Dáil Éireann - Volume 575 - 26 November, 2003
Broadcasting (Funding) Bill 2003 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage.
Mr. Browne Mr. Browne
 Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Browne):I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
I am pleased to open this debate on the Broadcasting (Funding) Bill 2003. This Bill is a core element in the programme of public service broadcasting reforms announced in December of last year. It provides for the allocation of 5% of the net proceeds of the television licence fee, almost €8 million annually, to a scheme to fund new programmes on television and radio.
This initiative will increase the availability of high quality programmes on television and radio in both the private and public broadcasting sectors. In particular, the scheme will be available for new programmes on Irish culture, heritage and experience, new programmes to improve adult literacy and for additional Irish language programming. Programmes to be funded will be in addition to existing elements of the schedule of public or private sector broadcasters. The scheme will also fund the development of archiving of television and radio programmes. The objective behind the scheme is to improve the range and quality of programmes available to television and radio audiences in Ireland and to focus on programmes relating to our culture and heritage, in particular.
The issue of the quality and impact of broadcast material is part of an ongoing debate both here and in Europe about the direction of broadcasting. The number of broadcasting services on offer has exploded and new opportunities are provided by changing technologies. We need to ensure that Irish audiences have access to a comprehensive, quality, distinctively Irish and free broadcasting service, Irish broadcasting services keep up with technologies and Irish audiences, broadcasters and producers are not disadvantaged by global broadcasting markets. I fundamentally disagree with those who argue that a public broadcasting services is no longer needed, that it should not be funded by the State or that it should be limited to a restricted output of niche programming.
It is in the public interest to ensure that a comprehensive, varied and quality broadcasting service is available to everyone free of charge. The expansion in the market, if anything, strengthens the case for public service broadcasting, particularly in the context of tendencies towards generic minimum cost programming and subscription services for special interest niche programming.
The decision last year to substantially increase the level of public funding for RTE was a clear indication of the Government's commitment to the principle of public service broadcasting. As we move to a digital era, RTE must be able to continue to deliver to Irish audiences free of charge the distinctive broadcasting service they deserve and expect. Equally, it must meet high standards and deliver on the challenging agenda which has now been set for it. Part of RTE's mandate is to provide a range of radio and television services for all the people. It is the very nature of these services, with the variety and quality required by legislation, that underlies the specific nature of public service broadcasting.
While independent broadcasters are providing a different kind of service, there is scope for them to offer high quality programming of interest and relevance to Irish audiences. The proposed new scheme is an initiative which will, I hope, raise expectations about programming variety and content, prove that the talent and ideas are out there and highlight our own rich culture and heritage.
A distinctive broadcasting service is a fundamental requirement but has to develop in the realities of the increasingly globalised market. The digital technology issue has dominated debate on broadcasting in Europe to a significant degree, focusing on what technology will win out or what business model is most likely to succeed.
There has been criticism of the lack of progress in this area in Ireland but this fails to recognise the number of the complex realities. A number of pay DTT platforms have been spectacular failures and rights issues have to be teased out to prevent our broadcasters facing major difficulties on many digital platforms. It is vital that Ireland gets digital platforms which work. However, there is no point rushing to mimic the pay DTT platforms which have lost billions or the satellite platforms where copyright issues would entail huge financial and, ultimately, programming losses for Irish broadcasters.
The Department is assessing the options for rolling out digital television services in Ireland, taking the practicalities and the international experiences into account. The eventual outcome will ideally include the possibility of a broadband offering. This would improve the economics of the platform and provide much needed cross-platform competition in the broadband sector. The industry will be consulted as part of the assessment and a report should be with the Minister by the end of the year.
We must also recognise a major concern that the digital era will result in less choice for audiences and an overall reduction in programming quality. The purely commercial pursuit of the most economically advantageous audiences can lead to lowest common denominator programming, generic schedules, cultural imperialism and specialised niche programmes for those who can pay.
A third issue in the broadcasting sector which I would like to highlight is local and community broadcasting services, which can provide valued services for particular regions and communities. Their potential is recognised in the broadcasting funding scheme, which specifies “the development of both local and community broadcasting” as one of the objectives under section 3.
 There is huge potential for local and community broadcasting services and for radio, in particular, to carry or, indeed, commission the kind of programmes envisaged in the Bill. While it is envisaged that the scheme will encourage applications from this sector, no specific financial allocations are made in the legislation for this or any other specific area.
It is important that the scheme can operate within a flexible framework which allows it to meet all its objectives, make the best use of the funding and evolve over time in response to circumstances. I am also aware that community services, in particular, are interested in accessing funding of a more general nature, such as for capital, start-up or training costs. The purpose of this Bill, however, is specifically related to programmes.
As I have already outlined, the aim of the broadcasting funding scheme is to encourage broadcasters to include in their schedules additional high quality programming of interest and relevance to Irish audiences. It is a clear indication of the Government's resolve that the people should continue to be guaranteed a minimum level of distinctive, high quality programming.
The emphasis on additionality is central to the scheme. Programmes must be in addition to any existing requirements relating to broadcasters and to their existing outputs. The scheme will also be used to fund the development of archiving of television and radio programme material. This is a follow up on one of the recommendations of the forum on broadcasting which reported to the Minister last year.
The forum highlighted the lack of a coordinated approach or overall direction to the archiving of programme material at present. A variety of agencies, in addition to RTE, are already involved in the archiving of audio-visual material, including, for example, the National Archives, the Irish Film Board and the Irish Traditional Music Archive.
The Bill provides the legislative framework for the scheme, which will be prepared and administered by the Broadcasting Commission. It does not set out the detail of the scheme, such as grant rates, the allocation of funding to various categories, or the assessment criteria and procedures. That detail will be developed as the scheme is put together, and the final scheme or schemes will be subject to my approval and be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.
It may be useful to Members to have some idea of the timeframe of the scheme. If the legislation is enacted by the end of the year, 5% of this year's net television licence fees will be allocated to the scheme and the Broadcasting Commission can begin preparation of the scheme in the new year.
The scheme, because of its complexity and intention to consult widely, will take some months to complete. It will then have to be put to the European Commission for approval as a State aid. Following such approval and the formal agreement of the Minister, the scheme will be published and applications will be invited, hopefully in the second half of 2004. Allowing time for interested parties to develop and submit proposals and for applications to be assessed, audiences may begin to enjoy the new programmes on radio and television in 2005.
I will now describe the detail of the Bill, which is a short one with just nine sections. It sets out the framework for, and objectives of the scheme, the amounts to be paid to the scheme, the details of the scheme to be included in annual reports and accounts of the Broadcasting Commission, and contingency provisions for the winding up and dissolution of the scheme. I will comment briefly on each section and outline the main provisions.
Section 1 is a standard provision which gives definitions for the purposes of the Bill. Section 2 provides that the Broadcasting Commission will prepare and submit for the Minister's approval a scheme or schemes to support new television or radio programmes on Irish culture, heritage and experience, new television or radio programmes to improve adult literacy, programmes under both of these categories in the Irish language, and the development of archiving of programme material.
The categories of programmes are specifically defined, so that best use can be made of limited funding. News and current affairs programmes are specifically excluded, as particular requirements are already set out in legislation and contracts applicable to broadcasters. RTE already commissions independent productions as a substantial part of its programming schedule, covering a wide variety of topics and ideas.
Having a specific focus in the context of finite resources will encourage new and distinctive programmes, and the focus in this Bill is on Ireland's heritage, environment and culture. This concept of who we are, and why we are what we are, offers considerable scope for programmes, as can be seen from the examples in subsection 2(1)(a).
Television programmes may be funded only if broadcast on a free television service which provides near universal coverage, thus ensuring the widest audience within the State, or on a cable or MMD system, multipoint microwave distribution system, as part of a community content contract, thus enabling community television to access the scheme. Radio programmes may only be funded if broadcast on RTE services or on services licensed by the Broadcasting Commission. The scheme is, therefore, available for additional programmes carried on national, local and community services.
For reasons relating to EU legislation, it is not possible to construct the Bill so that the scheme is available only to broadcasters based in Ireland. The focus must be such that the benefit of the scheme, the new programmes, is available to Irish audiences, regardless of the provider. I stress that the scheme is not for broadcasters; it is for the audience.
Section 2 also provides that the Minister may direct the commission to amend or revoke a scheme. This could arise, for example, where the operation of a scheme turns up particular anomalies, difficulties or unintended effects. The Bill also provides powers to direct the commission to prepare a particular scheme, if, for example, it does not put forward for approval a scheme covering a particular category. The section finally provides that any scheme approved by the Minister will be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.
Section 3 sets out the objectives of the scheme. With regard to programmes on Irish culture, heritage and experience, these are to develop high quality programmes, and programmes in the Irish language, to increase the availability of such programmes to audiences, to represent the diversity of Irish culture and heritage, to record oral heritage and aspects of heritage which are disappearing, under threat, or which have not been previously recorded, and to develop local and community broadcasting.
The objective on the development of archiving of programme material is to develop an integrated approach, including the development of suitable storage processes and formats and the accessing of material by interested parties. An objective for adult literacy programmes is not included in this section as there is already a specific reference to it in section 2. My colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, will be closely involved in the particular aspect of the scheme regarding the national adult literacy strategy under the national development plan.
Section 4 provides for annual payments to the scheme of 5% of net television licence fee receipts. This will amount to an annual payment to the scheme of approximately €8 million. At present the full value of the licence fee receipts, less collection costs, goes to RTE to fund its public broadcasting service. The 5% payment will be for the purposes of both the scheme and any administration or reasonable expenses relating to it. Costs to the Broadcasting Commission of administration, including additional staff, are estimated at about €400,000 per year.
Section 5 requires the Broadcasting Commission to review and report on the operation, impact and effectiveness of the scheme every three years, or at such other time as may be requested by me. The review will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. If necessary following such a review, the scheme can be amended or revoked under section 2, either on the commission's volition or the Minister's direction. The ultimate option of winding up the scheme is provided for in section 7.
Section 6 provides that details of the scheme will be provided in the commission's annual report and accounts. Section 7 provides for the winding up and dissolution of the scheme. This is included as a last resort provision, as once the scheme is wound up and dissolved by order it ceases to exist and cannot be revived. Section 2 of the Bill already allows for the fine-tuning of the scheme over time, by means of amendments or revocations. Winding up the scheme would require the consent of the Minister for Finance and the dissolution order will be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.
Section 8 is a standard provision that the expenses incurred by the Minister in the administration of the Act will be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas. Section 9 sets out the short title of the Bill.
Members will, I hope, see the Bill as straightforward and non-controversial and give it their support. I look forward to hearing their observations on it. I commend the Bill to the Dáil.
Mr. Coveney Mr. Coveney
Mr. Coveney:I welcome the opportunity to speak on broadcasting generally and also to talk in detail about some of the welcome aspects of the Bill, on which I congratulate the Minister, and some aspects which I feel are missed opportunities. Without being political, I hope the Minister will take the concerns of Fine Gael on board between now and Committee Stage.
I reaffirm Fine Gael's support for something the Minister of State outlined at the beginning of his speech – the existence of one strong national public service broadcaster, in the form of RTE. Fine Gael is very supportive of proper funding for RTE. It is obvious that such funding should be used and monitored in an efficient manner. We wholeheartedly subscribe to the Forum on Broadcasting's recommendation that RTE should continue to exist as a strong public service broadcaster. This is the best way of providing for the public service broadcasting needs of a country like Ireland. It is important that I clarify this belief before I say anything else.
Before I talk about the detail of the Broadcasting (Funding) Bill 2003, what happened yesterday to the Supplementary Estimate which was supposed to be discussed by the Select Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources today? It was intended that the Supplementary Estimate would allocate an additional €1 million in grant-in-aid to Teilifís na Gaeilge. The Dáil agreed yesterday that Vote 30 would be referred to the select committee, but the meeting planned for today has been cancelled. I have been informed that the Department of Finance is no longer prepared to make the money available. This issue needs to be clarified. Will Teilifís na Gaeilge receive an additional capital allocation of €1 million? If the money is to be allocated, why is the matter not being discussed by the select committee today, as was the intention until yesterday afternoon? There are some concerns in respect of the funding. The matter needs to be clarified by the Department, in this forum or elsewhere, at the next possible opportunity.
This is a rare occasion because I would like to congratulate the Minister for showing some courage. I refer to the establishment of the independent fund last year, which was a somewhat controversial thing to do. I support the concept of the fund, however. The Bill will establish a new broadcasting funding scheme for television and radio programmes. Under the scheme, which will be administered by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, 5% of television licence fee receipts will be used to establish an independent broadcasting fund. The new fund will be used to support a range of broadcasting sectors, as outlined in section 2 of this Bill, to which I will return later in my contribution.
The Bill sets out the general objectives and the framework of the scheme, as the Minister of State has outlined. The details of the scheme are to be prepared and administered by the BCI, however, before being approved by the Minister. I ask the Minister to consider bringing the details of the scheme to committee, if possible. The fund is a new departure for Irish broadcasting. The parliamentary spokespersons in this area are interested in this matter. We would like to discuss it in a positive and constructive way at the committee. When the details of the scheme have been prepared by the BCI, it would be a positive approach to discuss them at the committee.
The Minister of State has outlined that this Bill is a key element of the Government's public service strategy. I support the concept that underpins the Bill. The fund will be significant as it will consist of 5% of the €150 that is paid per television licence. This comes to about €8 million in 2003. The figure is likely to increase significantly as we move forward. RTE's television licence fee receipts came to €80 million in 1998, but this figure had increased to almost €160 million by 2003. The television licence fee receipts used for public service broadcasting doubled from €80 million to €160 million in five years. I know that a commitment has been given, subject to certain safeguards, to increase the licence fee in line with inflation. If the trend I have outlined continues, the figure of €8 million will increase each year until it has become a very significant sum of money. It is important, therefore, that the fund is managed in a transparent and open manner.
Will the Minister outline in his response the anticipated cost of administering this fund? A colleague has told me that it will cost €400,000 to administer the fund each year. I assume this figure emerged from the Minister's contribution in the Seanad. It seems a lot of money. When one considers that just €8 million is being handed out, it seems that a high percentage of the overall take will be spent on administration. It would be helpful if the Minister would clarify that figure.
Under this Bill, independent broadcasters will be able to apply for funds for independent projects. They will no longer have to rely on RTE, TV3 or sponsors to provide the funds for certain types of programme or broadcasting activity. This is a very welcome development. Although RTE has done a reasonably good job in supporting certain cultural projects and other public service broadcasting projects in the past, it makes sense to have an independent fund in the future.
The key area of the Bill is section 2, which outlines the types of schemes that may be supported by the BCI under the independent fund. I seek clarification about one aspect of the section before Committee Stage. I am interested in the definition of “Irish culture” in the section. The Bill states that funds can be approved to support “television or radio programmes on Irish culture”. An attempt is made to clarify this statement in section 2(1)(a), which states that such programmes may be about:
(i) history (including history relating to particular areas, groups or aspects of experience, activity or influence),
(ii) historical buildings,
(iii) the natural environment,
(iv) folk, rural and vernacular heritage,
(v) traditional and contemporary arts,
(vi) the Irish language, and
(vii) the Irish experience in European and international contexts,
A number of people have expressed concern to me in recent days about this aspect of the Bill. It has been argued that the new Irish culture – multiculturalism – is not covered in this section. Irish society struggles to cope with multiculturalism at times, but most of the time we welcome new cultures to this country as part of an overall Irish multiculturalism that exists, particularly in cities such as Dublin, Cork and Limerick. If a broadcaster or programmer wishes to apply for funding to reflect the multicultural aspects of immigrant communities such as asylum seekers, for example, such a desire should be catered for in this legislation. If that is what is meant by “the Irish experience in European and international contexts”, that is fine, but we have a responsibility to offer a little more clarity in that area. The wording of section 2(1)(a) could be improved.
I welcome the provisions of section 2 relating to adult literacy levels, which are not as good in Ireland as they should be. It is a hidden problem in many cases because some adults may be too proud to address it. They may be afraid to deal with it because they do not want to be seen as people who, for whatever reason, have not received the education required to be fully literate. Public service broadcasting offers us a way forward in this regard. Adults can access literacy education through television or radio in the privacy of their sittingrooms or bedrooms.
I commend the work that has been done by RTE in respect of adult literacy, particularly on Radio 1. I have had the pleasure of listening to such programmes while driving to Cork late at night. It has shown some initiative in this area but that is only the tip of the iceberg from an opportunity point of view. I welcome the Government's intention, which is long overdue, to address, through broadcasting, adult literacy in a more enthusiastic manner.
Section 2(2) provides that funding can only be committed to television programmes that are free to air and have a wide coverage or are on cable or MMD systems in a community context. I welcome that provision. There are huge opportunities, in rural parts of Ireland in particular, for community television to be successful. Community radio has, in the past five years in particular, achieved success beyond everyone's aspirations. The listenership figures for local and community radio, primarily dealing with local issues in certain areas, has been a phenomenal success. Deputies from outside Dublin know the primary media for getting their message across to the electorate is local radio. I would like to encourage a similar development with local and community television.
My constituency is the heartland for Southcoast television, the largest and most vocal community television grouping in Ireland.
Mr. Browne Mr. Browne
Mr. Browne:It has been very controversial in its day.
Mr. Coveney Mr. Coveney
Mr. Coveney:That is true. It has been highly political and controversial in its day. Nevertheless, it has survived and is now operating legally, although it might not have been possible to say that when it commenced operations. I admire those involved with that station who, against the odds, have successfully competed with much larger organisations and continue to do so.
Local and community radio is filling the niche for a visual form of media providing local content, discussing local issues and offering local public service broadcasting. There is a tendency to move towards the Sky network where all sports is international and all current affairs programming is becoming international and television programming is moving away from the local angle of a story. At the same time, radio has made a move in the other direction. The reason is that we have not provided local television with any oxygen. This fund can address that issue. I know my colleagues in Fine Gael also want to raise this matter.
Having welcomed a number of sections in the Bill, I would like to address my remarks – and I hope the Minister of State will listen carefully to what I have to say – to captioning and subtitling on television, and the legislation has missed a huge opportunity to address this issue. The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland is involved in a consultative process with RTE and TV3 in particular on improving the level of subtitling on television. The legal term is captioning but everybody knows it as subtitling. I have committed Fine Gael to the approach of legislating to set targets which broadcasters must meet over a phased period. This approach has worked well in other countries, Canada being the prime example. It has now reached 100% subtitling on many channels. A number of US states have achieved up to 95% subtitling. The BBC is committed to 100% subtitling by 2008. Despite this, Ireland remains in a consultative process trying to encourage broadcasters to improve subtitling levels.
RTE1 has made significant progress in this area, and that needs to be said. A total of 64% of peak time programming on RTE1 is subtitled. However, it does not have such good figures for off-peak times. Only 15% of peak time programming on Network 2 is subtitled. The figures for TV3 show that, apart from Coronation Street, there is no subtitling of programmes. Consultative approach or not, we are failing as legislators and policymakers to address this issue. This Bill presents us with a golden opportunity to do so. We are creating an independent broadcasting fund, separate from RTE, to be administered by the BCI, which is involved in the consultative process to increase the level of captioning-subtitling on television, yet we are not allowing the BCI to allocate funds from the €8 million in 2003 – it will probably be €10 million next year – to cover the cost of increasing subtitling levels on TV3, in particular, and on other stations, including RTE. I advocate that we ring-fence part of it for that purpose.
The reality is – and I have spoken to an independent Irish broadcaster—
Mr. Browne Mr. Browne
Mr. Browne:There is only one.
Mr. Coveney Mr. Coveney
Mr. Coveney:Yes. That broadcaster will not introduce significant levels of subtitling under current conditions because it cannot afford to do so. It is an expensive process. It would cost TV3 between 5% and 30% of programme costs to provide subtitling depending on whether it is a live news bulletin, which costs a great deal, or Coronation Street which costs less because the subtitles are already included by another broadcaster.
We must be serious about offering subtitling services to the hard of hearing and deaf people. A significant number of people are in that category. Estimates for the number of people hard of hearing are put at 20% of the population. Most are senior citizens but some are young deaf people. They also pay the €150 television licence fee. Are we saying we cannot justify putting 5% of that money into an independent fund to provide for improved public service broadcasting, that it is not good use of that money to spend some of it on significantly improving subtitling levels on television? The Bill misses a huge opportunity to deal with this issue and I hope the Minister of State will try to address it on Committee Stage.
I accept we have only €8 million to €10 million and that we cannot spread it thinly across all sectors to try to solve all problems. The Government would be making a strong statement if it ring-fenced 20% to 25% or some percentage of that fund so that TV3 or RTE could apply for funding for the provision of subtitling of television programmes. We would then be directly addressing a concern that will not be addressed through a cosy consultative process. The financial and commercial reality is that TV3 cannot currently afford to subtitle news and live programmes. It certainly cannot afford to do what I would like to force it to do through legislation, namely, meet ambitious targets over the next five to ten years. During the summer Fine Gael launched a Broadcasting (Captioning of Televised Programming) Bill 2003. I do not wish to say too much about it, except to outline its purpose, which was to set targets that could be met by broadcasters. We had estimated that, by the end of 2005, broadcasters could be asked to caption 60% of programmes, by 2006, up to 70%, by 2008, up to 80%, and so on, moving towards what they have achieved in Canada and the US and what the BBC will also achieve by 2008. The only way that such a policy can be realistic is if, on the one hand, we require broadcasters to do it by law and, on the other, we prepare a fund to which they can apply to help finance subtitling. I appeal to the Minister not to miss this opportunity. The deaf community and representatives of people who suffer from hearing loss or impairment have the right to demand it. They are entitled to access televised media if they pay their television licence fee. They are entitled to it anyway.
I finish with a technical point which we might try to address. A part of people's television licence fee will go into public service broadcasting radio programming. When people pay their €150, they should know what they are paying for. We should have a more transparent billing system for the television licence fee so that we explain to people on the bill that 5% of what they pay will go towards a fund which can help finance independent public service broadcasting on both radio and television. It is important always to be cognisant of people's right to know what they are paying for. That is a straightforward technical matter to address. When people get their bill or pay their licence fee, I would like them to know, for example, that €143 of their €150 currently goes to funding public service broadcasting through RTE but that the other €7 will go into the independent fund, which can be used for both radio and television broadcasting. That is, in simple terms, a move towards a more transparent billing system, and people will support it when they know what is on offer and what they are paying for. In the Minister's speech, he said that “audiences may begin to enjoy the new programmes on radio and television in 2005”. Between now and then, they should certainly know how it is being financed and what section of their bill is going towards it.
I also hope that audiences who are hard of hearing or deaf will also be able to enjoy the fruits of the independent fund by 2005 and into the future. The subtitling issue will not be resolved overnight, but if we do not allocate a portion of the fund to it, I certainly cannot see us introducing another fund or levy at any stage which will help fund the cost of subtitling. Let us not miss that opportunity.
Mr. Broughan Mr. Broughan
Mr. Broughan:I welcome the purposes for which the additional moneys would be spent under section 2 of the Bill, as the Minister has detailed. However, my party and I have grave reservations and concerns about the source of funding and the future operation and running of the fund. I know that the Minister has consistently advocated such a fund in the context of the greatly increased television licence fee and RTE's response to the broadcasting forum report. In the Seanad the Minister spoke several times of the fund's additionality and also about leaving broadcasting to the broadcasters. However, it seems quite clear here that there is no additionality and that it is simply part of the existing licence fee which is being diverted in this direction. It is also notable that it has been reported that at least one senior member of the Minister's staff seems to have been completely opposed to his course of action in setting aside 5%. I believe it was Fintan O'Toole who said that revenue was at the heart of independence, and independence at the heart of public sector broadcasting. He went on to say that a public broadcaster must, first and foremost, provide a service to the public as a whole and not to commercial or sectoral interests. Those include, as the broadcasting forum underlines, its political masters.
Before last year's licence fee increase, the dependence of the national public broadcaster on advertising had become extremely unbalanced, and its independence could certainly have been threatened in that regard. As we read in the media, year on year there are concerns for that independence from political masters regarding indexation. The diversion of 5% of the licence fee can be seen as weakening our national broadcaster's independence. The revenue targets for this year presented to the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources seemed to indicate that the station was reaching a good situation, with an almost 50-50 split between advertising and licence fee revenue.
The Minister has said that the details will be worked out later and presented to us in the form of regulations. However, it is striking that the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, or BCI, is itself due to undergo massive change. Possibly, as RTE and others have long contended, we are to have a totally new broadcasting authority for Ireland. It is not clear from the Bill how exactly the BCI or its successor would work as the commissioning agent for this valuable new, locally-based material. My colleague has questioned the amount which the Minister stated in the Seanad would be devoted to administration. I believe that the figure was around €400,000. On the basis of simple economies of scale, one would have to ask whether it might not have been better to have asked the national public service broadcaster to embrace those purposes itself in a special commissioning role, thereby being able to benefit from such economies. Neither the BCI nor its predecessor appears to have a great track record on news and public service broadcasting obligations. It has often been argued that those obligations have been watered down – or were allowed to be watered down – so that stations would become commercially viable, as we have seen. Many of those stations have now been taken over by foreign and other interests.
The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, has been quoted in the newspapers shouting at the stable door after the horse has bolted, lamenting that our valuable radio spectrum, which had been allocated to local broadcasters, was sold off at an inflated value to incoming companies. The Minister has said he will introduce legislation in this regard but I wonder whether he will.
There are many questions about how the fund and the commissioning of works under it will be administered. The idea of having a public service broadcasting editorial viewpoint is to be welcomed. It is often said that one of the problems with RTE was that it was oriented too much towards the eastern region when it should have been more regionally oriented. That notwithstanding, until the recent commitment from RTE, there was no Dublin correspondent for the public service broadcaster. We do not want monoliths in the public service, as was the case when, for example, Éamon de Valera was our leader and his friends sang every night on our single RTE station, there being little other choice. The Labour Party feels that this funding could have been better sourced and that we should not have interfered with the fundamental idea of the licence for the national public service broadcaster.
RTE is facing into a period of massive change. The Minister has said he is considering transferring RTE to company status as the idea of the BAI evolves. There has also been a dramatic increase in competition from foreign cable and satellite stations. RTE appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, of which Deputy Coveney and I are members, this time last year and a couple of months ago. It must be acknowledged that the broadcaster has made impressive strides towards implementing the forum on broadcasting report and the conditions which the Minister laid down, in particular, the long-term strategy and business plan, integrated business divisions, the audience council, the broadcasting charter and the statement of commitments. The statement of commitments captured public attention this time last year and since then the six stations of the national broadcaster have delivered on those commitments.
There have been some problems. At the most recent committee meeting, issues of possible conflicts of interest and codes of practice at the national broadcaster were raised. I hope lessons have been learned from the issues which arose recently. At the time of the television licence fee increase last year, it was assumed that it was the beginning of indexation. There then seemed to be a period in which the Department was unsure and was sending out mixed signals. The Sunday Business Post recently reported correspondence between the Department and PricewaterhouseCoopers in regard to the targets which RTE has to meet, such as monthly reviews, financial results, comparing programme outputs with plans and change management strategy. It could be said that the national broadcaster is being invigilated more closely than ever. In this context, there is concern at any attempt to water down the role of the licence.
The Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, referred at length to the digital platform. The Minister's speech in the Seanad seemed to be defensive in that he stated he was glad RTE did not take action on it since it could have been exposed to serious implications, given the disaster of the ITV digital platform. Nevertheless, we are in an era of massive change and opportunity for public service broadcasting in the digital area and the Minister should address it as soon as possible. We have asked him repeatedly to address the issues in regard to the Astra 2D satellite and the free reception of the eight BBC channels. It is striking that the BBC has been able to strengthen its independence and remit in regard to the services it provides to the public. There are key problems associated with RTE joining such a platform but it is a challenge to the Minister and one which he should address on our behalf as soon as possible.
In section 2 the Minister has set out a list of desirable aims in respect of additional programming of history, the natural environment, the rural vernacular tradition and the Irish language, for which I commend him. Like other Members, representations were made to me about aspects which we could have considered under this funding as it evolves, as I would have done had the funding evolved from a different source. The Irish association of non-governmental development organisations, Dóchas, feels there should be some reference in programmes to Ireland's role in international affairs in the increasingly globalised world, an aspect of which is referred to in the Bill. However, it could be examined more closely.
I particularly welcome reference to the archiving of programme material. Some of the best work done by local and community stations has been local archiving, even from the minimal level of recording senior citizens and their valuable experiences of history, many of who know intimately the world of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and so on. The archiving of such material in digital and other formats for transmission to the generations is a wonderful resource. I also welcome the qualifications set down in subsection (2) in regard to peak time and the free television service.
My colleague referred at length to the issue of access rights for people with disabilities. It is interesting we are debating this Bill on a day in which there are many visitors to Leinster House in groups representing citizens with disabilities. The communications committee, chaired by Deputy O'Flynn, met people who represent those who are hard of hearing, such as the Irish Deaf Society and so on. RTE must be commended for the tremendous strides it has made in achieving the 80% level in this regard. I accept the expensive nature of this provision but if one is to run a national station on a purely commercial basis or part-funded by the public, these issues must be addressed. It is pointless if a significant number of citizens cannot follow what is going on.
Deputy Coveney introduced legislation, although I got the impression when I met some of the groups that a number of Opposition parties were to do this together. Nevertheless, I support what Fine Gael has done. The BCI is holding a consultation process in respect of access rules and I strongly urge the Minister to follow up on that issue in order that, as Deputy Coveney stated, rigorous targets and a timeframe are specified regarding the eventuality of all television signals being digitally captured. This will ensure that some citizens will not be left in a position where they cannot follow.
We received many representations from groups in community radio and television such as the Community Media Network and others. I welcome the tremendous achievements all over this island in the area of community broadcasting. In the territory in which I live, the north side of Dublin, one of the leading stations, North-East Access Radio, is run on a shoestring and must utilise community employment and similar supports. There should always have been some sort of broadcasting fund for the public sector, but not financed in the way outlined in the Bill. It is clear that such a fund is needed to try to support local radio stations. Most of the bodies that contacted us were concerned about seed funding, capital funding and how to go about setting up a station. If these stations could get up and running, they would serve an important need in terms of local and community affairs.
The national broadcaster, RTE, TV3 and other major stations such as Today FM should always have had a role of linking up with community broadcasting. One of the most valuable things the community stations have done is to train young broadcasters who are often a few years later seen in the environs of the House working for national broadcasters. That is a matter to which further consideration could be given in the context of the Bill.
The Specialist Radio Association has an interesting viewpoint on the way the spectrum could develop in the future, particularly if we abandon the analogue system and go completely digital. This is another issue the Minister should address. Brandenburg state in Germany has switched off the analogue system completely and moved to digital transmission. However, Stockholm in Sweden and Salt Lake City in the US have perhaps 60 stations which all appear to be viable. Each of these is a niche station providing different types of music and services, be they community, regional or whatever. We should keep an open mind in respect of this area. We should also be careful in terms of what could happen to stations of this sort in the future. The Minister tried to shut the stable door recently by referring to the selling on of stations. Perhaps he needs to address this issue further.
There was a widespread assumption in the past that some of the larger commercial stations were allowed to jettison public service requirements in the interests of commercial viability. A large number of stations in the Dublin region have strikingly similar outputs and formats. It is rare that we have the opportunity to debate broadcasting matters. In that context, I commend the Dublin news station Newstalk 106 which has played an important role in the development of political discourse in the capital. There may be an opportunity to establish such a station on a national level, both through public broadcasting and in the commercial arena.
One other area in respect of which there have been debates in recent weeks, particularly when the Houses took their mid-term break, is that of parliamentary broadcasting. It seems that Ireland is significantly behind the times in this regard, particularly if one considers the achievements of C-SPAN, the not for profit, cable operator in the United States on which people can watch the proceedings of the House of Representatives and the Senate. There is also BBC Parliament, one of the stations to which I referred earlier. I commend TG4 in respect of the trail it blazed on the DIRT inquiry and in terms of covering the proceedings of the House. Our business is that of the people. It is extremely important and they should be able to watch our deliberations right now.
Members of Oireachtas committees work hard. The Chairman of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, who is present in the Chamber, and Deputy Coveney are aware that last week the committee spent six hours, without a break, debating the topic of aquaculture, an important area of our remit. Two of the newspapers carried reports of perhaps two lines each about our deliberations on that matter. Those present at the meeting, scientists, representatives of the industries, hard-working Deputies and the Chairman, had a good discussion on the matter. It is a pity that our proceedings could not have been shown live because there are at least 100,000 in Mayo, Galway, the south-west and in Howth in my constituency who would have watched because of their interest in that particular area. Either through the Bill or some other device, we should consider the issue of parliamentary broadcasting now and in the future.
There are a number of areas relating to section 2 the Minister might re-examine. I welcome his bringing forward key legislation in respect of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. In some ways, that should have preceded the Bill before us. I understand that we are to have a further debate on TG4. We have made submissions to the BCI in respect of advertising, particularly that which relates to children. These are all matters of interest for the future.
I welcome the concept of the fund. However, I am concerned about the way in which it will be put in place, namely, through appropriating a slice of the licence fee for the public sector broadcaster. I will be interested in hearing the Minister's response to the concerns I have raised.
Mr. Connolly Mr. Connolly
Mr. Connolly:I propose to share time with Deputies Eamon Ryan, Crowe and Ó Snodaigh.
Dr. Cowley Dr. Cowley
Acting Chairman (Dr. Cowley):Is that agreed? Agreed.
Mr. Connolly Mr. Connolly
Mr. Connolly:I welcome the Bill as a major step in the continuing evolution of quality public service broadcasting in this country. Broadcasting is one of the most important media through which the right to freedom of expression, that is, to receive and impart information and ideas freely and without interference, is realised. The Bill refers to new and innovative public service broadcasting. Approximately €7 per household from the television licence fee will be allocated to the fund.
Public service broadcasting is becoming increasingly relevant. Its importance in terms of developing our national identity should not be underestimated. The Bill heralds the future development of public service broadcasting in Ireland following changes in recent years which were driven by technology and an increased emphasis on the cultural and civic importance of broadcasting. Recent developments include the growth in the numbers of private and local broadcasters, satellite and cable technology, digital television and what has become known as the technological convergence.
Such developments also highlight, to a greater degree than ever, the need for excellence in public service broadcasting because they have promoted ownership concentration and globalisation, with adverse implications for diversity and quality in programming. The examples of Silvio Berlusconi's domination in Italy, CNN's homogeneity in worldwide fare and Rupert Murdoch's far-flung television empire come readily to mind in that regard.
It is to be hoped that the Bill will initiate greater debate about how broadcasters should fulfil their public service mandate and about how the needs of the public will be met by broadcasters in the future. The Bill will also serve to place the principles of public service broadcasting at the centre of the broadcasting agenda. These principles are: universality of availability; universality of appeal; provision for minorities; serving the public good; a commitment to education, independence and autonomy; competition and good performing; and a liberal and open environment for programme makers. In the 21st century, public service broadcasting should not provide a haven for a nostalgic view of the past in isolation.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.
Dáil Éireann 575 Broadcasting (Funding) Bill 2003 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage.