Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Ceisteanna (10)

Catherine Murphy

Ceist:

10. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will provide an update on his recent commitment to amend existing defamation legislation; if he will indicate that, in addition to the changes he proposed recently, he is willing to explore new proposals to tackle potential conflicts of interest arising for members of the board of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland; if not, if he considers existing legislation sufficient in this area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11640/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Communications)

My question is on the governance of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and arises on foot of the issue which arose with the payout by RTE to a member of the authority who took legal action. I want to find out about the changes proposed by the Minister to the Broadcasting Act 2009, which he has indicated he intends to bring forward.

At the outset, I clarify that my responsibility is for broadcasting legislation. Defamation legislation is a matter for my colleague the Minister for Justice and Equality.

The commitment I gave during the debate in the Seanad on 18 February 2014 was to amend section 39 of the Broadcasting Act 2009. That section requires every broadcaster to ensure that nothing is broadcast which might reasonably be regarded as causing offence. This seems an unfeasibly rigorous approach. Some people may be easily offended even where offence was not intended and is not objectively ascertainable. The amendment I am considering would require broadcasters to avoid causing undue offence, which represents a more objective test in tune with the realities of modern public debate.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland was established by the Broadcasting Act 2009 to regulate content across all Irish broadcasting services. Section 24 of the Act provides that the BAI shall be independent in the performance of its functions. Section 23 obliges the authority to draw up and adopt a code of conduct in respect of controls on interests and ethical behaviour to apply to each member of the authority, statutory committees, advisory committees and members of staff. In common with all public service bodies and in accordance with paragraph 31.1(iv) of the Code of Practice for the Governance of State Bodies, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland affirms on an annual basis that its code of business conduct is in place and has been adhered to. A copy of the authority's code of business conduct is available on that body's website. Furthermore, authority and committee members, as well as staff, are subject to sections 21 and 22 of the Broadcasting Act 2009, which provides for the disclosure of any conflicts of interest. Section 20 of the 2009 Act places duties of accountability to Oireachtas committees on the chief executive and chairperson of the authority and on the chairpersons of the statutory compliance and contract awards committees. These obligations and controls are sufficient and, as such, I see no need to for further legislative proposals in this area.

If someone was a member of the complaints committee overseeing broadcasting and launched a legal action, lessons would fall to be learned in the context of the code of conduct. I am trying to find out if there is oversight in the Department where there is a conflict of interest. Where is the conflict disclosed? A major conflict of interest arose recently when €85,000 was paid out by RTE. When the case was launched, the person taking the action was a member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland's complaints committee. Are there lessons to be learned in respect of the code of conduct and how is that conflict overseen? At what point is there a sanction? What sanction can be applied? It seems like a glaring conflict of interest.

Whatever changes I eventually settle on, I will put them into committee where we can tease through the type of issue Deputy Murphy raises. I do not know of any legal prohibition to provide for the circumstances the Deputy describes. One could easily see the case for the defence in this matter, namely, that the person being referred to took offence and sought an apology. As I understand it, as soon as litigation was contemplated, the individual in question resigned his position. In fairness, it is important to say this.

Whether there should be a legal obligation to provide for circumstances of this nature is a matter on which I have an open mind. To the best of my knowledge, there is no such legal obligation and the normal code of conduct as it relates to conflict of interest would apply.

I acknowledge that since I tabled the question, the Minister responded to me directly on some of the issues I raised. His letter of reply acknowledged that the case was launched while the individual in question was a member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. It was at this point that a conflict of interest arose. Conflicts of interest arise all the time. The reason for having a code of conduct is to set out how such conflicts of interest should be addressed. Lessons should be learned from this case because it involved a glaring conflict of interest. Is the Minister certain that the timeline he provided is correct as it is in conflict with the timeline he provided to me in his written response? I understand the case was launched while the individual question was still a member of the complaints committee of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

I have not been furnished with the precise date of the initiation of the contemplated legal action. While that is a matter between the person concerned and his solicitors, my understanding is that there was the narrowest possible window between the legal action being launched and the resignation of the individual in question. In fairness to him, he wrote his letter of resignation as soon as he decided to take the legal route. As I stated, during the refurbishment of the Act I am open to Deputy Murphy and any other Deputy expressing a view on this particular point.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has not been in place for long. It has met one or two squalls in its short period in existence and has, by and large, handled them well. It has certainly made some very thoughtful interventions in the area of public service broadcasting. There is no reason we should not discuss this issue. People always take offence, sometimes on behalf of others. What would it do to television if taking offence was to be the only test?