Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 3 Oct 2019

Vol. 987 No. 3

Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This is an extraordinary Bill. I understand that many people have gone home today because of Storm Lorenzo, but after the Minister's contribution last night, there was no Government speaker. That shows either a lack of interest on behalf of the Fine Gael Party or that there is nothing of significance in the Bill. There was a time when, if a broadcasting Bill was before the House, there would have been a queue of speakers.

Much of this Bill is technical. It corrects a number of small, technical issues with the funding of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, and so on. However, I am not sure that it addresses the great changes that have happened in broadcasting in recent years or the nature of new technologies. We can all receive material on handheld devices called telephones and, furthermore, there is widespread dissemination of knowledge outside of the formal media. I am disappointed the Bill has not examined some of the fundamental issues of broadcasting. The current Government has been in place for seven years and has had a lot of time to think about broadcasting.

Nuair a d'fhoilsigh an tAire an Bille, chuardaigh mé é le haghaidh an focal "Gaeilge". Seachas tagairt do TG4, níl aon tagairt don Ghaeilge ann. Níl aon mhíreanna faoin nGaeilge ann. Chuir sé sin iontas orm mar i mí na Bealtaine seo caite d'fhoilsigh coiste tuarascáil. Ba choiste é a raibh an Ceann Comhairle an-chuidiúil lena bhunú, is é sin Comhchoiste na Gaeilge, na Gaeltachta agus na nOileán. D'fhoilsigh an coiste sin moltaí áirithe maidir le craolachán trí Ghaeilge. Istigh sna moltaí bhí dhá mholadh a bhain go sonrach le reachtaíocht. Is é an chéad mholadh a bhí ann ná: "Go dtreiseofaí le práinn na míreanna faoin nGaeilge san Acht Craolacháin 2009 chun cur ar chumas Údarás Craolacháin na hÉireann (ÚCÉ/BAI) polasaithe Gaeilge gníomhacha a fhorbairt i bpáirt le craoltóirí an Stáit." Is é an dara moladh a bhí ann ná: "Go n-aithneofaí ‘Craoltóireacht na Gaeilge’ mar phríomhdhualgais in aon sainmhíniú nua de ‘craoltóireacht sheirbhísí poiblí’ agus in aon reachtaíocht chumarsáide leasaithe nó nuadhréachtaithe."

I looked up the Constitution, which is very interesting on the status of the Irish language. It has constitutional status and no matter what people might think personally, the Legislature and the Government must respect the Constitution. There is much talk about people not respecting the law across the water. It is very important in this country that we do not start saying that part of the Constitution does not matter and this part does. What the Constitution says on the Irish language ná gurb í an teanga náisiúnta í agus, de bharr sin, gurb í an phríomhtheanga náisiúnta í, in other words, that the Irish language is the official language. It then says go nglactar leis an Sacs-Bhéarla mar theanga oifigiúil freisin. It says it is an phríomhtheanga, which means the primary national language. It seems to me at times that people want to just ignore that, as if it was not a constitutional imperative. I remember a certain Attorney General when we were in government, who even though he did not have Irish himself was very strong on this point, that there is just no getting away from it, and that if one was unhappy with it one should bring a constitutional amendment before the people. Funnily enough, I do not think that they would accept a change in it, but if they did not, therefore, it is the will of the people.

The reality is that when one looks at broadcasting finances, one would think the Irish language was a minority language and not a national language. I am stunned that there is no mention of broadcasting through the Irish language in this Bill. We all know there are major deficiencies. There is a very bad architecture for how it is all funded. This matter should be addressed by the Government. One of the great deficiencies, in particular with the development of new media and more private media, is that we keep avoiding the question of why we are subsidising RTÉ to the level we are and what is our definition of public service broadcasting. Do we really need to subsidise RTÉ to do things that other English language broadcasters in this country, for example, Virgin Media Ireland or the commercial radio stations such as Newstalk and others are doing without subsidies? Do we really need to subsidise RTÉ for light comedy shows and other such programmes? It is time we decided what public service broadcasting is and, therefore, decided that the ceadúnas or licence and direct State subsidy should go for the purposes of public service broadcasting.

Since the inception of local radio and since the decision was taken, for better or for worse, that local radio would be controlled by private interests, and not by either local authorities or by the State, a lot of public service broadcasting perforce has to be done by the private sector because there is no public sector in local radio. The Bill is a cop-out because it dodges the big issues. It is my view that we need urgently to decide, first, what is public service broadcasting and why the Exchequer funds public service broadcasting. Is it for documentaries, to produce good native drama or to ensure, for example, that there is good coverage of our indigenous sport and also those sports played by Irish people whether they are playing at home or abroad? Is it for all those obvious issues of national interest?

The second question then is when we are funding them whether we differentiate between the State-owned broadcasting entities and the privately-owned ones. If we say it is only the State-owned ones, does that mean we are precluding from public service broadcasting all the local stations, in particular the radio stations that provide such basic public service broadcasting in their local areas? Where I live there is an interesting situation on a local level because Raidió na Gaeltachta as a national station also obviously focuses quite a bit on the Gaeltacht. It is Raidió na Gaeltachta and I am in the biggest Gaeltacht in the country. In fact, half of the native speakers of Irish live in my constituency. In practical terms, when it comes to local news, there are two main suppliers: there is Galway Bay FM and Raidió na Gaeltachta. They perform overlapping functions. Local news and sport are being broadcast by Raidió na Gaeltachta, and it should be supported as it is broadcasting in a minority language, but should the public service remit of the companies in the private sector, because there is no State alternative, not also be supported? When are we going to have the debate and make a decision? We must have a rational debate that does not dodge the issues. I know there are big vested interests, one is just down the road from where I grew up, in a place called Montrose in Donnybrook. RTÉ thinks the licence belongs to it. Vested interests have to be taken on if other people have an equally legitimate claim to funding on the basis of the work they are doing.

I wish to address the fact that the Minister has once again dodged the money issue. The Minister said the LPT was one thing and the licence was another. Let us put the LPT aside, although it would be perhaps handy to collect it through the LPT. I accept the Minister's argument in that regard. There is also the fact that the licence is collected from commercial entities and LPT is not, rates are collected from the latter. For a number of reasons the licence as we know it is a terribly bad way of collecting money. In the 1960s, for example, once the transistor radio came in that one could bring around with one, the old radio licence had to be abolished. There was a radio licence initially long before the television licence and, quite sensibly in the early 1960s, once the transistors came in they got rid of it. They said it was non-operable anymore because one could have a radio in one's pocket. The reality is that the television as we knew it; the big box in the corner that was quite visible, has disappeared. One could watch a match on a tablet, a laptop or a phone. Basing the fee on a receiving device is an old-fashioned way of deciding who has to have a licence.

The next problem with the licence is it is totally inefficient. According to the figures available, the number of people who do not pay, whom the Minister feels is obligated to pay, is very high. A significant amount of money is spent on advertisements telling people they have to have a licence but we know default is high. Any system that has a high default rate is a flawed system. It is also incredibly expensive to collect. It is an inefficient system because any system that involves having to physically send people around to houses to check that there is a device, and then it is very hard to define the device, is a stupid system. We must admit that the sell-by date of the licence is probably gone and there are many other ways the State can collect money, but the idea of attaching it to a device is gone.

The second myth that persists is that the licence is somehow the property of RTÉ. The licence is paid into the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and it goes into the Central Fund and then it is disbursed. It is only another source of taxation into the fund. Funnily enough, when one goes to disburse the money, one has a slice of Exchequer funding. That is how TG4 is mainly funded. My view is that there are two issues to be decided. The first is how much the State should provide to broadcasting.

That should be one wad of money. The second issue is whether the source of that money will be general Exchequer funding or a dedicated funding channel. The mix instituted when TG4 was created is anomalous and bizarre. The final decision the Minister has to make, having acquired the funding and put the pot of money together, is on how it will be distributed. We have to get away from what I call the "historical model", where certain players got the lion's share of the money without much scrutiny just because they always got that funding in the past. That goes back to the days when there was just a State broadcaster.

The funding of TG4 is a disgrace. TG4 is incredibly important for all those people in this State, whether they have fluent Irish or not, who believe the promotion of the Irish language is important and that Irish speakers, or those people who want to watch Irish programmes, have access to good programming. TG4 is lean, mean and efficient despite its meagre resources. It produces excellent programmes. Many people not fluent in Irish watch it, especially sports programmes and documentaries, because it provides subtitles. TG4 has produced some of the best documentaries in recent times. The sad part of this is that most of TG4's broadcasting is in English because it cannot afford to make enough programmes in Irish. The channel is truly a public service broadcaster when it is broadcasting in Irish. That is not the case when it is broadcasting other material not related to its main function, which is to be Teilifís na Gaeilge and broadcasting in Irish. This issue has to be tackled.

Another question regarding public service broadcasting never ceases to fascinate me. Why are RTÉ's current affairs programmes considered public service broadcasting whereas political debate programmes on Virgin Television, formerly TV3, some of which are very good, are not considered public service broadcasting for the purposes of subsidy? Why does one channel get a great deal of money for doing these things while another channel is expected to do them for free? It is an irrational situation on which we have not had a debate. I do not have all the answers but this Bill certainly does not tackle any of these issues. There has not been a debate. The Minister should give a date for concluding such a debate and come back with proposals.

Making small changes at the edges of local radio to help local journalists is not enough. The core remit of local radio, which it does very well, is current affairs and local news programmes. Local radio stations are fair in a way that I am not sure is always the case with other stations. Local stations are also much more transparent and accessible. It is difficult for anybody, even a public representative, to get on RTÉ if that person is not among the select few. If somebody has something sensible to say, a local radio station will give him or her a platform. As long as he or she stays within the law, access will not be a problem. I always describe local radio as "access radio for the ordinary people".

The other thing local radio stations do tremendously well is coverage of local sports. I commend TG4 on covering GAA club matches. I notice that the big boys, RTÉ, have suddenly realised that there is great interest in these games and it is jumping on the bandwagon after 15 years. As an aside, fair play to TG4 for its coverage of ladies Gaelic football. Some 56,000 people watched the ladies Gaelic football final. TG4 alone promoted women's Gaelic football in this country when it was neither profitable nor popular. The station made the sport what it is by providing a shop window for the players and officials. Look at the results. We have to grasp the nettle. We do not have a State local broadcasting service but local radio stations are public service broadcasters in the truest sense and we have to help them. To give an example, I have no doubt that people tuning into local radio today anywhere along the west coast will find continuous local updates on closed roads, fallen trees and all the other items a national broadcaster cannot cover.

Since 2000, young people in the Gaeltacht have been asking for a radio station that broadcasts through Irish and caters for young people. Modern technology ensures that the requisite frequencies exist to allow that to happen. It is time that was provided for young people, not only those in the Gaeltacht, who have an interest in the Irish language. We must remember that includes all those who attend Gaelscoileanna and many others who have gone to the Gaeltacht and have fluent Irish but attend schools that teach through English. We need a radio station, á la 2FM, broadcasting through the medium of Irish. As a community, we have requested that repeatedly over the past two decades. Some of the technical difficulties have been resolved by technology. Such a station can only be properly delivered nationally using the FM band. An Internet station exists but that does not provide the same service. The service will only be delivered when the State decides that the first official language, the national language, gets due recognition.

I thank Deputies for the high quality of this debate. While I probably should not state this, it contrasted with the debate related to climate we had in recent days when people were not listening to one another and did not try to tease out the difficulties of some of the issues we confront. This debate, however, showed a remarkable willingness to recognise the tricky nature of the challenges we face in broadcasting. It is the sort of debate we should have in the House.

I am the first to agree that this Bill is not the answer to all the challenges we face regarding the state of broadcasting. Deputy Dooley starkly outlined the source of those pressures. We have platforms that do not believe they have any editorial responsibility nonetheless claiming the lion's share of advertising revenue associated with people accessing content of various sorts. This creates a serious challenge for those media outlets trying to observe journalistic standards. This will be an ongoing concern. Deputy Ó Cuív reflected that when he asked how we are to define public service broadcasting in this rapidly changing environment. People are choosing to consume content, much of which they regard as important, on various media and in completely different places. In that context, how do we define public service broadcasting? I do not know where this comes from but the traditional definition of public service broadcasting was to "inform, educate and entertain". The concept did not go beyond that. It did encompass the requirements Deputy Ó Cuív specified. The feeling was that it was sufficient to appoint a board to RTÉ or TG4 to interpret those requirements. It was not for mere politicians to specify them.

We run ourselves down so badly.

That is the reality. I joke when I refer to "mere politicians". That process also provides an important counterbalance between the Fourth Estate and ourselves. That is recognised as important.

Deputy Dooley also suggested the need to widen the base of funding. The working group considered the option of moving completely to a form of licensing that is independent of the device used.

That would be a big step and I outlined the difficulty with it earlier. There are actions that could be taken to add to the existing definition and to broaden the base of those that would contribute. That has been considered in the past and it is something we can discuss on Committee Stage.

Deputy Dooley envisaged that wherever any additional money would be generated, 30% of it should go to the sound and vision sector. It might be difficult to define what the additional money is and to set that out in law, but there is scope for considering what percentage should go to different areas as we grow the base.

Deputy Dooley also dealt honestly with the challenges facing RTÉ and the difficulties it has in making some of the changes that are recognised as being necessary. We recognise the challenge that faces the director general and the board in managing that change. RTÉ has to transform itself to become attractive to an audience that is changing its consumption habits dramatically, particularly among the younger generation. The younger one goes, the more radically people have changed their consumption habits. The valid concern Deputy Dooley raised is that we have conventional State-owned public broadcasters needing more resources and we also have pressure on local broadcasters that need more resources. We have a finite capacity to expand the fund that might be available to them and that poses challenges for us. A device-independent approach has been adopted by Government but it is recognised we will need a number of years to both gain public support for it and to define how it would be set and collected.

Deputy Cullinane raised a number of issues that we will discuss on Committee Stage, such as whether we should be more proscriptive in the legislation about the BAI in its application of levies. One area where we can something is in the extent to which some community broadcasters could get caught up in levies, simply because they have revenue but that revenue is coming from another area of public spending, such as that relating to Pobal or community employment schemes. The safest way to do that might be to lift the threshold on their income because it would be tricky to define what public bodies would be exempted whereas other revenues already go from public sources to, for example, RTÉ or TG4, and we would be treating those public monies differently from other public monies. That could give rise to inequity in the legislation.

Deputy Cullinane also raised considerable questions about the accountability to the BAI and the corresponding accountability to the Oireachtas. The matter is somewhat puzzling in that many of us are of the view that while bodies such as RTÉ should be directly accountable to the Oireachtas, they are primarily accountable to the BAI as their regulator, and that changes the relationship. On the other hand, the BAI has set out its expectations. It has annual performance commitments that it expects RTÉ to meet. It does not have a service level agreement of the type to which the Deputy referred but it looks at matters such as overcompensation of public funds to RTÉ in respect of certain activities it is undertaking. To some degree, the BAI acts as a buffer between the Oireachtas and RTÉ. Some of the analysis Deputy Cullinane wants to see can probably be more properly directed at the BAI. It would be hard to shape changes in legislation that would make a public broadcaster more accountable to the Oireachtas directly, without crossing over lines we might regret crossing in the long term.

Deputy Cullinane also raised concerns regarding the blacklisting of journalists. It is not my understanding that the BAI has any control over that. Such behaviour is certainly something with which this House would not concur. Whether legislative change should be made in that respect or not needs to considered.

Deputy Sherlock asked whether we should extend bursaries to print journalism. That raises a wider issue. This is broadcasting legislation. It is not our intention to deal with much wider issues. It is a matter for another day to decide whether there should be a public policy on print journalism that would involve the BAI carrying out different elements of that. We have probably not got to that point.

Deputy Sherlock also expressed the view that there is an appetite for pushing ahead with the household charge. Even at a political level, it comes down to the point that occupiers would be charged. Local authorities would then have to collect licence fees from individuals. We need to think through how this might work and we need time to do that.

Deputy Mattie McGrath raised a number of issues regarding the perceived unfairness of RTÉ towards particular interests, such as rural Ireland, the greyhound industry and others. The same avenue lies open to anyone who is not happy, namely, to complain to the station in the first instance, and if he or she is not happy, to pursue the complaint with the BAI. There is a code on fairness and impartiality and it is open to anyone who feels aggrieved to pursue that. Maybe I heard the Deputy incorrectly but he seemed to be suggesting that he would advocate people not paying their licence fee because of the perceived bias of RTÉ. That would be the wrong advice to offer people. Pursuing avenues of complaint through the BAI is the route to go.

Deputies Connolly and Ó Cuív raised concern about whether the provisions of the Bill are strong enough on commercial broadcasters on the Irish language. I understand the obligations of commercial broadcasters are set out in a contract that exists between the broadcasters and the BAI. That is a public document and it provides details of commitments. It is a document that people should be able to peruse. I will draw the attention of the BAI to the concerns Deputy Connolly has raised. She was thinking in terms of changing provisions in the Act. I do not know whether that would be warranted. We need to hear the views of the BAI itself, which will be implementing those provisions, before we would consider such an issue.

Deputy Ó Cuív raised these wider issues, particularly the question of how the balance should be struck between the State-owned organs and the private sector. That is provided for in the Act because 7% goes to sound and vision and the balance goes to the State broadcasters. The Legislature has set that and we have the opportunity to change that if we wish. The one thing we do not have the opportunity to do would be to provide State aid to the administrative functions of a commercial company. We would have the capacity to define public goods we want to deliver, tender for them, and allow private companies to benefit under a fair and objective scheme. That is the basis of the sound-and-vision model.

I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív in his commendation of the TG4 model. There is no doubt it is innovative. It is slimmer than others and it does a lot more commissioning than others. Perhaps it is fulfilling a different role than that of RTÉ, which has a much broader remit, but there is no doubt TG4 uses the money it gets very effectively.

He also commended TG4 on its support for the ladies Gaelic football and camogie finals. I am told that in 2017 our own Department added a designation order to make these events free-to-air, so we are claiming some of the credit there.

I look forward to the Committee Stage debate on this legislation. We are on a journey and have not arrived at a destination. It is very challenging to define how to move prudently to protect the qualities of public service broadcasting. None of us can doubt the value of public service broadcasting and its ability to provide an objective arena for debate. Other Deputies have commented on the extreme nature of broadcasting in the US, where diametrically different views are presented by different camps within the media. That is not a direction in which we want to travel. We have to protect what we have and recognise the immense value of local broadcasting, which is currently only recognised to a limited extent in our legislation. I look forward to the debate on Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.