On behalf of the Labour Party, I welcome the Broadcasting Bill 2008. As there is always room for improvement, on Committee Stage we will table amendments. However, we support the Bill's overall approach. While it is cautious rather than radical, it will ensure regulation over what is now a phenomenon. Broadcasting has such a powerful influence in our lives. It informs, entertains, educates and wields an influence which we do not fully understand. An ESRI study in 2005 found people spend on average two hours a day watching television while one in ten view television for more than seven hours a day. I suspect that has increased since then; children certainly watch for longer.
One example of the impact of television is the extinction of the regional accent. Young people and children from Kerry to Newry have all adopted a type of television accent when speaking which directly comes from television. If television affects the way we speak, it must also affect deeply the way we think.
We need to ensure broadcasting can flourish but that there is regulation to ensure quality and access across the spectrum of public, private, independent and community broadcasting. Regulation is important to ensure the uniqueness of our culture and identity is recognised and acknowledged. The diversity of experience that is part of life must also be safeguarded. Broadcasting is developing and expanding in breathtaking ways. It is limitless in the sense it is hard for one's imagination to accommodate its possibilities.
Effectiveness of regulation, or the lack of it, is an important issue in broadcasting. In recent times, regulation has become an issue central to our lives. Internationally, the banking systems are under threat and our economy is in peril. The political failure to regulate the money markets and lending agencies and to protect against corporate greed is having a deep impact at home and abroad. While broadcasting regulation pales into insignificance compared to the financial landscape, in ways there are parallels. It is still an issue of regulation. What is needed is robust legislation. All agree the oversight of broadcasting needs to be effective and open.
The Bill will lead to the establishment of a new broadcasting authority. It is important that it will not just be the existing Broadcasting Commission of Ireland in a new guise. It will need considerable resources to meet the tasks we are setting it.
This is being introduced at a time when the Government claims it wants to streamline State bodies and combine quangos. Was there consideration given, for example, to an organisation combining the new broadcasting authority and ComReg? Are we hearing much talk from the Government about streamlining and better value for money or is real consideration being given to options?
The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland employs over 40 people. Clearly the proposed Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, will need more staff and resources. A study was carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers to assess future needs yet the report, paid for by public money, has not been published. It would make sense in this debate on the nuts and bolts of setting up the BAI to see that report. The budget for the commission is €6.1 million. What will be the budget for the new body? The Minister has not said what the staff complement and resources for the proposed authority will be. However, unless there is that support and infrastructure, the BAI will not be able to carry out its tasks. It is not enough for the Government to say it will get it right this time. There is a litany of bad management and difficulties caused by the mismatch between the Government's intentions and practice.
I want to be practical about this and to ensure that what we are talking about will be the end result. The current budget for the commission is about €6.1 million. What will be the budget for the new body? It is proposed to raise a levy from all broadcasters to pay for this. However, there has been a significant downturn in advertising revenue. The levy is being devised by the BAI. Broadcasters should be involved in paying for this authority as they benefit from it. The independent sector had the sensible notion that it is not enough to simply have a levy. The levy should be based on the understanding that a three-year budgetary plan would be laid out before the levy is raised. In FÁS, for example, money issues have gone out of control with totally inappropriate spending, such as the recent Mount Juliet phenomenon, at a time when funding for training and apprenticeships has dried up. I intend to table an amendment on Committee Stage to ensure a proper process is put in place. Otherwise, the Oireachtas will simply be rubber-stamping what has already been decided.
I am not aware of a definition for "public service broadcasting" in legislation. The Bill simply refers to those organisations involved in public service broadcasting. This needs to be teased out somewhat, particularly with the growth of the community broadcasting sector. I do not mean to be pedantic but as time goes on, a definition of "public broadcasting" would be helpful.
The structure of the BAI is set out in the Bill. I thank the Minister for taking the important step of introducing a role for an Oireachtas committee in it. While I may have preferred to have the role extended, it is still a progressive step.
Members of this House spend considerable numbers of hours in committees and sometimes there is a feeling that we are going nowhere and are wasting our time. This is the kind of change which is straightforward and simple, but significant, and I have no doubt that the committee will live up to the request made of it by the Minister and the BAI will be the better for it.
The BAI will have a unique responsibility but if it is simply made up of people with vested interests coming together to protect their corner, it will not work very well. There must be a pooling within the new authority and that requires a certain openness of view in terms of who will be on it. It is good that it is subject to the scrutiny of the Comptroller and Auditor General, that the CEO must appear before the Committee of Public Accounts and that codes of conduct will be put in place. In that context, I must declare an interest here. I have a son working in the independent television sector, with whom the Minister has had some contact recently.
We should not underestimate the importance of codes of conduct and their application. I recall that when the HSE was set up, a special adviser was appointed to the CEO, who had worked in an area of health care previously. He held that position for a number of years and then went straight back out to work in a for-profit arrangement in an area of health care. I felt that was extremely inappropriate and when I raised it with the Minister for Health and Children, she too was uncomfortable with it but it was quite clear that nothing could be done about it. It is important that, with regard to the issue of conduct and the way people relate to what are very important and influential positions, there is a statutory basis to how it operates to ensure that no conflict arises.
I note that section 40 requires that every broadcast is recorded to tie in with the compliance procedures. I am conscious of the fact that in the past quite valuable broadcast material was lost or destroyed, with no real thought given to its importance. A haphazard approach was adopted to holding onto records and ensuring that historical archive material would be available. Obviously, modern technology makes the archiving process much simpler. However, community radio interests have raised an issue with me in this regard. While I am not convinced their concerns are justified, it may be worth relating them here:
It is vitally important that the rich contribution of the audiovisual sector to the national archive be properly funded. Under the proposed Bill the broadcast fund, which has been used to significantly develop community and local broadcasting, will also now be used for archiving, with no limits placed on what proportion be used for that hugely resource-intensive activity. Would the Minister consider increasing the portion of the licence fee going to the broadcast fund to enable necessary funding of archiving activity to take place and would he further consider placing a maximum percentage of the fund to be used for archiving?
When I checked this out, it was clear that the broadcast fund always had a role in terms of archiving, but it does not appear to have been used very substantially. This might now be an issue, as argued by the community radio sector. I raise this matter because of the fears of that sector, who argue that "beyond an extension of the term of temporary licences and a limited definition of community radio, this promising and increasingly vibrant community sector is overlooked and may even have its growth stunted in these new structures". I do not believe the Minister intends to stunt the growth of community radio but I am alerting him to the fact that these concerns have been expressed.
Each sector — public service, commercial, independent and community — has been making its case to members of the Opposition, to the Minister and in public. It is particularly worth noting the development of community television, which is a relatively recent phenomenon, as well as community radio. Community television has a different approach, in that it ensures there is active participation. One of the concerns we all have about broadcasting, and television in particular, is that it is not a participative activity, unless one is actually on a television programme. Community television creates its own dynamic, which is interesting and should be encouraged. I am not the only one who believes this. A recent proposal from the European Parliament called for member states "to give more active support of community media to ensure media pluralism, provided such support is not to the detriment of public media".
Some improvements have already been made to the Bill during its passage through the Seanad. I will be tabling some amendments relating to funding, contract arrangements and other practical issues on Committee Stage. I have some concerns about the uneasy relationship between television and radio, whether commercial or otherwise. The dominance of television, because it gobbles up resources, is so powerful and strong that radio interests often feel that they are very much the small fry. I acknowledge that the element of the fund that is earmarked for radio has been increased but we must examine the issue more closely to determine if it should be expanded further.
Other issues in the Bill that have been raised include the use of the television licence to fund public service broadcasting in the commercial sector. I do not actually argue that case but I am looking forward to the BAI generating debate on the issue into the future. Some issues raised by the commercial sector are worth noting here. One such issue that is not dealt with in the Bill, about which the sector has genuine concerns, is that of the threat from major British channels attempting to buy rights over the British and Irish markets, as if they were one entity. The issue of rights has not been dealt with at all in the Bill, yet the head of TV3, Mr. David McRedmond, has publicly expressed his concern that "if Irish broadcasters are not just going to be subsumed into the UK and turned into local franchise regions, it is very important that the rights market is properly established". I know this is a difficult area but the Minister must address it in some shape or form and I would welcome his comments on the matter at some point in this debate. Issues about rights ownership exist anyway and have been raised in a number of submissions. It is to be hoped we can develop that on Committee Stage.
Another common thread among the submissions is the difference between the amount of money in the broadcasting fund and the demands on it. In the first four rounds €40 million was given out but €138 million was applied for, which illustrates the enormous gap and the fact that a lot of people were disappointed. In one sense, it is a very good sign but one wonders whether the fund should not be expanded further.
We are fortunate to have an excellent public service broadcaster in RTE. However, the funding by licence places a particular requirement on RTE for absolute transparency. At times, in my experience — which is not very lengthy in this portfolio — information has been withheld, which is regrettable. We must ensure that is not the case in future.
I must comment at this point on the collection of the television licence fee, or rather, the failure to collect. There is quite a high level of unpaid licence fees. We have seen a massive improvement in technology in recent times and the current mode of collection of the television licence fee is not appropriate any longer. It does not make sense to use this system of collection and I hope the broadcasting authority will consider this issue.
An Post has an advertisement, with which we are all familiar, that states there are 18,000 inspections every month. I do not believe this. I asked the Minister about it but suspect he does not believe it either. He cannot tell me the true figure. I asked An Post and its response was unclear. The figure of 18,000 is not real and we need to consider an appropriate way of collecting the licence fee, which is so valuable to underpinning good quality public service broadcasting.
New technologies, particularly satellite technologies, are such that some people who have satellite transmission to their homes and pay their television licence fees are unable to view RTE channels or TG4 because of contractual arrangements — with Sky, for example. Since they pay their licence fees, they have a certain right to see the channels of the national broadcaster, but this has not been made possible. This complaint will become more prevalent, especially if customers go to Lidl to buy their satellite dishes.
New arrangements for awarding contracts make sense. The penalty that was in place was simply impractical. The arrangement for the right of reply of an injured party is a step forward and I welcome it.
I welcome the establishment of the two new public service broadcaster channels, the new Houses of the Oireachtas channel and the Irish film channel. However, I would like to know a little more about how the process will be managed and the budget allocated. Most European countries invest substantially in film and Screen Producers Ireland has argued for a minimum of €2 million to be ring-fenced by RTE for feature film productions. In light of the manner in which other European countries fund film making, this seems to be a modest enough proposal. I have an interest in this area because Ardmore Studios is in my constituency.
The plan for the two new channels is linked to the introduction of digital terrestrial television and it is part of the digital dividend. On the question of the planning and execution of the delivery of digital terrestrial television, I suspect most people are not even aware of what is coming on stream. Those on the east coast in particular, who are currently benefiting from the spillover of British channels and who will lose out significantly in 2009 unless action is taken, are also unaware of it. They will very quickly become aware of it if what is proposed is not done quickly. When I raise questions with the Department about the delivery and cost of the boxes required for the changeover, for example, I receive no clear indication as to what is involved, even though the changeover in Britain, affecting the Irish east coast, will take place next year.
I read with interest reports from the recent conference run by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland on the need for a digital terrestrial television champion. This need was raised by the private sector but I am not sure if it would be willing to pay for the champion. It certainly seems to be an idea worth pursuing.