“Those employed in broadcasting need to be trusted to make important decisions”

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.

This debate is about standards but how do we set the standards? More importantly, who sets the standards? I certainly doubt there is a basis for anybody arguing that it should be the Members of this House who set the standards, or is that being suggested? How does one set the standards beyond which we expect broadcasters not to stray? That is where the debate is bubbling up at present with regard to the BBC and, indeed, an incident on RTE last week. It comes down to the question of where the line is drawn.

Where should one draw the line? Should the test be whether something that is said on a radio programme offends somebody or is likely to offend somebody? That cannot be the test. Very few things can be said that will not offend somebody. There will always be somebody who potentially will be offended by something that is said. The remark might not be intended to offend but the unintended consequence of what is said, be it a political charge or the expression of an opinion, is that somebody somewhere will potentially be offended. What is the test? When one delves into this issue, it is enormously difficult, if not impossible, to decide where the line should be. It is difficult to be prescriptive about a test.

How does one ensure standards? I agree that there must be standards; there is no question about that. However, we must accept that we cannot be prescriptive about them. There is no manual. Previously, there were taste manuals for newspapers and broadcasters which one looked up to find out if something was or was not okay. One looked up the index to find out whether one could say something, to take it to an absurd level. We cannot do that either because it is absurd.

Ultimately, the only thing one can do, especially in public broadcasting, is ensure the people employed there can be trusted to make these decisions and judgments. These everyday judgments have to be made on the hoof in live broadcasting and when listening to or viewing material with a view to deciding whether it should be broadcast. It comes down to the quality of the people employed in broadcasting. They are people in whom the community should be able to repose a high degree of trust. It comes down to how one employs people, who one employs and their qualifications, how the culture within an organisation understands the question of standards and decency, and the history and record of that organisation in ensuring and upholding high standards and communicating that to people who come to work in the organisation. That is the only way one can ensure ultimately that certain standards are set and implemented.

I did not see the item on “The Late Late Show” which, from what I have read about it, was very fairly criticised. However, like everybody else I saw the clips shown in news programmes last week of the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross broadcast. This comes back to the issue of trust and standards. The biggest problem in broadcasting at present is that a star culture has developed within it. It is linked to the celebrity culture we have watched develop. It involves having broadcasters, who are sometimes paid many millions of pounds or euro per year, purportedly being managed by young, inexperienced producers and researchers who are paid a fraction of their salary. I am not suggesting this comes down to what people are paid but the dynamic of a relationship between Jonathan Ross or Russell Brand on the one hand and a 25 year old, rookie producer on the other, who is probably on a six, eight or 12-month contract without much sense of where he will be in a year or whether he will have a job, simply does not allow for a proper level of editorial management whereby the culture can be properly communicated to an individual producer and the producer can take on the presenter.

I worked in broadcasting in this country for ten years. It might surprise colleagues but there was always a strong culture of editorial management in RTE. It was never the culture in RTE that the big stars such as Gay Byrne or Pat Kenny were the people who made the decisions and the judgment calls regarding what went on programmes. When I was first employed by RTE, I vividly recall that one of the questions I and my colleagues were asked was how we saw ourselves dealing with the big stars of the day and whether we would be able tell Gay Byrne whether he could say something. It is difficult to imagine that young producers would be able to do that but they were trained to do it. They were trained to make those decisions, and the broadcasters understood this was the system in which they worked, regardless of what they were paid. However, in the past ten to 15 years that system has broken down. As a result, a culture has grown up based on the stars and the big names, and the broadcast organisations, most starkly the BBC in recent weeks, do not seem to have a way of coping with it any more. They are dealing with the problem after it has occurred.

This is the area on which we must focus. Instead of thinking we can have a prescriptive approach, we must trust broadcasters and rely on their good sense and good judgment. To do that, we must re-assert the importance of editorial line management in organisations, regardless of whether it is the BBC, RTE or private broadcasters. That is the only way to ensure decent standards are upheld. As Senator Ó Murchú said, it is not difficult to describe what we are discussing; it is common decency. The problem is that one person’s common decency is not necessarily always somebody else’s. How does one navigate this and find the right level? It comes back to a culture and history of making sound judgments within an organisation.

Some might say it is a failure of the Department.

I do not agree with that because it should be a very small, if any, part of a Department’s role to set itself up as some cultural commissars and tell people in RTE what can or cannot be broadcast. That is not the role of Government or the Department.

The standards are put in place and the legislation underpins them. The Broadcasting Bill is good legislation, which I substantially supported in this House. It strikes the right balance and has an understanding of the importance of public broadcasting and grants a high level of independence to broadcasters so that they can make the relevant judgments and decisions without Ministers, Department officials, Deputies or Senators breathing down their necks and telling them what they think on matters. How are we, as Senators, any more qualified to determine what the standards should be? We are no more qualified nor, with respect, is the Minister or the Minister of State. The Minister of State has an important job to do and is well qualified to do it, but he is not a cultural or media commissar.

We should not be too pessimistic about this issue. An enormous amount can be learned from the standards that were originally put in place in organisations like the BBC and RTE. The problem is not that there is no history of this being done properly but that it must be brought into the modern age and adopted accordingly. People’s views on what constitutes comedy have certainly changed but from what I know of both of the recent controversial incidents at the BBC and RTE, neither broadcast could be remotely regarded as funny or comedic. The fundamental problem that the BBC had was that the material was pre-recorded, which is what makes the incident even more strange and unacceptable. It was possible to listen to the material before it was broadcast, which indicates that there was a major breakdown in decision making, editorial management and editorial judgment.

This should not be a question of us setting ourselves up as commissars of taste, who lay down the law and decide what should be broadcast because we are users of the broadcast media. We want to be able to broadcast and communicate our views. We should not be allowed to be the people who determine the basis upon which different views or perspectives on life are aired.

This is an interesting debate but we should not get too carried away with our own sense of importance.