is a landmark and represents flagship legislation. I sincerely believe that it will be seen in the coming years as fundamental defence of the kind of society we are attempting to develop. When Ireland joined the European Union there was much debate about culture and its protection. It became increasingly obvious that, within the Union, we needed to take steps to protect our culture. With the advent of satellite television it is clear that the programmes and events beamed into Ireland are being deliberately broadcast in a certain fashion by those using the cheque book approach.
In that context, it is important that RTE is given much more support than it receives at present. For a licence fee of approximately £70, or a little in excess of £1 per week, RTE provides five to six different broadcasting services. That represents remarkable value for money and, if compared to the fees people pay for Sky Television, Sky Sports and cable television, it would result in two to three times that value. It is important that, when passing the Bill, the House reflects on the need to protect and develop RTE. I did not always hold that view. There was a time when I believe RTE would benefit from competition. However, I never envisaged the open floodgate of competition it currently faces from across the globe. It must be remembered that the national television station will also face competition from 30 to 40 channels broadcasting via digital television systems.
This Bill is fundamental and it seeks to reassert our control on the nation's airwaves. To that extent, it is a flagship. People criticise RTE from time to time and as Minister for Communications I sought to engender competition with the station. However, I did not envisage the type of global competition which has now emerged. With that intense competition, the only way we will be able to protect modern Irish culture is to ensure that RTE remains strong, is not obliged to follow the commercial route to any great extent and does for Ireland what the BBC — which is a bulwark against tabloid television and the trivialities that beset American and privately owned channels — is able to do for the UK.
This Bill is more important than most people imagine and that will be seen to be the case in the future. This House and the nation must continue to support RTE so that it forms a bulwark against the tabloidisation occurring on a world scale.
I warmly congratulate Deputy de Valera for introducing the Bill, initiating the debate and giving the Government no option other than to support the legislation. That is a magnificent achievement on her part. The issue she has confronted in the Bill is complex. Nonetheless, the Deputy had the courage, insight and foresight to tackle it and realise that any further effort to place it on the long finger would put much of what is important in Irish life in serious jeopardy. It gives me great pleasure to offer my party's support to the Bill.
I am deeply disappointed that, at the conclusion of the lifetime of this Dáil, proper, modern broadcasting legislation will not be on the Statute Book. When the Green Paper was published, the clear impression was given that there would be widespread public debate on the future of public service broadcasting, and that of broadcasting in general, which would lead, in turn, to the publication of a White Paper to further enhance the quality of the debate. Armed with that White Paper the Minister would publish legislation and have it debated in the House to put in place modern broadcasting legislation which would give our existing channels the protection they need for the era in which we live. That has not happened. The Minister's abdication of his duty to protect the quality and calibre of our broadcasting service deserves severe criticism.
We live in a time when "tabloidism" is coming at us via digital television from all sides like a rain storm in a forest. There is not a lot we can do to stop it but we ought to put in place legislation to protect, preserve and promote what is worthwhile so that discerning viewers can make decisions on what is worth watching. That has not happened and it disappoints me. As matters stand it may be Deputy de Valera who will bring forward the comprehensive broadcasting legislation and that may be for the good, provided too much time is not allowed to elapse. A good deal of the Minister's recent proposals would not be acceptable to my party. It may well be better to start all over again to prepare legislation at variance with the scheme of the Minister's Bill.
In the long term it may turn out to our advantage but time is not on our side. It is worrying that we have left ourselves so vulnerable in the face of the inevitable onslaught from digital television. It is said that nature abhors a vaccum. A vacuum exists in this matter and Deputy de Valera's proposals close off a specific and important section of the vacuum.
As we reach the twilight of this Dáil I will cast my mind back to the Bill which I introduced to give proper protection in law to the built environment. It was judged to be a very good Bill and I am sorry that the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht did not display the same generosity towards my Bill as towards this one. We have the prospect of putting legislation on the Statute Book and I hope this legislation is proceeded with urgently. It will be visited again in a broader context but we should identify these elements of the broadcasting service which are in particular danger in the manner in which Deputy de Valera has done and give them the protection needed. This generation and future generations will be grateful if this Bill is passed. This Bill affords protection to a fundamental part of our culture, identity and recreational entertainment, in short part of what we are. It should not be endangered lightly; we should not stand idly by and allow it to go by default. That default is the failure to put in place proper legislation.
I wish to share my time with the Minister of State, Deputy Carey.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
As the Minister of State with responsibility for sport I have a special interest in this issue. If clichés could solve this complex problem it would have been solved long ago. We must balance the rights of the public to have access to major sporting events which are dear to us and the rights of sporting organisations to market their sports in whatever way they choose. I welcome Deputy de Valera's Bill to address this issue. It must be addressed in a national and pan European fashion. We must work with our European partners to deal with the issues involved.
With the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht I welcome this discussion and the particular attention being paid to the question of the broadcasting and availability of sports events. It is important that certain sports events remain available to the general public free of charge. Many of our major sports events have a significance beyond the intrinsic value of the events themselves. They are firmly rooted in the cultural and social traditions of our country and people. It is proper that the rights of the citizen to have open access to special events should be maintained.
Already many major sports competitions in neighbouring countries are available only to those people who have purchased the necessary receiving equipment or who pay to view the competitions in clubs or bars. Concern has been expressed on behalf of the person who cannot afford to buy the equipment or the elderly or infirm who may not be able to travel to a club in order to enjoy sport on television. While there has been a major increase in the level and quality of sport on television and the potential to expand dramatically in the future with the advent of digital television and pay-per-view, the paradox is that less choice may be available to the ordinary viewer and the majority of the population. On the other hand, the rights of the sports organisations must also to be borne in mind in the context of this complex and rapidly changing environment.
Given the complexity involved, and with the agreement of the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and the Minister for Enterprise and Employment — this issue involves considerations of free and open competition as well as broadcasting rights — I established an interdepartmental committee to explore and monitor developments in this area. The committee has been put in place to ensure that there is ongoing co-ordination between the three Departments in keeping up to date on developments here and abroad. The committee is also helping to ensure that the needs of sports organisations and sports fans are kept to the forefront. I thank the other Ministers for their willing assistance in this regard.
During the Irish Presidency of the European Union last year I formally placed the question of television and sport on our agenda and called for a pan European approach on the part of governments and sports federations throughout the EU. I also addressed the issue at the European Sports Forum in Brussels during our Presidency and I am pleased that our Troika partner, the Netherlands, has carried our agenda forward for attention during its Presidency of the EU. The issue will be discussed at a meeting of EU sports directors in Amsterdam next week. In this context it is vital that across the EU, governments, sports authorities and, most importantly, the sports federations themselves act in a co-ordinated way in the interest of sport and sports fans. Sports federations and all involved in sport need to be ready with clear policies and, working together, be better prepared to meet the demands and challenges coming from the multinational media giants. They should position themselves to take more control and not just react in a haphazard way to the agenda set by the private media interests. Last year one global organisation reacted in a disjointed way to the challenges posed by the multinational media giants.
I again commend the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht for the leading role he has played with his fellow Ministers at EU level. At home he has ensured that the special place of certain major sporting events as essential cultural occasions in Irish life is addressed.
I am anxious that in this most difficult and complex area we achieve a fair and reasonable balance between the rights of citizens and the legitimate needs of sports organisations. With understanding and co-operation, this balance can be achieved. We have an opportunity to ensure there is a full opportunity for all the interests involved to make their case in a spirit of openness and co-operation.
Our sports organisations have made an enormous contribution to the enrichment and development of our society and communities during the years. I am confident they will bring the same sympathetic and positive approach they have brought to the sporting, cultural and social life of the country to the area of broadcasting rights and the availability of major sporting events to the millions of people who follow sport and have made a contribution to it during the years.
I look forward to giving detailed consideration, in co-operation with the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht who has published his own proposals, to the objectives outlined in this Bill. In doing so I intend to assist in ensuring a fair balance between the rights and needs of all concerned — the sports organisations and members of the public who follow sport with such dedication and commitment. This is a pan-European challenge which has to be addressed at national and EU level.
I am glad of the opportunity to debate the important issues raised by this Bill. As the Minister and other speakers indicated, the Government will not oppose the Bill on Second Stage because it supports — and has always supported — its broad objectives. As Deputy de Valera pointed out, many countries have taken steps to ensure important national sporting and other events are televised on services which provide them free to air to viewers. It is important to remember that these countries have a broadcasting environment where a number of categories of broadcaster exist, including those which provide free to air broadcasts funded by licence fee and advertising revenue and private broadcasters established in these countries which provide services on a subscription and pay-per-view basis. They have also developed or are developing a legislative structure for this environment. As I understand it, the laws in these countries are designed to regulate the activities of the different categories of broadcaster which come under the jurisdiction of the countries concerned.
We have to bear in mind that the national broadcasting environment here is very different. We must, therefore, ensure any legislative measures enacted are comprehensive and suitable to our broadcasting environment. The reality is that one television broadcaster, RTE, operates here at present. Teilifís na Gaeilge will be established as a separate body and attempts are being made, which I hope will be successful, to establish an independent national television channel. No operator based here offers subscription or pay-per-view services, although this may change in future.
The transmissions of a number of UK broadcasters, including subscription and, on occasion, pay-per-view services, are widely available to viewers here. As a national administration, we have no direct jurisdiction over the activities of these broadcasters. While all broadcasters in Europe are subject to the provisions of the television without frontiers directive, one of its primary objectives is to ensure broadcasters, including those who engage in transfrontier broadcasting, are subject only to the regulatory regime of the country where they are established. I would like Deputy de Valera to deal with this important point when she replies to the debate.
We must be realistic about what we hope to achieve through legislation. In addition to mentioning events such as the All-Ireland finals and rugby internationals, Deputy de Valera referred to events such as the Grand National, the Cheltenham Festival of Racing, English premier league soccer and Ryder Cup golf. The reality is that such events are organised by bodies outside this jurisdiction and if they choose to sell exclusive rights to a broadcaster not established here, this Bill, if enacted, or any other purely national measure, can have no effect. As we are all aware, premier league soccer in England is not protected in Britain under the 1996 Broadcasting Act. It would, therefore, be futile to think in terms of trying to protect it through national measures for Irish audiences. I do not know if Rupert Murdoch pays much attention to national legislation, even in Britain, but the reality is that he regards Irish audiences simply as audiences to be targeted as part of an English speaking audio-visual market.
Apart from the likes of Mr. Murdoch, the digital revolution may bring about even more fundamental changes in the way sporting and other events are brought to our screens. There have been reports that major British soccer clubs — I am not sure the term "club" is appropriate as many are now companies controlled by a group of investors whose sole aim is to make a profit — are considering the development of their own private television channels rather than selling coverage rights to a broadcaster. The expertise which a professional broadcaster brings to a sports event, in terms of providing technical coverage and distribution of the signal to an audience, may no longer be required. I have seen reports that one club, Leeds United, has concluded a separate deal for the distribution of its matches via the Internet. In Holland, a contract between the Dutch Football Association and a broadcaster was undermined when the courts ruled that the home club — not the Football Association — held the television rights to games. I hope the foregoing illustrations outline the complexities involved in drafting workable and constitutional legislation to deal with these issues.
Like other contributors to this debate, I believe measures should be taken to prevent the migration of important national events to subscription or pay-per-view services. Pan-European measures which can be taken at EU level and which ensure substantial numbers of the population are not prevented from viewing international events in which there is a significant interest on free to air television services should and can be brought forward. However, any measures enacted must be comprehensive and address all the issues concerned, including the different types of coverage rights which can be offered, and be flexible enough to comprehend a completely different broadcasting environment and context.
As with the broadcasting area, sport at all levels is becoming more competitive. We are not that far away from the famous "moral victories" of the Irish soccer team when it drew support from a small hardy band of not easily disappointed supporters, so beloved of one of our more well known pundits. The passion of the Irish rugby team was often regarded as the only necessary attribute for international competition. Followers of county teams which qualified to play in All-Ireland finals often came away with extravagant stories of the outrageous adventures of the players on the night before a winning performance in the final itself. Nowadays, expectations are much higher. Success at international level has bred the expectation of success and the highest level of performance at every level. The demands in terms of commitment on participants, trainers and organisers from the most basic level to the top are ever increasing. Athletes in every discipline are expected to achieve astonishing levels of fitness and skill. With such demands and commitment comes the expectation of reward or, at the very least, compensation. The organisation of training and coaching is also becoming more expensive.
One has to accept that the prospect of using television revenues to fund the development of sport is not an unreasonable expectation for sports bodies. It must be accepted that the digital revolution in broadcasting will bring with it opportunities for much more extended coverage of games and competitions at all levels. These opportunities and the opportunity for sports bodies to use television rights revenues to develop their sprots and facilities cannot be denied them entirely.
Accordingly, we must be clear as to the exact type of event we want to protect. Events such as the All Ireland Final, the exploits of the national soccer team at qualifying matches and at the European and World Cup Finals and the success of athletes at Olympic and other premier international events have been shared experiences because of their free availability on national television. We would be poorer as a nation if these events had not been available on television. For many viewers the event transcends the sport. For example, how many of those who stayed up until all hours to watch Michelle Smith's outstanding success in the Olympic Games ever attended or took part in a swimming competition and how many of those who watch the Irish soccer team in action have ever attended a League of Ireland match at any level? We must ensure the measures which are enacted respect the public interest in a way that allows our sports men and women develop and enjoy a reasonable reward for their efforts. The power to protect events must be directed at those events which are outstanding importance to us as a nation. The Government supports the broad principle of the Bill and will not oppose it on Second Stage. I hope Deputy de Valera in her reply will address some of the points raised during the debate.
During the EU Presidency the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht moved on this aspect of pan-European television coverage on a number of occasions and secured agreement from all member states on the free televising of some major sporting events. He also attended special meetings of Ministers for Culture in Maastricht to discuss this issue.
I applaud the Minister for moving quickly on all aspects of this issue and deplore the negative comments made by Deputies Burke and Brennan. They constantly throw negative phrases across the floor of the House. The generosity shown by the Government in accepting Private Members' Bills far exceeds the generosity shown by Fianna Fáil during its 16 years in office. The Government has generously agreed to accept Deputy de Valera's Bill and Deputy Burke, a former Minister, should not make negative comments. The measures taken by him in office did nothing to enhance his reputation. On the Order of Business today Deputies referred to deflector systems and MMDS, areas where Deputy Burke did not cover himself in glory. He developed a monopoly in the broadcasting area and has nothing to crow about. The only point on which I agree with him is that I would like to see Manchester United win. I wish the Irish players on that team well and hope they excel themselves.
I also wish Deputy de Valera's Bill well and hope she can give me a positive response to my queries. We will work strenuously on Committee Stage to ensure the Bill can be put on a proper footing.
I thank the Deputies who contributed to the debate and, in particular, my colleagues on this side of the House who have supported the Bill since it was initiated.
Having listened attentively to the two Ministers of State, the same questions must be asked. The Minister of State, Deputy Carey, said he is very pleased with the performance of the Minister, Deputy Higgins, in the area of broadcasting. Yet the Minister has admitted publicly that it would have been another six months before the Government would have introduced broadcasting legislation. The Minister said last night he had given consideration to proposals similar to those put forward by Fianna Fáil and he would encompass them in his broadcasting legislation. However, all he has are heads of a Bill which has no legal standing and we will have to wait six months for his Bill.
I was amused to hear the Minister of State, Deputy Carey and others refer to the generosity shown by the Government in accepting the Bill. The simple reason it is doing this is that it is devoid of ideas and the necessary commitment to introduce such legislation. It is the business of the Government, not the Opposition, to initiate legislation. However, Fianna Fáil is very pleased to do this work on behalf of the Government.
The Minister of State, Deputy Allen, referred to the complexity of this issue. However, the Government has used this as an excuse for inaction. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Allen, for getting the three ministries together to discuss this complex issue but I would like to know how long we will have to wait before the deliberations are completed. Given the importance of this issue, it must be dealt with forthwith.
He also referred to competition law. I outlined how we can get around this issue and how the Minister's initial proposals would have created problems. The way we have approached the issue will ensure that we will get over any of the difficulties which might be posed by competition law.
The Minister of State, Deputy Carey, referred to the events which Fianna Fáil believes should be protected. These events are not set out in the Bill and are merely examples of what we regard as important events from a cultural point of view. While responsibility for drawing up the list of events to be protected will rest with the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht of the day, it may be decided after consultation with RTE, the Independent Radio and Television Commission and other bodies.
I agree with the Minister of State that Rupert Murdoch regards the Irish audience as part of the audio-visual market because we speak English. This is the precise reason we must decide whether we want a balance or are prepared to allow profit-making without taking into account the cultural implications.
I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Carey, would agree that when Clare wins the next All-Ireland we want to be in a position to watch the match on our televisions, if we cannot watch it in Croke Park. If those types of matches could only be seen on pay-per-view TV, one can imagine the distress it would cause to many older people and others unable to afford either the tickets or the cost of travelling to Croke Park. That would cause exclusion rather than inclusion which should be part of our social policy.
I welcome the Government's decision to accept my Bill to protect sporting and cultural events from satellite operators. I welcome also the Minister's support for this Fianna Fáil initiative. It was rather ironic to hear the Minister say in his contribution that this is a major issue confronting broadcasters, yet an Opposition party is bringing forward the necessary legislation. This surely must be one for the history books. Nevertheless, I am glad the Government has recognised the necessity for this Bill.
In addition to the almost daily technological advances in broadcasting and telecommunications, represented most evidently by the digital television revolution, there continues to be a parallel development in the manner in which those who control broadcasting present their service and product to the television public. Arguably, the most significant recent development has been the concept of pay-per-view TV which this Bill addresses. Such a development has major implications for RTE. If RTE 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.
Fianna Fáil is of the view that 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.
How can we stop organisations selling their own property?
It is a question of priorities. We must either decide to allow the current situation continue, where profit wins the argument, or identify a list of cultural events that will be protected.
The Minister of State has reminded me of another point. He stated earlier that this issue must be seen in a pan European way. I agree with that. It is precisely because of the approach that has been taken by the EU Commission on this issue that Fianna Fáil decided to introduce this legislation. Like the legislation already introduced in Britain, France and Australia, we believe this measure will be effective.
The central aim of the Bill is to protect sporting and cultural events from satellite television providers. The move of coverage of events of national and international significance from traditional public service television services to satellite delivered subscription and pay-per-view services is not in the public interest. Organisers of events find themselves in a seller's market and this can result in public service broadcasters being outbid for the rights to cover events.
Our aim is to ensure that the public interest in broadcasting continues to be served. Ireland has been the exception in taking action on the protection of sporting events. Many other countries have already addressed or are in the process of addressing the problem, namely Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Britain, Australia, Spain, Italy, Germany, Finland, the USA, Australia, and Denmark. I do not understand why Ireland should be the exception. Ireland must take its own lead and our Bill is designed to address the lack of activity so far.
Fianna Fáil does not want millions of people to be disappointed when they cannot see a major event because they do not have the gadgetry or the resources. What is proposed in this Bill is close to the hearts and minds of the Irish people who cherish sporting events, especially those like the Grand National, the Derby, Cheltenham, the All-Ireland hurling and football finals, the Tour de France, rugby and soccer internationals, major boxing matches and athletics finals. The Eurovision Song Contest, especially the voting section, is keenly viewed by Irish people. The public except to be able to see these events on terrestrial television, without having to pay a dividend to Rupert Murdoch's companies. We envisage that as many of these events as possible should be protected.
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 without frontiers directive, the free televising of major sporting events for the public of the European Union.
Despite the additional financial cost to the viewer of subscription-based television, this Bill is not aimed at any 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.
We have proposed what is known as an anti-siphoning system which overcomes the competition difficulty. Our key is universality. The listed events are not reserved exclusively to any one type of broadcaster, but its de facto operation would mean that a pay-per-view system would have no commercial gain because the exclusivity would be taken out of the equation.
Our reason for bringing forward the Bill is the inactivity of the Minister, from whom we have had nothing but aspiration. Rather than giving more detail in his Clear Focus document, there is less than that contained in the Green Paper of 18 months ago. Fianna Fáil believed the matter could wait no longer and that there was a need for urgency, so we took action.
It is disappointing that the Minister, Deputy Higgins, did not have the courage to bring forward this Bill. The Minister's legislative track record is abysmal. In his four years in office, he has graced this House with very few legislative measures, three in all if I recall correctly, two of which were planned before the Minister took office. I have said on previous occasions that few Ministers were dealt such a good hand. Even before he took up office and became a national cultural institution, and a national monument in his own right, Minister Higgins had the go-ahead for Teilifís na Gaeilge via the Fianna Fáil-Labour programme for Government. He also had a ready-made plan for the film industry, a newly established heritage council and a strong legacy left by former Taoisigh such as Charles Haughey who gave tax breaks to artists, established Aosdána, founded the Museum of Modern Art, saved Temple Bar and created a thriving cultural quarter there, removed VAT from books and developed Government Buildings. The bulk of the work was already done. It is welcome, therefore, that the Minister has seen fit to accept a Bill he was unwilling to produce himself. His acceptance that the matters the Bill addresses are of fundamental importance to the cultural pursuits of the citizens is only an acceptance of reality.
The Minister is correct in stating that the Bill owes much to the UK Broadcasting Act, 1996. I make no apologies for stating that, in the formulation of the Bill, the position of many countries was examined in great detail. The Minister's "revelation" that there is a different constitutional, legal and broadcasting environment pertaining in Britain is self-evident. If this is the extent of the Government's criticism, the Minister must equally state that there is a different constitutional, legal and broadcasting environment in each member state of the European Union. Should this enlightened observation stop the proposed amendments and similar initiatives emanating from the Commission? The answer is patently no.
There are different constitutional, legal and broadcasting environments operating in France, Britain, Australia and Ireland. The long title to the UK Broadcasting Act, 1996 illustrates the aims of that legislation of which provision in relation to the televising of sporting or other events of national interest was but one aspect. This Bill illustrates the importance of the issues dealt with.
The Minister's criticism of sections 5 and 6 is misguided. In the formulation of the Bill, I was aware of the technological advances being made in broadcasting and telecommunications. If the Minister reads the Bill in its entirely, including the definition section, he will see that the provisions apply universally to any contract. The fact that RTÉ is currently the only player in the field would not render invalid a contract between RTÉ and an organiser of an event to which section 3(1) applies. Section 5(1) comes into operation if the Minister designates an event pursuant to section 3(1). A designated event cannot be televised exclusively by one person if there are other persons who are entitled as a matter of law to acquire the rights to televise such events. The penalties for breach of the provisions are severe, and we make no apology for that. The terms of reference of this Bill and all its provisions illustrate the commitment of Fianna Fáil to this objective. The organisers of events will not see these provisions as a threat. On the contrary, pursuant to section 3(2)(a) their most valued role is recognised, and there is a legal imperative on the Minister to consult with such persons before an event is designated. I look forward to debating this Bill on Committee Stage in the near future.