That Dáil Éireann:
— more than 3.17 million listeners tune in to radio every weekday;
— more than two thirds of listeners tune in to independent radio stations;
— Ireland ranks joint first with Germany, at 45 per cent, for using radio as a source of news; and
— radio is the most trusted medium for news in Ireland, with 68 per cent of Irish people trusting what they hear on radio;
— independent radio enjoys an excellent reputation for the provision of public service news and current affairs;
— this programming has been provided to date without State support;
— the statutory 20 per cent public service obligation on the independent radio sector to provide news and current affairs programming is increasingly difficult to deliver in the context of the advertising revenue shift to digital social media platforms;
— the ability of broadcasters to invest in Irish content on a sustainable basis depends in turn on their ability to generate revenues in an environment of significant disruption and challenge; — the threat to the viability of the independent radio sector has the potential to erode democratic dialogue both nationally and across communities throughout the country; and
— independent journalism, free to pursue the public interest, is an essential component of the democratic process;
— commercial radio revenues, including those accruing to Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), have declined significantly in the last ten years, to €127 million in 2016, compared to €140 million in 2007, leading to significant uncertainty regarding the future of the sector;
— the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny T.D., committed to the reduction of the current levy on independent broadcasters in 2016;
— as with most European nations, the Irish broadcast market is already subject to public intervention in the form of funding and oversight;
— in order to address disinformation, Irish consumers believe that it is the responsibility of news media outlets and Government to take action;
— television licence fee evasion in Ireland is among the highest in Europe and millions of euro are being lost to the sector each year;
— the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment published its report on the Future Funding of Public Service Broadcasting in November 2017;
— the Committee recommended methods to reduce evasion aimed at generating between €35 million and €50 million extra to fund public service broadcasting;
— the Committee also recommended that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment establish a scheme to assist independent radio stations in the provision of local news and current affairs programmes;
— the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) has called for RTÉ to receive an increase in public funding of at least €30 million per year to meet its remit;
— at 71 per cent, Irish consumers are more trusting of ‘most news’ than the European Union average, but that some 57 per cent of Irish consumers are concerned about ‘fake news’; and
— some 63 per cent believe the Government should do more to address disinformation; and
calls on the Government to:
— implement the recommendations of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment report on the Future Funding of Public Service Broadcasting by the end of July 2019;
— establish a public service broadcast fund for the independent radio sector by the end of September 2019, to:
— invest 25 per cent of funds raised through increased collection of the television licence fee to provide independent radio stations with additional funding to develop and maintain high quality news and current affairs programmes which empower democracy by facilitating democratic engagement and reflect local identity and address local concerns; and
— limit the funding provided to each organisation by ensuring that stations do not receive:
— more than 50 per cent of the cost of producing and broadcasting qualifying content;
— in excess of 20 per cent of their operational budget in a given year; and
— in excess of € 250,000 in a given year;
— implement the recommendation of the BAI to provide an extra €30 million a year to RTÉ recognising that this funding would be available from enhanced television licence fee collection; and
— implement its commitment to reduce the broadcasting levy to the independent radio sector by the end of June 2019.
We Irish are a nation of radio listeners. More than 3.17 million of us tune into radio every week day and, principally outside of the greater Dublin area, independent radio accounts for the majority of listenership. While these stations provide entertainment, advertising and music, they are also a vital source of region-specific information for local communities. The area and the radio station I know best is Clare FM. Like every other independent local radio station, it captures the life and soul of the area to which it broadcasts, from sport to news and current affairs to carrying special information about weather events right through to the deaths, which form an important part of the information citizens of that particular jurisdiction require daily. It is clear that the proof of the pudding is in the eating because people listen consistently and they expect that service to be provided.
Unfortunately, as a result of changes within the wider media landscape, local radio stations now find themselves operating under increasing financial strain. Revenues have declined very significantly during the past ten years, putting pressure on the independent stations to cut costs to remain viable and afloat. Much of the transfer of revenues away from advertising from the broadcasting sector towards the digital platforms has created a significant gulf in funding and is putting the capacity of these stations to provide the service as set out in their licence agreement whereby there is a necessity to provide 20% of the content from a news and current affairs perspective under particular strain. It is a real challenge for these stations to retain the depth and breadth of journalistic effort in place to provide that service. We have seen where similar situations have emerged with our nearest neighbour across the water where radio stations are unable to continue to provide that service and this has led to an amalgamation of smaller stations, which ultimately will fail to provide the location-specific information that is a hallmark of what local radio is all about. In the context of reduced revenues, local and independent stations are particularly impacted. If this pressure continues, the plurality of sources of news could decline, denying communities access to that vital source of information on issues which are really important in those respective areas.
We believe on this side of the House that the loss of high quality, independently sourced news from the independent radio sector would represent a loss to the democratic dialogue at both national and regional level across communities throughout the country. To that end, we have proposed the establishment of a public service broadcast fund for the independent radio sector and we believe it is vital to ensure the future viability of the industry. Funding additional supports for local radio will not require the introduction of further measures to raise funds. It will only require the collection of fees that are already owed. As we are all aware, television licence fee evasion in Ireland is among the highest in Europe and millions of euro are being lost each year by both RTÉ and the independent sector.
We believe, based on a detailed body of work that was done by the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment, that with an enhanced level of detection and collection somewhere between €35 million and €50 million could be accrued to the State and could provide the resources to fund adequately the independent radio sector in its effort to fund news and current affairs and also address the very significant shortfalls that RTÉ is encountering. The Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment has already examined the future funding of public service media in detail and the joint committee recommended that the Minister establish a scheme to assist radio stations in the provision of such news and current affairs programmes. It also recommended that the Revenue Commissioners should be tasked with the collection of the licence fee. We know how successful the Revenue Commissioners were in the collection of the non-principal private residence tax when responsibility for its collection was transferred to them from the local authorities and consequently the level of evasion was reduced significantly in a very short period.
The additional funds raised could have a dual purpose. They could be used to meet the ongoing funding issues at RTÉ, which the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has identified as being very significant and requiring urgent attention, and provide a much-needed funding stream for the smaller independent producers. We should not forget that the licence fee already provides significant funding through the sound and vision fund to the independent production sector. That is one which we must harness and nurture as part of this.
As with most European nations, the Irish broadcast market is already subject to public intervention in the form of funding and oversight. What we propose is already the case in a number of European jurisdictions where they very much value their independent radio sector, recognising its importance in the democratic process.
Professionally produced journalism is an essential condition for the survival of modern democracies. The increase in fake news across the globe, particularly in the social media area, has increased the imperative to ensure the widespread availability of impartial transparent news and current affairs coverage to the individuals of the State. In order to continue to provide unbiased trustworthy fact-based news and current affairs coverage relevant for Irish society at the expected standard, adequate public resources must be invested in producing it. We should not be in any way reticent about supporting that.
Thanks to the quality of Irish media, Irish consumers are more trusting of most news than the EU average, but some 57% of Irish consumers are deeply concerned about the potential for fake news. In order to address this disinformation, Irish consumers believe it is the responsibility of news media outlets and governments to take action. Some 63% believe that the Government should do more to address this disinformation.
To address the specifics of the proposal, Fianna Fáil proposes that we invest 25% of funds raised through increased collection of the television licence fee to provide independent radio stations with additional funding to develop and maintain high quality news and current affairs programmes. We are also keenly aware that this funding should be reasonable and provide as many stations as possible with supports. To this end, Fianna Fáil proposes a number of limitations. In the first instance, from a political perspective, we do not believe that the body politic should have any role in the administration of the funds or detailing how and where the funds are distributed. We believe that should go to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to do so in an independent and transparent way. We also believe it is necessary to limit the funding provided to each organisation by ensuring that stations do not receive more than 50% of the cost of producing and broadcasting qualifying content, in excess of 20% of their operational budget in a given year, or in excess of €250,000 in a given year, to ensure that there is the greatest spread of the available funds, ensuring that all those stations that provide quality news and current affairs to their respective licensing areas are provided with the appropriate assistance. The additional funds raised could also be used to address other funding shortfalls, as we are also conscious that the national broadcaster together with the independent sector provide comprehensive news and current affairs information and assisting one cannot be at a cost to the other.
I am taken by the level of intervention and the level of discussions that have taken place between RTÉ and the independent broadcasting sector. It is fair to say that there is a level of agreement between both sides to ensure that the future of the licence fee is shared in a manner that allows both sectors to survive.
I note that RTÉ has a funding requirement of €30 million, as identified by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.
In conclusion, I recognise that in the Visitors Gallery today, there are representatives of most of the independent radio stations throughout the country as part of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland delegation. I thank them for their presence and for showing an interest in the work we are doing on all sides of this House. I wish them well in their efforts to continue to provide trustworthy news and current affairs coverage in an independent and transparent way, to the benefit of Irish citizens and for the preservation of the democratic institutions of this State.