Dáil Éireann - Volume 548 - 07 February, 2002
Adjournment Debate. - Broadcasting Legislation.
Mr. M. Higgins Mr. M. Higgins
Mr. M. Higgins: The match I referred to takes place on Saturday week. It is an important rugby match between England and Ireland. When I was Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, one of the tasks I had as President of the Council of Broadcasting Ministers of the European Union was to renegotiate Télévision Sans Frontières. In the course of that, the principle was established that citizens of the EU had the right, free to air, of certain significant events, which were regarded as part of their heritage, including sporting events.
I later sought to establish this by bringing in a Private Members' Bill, which would ensure the same kind of rights to Irish citizens as are available today in Denmark, Italy and the UK. The Minister, in the course of broadcasting legislation announced that she accepted this obligation, but the reality is the failure of my successor, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, to generate a list of significant sporting events despite the fact that it was required almost five years ago. This means that Irish citizens who are not subscribers to Sky Television will be confined to seeing the score for this match on Irish news programmes. The exclusive rights have been purchased by Mr. Murdoch's Sky Television and they are not available to Irish viewers who are interested in sport. The Department has said it is working on the list. It is a disgrace and an absolute abnegation of responsibility. We are in the midst of an appalling derogation of responsibility in relation to broadcasting. NTL has stopped carrying Eurosport. The whole purpose of the directive which we fought for, namely to retain some semblance of citizens' right to communicate, is being squandered by the Government.
When researching this matter I found that in the Official Record of debates of 30 March 1999, an item on the Adjournment dealt with the Government's unit which monitors the press. In the course of an appeal to the Information Commissioner, an interesting note arose from the director of the press unit. He had sent the Taoiseach a note with a clipping from the News of the World which said: “Taoiseach, our old friends in the News of the World like you. I think I would suggest that you might drop them a note and thank them for their support.” This was after the News of the World came out in favour of the Government. However Rupert Murdoch might  rank with the Taoiseach and the Government, it is an absolute scandal that no effort has been made to protect the rights of those interested in seeing sport televised in line with the rights that exist in Italy, Denmark and the United Kingdom. Under the directive and the accommodating legislation, they have listed the events they regard as being of national significance but we have not done so and I want to know why. The match on Saturday week is but the beginning. There will be other international events.
With the decline of the European Broadcasting Union and with other bids in for the World Cup, the next Olympics, etc. this Government and the Minister responsible for broadcasting are accepting a monopoly in broadcasting and are not even exercising the small scope that was there for assuring general access for Irish viewers to events of national significance. It is an absolute scandal. It is a very long journey from Éamon de Valera to Rupert Murdoch. I am sure there are many people who believe in national self respect, identity and the rights of viewers who will be appalled by this first illustration of abdication of responsibility in broaccasting.
Ms Coughlan Ms Coughlan
Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Ms Coughlan): Nuair a thosaigh an Teachta shíl mé go raibh sé ag caint faoin chluiche an-tábhachtach idir a chontae agus mo chontae féin. Beidh sé sin beo ar TG4 agus ní bheidh deacracht ar bith é sin a fheiceáil.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue and providing the occasion to address the concerns which he has raised. First, I would like to make clear what the Television Without Frontiers Directive does not do. It does not place an obligation on member states to designate any event. In accordance with the directive, it is entirely a matter for the individual member state to decide whether or not to draw up a list of events which it deems to be both of major importance to society and which, in the view of the member state, should be available on free-to-air television services. Neither does the directive seek to influence member states as to what events they might include on a list should the member state decide to have one. I will return to the question of drawing up such a list later.
The directive places an obligation on member states to provide in national legislation the statutory basis for the designation of events as being of major importance to society and which should be available on free-to-air television services. The Broadcasting (Major Events Television Coverage) Act 1999, which was passed into law on 13 November 1999, fulfils Ireland's obligation in this regard. Under that legislation, my Department may designate a list of events which should, in the public interest, be available on free-to-air television. In drawing up such a list, the Minister  is obliged to act in consultation with the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation. In addition, the Minister must make reasonable efforts to consult with the organisers of the events and with broadcasters who are under the jurisdiction of the State. Following this, the Minister must engage in a public consultation process. It is only after completing this complex and time-consuming process that the Minister can then bring a draft order designating an event or events before this House. An order approved by the Oireachtas will also require approval at EU level.
My Department has engaged in consultation with the Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation on drawing up a list of events to be designated. A preliminary consultation process was undertaken with the major sporting organisations and that process is ongoing. From the consultation process, it has become evident that the designation of any given event is a complex matter. Some sporting organisations have argued against designation of the major events they organise on the basis that designation could impact negatively on their finances and, consequently, on the future development of the games, particularly at club level. The possible negative impact of designation on the sporting organisations has to be considered, as has the public interest of certain events being available on free-to-air television.
The issues involved are complex but are being addressed in an appropriate consultative and democratic manner. Further consultations with the sporting organisations and with the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation will be required over the coming months. Following this, the Department will be in a position to engage in a wider public consultation before bringing the matter before this House. I will, of course, advise the Minister of the Deputy's enthusiasm for having the matter brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible.
Mr. M. Higgins Mr. M. Higgins
Mr. M. Higgins: If the situation was reversed, with the match being played in Dublin, we could not refuse free access to British viewers.
Ms Coughlan Ms Coughlan
Ms Coughlan: I appreciate the concerns expressed by the Deputy and I agree that access to our major national sporting events is of the utmost importance for the development of sport, particularly for those who may not have the wherewithal to access more expensive television. I will bring the Deputy's views to the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands and the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation.
Dáil Éireann 548 Adjournment Debate. Broadcasting Legislation.