I featured as a guest on Today FM’s Sunday Supplement with Sam Smyth yesterday. The other panellists were Mary O’Rourke TD and Senator Shane Ross.
You can listen to the show in full by clicking here.
The Seanad should take careful note of what has been said by a representative of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in relation to adding blasphemy to the Defamation Bill. His comments were reported in yesterday’s newspapers. I ask the House and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to consider a proposal I would like to make. According to the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, he needs to resolve a constitutional dilemma in this area by means of legislation or by means of a constitutional amendment. I am a member of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution which recently recommended that the relevant section of the Constitution should be deleted.
Senator Regan is also a member of the all-party committee, which clearly recommended that this provision should be removed from the Constitution. That view is clearly shared across the board in these Houses. That is the correct way to proceed.
My suggestion to the Minister, through the Leader, is that if the parties in the Oireachtas agree that a series of amendments to the Constitution should be put to the people at an appropriate time, perhaps, although not necessarily, in October of this year, a referendum on the question of blasphemy should be put on that list of matters to be determined by the people on referendum day.
It would be proper to remove the provision in question from the Constitution. If the Minister’s comments are to be taken in good faith, it appears he believes he must do one thing or the other. He seems to be concerned about the possibility of addressing this issue by means of a constitutional amendment. We do not need to have a referendum on this issue tomorrow or the day after. It does not even need to take place this year, although it should not be put on the long finger.
In fairness, this matter has been on the table for ten years. We have lived with other interpretations of the Constitution. We have not rushed to introduce legislation to cater for the outcome of the X case, for example, although I believe we should have done so. In such circumstances, I propose that the Leader of the Seanad should try to secure all-party agreement to ask the Minister to address the matter of blasphemy by means of constitutional amendment at an appropriate time in the future. We should not have to deal with the legislative distraction the Minister is considering.
We must exercise great care in a debate on broadcasting standards. There is a long tradition of politicians in chambers repeatedly having a go at broadcasters and broadcasting. We must be extremely careful regarding the way we proceed and not just for the reason that many politicians cannot afford to be critical of the media because the day might come when those in the media might turn the tables and have a go at them. I am more concerned about the issue of principle.
Despite what we might like to think, we politicians occupy a privileged position. What we say in the House is included in the Official Report, broadcast on television and published in the media, and people pay some attention to it.
What we say can and often is broadcast, or at least we hope it will be. Our words are also published in the media and people pay attention to them. That is a privilege we ought not to abuse or take lightly. We should resist the temptation, and I am not saying anybody has not done so during this debate, to grab the opportunity to engage in partisan or sometimes even personalised attacks on broadcasters, especially in the political field.
The word “liberal” has been repeated many millions of times in recent weeks in America – who is a liberal, who is more liberal, if Senator Obama is liberal and what does “liberal” mean anyway.
It is another of those words. It is often used by people who are not socialist but they have a good view about what they think socialism is or should be and they indulge themselves in that. To come back to the notion of liberal, Senator Walsh went on to speak about people who wish to shape public opinion on an issue. Often when that point is made, it is a case of somebody saying: “I do not like those people shaping opinions; I would prefer opinions to be shaped by me or somebody who holds my viewpoint on an issue.” It is not an objection on principle but an objection to the person doing the opinion shaping.
This issue struck me quite often during the debate on a slightly different subject. It is an analogy worth drawing, although not many Members might agree with me. During the debate on political censorship and section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, as a broadcaster I was strongly opposed to the section for reasons which Senator Walsh might describe as liberal in the sense that I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of expression. I do not believe broadcasting should ever be permitted to be used for incitement, but we have legislation to prevent that. However, in terms of the exclusion of views or the expression of views on radio and television, it is necessary to exercise considerable care that we do not leave ourselves open to the accusation that we are simply trying to exclude views with which we disagree from being broadcast.
Today, the much anticipated Broadcasting Bill 2008 was at Second Stage in the Seanad. Below is my speech on the Bill.
I welcome the Bill’s publication. As the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources stated last week, it is detailed and comprehensive legislation that proposes to amend and repeal broadcasting legislation dating back more than 50 years. It is a significant and unprecedented achievement and I congratulate the Minister and his officials on putting together in one Bill all of these initiatives and regulations in respect of the independent and public broadcasting sectors.
I agree that the listener and the viewer should be central to the debate and our broadcasting regime, an aspect of the Bill that the Minister emphasised. It must not be a matter of the promotion of individual interests, including those of public or private sector broadcasters. I will revert to this issue when I address the Sound and Vision Fund referred to in the Bill. It is a question of putting the listener and the viewer centre stage in determining what type of broadcasting regime we desire.
The Bill contains a number of welcome innovative provisions. For example, section 8 proposes to involve the joint committee in the appointment of members of the authority’s board and the RTE board. The Minister stated that some Members – he seemed to refer to Fine Gael Members, but they can speak for themselves – may have favoured a procedure for vetting proposed board members as opposed to a formal proposing role. He indicated his preference for the latter, in respect of which I support him. The committee should have a more proactive role in the appointment of board members of the authority and RTE and its involvement should have substance.
As well as addressing the broad sweep of requirements in a broadcasting regime, the legislation maintains RTE and TG4 but deals with them separately. The relevant sections seem faithfully to repeat what has gone before while also seeking to modernise and streamline many of the provisions relating to public broadcasters. The legislation includes several significant and innovative changes. The Minister referred to the introduction of an Oireachtas channel. This is something we have raised in the House on previous occasions. It is an important development and I hope it will be operational sooner rather than later. There was a suggestion that it would be launched next year. I urge the Minister to do what he can to expedite it.
I reflected on the Minister’s statement on the last occasion that one of his objectives in bringing forward this legislation is to shift the legislative basis of the television licence regime from wireless telegraphy to broadcasting legislation. One may wonder what that means. For many years, we have had an anachronistic approach to broadcasting, although there has been some change in this regard in the last ten or 20 years. For a long time, however, the attitude of the Government, Civil Service and of many politicians was proprietorial.
It is not so long ago that the Taoiseach’s hero, Mr. Seán Lemass, declared that RTE had been set up by legislation as an instrument of public policy and, as such, was responsible to the Government. He further stated that the Government rejected the view that “RTE should be, either in general or in regard to its current affairs and news programmes, completely independent of Government supervision”. Mr. Lemass made that statement in the 1960s in reference to the 1960 legislation which will be repealed by this Bill. There are echoes of this attitude from time to time in this Chamber when Members are upset by something they see on RTE. However, in general, the view put forward by Mr. Lemass is no longer part of our culture. It is important that we have put our view of broadcasting onto a new plane, one that is more intelligent and more faithful to the purpose of broadcasting. Public service broadcasting should not be an instrument of public policy – and especially not of Government policy – but rather a vital aspect of our democratic system and culture in the broadest possible sense.