Listener and viewer must be central to our broadcasting regime

Broadcasting Bill 2008Today, 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.

Colleagues have referred to the provision which maintains the Sound and Vision Fund, which was established under the 2003 legislation, whereby 5% of the proceeds of the licence fee is given over to independent productions. While RTE itself can benefit from this fund, it has a broader application. We must be cautious in terms of any proposal to change this. There is no such proposal in the Bill. Some of my colleagues expressed disappointment that this is so. Section 5 of the Broadcasting (Funding) Act 2003, which will be repealed by this legislation, provided that a review of the fund should be undertaken within three years. The Minister of State, Deputy Kelleher, may correct me if I am wrong but it is my understanding that this review has not taken place. There was little public debate in 2003 on the implications of establishing this fund. I recall reports, whether accurate or otherwise, that there was some resistance in the higher echelons of the Department in this regard. Nevertheless, that legislation was enacted in late 2003.

We can see the advantages that have accrued in recent years as a consequence of this provision. One of the positives is the promotion and fostering of creative diversity. Nobody can fairly argue that all creativity and knowledge repose in RTE in respect of what television and radio production ought to be. On the other hand, there is an important debate to be had in regard to the protection of the public realm in broadcasting. If we go down the road of divvying up the licence fee among all the players, for which some have argued, it would have the inevitable consequence of eroding the funding base RTE requires in order to provide a comprehensive service. Ultimately, this might seriously undermine the job we require RTE to do, which is to provide a public broadcasting service.

It is strange, for example, that this fund can be availed of by independent broadcasters which are financed by private equity funding. It is extraordinary that such entities do not have to match the funding they receive. There must be a review of the fund before there is any suggestion of change. The basis upon which independent companies can avail of it without having to match the funding should be one aspect of such a review. How the fund is managed is important in terms of accountability. The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland has had problems to contend with in regard to accountability. That should also be part of any review.

I have heard the suggestion that this is about jobs and that the fund must be increased to favour job creation. I respectfully suggest that it is not simply a question of jobs but is also of securing the best mix for broadcasting, both public and independent. RTE already plays an important role in terms of support for the independent sector. It is required to do so rather than doing so through any sense of charity. That should continue. However, RTE’s position as the public service broadcaster should not be undermined through an erosion of its funding. My party expressed reservations in 2003 about the establishment of this fund. I have serious reservations about any suggestion of an increase in this fund beyond its current capacity without first undertaking the type of review we were promised in 2003 but which has not yet taken place.

More :: You can view the Broadcasting Bill 2008 here (PDF)