Dáil debates

Wednesday, 15 June 2005

Other Questions.

Broadcasting Legislation.

3:00 pm

Photo of Seymour CrawfordSeymour Crawford (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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Question 7: To ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources his preferred options in regard to broadcasting in the future with particular reference to the role of RTE and independent broadcasters; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20014/05]

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Question 191: To ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources his preferred options in regard to broadcasting in the future with particular reference to the role of RTE and independent broadcasters; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20318/05]

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 191 together.

My core policy objectives for the development of the broadcasting sector are detailed in my Department's statement of strategy. These objectives are to create an environment that encourages the maintenance of high quality Irish radio and television services by both independent broadcasters and RTE, to secure a viable future for high quality public service broadcasting and to seek to retain access to a range of high quality programming in analogue and digital form on a universal and free-to-air basis.

My key priorities for achieving these objectives include the following: developing the regulatory framework by bringing forward a Bill to provide for the establishment of a single content regulator for public and private broadcasters and to establish RTE on the lines of a company under the Companies Acts; taking steps to establish TG4 as an independent entity; ensuring adequate public funding for RTE and TG4 so that they can deliver on their statutory mandate; building on progress made in maximising the effectiveness of television licence fee collection; developing proposals to ensure that in a digital era, Irish viewers continue to enjoy access to a range of high quality programming; and bringing forward proposals for the future licensing of radio services in Ireland.

I am of the opinion that Irish viewers will be best served by a broadcasting environment that includes a strong public service broadcasting presence in the form of RTE and an independent TG4, together with private broadcasters.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his reply. Does the Minister foresee any difficulties arising for terrestrial transmissions in view of the attractiveness of satellite television with the development of modern technology? Is he satisfied that the present structures are adequate to guarantee the integrity of the national broadcasting service while at the same time complying with EU recommendations and comments? How does he see the area of competition being addressed in this context, bearing in mind the necessity to ensure that the Irish viewer and listener has access to free-to-air television and radio to the same extent as previously?

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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I hope I am interpreting the Deputy's question correctly. I do not regard increased provision of satellite platforms for broadcasting as a difficulty. On the contrary, it is an opportunity for all concerned. If I recall correctly, Ireland has the highest satellite-cable penetration of any country in Europe and greater provision will not cause a problem.

The Deputy's question may allude to the move from analogue to digital terrestrial television which must take place over the next seven years. The Department is preparing for the move, an issue I can address in response to later questions. This change will not pose a threat to free-to-air stations such as RTE and TG4 because I intend to ensure they remain free-to-air, irrespective of how they are transmitted. The switch from analogue to digital technology will enhance the quality of the service and no one will lose out as a result. It does not, therefore, pose a danger to the public broadcasting service and terrestrial television stations.

The Deputy is correct that current structures need to be examined and changed. This is part of the reason for drafting the Bill about which the Deputy consistently asks. As I consistently inform him, it will, I hope, be available by the end of the year. As he correctly noted, a review of current structures with a view to making changes to meet future challenges is necessary and will form part of the broadcasting Bill.

Ireland is in full compliance with EU directives. I understand the Deputy's question may refer to competition, the use of licence fees and so forth, all of which are the subject of ongoing correspondence between the Department and the European Commission. The bottom line is that the provision of funding from television licence fees or the taxpayer generally does not in any way infringe EU directives. Increasingly, the need to ensure this is done and seen to be done in an open and transparent manner is being raised. Steps must also be taken to ensure it does not distort competition. On foot of the Department's correspondence with the Commission, it is probable that the broadcasting Bill will introduce changes to ensure the process is open and transparent and competition is encouraged.

I am committed to public service broadcasting and the remit of RTE and TG4. It has been proved, however, that the entry into the market of private sector operators based in or focused on Ireland is good for competition and enhances the standards of public service broadcasting. Competition will keep everybody on their toes.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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Will the Department have further consultations to which Opposition parties could contribute on the broadcasting authority Bill? Does the Minister have views on comments made by the director general of RTE, Cathal Goan, at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in which he attacked the principle that the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland might become a super-regulator, given that he maintained, perhaps correctly, that the BCI has not properly regulated the commercial sector in terms of the target set for the provision of news?

Why was there a hiatus in appointing the board? What criteria did the Minister use when reappointing members of the board? In most organisations one expects to have a board of directors — otherwise one could argue that the organisation in question effectively does not exist. Why was the process delayed?

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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Further consultations will take place on the broadcasting Act. I am currently engaged in talks with the Government Whip with a view to ensuring that a Bill such as the broadcasting Bill would be part of a pilot scheme he wishes to introduce on e-government to facilitate online consultation. I want the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources involved in this regard.

With regard to the comments made by the Director General of RTE, irrespective of people's views on the effectiveness or otherwise of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, the need for regulation and a regulatory body is widely accepted. The new broadcasting Bill will provide for the establishment of an effective independent regulatory body to which RTE will be responsible and answerable. I will not comment on Mr. Goan's views on the effectiveness or otherwise of the current BCI.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Is the Minister satisfied that the development of the satellite television sector could pose a threat to terrestrial services, having regard to experiences and debate in other jurisdictions? Are there implications of such a development, for example, the possibility that sporting events could be monopolised by a particular group?

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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The reason we are taking action to move to digital terrestrial television is to try to ensure a platform is available at all times for free-to-air services, including our national broadcaster and other broadcasters which reflect Irish content. I am not unduly concerned at this point.

As regards the question of particular sports events, legislation is in place to address this matter and is subject to review on a three yearly basis. I understand it is subject to review next year.