Seanad Éireann - Volume 146 - 22 February, 1996

Broadcasting Policy: Statements.

Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht (Mr. M. Higgins): is breá liom go bhfuair mé deiseanna ar ócáidí éagsúla ó ceapadh mé mar Aire Ealaíon, Cultúir agus Gaeltachta, le freagracht orm i ndáil le polasaí craolacháin, teacht isteach sa Teach seo chun páirt a ghlacadh i ndíospóireachtaí faoi chúrsaí craolacháin. Perhaps the most significant of these debates was during the passage of the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1993, through its various Stages before this House.

I believe it is opportune to reflect on developments since that time. The 1993 legislation was passed and, in removing the statutory advertising revenue and [877] minutage limits imposed by the Broadcasting Act, 1990, addressed a then serious and growing crisis in the broadcasting, advertising, marketing and independent film production sectors. The 1993 Act also required RTÉ to make available a specific and growing amount of funding each year for the commissioning of independently produced programmes. RTÉ's report on the first year of the operation of these provisions, which was laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas in May of last year, showed that a total of 258 hours of programming at a cost of £5.53 million were commissioned. Independent programmes covered a number of programme stands, including features and sport, current affairs, drama, Irish language programmes, agriculture and gardening, variety, documentaries and young peoples' programming.

I welcomed the generally positive tone of the report and I believe it shows the capacity of independent Irish programme makers to contribute to the schedules of the national broadcaster. The report on RTÉ activities in 1995, during which the figure for independent productions was £6.5 million, is due before 31 March and I look forward to another successful year of commissioned programmes.

Another major development in broadcasting matters was the decision by Government to proceed with the establishment of Teilifís na Gaeilge as a separate national channel. Senators will be aware that until Teilifís na Gaeilge can be established as a separate legal entity, RTÉ have been entrusted with the establishment and initial operation of the station. RTÉ has appointed an advisory committee — Comhairle Theilifís Gaeilge — to advise on certain matters, such as staffing, the character of the new service and the stockpiling of programmes prior to transmission.

RTÉ expects that the service will come on air on 31 October this year. A considerable amount of the technical infrastructure has been built. Tá tús curtha leis an obair thógála do Cheannáras Theilifís na Gaeilge i mBaile na hAbhann. [878] Tá roinnt de na príomh-tharchurad óirí insealbhaithe, agus tástáil déanta orthu, cheana féin agus beidh an próiséas sin críochnaithe leis na príomhtharchuradó irí uile faoi dheireadh an Earraigh. Tá an obair i nDáil leis an gcóras ceangail tarchuradóireachta ag dul ar aghaidh go maith freisin.

On the programming side, the first round of commissions was published in April 1995. De thoradh an chéad bhabhta coimisiúnaithe, tá Teilifís na Gaeilge tar éis conradh a thairiscint cheana féin do bhreis agus fiche comhlacht léirithe i ngach cúige den tír, Tuaisceart Éireann ina measc. De thoradh na gconarthaí seo, beidh 30 uair a chloig de chláracha nua á léiriú don stáisiún. Creidim gur sheol os cionn 40 comhlacht iarratais isteach de thoradh an dara babhta coimisiúnaithe agus go bhfuil na hiarratais sin á meas faoi láthair, rud atá fior freisin faoi na tairiscintí do léiriú Ros na Rún. There is no doubt but that considerable benefits will accrue to the independent companies as a result. A second round was published in September 1995 and the staff of Teilifís na Gaeilge have high hopes of success in this round also.

The local radio sector continues to consolidate its position as an essential part of the choice of broadcasting services available to the Irish viewer and listener. Senators will also be aware that the Independent Radio and Television Commission recently awarded the franchise for a national independent radio service and is in consultation with the promoters of a national independent television service. These undertakings will, if successful — and I wish them every success — add considerably to the choice on offer to Irish viewers and listeners.

This brings me to the Green Paper on the future of broadcasting — an Páipéar Glas. The developments, to which I have already referred, provide a sound basis on which to formulate a strategy and policy for the future. However, it would be foolhardy not to recognise that there are many challenges facing us in the future as the world of broadcasting [879] changes through technological development and changes in attitude to the regulation of the broadcasting sector. Our broadcasting structures are essentially 30 years old and it is time to review them. It is vital, in attempting to devise a regulatory environment and structures for broadcasting which will last into the next century, that we set a clear philosophical foundation on which to build our regulatory structure.

I have subtitled the Green Paper — “Active or Passive? Broadcasting in the Future Tense” — nó mar atá san fhotheideal Gaeilge, “Gníomhach nó Fulangach? Fáthmheas ar an Réimse Craolacháin”. The key question for us all to address is whether in the future we become passive consumers of a product manufactured and distributed by some distant conglomerate, or are we to be active and in control of our culture and our means of expression; is broadcasting to be an essential element of a healthy democratic process or is it to become in effect an electronic dictator? Those questions were posed at the core of the Green Paper which was derived from my general cultural policy of being democratic, participatory and interactive. On the other hand, the question arose as to whether broadcasting would be elitist, market-driven and exclusive, the opposite of my proposal. I welcome the fact that this is a matter of some debate.

The Green Paper was designed to stimulate a broad ranging and constructive debate on the future of broadcasting in Ireland. It raised over 50 issues. These included the future and relevance of public service broadcasting; the funding of broadcasting services; Irish language broadcasting. It asks such questions as: is the existing duopoly in broadcasting bodies appropriate for the future; should broadcast transmission be a separate commercial activity; are the statutory obligations relating to objectivity and impartiality being observed; should RTÉ radio and television be split up; what are the best structures for Teilifís na Gaeilge and where does Raidió na [880] Gaeltachta fit in; is there a demand for regional, local and community television services and how can they be facilitated; how are children and young people to be served by our broadcasting services; where does broadcasting fit in relation to the education system; how can editorial choice in news and current affairs programming be provided for listeners and viewers nationally in the absence of alternative national services to those provided by RTÉ and where does international broadcasting fit into the scheme of things?

The Green Paper, as is the norm, did not, in general, draw any conclusions. Rather it raised issues that seemed to be important in an attempt to set the framework for the debate and, as can be seen, the many issues raised are on two levels, the philosophical and the practical. I believe that they can be reduced to three questions: what is public service broadcasting? Is it relevant in today's broadcasting environment and, if so, can we guarantee its future?

I am pleased to inform the House that I have received 130 responses to the Green Paper from a wide range of interests including broadcasters, programme makers, commentators, representative associations, trade unions, interested viewers and listeners and, of course, political parties. I have become familiar with many of the points of view expressed and the process of developing firm proposals on the core issues is beginning to get under way.

When I published the Green Paper, I had intended to follow with a White Paper in which my proposals for the future would be laid out. However, I am concerned at the amount of time the publication of a formal White Paper would add to the legislative process. It is now my intention to bring my new legislative proposals to Government during the course of this year. However, there will be an opportunity to debate and comment on the definitive legislative proposals that will emerge. Senators will appreciate that I cannot bring forward proposals for debate or take definite stances on the details of what might [881] emerge from the process until I have had the opportunity to bring proposals to Government.

I have been clear that it is my conviction that the public service model of broadcasting with, as I have described before, its inherent democratic values is the model that will best serve the interests of Irish citizens in the future. If this is the accepted view, we will have to face up to what this may entail in terms of revised structures and funding.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of turning the first sod at the site of the headquarters for Teilifís na Gaeilge in Baile na hAbhainn. In my speech on that occasion I referred to the debate about Teilifís na Gaeilge as being a debate about national self respect, féin mheas náisiúnta. This is true about broadcasting and media in general. I was particularly interested in Professor Finbar Bradley's contribution to the Teilifís na Gaeilge debate in today's Irish Times. Professor Bradley recognises that there is more to a broadcasting service than simply whether the service makes money. He recognises the contribution a service such as Teilifís na Gaeilge can make in social, cultural and economic terms by the contribution it makes to national self-confidence and a spirit of self-reliance.

We are undoubtedly at a crossroads in relation to the impact of technology on our lives, particularly in relation to the media. I repeat that model which I have, to some extent, taken from the late Professor Raymond Williams's thinking — active or passive, are we to be the arrow or the target? Broadcasting with its ability to reach into the lives of everyone on a constant basis can have a fundamental impact on how we think, how we shape our views of ourselves and of the world, how we put contemporary events into context and how we evolve our system of values. If broadcasters who are part of and responsible to the communities which they serve and with which they interact cannot be sustained and supported in the new environment, then we are condemning our audiences to being no [882] more than targets for the sale of goods and services. We, as legislators, must ensure that there will be access for Irish voices and views and that the creativity of Irish programme makers can be affirmed in a complex array of audiovisual services which is becoming available. When I speak about voices, I mean all the different voices. We have tried to evolve to a point where we have included many people whose voices were lost before.

I am aware that some Senators have been interested in subscription or pay per view television services, particularly the buying up of exclusive rights to major sporting events. This is just one practical example of what I mean when I say that public service broadcasters with their tradition of universal reception must be supported. I am sure many viewers would consider RTÉ to have failed in its public service remit if it did not provide coverage of the All-Ireland finals or soccer and rugby international matches. I realise that in Britain certain events are listed to prevent them going exclusively to pay per view channels, but I cannot say at present if similar legislation would be possible or appropriate here. One cannot simply legislate away the rights of sporting organisations, particularly international bodies. We may have to ensure that public service broadcasters can compete with the transnational services which would seek to corner the market on popular programming.

As I said in chapter 1 of the Green Paper, broadcasting exists today within a set of contradictions. One can have great expectations for broadcasting. It can be the motor of modernisation, cultural innovation, social transformation and democratisation. It can cultivate a healthy public sphere in which national self-confidence flourishes and is oriented towards the future as a set of challenges to be met in a progressive way. It can critically interrogate a nation's history, culture and identity and offer a vantage point for the renewal of that heritage. Radio, because of its relatively inexpensive operating costs compared [883] with television and its less daunting technology for participants, can be an essential vehicle to facilitate public communication and debate.

However, broadcasting can also be a threat, putting profit motive against collective rights, deterritorialised imperialism against minority cultural needs. It can disfigure us politically, homogenise us linguistically and depress our inclination for cultural expression. Despite this depressing list of threats I am not pessimistic in my expectations for the future. I am confident that we can together identify ways in which, through legislation, we can maximise the promise and reduce the threat.

Faoi mar atá ráite agam, is amhlaidh go bhfuilimíd ag crosbhealach ó thaobh na teicneolaíochta de, agus ó thaobh na meán cumarsáide ach go háirithe. Tá sé rí-thábhachtach, mar sin, go ndéanfaí breithniú cúramach ar bhonn forleathan ar an todhchaí atá ag teastáil uainn i ndáil leis na gcúrsaí seo uile. Sa chomhthéacs sin, cuirim fáilte ar leith roimh an díospóireacht sa Teach seo inniú agus beidh mé ag tnúth go mór le tuairimí na Seanadóirí a fháil.

Mr. Mooney: The Minister has brought an intellectual approach to broadcasting which, perhaps, has been lacking for the past couple of decades. However, he tends to wrap his impressive rhetoric in flannel. I do not want to take away from the Minister's sincerity in trying to improve or reform broadcasting, but several statements in the past leave a lot to be desired. I hope the Minister will clarify a few issues.

The Minister talks about clear philosophical foundations yet he does not explain what he means by his philosophy. He said he is clear in his conviction that the “public service model of broadcasting with its inherent democratic values is the model that will best serve the interests of Irish citizens in the future”. Perhaps he could clarify his concept of “public service broadcasting” and whether he believes, for example, that RTÉ, which has had a [884] monopoly for the past 30 years, has an inherent democratic value in terms of what it gives to its public and how it decides its programming policy. Eamon de Valera once said that when he wanted to know what the people were thinking, he looked into his heart. I sometimes believe that RTÉ looks into its heart whenever it is deciding what the people need.

Mr. Magner: I thought Fianna Fáil still did that.

Mr. Mooney: Any comments I make are in the context of the arguments put forward rather than anything the Minister might say.

Broadcasting, as expounded by the Minister, is sometimes conveyed as a mysterious alien force which needs to be intellectualised and which must have certain aesthetic qualities when, in fact, it is about turning on the radio or television and deciding whether one enjoys what they hear or see. I am anxious to explore the Minister's concept of public service broadcasting and what he believes it should deliver to the listener and viewer.

It is now acknowledged by all broadcasting and media commentators that we have entered a hostile broadcasting environment which threatens our Irishness and our position as a cultural entity. I agree with the Minister's remarks that broadcasting can also be a threat to our identity. I am confident that the future of this country's cultural identity and its Irishness are safe in the Minister's hands.

The imminent commencement of TV3 and the granting last week of a new independent commercial radio licence will severely test RTÉ's ability to survive. The increasing strengths of satellite television, the promise by the Murdoch organisation to launch 100 new television channels by the end of the year, the decision by the British Government to allocate 30 new digital television channels to the BBC and ITV and the imminent launch of Channel 5 will provide RTÉ with the biggest ever [885] challenge to its existence since its inception in 1961. The Minister recognises this and obviously will be taking steps, in so far as he can, to protect our national broadcasting service.

The onward march of tabloid TV has already breached the so-called quality threshold in the UK, with both BBC and ITV reducing the amount of transmission time for investigative programming in order to satisfy a television audience that is going distinctly down-market. The Minister and I agree that is not a development we would welcome. The Government must intervene by setting quality thresholds in programme schedules. However, by the year's end — and sadly for the legislative process — in only one station of a myriad of choices will the Government have any role to play and that is RTÉ. I say this in the context of the licences granted to both TV3 and Radio Ireland. I appreciate that ongoing negotiations between the Independent Radio and Television Commission and the two sponsors involved will have to agree certain programming parameters. I have no doubt the Minister will be directing policy in that area, as is his right and indeed statutory obligation.

In the UK, Granada Television and Yorkshire Television, two of the outstanding programme makers in the area of documentaries and investigative reporting, are under budgetary threat to cut back on programmes such as “World in Action”, which has a very proud record. Unless a proper financial structure is put in place I fear for the future viability of RTÉ television. If the examples I have cited in the larger UK market are putting the quality threshold under threat, how will RTÉ be able to survive in the new environment about to come upon us?

As the Minister and the general public will be aware, the former chairman of the RTÉ Authority, Mr. John Sorohan, in his annual report has signalled the difficulties that will face RTÉ. Mr. Sorohan states that commercial revenue now represents 60 per cent of total revenue and he goes to state “it is unsatisfactory [886] that the future of the broadcasting service is so dependent on a single and potentially volatile source of income.” This is something the Minister touched on when he referred to the commercialisation as distinct from the public service ethos of broadcasting in this country. It is already creeping inexorably over RTÉ's budgetary position.

Mr. Sorohan adds that the ability to develop and sustain improved programming services is dependent on security of expectation in relation to revenue. In other words, give RTÉ its licence increase now, because this is the time to provide that increase, not 12 months time when further competition both internally and externally will have further eroded RTÉ's audience base. Its lack of resources will prevent it from developing, as Mr. Sorohan again states in his annual report, “a properly managed information service within a comprehensive range of quality programming offering a multiplicity of choice for all the citizens of the State.”

Although I know John Sorohan wrote that himself, the Minister could also have written it because there is an empathy in the aspirations both men would have in that regard. That is exactly what the Minister has been saying here today about a comprehensive range of quality programming offering a multiplicity of choice for all the citizens of the State. They cannot do that if they do not have the money.

I wish to put on record that I do not believe the Minister acted in the best interests of RTÉ and public service broadcasting by diverting £5 million of RTÉ's income to Teilifís na Gaeilge. It was always believed that this new service would be funded from the Exchequer; yet he has removed over half of RTÉ's operating surplus for the year. The RTÉ annual report states that this surplus is barely adequate to meet the investment required to develop and expand programming services and to keep abreast of technological change. I hope therefore that the Minister will give some indication in this debate of [887] how he believes RTÉ can fund its future needs in the face of huge competition.

I would now like to deal with the decision to proceed with Teilifís na Gaeilge. As the Minister is aware, Fianna Fáil published its own position paper on broadcasting last week. I do not intend to go into much of its detail other than to cover certain aspects of it. I know the Minister will have read it, as he has the other 130 submissions made in response to the Green Paper. We support the concept as it was an initiative instigated by Fianna Fáil while in Government. I support that policy, but the information to date on how this new service will operate should be open to scrutiny.

It is proposed that the new service will transmit for three hours each evening between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. and between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. RTÉ will be required to provide one hour of this programming schedule with the remainder sourced by the new station and/or the independent sector. While RTÉ are providing this one hour of Irish language programming they will also be expected to continue to discharge the statutory obligations under the 1961 Act. This will result in Irish television viewers having the option to view Irish language programmes on two national channels, which is hardly a sensible allocation of scarce resources.

New transmitters are currently being installed to service Teilifís na Gaeilge. Is the Minister aware of concerns expressed to me that, when operable, Teilifís na Gaeilge will directly interfere with the many deflector TV systems operating along the west coast, especially in Donegal, Mayo and the Minister's own constituency of Galway West? The Minister is aware of the ongoing controversy in Donegal between those who are benefiting from the deflector systems and the companies who own the legal franchise to operate cable systems in their franchise area. I suggest that the rows and arguments in that area will be nothing to the war that will break out if the new service interferes with the existing capacity to [888] receive multi-channel television in the west of Ireland. The Minister may comment on that. If it is true it is yet another example of the lack of thought and preparation that has gone into setting up the new Irish language television service.

I ask the Minister to comment on statements made by the Ceannaire of Teilifís na Gaeilge recently that TV time could be sold to third parties, such as shopping channels, in order to generate income for the new service. This space would be sold in the two hour period from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. when Teilifís na Gaeilge would not be transmitting Irish language programmes. If implemented this proposal will, at a stroke, dilute the impact of Teilifís na Gaeilge as a separate channel dedicated to the promotion of the Irish language. If the Minister had accepted RTÉ's original suggestion to allocate two hours per night of prime time television on Network Two to Irish language programming, many of the criticisms being levelled at his recent initiative could have been avoided. However, as I stated at the outset, Fianna Fáil are on board on this one and I have no intention of departing from that.

A number of submissions to the Minister in response to the Green Paper referred to the continuing status of 2FM, RTÉ's second radio channel. The Fianna Fáil position is that in order to more properly fulfil its public service mandate, 2FM should return to its original scheduling when the station commenced in 1979 and adopt a broader musical concept with the reintroduction of music programmes that reflect the various strands of interest in Irish society. Traditional Irish music is one of the success stories of the Irish music industry in recent years. “Riverdance” is just one example of the widespread acceptance of Irish music presented in a contemporary setting. There is also a huge audience for easy listening and middle of the road music, which I suggest is not adequately catered for either by 2FM or Radio One.

[889] Music programmes contribute little more than 10 per cent of Radio One's daily output. It is no surprise therefore that they are losing audiences to local radio. According to today's newspapers there has been a further 3 per cent drop in RTÉ Radio One's audience figures and the total Radio One and 2FM audience figures are giving cause for concern. Not only will these audience losses continue but they will suffer a dramatic drop in revenue next autumn when Radio Ireland, with its publicly stated commitment to provide 60 per cent musical output per day, comes on stream.

The Minister has an important statutory obligation to intervene in directing policy where RTÉ is concerned if it is not operating in the public interest. I am sure the Minister would agree with that. He does have a statutory obligation to be involved in the policy of the national network, although not in its day to day operations. After all, this is what the debate, the exercise of providing a Green Paper and subsequent legislation are all about. The Independent Radio and Television Commission in its submission to the Minister is critical of 2FM schedules. I would like to publicly commend the head of 2FM, Mr. Bill O'Donovan, for his successful stewardship and the management of the station, which is a success, and the dedication of his small permanent and freelance workforce.

The Independent Radio and Television Commission in its references to 2FM also states that it is essential that a clear mandate should be drawn up for the station. It also states that primary consideration must be given to its public service broadcasting commitments and that the support for the licence fee should be based solely on the station fulfilling the public service functions allotted to it.

Members of the Independent Radio and Television Commission also express their concern that an increasing concentration of television is being placed in the hands of a small elite group of highly paid broadcasters. They say there [890] is a widely held view that these broadcasters can, and sometimes do, wield a level of influence which is inappropriate for an individual in a semi-State organisation. There is genuine concern about these matters relating to radio and, to a lesser extent, television at the highest levels in RTÉ and a clear policy direction in the Minister's legislative proposals would be welcomed.

The role of RTÉ as an ambassador for Ireland should not be underestimated. As a broadcaster of some 20 years standing and a former emigrant, I have always been conscious of the Irish diaspora and I have fought long and hard within RTÉ for increased programming that relates to Irish exiles abroad. I congratulate those within RTÉ, such as Mr. Wesley Boyd, who have championed the cause of extending transmission facilities overseas. Hardly a month passes without a new announcement of the extension of RTÉ's international voice, most recently to Asia and the Far East.

As a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs' subcommittee on Northern Ireland, I raised the issue of an extension of RTÉ to the North. I was informed that our British friends were dragging their heels in accommodating an increase in transmission power across the Border. Television and, to a lesser extent, radio is the great leveller. It is unacceptable that significant portions of the population in the north-east of this island are unable to pick up RTÉ television.

I am pleased to inform the House that such is the demand for RTÉ programmes in the Belfast area that in recent weeks advertisements have appeared in local newspapers offering an aerial and installation to receive RTÉ television for the modest sum of £75. I understand the sponsors of this initiative have been inundated with inquiries. The Minister should make sure our transmitters are sufficiently boosted to ensure the RTÉ radio and television signal covers all Ireland. I am aware of the international conventions, but people often ask how it is possible [891] that one can receive BBC radio programmes throughout most of the island. At times in the evening one can pick up radio stations in Tunisia and the north African coast loud and clear, but one cannot get RTÉ television in the middle of London or Belfast.

In its policy document Fianna Fáil calls for more programmes for emigrants. These programmes should be primarily, but not exclusively, music based. My experience proves that the vast majority of listeners to Irish radio overseas want to hear Irish music, sport and news. The new national radio service, which will transmit on AM as well as FM, will, I hope, fill a glaring gap in this area, although I would much prefer RTÉ to develop this type of programming itself. For example, I have long argued that the wavelengths should be split from 7 p.m., with emigrant type programmes transmitted on medium wave. This would release the current talk programmes onto the FM band. I am conscious this is a reversal of the usual trend as music has a greater clarity on FM. However, due to its limitations, FM would only be picked up within the island of Ireland and this would defeat the purpose of the exercise. I am not sure if the Minister has received any specific request from RTÉ in the area of split wavelengths, but from informal discussions over a number of years I am aware the Minister might not be adverse to a formal approach on this matter. However, perhaps the situation has changed.

I welcome, as the Minister has done, the TV3 service which will come on stream before Christmas and I wish them well. It is an important contributor to the increasing diversity of opinion in Irish broadcasting. I particularly welcome the creation of a news and current affairs broadcasting outlet separate from RTÉ. However, I hasten to add that the RTÉ news and current affairs output is second to none and the sponsors of TV3 and those promoting Radio Ireland will have impressive competition in this area.

[892] I am against monopolies in principle, a view shaped perhaps by over 20 years of experience in Irish broadcasting. It is, therefore, vital in a democracy and in an age where the visual impact of television is immediate that we in Ireland should have an alternative editorial view of what constitutes news. The Minister referred to this aspect in his introduction.

Sadly, RTÉ has a perception of being Dublin based, particularly in its news output, and news executives in RTÉ would be the first to admit that their efforts to regionalise news coverage has not met with great success. In defence of the news editors in RTÉ, their contribution to this perception is more by omission than any conspiracy by the Dublin 4 set to ignore anything that happens outside the confines of that much maligned Dublin district. One glaring example is that it snowed all over the west over Christmas but nobody outside the area knew anything about it. However, we knew what was happening in Northern Ireland and Scotland from filmed reports.

I appreciate that executives and journalists, like everybody else, are entitled to spend Christmas with their families', but television, radio and the communications industry generally is a 52 week, seven days a week, 24 hours a day service. However, my experience has been that when I contracted to present radio programmes over the Christmas period, there were several occasions — the most recent of which was last year — on which I was required to make a 200 mile round trip from my home in County Leitrim to present programmes live. Forgive me if I am unsympathetic to claims that, after all, it was Christmas.

Does the Minister have any proposals in the short term to introduce an amendment to the Broadcasting Bill preventing the purchase of rights to our national sporting events by subscriber pay per view satellite stations? The Minister touched on this matter and said he must examine it. However, I ask him to expand on it a little more because this [893] issue is serious in terms of future sporting events in this country.

I also express concern at the recent takeovers and mergers in the communications industry in the UK following the Government's deregulation of cross media ownership. I refer specifically to the take over by Granada Television of a regional television station and the subsequent dramatic rise in the share price of Ulster Television on the London stock market. As the Minister is aware, the market is currently in a merger frenzy and financial commentators have been speculating for some weeks on the possible takeover of Ulster Television by Granada or its other major competitor, Carlton Communications.

As the Minister is aware, UTV has a 49 per cent interest in TV3 and if that company is taken over, as seems more than possible, it will result in a UK based communications giant having almost majority control of one of Ireland's national television stations. I am sure the Minister agrees this would not be a welcome development. Does he have any plans to introduce legislation preventing such an outcome?

I appreciate the Minister has received a significant number of submissions in recent months from a wide variety of sources and that he requires time to consider the many proposals put forward, as he outlined. However, he does not have much time to implement a broadcasting strategy for the future. I hope he does not delay his Broadcasting Bill and I look forward to hearing his thoughts in this area at the conclusion of this important debate. I thank the Minister for coming to the House to give a preliminary view of his position in relation to the current ongoing debate about a most important industry. As I said earlier, we may differ in the nuances, but we are in agreement on the substantive issue of protecting and nurturing a national, separate identity in a broadcasting context in this country.

Mr. Ross: I welcome the Minister to the House. His presence is always a great privilege for Members, even if we [894] do not necessarily concur with his words; it would be surprising if that was the case. In common with Senator Mooney, I declare an interest in the Bill as, like him, 50 per cent of those earning money in my house derive it exclusively from RTÉ. Anything I say should be considered in that light, although nothing I say will contrive or contribute towards any increase in that income.

The Minister's speech is still, unfortunately, riddled with the rhetoric with which we have become accustomed. It is still vague on specifics. I admire the Minister's ability, not only to write his own speeches, which is obvious, but also to write the entire Green Paper. If one reads it, there is no doubt that nobody else could possibly have written it or produced gems such as those contained in the Minister's speech — for example “deterritorialised imperialism”. I have not heard about imperialism for many years and it is welcome and refreshing to hear it is back.

Mr. Cassidy: I noticed that.

Mr. Ross: I had forgotten about it. The Minister's speech is indicative of a political philosophy which he genuinely wishes to see permeate our broadcasting services. Nobody can blame the Minister for that. However, I do not share that philosophy and favour a different philosophy. Neither of us will be satisfied, but I hope we will see balance in the new era.

I was disappointed that neither of the previous speakers addressed the politicisation of RTÉ. It is time we talked openly and plainly about the fact that the RTÉ Authority is a politically appointed body. From this fact stems the whole ethos running through RTÉ. This is not the fault of the Minister, who had the privilege to appoint the recent Authority, but of all Governments. It is a perk of the office of the Minister of the day to appoint to the RTÉ Authority those whom he considers to share his philosophy. There is no point in pretending otherwise. It is an unfortunate [895] characteristic of broadcasting in this country.

Not long ago I wrote to a large number of semi-State bodies asking them to advise on the attendance of members to board meetings in view of the fact that those attending such meetings are paid with public money. I was especially interested in RTÉ because it is the promoter and champion of openness and transparency. I understand the chairman of the RTÉ Authority is remunerated to the amount of approximately £6,000 per year while it is £4,000 in respect of other members.

To give them their due, most semi-State bodies provided me with specific attendance records. RTÉ wrote back and told me to jump in a lake; it was not my business or anybody else's to know if members attended meetings. These are the people who are promoting the interrogation of politicians, industrialists, trade unionists and everybody on the air every day of the week. However, if one asks them a simple question, whether they are using or abusing public money, they advise it has nothing to do with the public.

I would not mind this especially except that the other semi State bodies, with one or two notable exceptions, were transparent on this matter. They are not beating their breasts every day telling us we have to answer questions, left, right and centre to satisfy public curiosity. Will the Minister give a direction, make a suggestion or use whatever little influence he has over RTÉ to ask it to reconsider this decision and possibly consider whether public money is being well used and whether those involved are or are not attending meetings? This is not an accusation; it is a question I wish to see addressed because they are being paid and it is a matter of public interest.

Being a monopoly, RTÉ has, unfortunately, a strong political agenda. It would not be objectionable for it to have such an agenda if, in the first instance, it did not champion the idea of public service broadcasting. This is a [896] lofty idea; it is about balance, what the Minister calls our cultural heritage, our national interest. It is also an intangible idea but is primarily about being fair, balanced and varied.

However, the evidence that RTÉ has a political agenda is so damning that I am surprised people do not notice it more often. For example, in terms of politics and an exchange of ideas, “Questions and Answers” is possibly the most influential programme on RTÉ. Television is a powerful medium; it is much more powerful than radio and newspapers. “Questions and Answers” is a very entertaining programme and compulsive viewing for most people interested in politics. However, it is a loaded programme. The same people with the same views appear on it time and again.

Mr. Magner: Like The Sunday Independent.

Mr. Ross: We are not subsidised by public money.

Mr. Magner: The same people——

Acting Chairman (Mr. Dardis): Senator Magner, you must not rise to the bait in the lake occupied by Senator Ross. You will have the right to reply. Senator Ross without interruption.

Mr. Magner: The Senator will have left the Chamber by then.

Mr. Cassidy: The truth hurts; Senator Ross is touching a nerve.

Mr. Ross: The views of Senator Magner, which are regularly confused, appear disproportionately on “Questions and Answers” every week.

Mr. Cassidy: Does Senator Ross not appear on the programme often enough?

Mr. Ross: Between September 1995 and January 1996, “Questions and Answers” had Mary Holland on its [897] panel three times in less than four months.

Acting Chairman: Senator, whatever about Senator Magner, Mary Holland is not here to defend herself.

Mr. Magner: That would not stop the Senator.

Mr. Ross: I am not attacking her. She is an especially able journalist with especially articulate and strong views, all of which she is entitled to. However, are there not 1.5 million other women in the country who could appear on “Questions and Answers”? How could any radio or television station justify putting the same person on the one programme dealing with a crucial issue three times in four months or less? They could not. Mary Holland is more than entitled to appear once, but that should surely be enough.

Week after week before the divorce referendum panellists in favour of divorce were always in the majority because somebody somewhere chose them. It could not be justified by saying it reflected the balance of opinion in the country because the only indication we had of public opinion on this issue before the last referendum was that a majority of people were against divorce by two to one.

Despite this we have, on what is meant to be a fair, balanced public broadcasting system, a majority of panellists on its most influential programme in favour of divorce. Let nobody tell me this is not an agenda; it is. RTÉ did not show balance on this issue. In addition, I do not believe many of the broadcasters themselves or those who chaired these programmes were against divorce. On programmes of this kind, probably four out of five participants were in favour of divorce. This is not fair or balanced broadcasting.

On the issue of high profile cases involving the Roman Catholic Church, the treatment of the Bishop of Ferns by the media generally, including RTÉ, has [898] been deplorable. Nobody deserves to be treated in the way that man has been treated by the media. He is entitled to a presumption of innocence and, as far as I am concerned, he is still innocent. The allegations and the support for those allegations, which have been given prominent coverage, is unjustifiable. A national broadcasting service should be even more careful, because of the special responsibilities it claims to have, when it takes on issues of this sort. A very dangerous precedent has been set by what went on.

While in this case I do not think there are any sinister motives, it ought to be said that when section 31 was removed from the Statute Book by the current Minister, we were promised without any doubt that hard questions would be asked by RTÉ. The evidence for that is so flimsy, however, that I wonder whether we should not think again about reintroducing section 31.

Section 31 provided a platform for those who refuse to denounce violence which they would not otherwise have had. I cannot remember any interview which made life awkward for those who support terrorism. I am open to correction, but I believe they received disproportionate coverage after section 31 was lifted. The number of times we heard representatives of Sinn Féin/IRA on the air was extraordinary and it is difficult to reconcile with the idea of balance.

Let me turn briefly to the commercial aspect of RTÉ. For all its faults, RTÉ has done a laudable job in various areas, such as Eurovision, sport and in its instant news coverage. RTÉ's professionalism cannot be disputed, but I welcome the fact that it will have competition in the form of a third television channel. It is essential for the health of RTÉ and its viewers, as well as for political balance, that we should have a third TV channel.

The Minister's speech was peppered with not unusual disdain for profit. The Minister looks puzzled at my remark, but in his speech he said “Broadcasting can also be a threat, putting profit motive against collective rights”. I am [899] not sure what that means. The Minister then went on to talk about “deterritorialised imperialism”. It is time we recognised that profit is a noble and natural motive and that those who disdain it are being unrealistic.

We should welcome the third channel because it will be motivated by profit and, in turn, it will motivate RTÉ to further profits. In that context, I deplore the fact that Teilifís na Gaeilge is being subsidised by RTÉ. I had always understood, as Senator Cassidy did, that if Teilifís na Gaeilge was going to exist at all — and I question the necessity for it — it would be funded by the central Exchequer, but RTÉ, which already has difficult enough commercial problems, is now being directed to send money to Teilifís na Gaeilge which will never make a profit.

The Minister mentioned the 1993 Act with some pride and said he looks forward to another successful year of commissioned programmes by independent producers. This is an artificial transaction. RTÉ's profits are being compelled by political direction to go to a certain area. RTÉ cannot possibly function in the commercial world if it is being forced to send some of its profits in the direction of independent producers and other profits to Teilifís na Gaeilge while we say it must operate as a commercial body. It cannot happen. The split, which is largely semantic, between public service broadcasting and commercial broadcasting does not really work.

I remember asking RTÉ at one stage why it could not split the licence fee and the fees they make commercially. Why can it not spend the licence fee for public service broadcasting on one channel and spend the money they make commercially on other types of broadcasting on Network Two? According to RTÉ this was impossible for reasons which I could never understand.

If we are to insist on the Minister's philosophy of public service broadcasting it would seem to make much more sense to continue public service broadcasting [900] exclusively funded by the licence fee and to allow Network Two to be funded by commercial enterprises.

I regret the decision of successive Governments not to consider privatising Network Two. As things stand, it is unnecessary to have two public service broadcasting stations of that sort. The Minister could have considered privatisation. I know privatisation is a political taboo and, indeed, it is not allowed in the Programme for Government, but that taboo has been swallowed in cases like Irish Steel. I hope the Minister might reconsider the issue.

Mr. Cassidy: I always look forward to the varied contributions of Senator Ross who, in my opinion, is a distinguished contributor to debates in this House.

It is proposed that Network Two should move to Cork to provide a more rural view of everything that is happening in the country. We, in Fianna Fáil, would support that 100 per cent if that is the Minister's wish. It is the wish of many people.

Mr. Magner: It is supported by the Government side as well.

Mr. Cassidy: It would provide an overall view as well as some balance. Why should Teilifís na Gaeilge not be in Galway which is the home of much of our culture including music, theatre and the arts generally? I fully support the idea of the station being situated in Galway but the question of how it will be funded is a different matter. The spread of employment, the opportunities and the reward — from the station's point of view — of inheriting the massive culture that exists in those areas, go hand in hand.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue and I am grateful to the Minister for personally attending the House during the debate. As a Member of the Seanad for almost 14 years I have to say that, in the early part of his political career when he was a Senator, the Minister was one of the most outstanding [901] contributors in the House. There was nothing more uplifting than to be in the House when he made a contribution and Mark Killilea was here to respond. Seanad Éireann has been a good experience for many, our President was also a Member. People seem to move forward — who knows what is in store for any Member of this distinguished House.

Senator Mooney, the Fianna Fáil spokesperson, outlined how the party would like to see the broadcasting industry develop. I have many years experience in broadcasting and I would like to know the Minister's view on the télévision sans frontiers debate which took place in the European Parliament last week. The European Parliament voted on a strict quota regime. There will be a quota of 51 per cent European made programmes with no outlet clause and the exclusion of studio made programmes from the quota — for example, “The Late Late Show”, “Glenroe”, “Lifeline” and “Kenny Live”. It poses a major challenge to the European Commission and to free access to stations. I fully support anything which will retain our culture, but I would like to know how the Minister will address the quota system. I would also like to know how radio is handling the quota system in relation to playing music recorded in Ireland.

The broadcasting industry provides good quality and well paid jobs. It is not just another service industry. It has had a major influence on our cultural life and Fianna Fáil wants to ensure a vibrant broadcasting industry — a public and commercial sector. It is time to take a detailed look at broadcasting which is facing intense competition from foreign and satellite channels. We must ensure that the public service and commercial sectors survive and flourish in this new environment, otherwise the consequences will be considerable. We only need to look at the changes which have taken place over the past number of years.

My party will implement its proposals when it returns to Government if this one does not see fit to do so. The 3 per cent levy payable to the Independent [902] Radio and Television Commission should be abolished. This money can be used to provide a comprehensive new service. We are all aware of the great efforts local radio stations make, but there are considerable financial constraints on them. I have always said, even when my party was in Government, that too many radio licences were granted. However, the industry has grown and so, too, has the need for local radio stations, which have been valuable in their areas. The 3 per cent levy should be removed and used to promote a comprehensive new service.

We would like a commitment to provide access to training for young broadcasters. Fianna Fáil sees the need for an integrated training plan along the lines of the Statcome report for the film industry. Young people who are properly trained will become the broadcasters of tomorrow. Such a proposal speaks for itself. A five year development plan must be prepared in consultation with the owners, shareholders and senior staff of all local radio stations. Given that plans must be made, we hope that proposal will be implemented in the near future.

There should be a system of arbitration in disputes between local radio stations and RTÉ about transmission costs. This is a lesson which we should have learned from Century Radio. A new national radio station, Radio Ireland, will come on stream in the near future. It will have an uphill battle and it does not need transmission problems. There is no point having duplication as regards transmitters. Initially, Radio Ireland could pay a reduced rate but when it is up and running after three or four years, a different arrangement could be reached on repayments.

We all know that the most popular programmes on RTÉ are those which have been produced at home. “Glenroe”, “The Late Late Show” and “Kenny Live” have survived the test of time and are high in the TAM ratings. The new “Lifelines” programme is also very good. The station has also benefited from advertising revenue. Everyone in RTÉ, including presenters, producers, the director general, the [903] chairman of the authority and board members, must be congratulated.

However, the situation as regards radio leaves a lot to be desired. According to my figures which are reliable, FM 104 only plays 2 per cent Irish recorded music between 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. while 98 FM plays almost 5 per cent. Will the Minister investigate if that is within the guidelines set out by the Independent Radio and Television Commission? On RTÉ Radio 1 between 7.30 a.m. to 3 p.m., usually no more than four Irish records are played because it broadcasts mostly chat shows. The policy of having consecutive chat shows will prove to be a bad idea commercially because the station is losing listeners by the dozen. People are fed up listening to bad news. There is a programme for whingers in the early afternoon.

The best time to listen to RTÉ Radio 1 was when there was a strike because beautiful and uplifting music was played. Neil Diamond will perform before 30,000 to 40,000 people in Croke Park, but how often do we hear his music played on the airwaves? Music policy in RTÉ at present leaves a lot to be desired. Years ago we had 800 bands employing 10,000 people. There were seven bands in Tuam, County Galway. How many bands were there in Galway city and everywhere else? There was only one radio station, yet bands could get more records played at that time than they can at present.

The film industry has been a terrific success and the Minister has played a major role in that. Regardless of what political function I have attended, I have always given the Minister credit for it. The film industry is extremely important to our tourism industry but recorded material produces 50 times more income in every country than the film business. We have the Irish Film Board and the Arts Council but we have no music council, although I am aware that an investigative analysis, under Maurice Cassidy's stewardship, is being carried out at present.

There would be 10,000 jobs for young people immediately if their wares could be aired. If one does not display the [904] clothes in a shop window people will not come into the shop. The same applies to bands. What is the point in broadcasting hard rock and pop music when teenagers are at school and there is nobody to listen but housewives or people in the 35 plus age group? That is nonsense.

We fought in this House and in the Dáil to have radio licences for rural and other areas. We were told we would receive “alternative music listening”. To this day Dublin has not received an alternative music station, despite the local radio licences that were awarded. We have 98FM and FM104 churning out the music of 2FM. That is not alternative listening. A person of 35 years of age living in Dublin has no alternative music channel. I am speaking as somebody who runs an alternative music venue in Dublin for country music six nights a week. It is very successful because 50 per cent of the people of Dublin are not being catered for on radio.

There are many capable and distinguished people involved in Radio Ireland who have enormously successful track records. However, there were many people with enormously successful track records in Century Radio and they did not play the music people wanted. One could tune in for a minute and a half and then tune out. If Radio Ireland does not opt for middle of the road music and music that is not being aired by other stations, I predict they will go out of business quicker than they think. If they go for the middle of the road music they will find an enormous market. There are 2,800 stations catering for the middle of the road or easy listening market in the United States at present. That is where the growth market is because nobody is catering for it.

The opportunity is available and I hope the Minister will do all he can for the recorded material being produced in Ireland. One can hear Irish artists on BBC Radio 2. One can go to England and view their playlist for each week from the Wednesday of the previous week and see the names of the Irish artists who will be played. It is easier to get a play on BBC Radio 2 than on RTÉ at present. That is a shame and a disgrace.

[905] I support the EU's call for a 51 per cent quota. In Canada broadcast material is 45 per cent Canadian. They are not ashamed of their country or of their people. Irish music is a brand name all over the world and very few nations have a brand name for the music of their country. It is reasonably easy to get a contract anywhere in the world when one is dealing with the Irish music market, particularly following the success “Riverdance”. “Riverdance” has made Irish music hip in the UK and now in America. Up to $500 a seat was paid for the four shows which were sold out within three hours in Music City. This is not a flash in the pan; this is a highly successful musical.

The Minister should take steps to rap the knuckles of anybody who is interfering in any way with the possibility of creating Irish jobs in the music industry. I call on the Minister, who is the one person with the correct attitude and who has the will to make things happen, to see what can be done. If something is not done about 98 FM and FM104 by the Easter recess, I will call for a special debate on those two radio licences. They should be looked into as a matter of urgency as they are trying to decimate the live Irish music scene.

Mick Clarkin and I employed over 130 people in this industry three years ago. We are finding it impossible to continue recording in this country at present because our markets are based in Australia, Canada and the UK. There is no friend of the Irish recording market in this country to display our wares. But for RTÉ television — and I am referring to Liam Ó Murchú, Gay Byrne, Pat Kenny and Gerry Ryan — we would have been out of employment for the last three years. Why can the same not happen on radio? What if people in radio were depending on an employer in America or elsewhere? Look at the royalties leaving the country from our songwriters, music publishers and record companies. This money should stay in Ireland and be kept in Ireland.

The music industry is a massive employer. In the town of Moate there are 72 full time jobs in the music business [906] — that is the equivalent of a good size factory. All these jobs are in danger of being lost. As somebody who has invested my life and all my resources in this industry, I say it is unreal to see the contempt in which our employment is held by the broadcasting services.

I congratulate local radio stations; they are more than helpful in playing our material. They are only too willing to interview our artists. They get their rewards and we are able to struggle on. However, something will have to be done about the national broadcasting channel, 98FM and FM104. I look forward to seeing what the Minister will do.

I concur with Senator Mooney's call to have RTÉ wavelengths divided from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. RTÉ Radio 1's signal is received across most of the UK from 7 p.m. and many of the good programmes that were dropped for other types of programming could be broadcast to people who support Irish products abroad. I would support the Minister taking such an initiative. I look forward to his and to the introduction of the proposed legislation.

Mr. Magner: I welcome my friend and colleague, the Minister, Deputy Higgins. Like many of my collegues, I have every confidence in his ability to structure broadcasting in a way that will reflect all that is best in this country.

However, I wish to offer the Minister advice following the contribution of my Government colleague — when I refer to Senator Ross as my “Government colleague” there should be canned laughter in the background. When Senator Ross proposes to instruct the Minister on how to be fair and impartial, one could smile. He is probably the best example of being fair and balanced and he practises that by being in Government and in Opposition and being an impartial recorder of the political scene at one and the same time. He also appears to have a problem with the fact that the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht happens to be cultured and articulate and has a vision of the job that must be done.

[907] When he purported to instruct the Minister on how to reorganise RTÉ so that the same people do not keep popping up on screen, it was difficult to restrain not only a wry smile but outright laughter. As we know, Senator Ross is the business editor of the Sunday Independent in which, week after week, the same people appear and pour out the same bile on the same targets. Now and again they change targets depending on the editorial meeting on Tuesdays, but one thing is for sure: in the Sunday Independent they all sing from the same sheet. At least in RTÉ opinions seem to differ depending upon the subject. In the Sunday Independent they never differ. Once the victim is agreed upon the assassins are free to do their job.

The Minister need take no lessons from Senator Ross on this or any other matter. He remarked on the possibility of reintroducing the section 31 ban and went down that old road. The Minister was villified when the ban was removed and after the cessation of violence was announced the same prophecy that it would not last appeared week after week in the Sunday Independent. There was never any encouragement. It made attacks on those who put the cessation together, particularly the politicians involved — the then Taoiseach, Deputy Reynolds, the Tánaiste, Deputy Spring and, lately, the Taoiseach, Deputy John Bruton, and the members of the Cabinet. Its agenda never changes. One wondered at times if it wished the cessation to fail.

I hope Senator Ross is watching me on the monitor, because having listened to his contribution I could not let it pass without pointing out the absolute contradiction of his position. The Minister may write off any lessons the Senator might purport to give on broadcasting, impartiality, balance and fairness.

I have a crib to make to the Minister. I do not like RTÉ interviewing itself or having little games of charades with itself — light entertainment programmes in which the same people pop up all the time. Fellow broadcasters or their children seem to be invited regularly [908] to participate in television programmes. I dislike the practice as it is far too incestuous. It makes it look like a private company.

On occasions RTÉ is blatantly not on the ball. On the day the ceasefire was announced I was in an office in Leinster House watching RTÉ 1. Everybody was waiting for an announcement one way or another. While the programmes on BBC were interrupted and the announcement made of the cessation of military operations by the IRA, RTÉ continued with “Skippy the Bush Kangaroo”. I expected the programme to be interrupted but it was not.

I rang Joe Mulholland in RTÉ to ask what was going on — why, when an event for which we had waited for over 20 years was taking place, the national television station was showing a children's programme while the BBC and the ITV were running the news as it was breaking? I suggested that somebody was asleep in RTÉ. About five minutes later the news appeared on RTÉ and Joe Mulholland apologised and accepted that the delay should not have happened. RTÉ should have been more on the ball and run what was a major story.

The Minister is not responsible for the day to day operations of RTÉ or even the attendance record of its board members. In that regard, was the question put by Senator Ross put as part of his duties as the business editor of the Sunday Independent or as a politician? Perhaps Senator Ross would respond to that question. Why should public servants go to the expense of giving him information which is for commercial use? That is yet another contradiction in Senator Ross's position.

Senator Ross also mentioned Teilifís na Gaeilge. My Irish is poor but, in common with 90 per cent of the people, that never prevented me admiring the language, wanting to hear it spoken and identifying with it as a core part of what we are. In typically Irish fashion we print millions of tee shirts saying “Proud to be Irish” and covered in shamrocks; we pay lip service to everything that is Irish. The development of the Irish language is a core value for us, but when we go [909] to do something about it the begrudgers say it is not what they want, although it has been called for since the foundation of the State. They cloud the issue by saying they want Teilifís na Gaeilge but do not like the way it is to be funded.

There is also a mindset which says, “If it is in Irish it will be dull, staid, lack imagination and lack attraction for ordinary people”. If that is the case, the programme makers should be put to work elsewhere. We have all watched foreign films which have been well produced; they may have subtitles or plots that are easy to follow and may be so compelling that one watches them. There is no reason why people with as limited an amount of Irish as I have cannot watch Irish programmes if they are properly and professionally made and are interesting and entertaining. I look forward to the continued development of that aspect of Irish television. I am sure the Minister shares my view that the programmes must be the most professional and of the highest standard and quality and must be attractive to people.

I mentioned the use of television in relation to education. I am a fan of the Open University programmes on the BBC, indeed of distance learning in all forms. When Cork Multichannel was awarded the contract to bring multichannel television to Cork it was allowed by Cork Corporation to use the public ducts on the basis that one channel would be devoted to educational purposes only, but that never happened. I wanted a literacy programme put together through the vocational education committee, like “Sesame Street” from American television.

Mr. Cassidy: Or “Wanderly Wagon”.

Mr. Magner: No, an educational programme solely to do with literacy. Having spoken to a number of organisations and people involved in work in that regard, they considered that a substantial number of people felt too ashamed to come forward and say they could not read or write. I thought a series of television programmes with an accompanying book would be an ideal solution [910] to that reticence. We got as far as employing a consultancy company to try to put the package together but in the end it proved too expensive. There is a role for television in tackling illiteracy, which is part of the “hidden Ireland”. The European report on education indicates that there are 4,500 children who do not benefit from the education system. One could guarantee that a substantial number of those children have writing and, in particular, reading difficulties. Television could be used to great effect in this regard.

The Minister poses larger questions about the future and the role of public sector broadcasting. If one wants to restore one's faith in public sector broadcasting one should go to America. If one stayed in New York and watched the television one would want to shoot oneself after a couple of hours — it is mindless bilge in the main. If one is lucky one might come upon a public sector channel that shows intelligent programmes about the world we live in. However, the bilge that passes for programming in America is dreadful. There are awful programmes on which they parade every broken human being they can find and ask them, for a few bucks, to outline their whole lives, the lives of their whole families and so on. I hope that this country will always refuse that sort of broadcasting.

I have little to say in relation to the work the Minister is doing. As a Member of the Labour Party and as a colleague we have discussed it in other places, so there is no reason to rehash it here. As far as his brief in broadcasting, and indeed in film, is concerned, he has brought to this job a dynamism that everybody respects and appreciates. People say that the Minister is an intellectual or accuse him of being too cultured. He is all of those things, but he is also a gut politician who comes out of Galway West, something that Senator Ross and I dismally failed to do in our own constituencies when we failed to fight our way through into the other House.

Behind that cultured exterior is one tough nut of a politician, and nobody should forget that. I remember the [911] tough side of the Minister as a young tiger when he was chairman of the party. There is a side to Michael D. that people would cross at their peril. I again extend my congratulations to the Minister on the job that has been done so far. If he is ever looking for advice he should not under any circumstances consult with Senator Ross.

Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht (Mr. M. Higgins): Ba mhaith liom ar an gcéad dul síos mo bhuíochas a gabháil leis na Seanadoirí uilig a ghlac páirt san díospóireacht seo. Cuireann sé áthas orm i gconaí teacht chuig an tSeanad, mar tagann tuairimíocht don scoth agus ar caighdeán ard ar aghaidh an t-am go leir. Cabhróidh sé go mór liom agus mé ag deanamh cinnithe maidir le cursaí craolacháin.

It is a great pleasure to come to the Seanad at any time and to listen to the views of the Seanad, which is a useful and thoughtful House in which to discuss issues like this. I wish to take up some of the points made by Senators, for whose contributions I am grateful. I will come back to Senator Magner's points, but he is talking about the uses of public service broadcasting in the best structured way. We would all like to see the power of communications used to deliver people from illiteracy, to do things that we were not able to do before. I will come back to that point. I support the Senator's view on what could have been done in relation to cable if it had been possible.

I will begin with Senator Mooney's view. I appreciate the consensus that has been building around Teilifís na Gaeilge as well as the consensus that has been building around a non-exclusive market orientation in broadcasting. The recently published Fianna Fáil paper on broadcasting accepted the principles of public service broadcasting. We should not underestimate what is at stake. What Senator Ross has been saying is very interesting. I like to give as much information to this House as I can. When I became Minister with responsibility for broadcasting three years ago, at the Council of Ministers [912] meetings in Europe I was the only Minister in favour of public service broadcasting. Today maybe four or five have changed their position and at least another four or five are seriously worried about the consequences that they have visited on their people through indiscriminate deregulation and structures of ownership.

Senator Ross referred to my philosophical base. I must make my philosophical base perfectly clear. I appreciate the spirit in which the question was posed. The big issue involved in broadcasting, in film making and the general production of culture is that 30 years ago legislation in Ireland and elsewhere was based on the concept of terrestrial broadcasting. The boundaries of the legislated systems were coterminous with the capacity to broadcast. Today we find there has been a convergence of ownership around a few international conglomerates. There have been technical innovations as well as a convergence of technologies which make multimedia possible. There have been, in addition, concentrations of ownership which are very serious. Technical developments include fibre-optic cable link, satellite and different forms of multi technical usage across different systems, the telephonic and the televisual combining to create new capacities. That is a new atmosphere.

Senator Ross' view, which I found very interesting, can be summarised as follows: “I consume, therefore I am”. The choice referred to is the choice between turning something on and turning it off, which is rather like Henry Ford's choice of black, black, or black. There is much more to the argument than this; but in fairness to Senator Ross, he represents what he claims is balance but is not balance at all. He is arguing for a market philosophy to be brought to bear on issues of broadcasting and film. In a way this is consistent, because the point that Senator Magner makes is right; Senator Ross would like to transfer the uncritical tabloidisation that has destroyed context in the print media to television and radio.

Mr. Cassidy: It is already there.

[913] Mr. M. Higgins: It is, but I am just giving the credit——

Mr. Mooney: Even in RTÉ, it is there.

Mr. M. Higgins: I am giving credit where it is due, to the independent — with the multifarious definitions you might make of that — Senator who introduced the concept. I agree with Senator Mooney's point that it is about more than turning things on and off because the Minister with responsibility for broadcasting has to make a choice — even against the grain of what I have described — for or against diversity. When I look through the Green Paper submissions and prepare the legislation, I have to take responsibility and do what is right, not just for 1996 or 1997, or for any period of Government, but for what is right in broadcasting to bring us past this technological challenge, past the end of this century into the next one.

I have already paid tribute to those who have supported me in articulating the values behind this. People have commented on what happens when you get fragmentation and degradation of the practice that is broadcasting. I do not want to take up the time of the House. The movements Senator Mooney describes in relation to takeovers are very serious ones. We hear a strange split argument from private channels arriving in the market place. When they are arriving, they are arriving in the name of competition; but when they have arrived they devour everybody else and there is a new kind of agglomeration. The only difference is that the new agglomeration has no public responsibilities, only private responsibilities. This is a totally destructive development in broadcasting and it is a tribute to the intelligence of Irish public representatives that there is an all-party consensus developing around the kind of values that have to be protected.

Senator Mooney is right when he speaks about tabloid TV; I have already spoken about this. With regard to some of his other points, I read scandalous things about my performance as Minister with responsibility for broadcasting [914] to which I cannot always reply. I do not can beans and I do not own half the newspapers, but I am a public representative. I saw it stated in print that I have a role in the final commissioning for the independent sector in RTÉ. I have never interfered in this area or in any aspect of programming. Legislation exists which confers statutory autonomy with responsibility on me and which governs my behaviour. Harry Truman said “I am damned if a truth can ever catch up with a good lie”. This seems to be an informing principle among certain newspaper groups. I think some of the groups who wrote these things described in a Freudian way what they would have liked to have done themselves.

There will be an opportunity to discuss Teilifís na Gaeilge again in some detail. The idea of this service was discussed widely among political parties. I have steered decisions on it through Government. The significant decision was made on 20 January, 1995. There was a case to be made for the new station and there is no confusion about funding for it. From day one it was said that one hour of a commitment would fall on RTÉ because it is the national broadcaster with the benefit which that confers through the licence fee.

Mr. Mooney: But it also has limited resources.

Mr. M. Higgins: The status of national broadcaster also confers obligations on RTÉ, some of which are to make provision for the Irish language. I have heard the view expressed that if certain opinions about what was or was not to be the national broadcaster had been more inclusive of obligations to the Irish language, it might not have been necessary to be prosecuting Teilifís na Gaeilge as a concept at the end of the century.

Mr. Mooney: RTÉ offered two hours a night.

Mr. M. Higgins: Teilifís na Gaeilge will go on air in November 1996. I will go further than Senator Mooney and say [915] the case for an indexation of licence fee increases has been made by RTÉ for a long time.

Mr. Mooney: I did not mention an increase in the licence fee and I would not support this.

Mr. M. Higgins: I believe the case for an increase stands on its own merits irrespective of Teilifís na Gaeilge. Interesting points were made by a number of Senators on Irish content.

If broadcasters do not support what Senator Cassidy has outlined, where else can they seek support? My thinking is to drive forward and maximise initiatives in the music industry in exactly the same way I did with regard to the film industry. The recent changes in the forthcoming Finance Bill, as announced in the budget, were the basis of an interim report I received from Forte, which is the group I established to assist the music industry. I neither want nor exercise intervention in programming matters. The Broadcasting Acts lay down specific legal requirements within which RTÉ must function.

Mr. Mooney: But it does not make policy.

Mr. M. Higgins: The deflector systems and Teilifís na Gaeilge are matters of frequency management and are the responsibility of the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications.

Mr. Mooney: I await his reply with interest.

Mr. M. Higgins: The ownership of an independent television channel is a matter for the Independent Radio and Television Commission. I assure Senators the valuable views expressed in this debate will be transmitted to the Independent Radio and Television Commission for further comment; this would be only proper. Agreement has been reached on transmission arrangements between the Independent Radio and Television Commission and RTÉ. Valuable points have been made and I will [916] bear them in mind when framing legislation.

I will not comment on the point which is continually made about what is called “political stacking” of current affairs programmes. The RTÉ Authority and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission are there to deal with such matters. The last thing people want is a Minister to interfere after the legislative framework is in place. We need a Minister who says what he believes. I have been criticised for my views; this is quite correct because we are living in a democracy. However, people know what I believe in and I am willing to swim against the tide in trying to shape broadcasting so that it is culturally diverse and inclusive. There are people who do not like this but they are entitled to their opinions. Some of them are powerful and we can expect more and more conflict on this issue. It is not appropriate for me to imagine I am anything other than the Minister and to bypass the RTÉ Authority by becoming involved in programming issues.

Mr. Mooney: The Minister must influence policy; he has not conceded that point.

Mr. M. Higgins: The Senator is right; I have responsibility for broadcasting policy.

Mr. Mooney: The Minister has the authority to issue directions.

Mr. M. Higgins: Some of the worst days and nights of broadcasting have been caused by Ministers who confused policy and appropriate direction.

Mr. Mooney: The Minister would never do this.

Mr. M. Higgins: Senator Ross raised the prohibition of certain organisations under section 31 of the Broadcasting Act. I proposed the abolition of this prohibition to the last Government on broadcasting criteria from a philosophical departure point on what was good for the Irish listening and viewing public and what they were entitled to hear. I [917] did so because I had confidence in the public, editors and the RTÉ Authority. It was certainly welcome that this facilitated a set of discussions and a framework which later encouraged people to move from one direction of prosecuting their aims to a more political discourse. It would be wrong to seek to damage the possibility of discourse at the time we need it most.

I thank Senators for the points they made, some of them must be transferred to the appropriate authority. Senator Cassidy spoke eloquently; he is trying to increase the job content of the Irish music industry and I have noted his points.

I have dealt with Senator Ross' point. I respect his differences with me but I disagree with him entirely. There is one point on which he is being less than fair. The argument he addresses to RTÉ is that it should be diverse with regard to audiences, people on panels and those who discuss issues. If people argue this, they ideally believe in tolerance and cultural diversity and it behoves them to put it into practice in their own work. The print media with which Senator Ross is associated and for which he has responsibility does not stand the philosophical, practical or moral test.

When I have prepared and introduced the legislation later this year, I look forward to coming to the Seanad to hear an expansion of the views we discussed today and which I appreciate.

Acting Chairman (Mr. Belton): When is it proposed to sit again?

Mr. Hayes: Next Wednesday at 2.30 p.m.