I warmly welcome this timely Bill introduced by my colleague, Deputy Michael D. Higgins. Its genesis lies in the lengthy work the Deputy carried out as Minister, in the discussions that took place on developing our culture and encouraging cultural diversity, diversity of expression and freedom of expression. The Bill is another milestone in Deputy Higgins' remarkable career in this House and his remarkable contribution to life and the philosophy of Irish citizenship which he developed with great care and idealism in his opening remarks last night. That is typical of the man who established the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and created, for the first time in our history, a distinct public awareness of the necessity to develop public policy at the highest levels to strengthen and encourage the artistic achievement of our people, to encourage diversity without fear or favour from any quarter. I thank him for his contribution over the years.
One of the disappointing features of the past couple of decades has been the ability of organisations such as News International, Sky television and BSkyB to cherrypick high quality events, particularly in the area of sport and other areas of popular culture, and concentrate their monopoly of power and ability to extract the highest price from the public for their observation of those events. Contrast that with, for example, our national broadcasting organisation, RTE, and its remarkable achievements over the past 68 to 70 years. It is a wonderful contrast. RTE is in the classic mode of national broadcasting organisations, such as the BBC and others in Europe, which have enriched the lives of populations over the past three or four generations. Think of all the work of the RTE orchestras, the various choirs and Cór na nÓg and the other cultural initiatives the station and its various components undertake. Think also of RTE's great tradition of high quality independent news and news reporting over the past 25 to 30 years which has made a valuable contribution to political life on this island. It also has a remarkable tradition in the area of culture. The Minister and Deputy Higgins will engage in discussions over the coming months and years about the direction of public sector broadcasting. It is critical that we ensure the cultural development of our country is not easily cast aside by caving in to monopolists, oligopolists and people who would tell us what to think.
In that context, I will respond to remarks made by the former leader of the Progressive Democrats on this matter. This Bill has been in genesis for many months and the Labour Party, through its spokesperson, brought it forward with out fear or favour. We sincerely believe it is a modest and simple proposal which is right for the future of our nation. I hope the Minister will take it on board. It is critical given the introduction of the euro over the next six months. I spoke to the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, about this issue last night at a committee and about the great dangers and responsibility which he and the Taoiseach have, to steer our economy through these difficulties and the difficult times ahead. The Minister also has a special responsibility in the area of culture, news and freedom of expression, which I hope she will be prepared to discharge.
The Labour Party has no problem demanding that any news organisation will not have a dominant position in more than one area of the media and that there will not be a sprawling incubus of organisations spreading across the intellectual domain of a nation. That is the Minister's responsibility. Each Sunday we continue to read articles by Michael McDowell and other people in the Progressive Democrats. While they are entitled to put forward their views, we cannot allow a situation where one newspaper or media group would seek to impose its economic views on the people or on this House.
I welcome this opportunity to contribute to my party's Bill. It is timely legislation which, if accepted by the Minister will ensure all citizens will have access to important events of cultural or national importance. It will also ensure a diversity of media ownership thereby preventing media empires from emerging and dominating our society. The two simple proposals in this Bill are about democracy and the cultural rights of citizens in a democratic society. The principle of universal access gives all citizens the right to view matters of major importance, including cultural and sporting events. The diversity in media ownership allows for plurality of opinion, which is of benefit to both the media practitioners and the consumers of media products.
In the current climate of digitalisation, this Bill has a particular worth. From some of the Minister's recent comments, I know she is concerned about the onset of this technology, as indeed was her predecessor who for many years warned of the need to prepare for it. The digitalisation of television will supersede the existing analogue based systems of TV broadcasting and is set to be introduced in the near future. It will give rise to improvements in the quality of picture and sound but will also provide the consumer with access to more channels — up to 200 or so — and interactive services. As the former Minister, Deputy Higgins, said, we are facing a scenario where one screen on our wall will be an interactive service covering the Internet, consumer needs and cultural and information services.
However, without appropriate legislation from the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, we are in danger of allowing a market driven form of digitalisation to open up a further divide in society between the information rich and the information poor. This legislation, prepared by my colleague, would pave the way for a more citizen based model of digitalisation. Ownership of digital television would be in the hands of the people and would not become a vehicle for profiteering and multinational business.
I am concerned the Minister is unaware of the urgency and speed at which we are approaching digitalisation and unless we are prepared to deal with its introduction, Ireland will be left lagging behind. Next year Sky television will offer a digitalised service and contracts are now being signed. We must ask if this country will be prepared and that is the Minister's responsibility.
In relation to universal access to events of major significance like sporting events, this Bill gives the citizen the firm right to view events like the All-Ireland Football Final without restriction. Maintaining the televising of such an event on terrestrial television allows more equality of access across society. It also ensures that access is granted to people beyond national boundaries. People should not only have access to football matches if they attend pubs which subscribe to certain television channels, a point to which I will return. Monday nights in areas of the northside of Dublin have become a different type of evening culturally since Sky television began to show football matches a number of years ago. Universal access gives people the right to enjoy cultural or sporting events without boundaries. If we do not legislate for universal access, we could find the merits of All-Ireland day will only be available to those who subscribe to certain television channels or attend pubs which subscribe to those channels.
Section 3, which deals with ownership, is crucial to universal access. The Labour Party accepts the need for investment in media groups. However, it is against the creation of media monopolies and empires. My party also accepts the right of the media to comment on and take positions on public affairs. However, it is concerned about any possible future concentration of ownership in the media across different media vehicles. It is in the public interest that media access is as wide as possible.
A diversity of media ownership contributes to a healthier democracy. This is particularly the case in relation to news. If news is manufactured from the one media organisation, citizens are only given one spin, so to speak, on a story. A variety of news delivered by a variety of media outlets enhances the citizen's access to news and views. In this way, citizens can make up their own minds and contribute to a more enhanced democracy.
Our society is more diverse than ever before. We live in a pluralist society and require a pluralist media. Our society is now characterised by mixed cultures, a range of political views and greater participation by various representative groups in the lobbying process. As a result, it is imperative that there is a full range of information coming from different angles to ensure that everyone's concerns are aired and addressed.
I am concerned that when I go to my local shop on Sunday, of Irish newspapers on display, 90 per cent are part owned or are owned completely by Independent Newspapers. While I do not cast any aspersions on workers and journalists in these papers — in many cases, I greatly admire and enjoy their work — I do not believe we are provided with sufficient plurality in editorial terms. Objectivity can only be provided where there is a diversity of ownership because at the end of the day, media owners are the people with influence. While I wish the two largest parties would consider a merger so that there might be a proper debate of ideas, if all political parties decided to merge, the end result would be that the electorate would have no choice of Government, and it would result in less choice in terms of political debate. In such circumstances, the qualities of a democratic society would be eroded. Because of the huge role played by the media in influencing the views and information available to citizens the control of sections of the media by one vast empire would equally erode democracy.
A great deal has been said about Sky and News International. I notice that our colleagues in the British Parliament have drawn up a list of a number of events they would consider critical, the type of events the Bill seeks to protect under section 2. Many people would say coverage of the two All-Ireland championships, soccer and rugby internationals, major running events and others are events to which everyone should have general access. The Minister has a key responsibility to ensure that type of access for the future. There has been considerable competition regarding the next European football championship in that the new television station, TV3, has out bid RTE for coverage. For the first time, we will not watch those matches on RTE, but at least they will be shown by an Irish station to which we will have full access. It is critical such key sporting events are maintained.
Deputy Michael D. Higgins spoke at length last night about the efforts of the 15 EU member states, using the television without frontiers directive and others, to try to ensure the sporting and cultural life of Europe was not decimated by the Anglo-American cultural world. I mentioned Monday evenings on the north side of Dublin where distinct cultural effects can be seen and this is probably true of the Minister's home town of Ennis as well. Many young men and women interested in professional football feel the need to watch a match with Manchester United or Newcastle on television in a certain hostelry. The owner is probably paying through the nose for the right to show the matches. This creates a system of access which is completely market driven and which has no cultural connections. That is something I would like the Minister to examine.
On section 2 which deals with the concentration of ownership, Deputy Higgins thoughtfully laid out the key areas in which he wanted the 25 per cent rule to apply, such as a group which occupied a dominant position in one or more markets. I mentioned the situation in Ireland but we have witnessed the recent history of the United Kingdom. Many people in this House remember the election of 1979 in the UK where a huge impetus from The Sun and other newspapers was behind the Conservative Party. I remember one headline which ran: “Give The Girl A Chance” and it was the dominant headline in a close election in which our sister party was defeated. That election outcome has been examined and most people believe the performance of The Sun and other newspapers, who were and are members of a dominant group, had a strong influence on the election.
We remember the election here last summer. We believe it was very unfair when, on the front page of a newspaper under the headline "It's Pay-back Time", readers were directed to vote for certain parties. No one denies that good journalists and political commentators must have views on who should run the country and that newspapers take stances on issues. I remember the editor of The Sunday Times, one of the News International papers, on 1 May last year in a famous editorial stated: “Hold your nose and vote Tory”. Deputy Higgins has made a powerful case regarding the concentration of ownership.
I wish the Minister well and applaud her for some of the initiatives she has taken during her ministry. She has shown quiet effectiveness. However, I believe this is a Bill worthy of being accepted by the Government.