Wednesday, 8 October 2008
Broadcasting Bill 2008 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Broadcasting Bill. I am sure the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, will appreciate that while I hold the very best estimation of his character and personality, he will not misinterpret it when I say I found the introduction of the Second Stage of this Bill to be somewhat disappointing.
What I bring to the Bill is a perspective from my own experience as a former Minister with responsibility for broadcasting and as president of the Council of Broadcasting Ministers of the European Union in 1996. I express disappointment because of the absence of a consideration of the values of broadcasting and some fundamental choices. In the time allowed to me I can go through these only cursorily.
The first issue that arises for any Minister with responsibility for broadcasting concerns how he or she views the population to which broadcasting services are addressed. I can put this simply and starkly. They can be constituted as consumers or as citizens. It is this balance that is always at stake, the preservation of the concept of citizenship within broadcasting. As put by people from Lord Reith onwards, this is the right of people to talk to each other. In other words, broadcasting was defined as a community in conversation with itself. By definition, that is enormously inclusive and has implications for policy, for example, the right of minorities to be represented, the right of both genders to be represented and the right and the duty of broadcasters, as Lord Reith's original description expressed it, to educate, inform and entertain.
I find it necessary to say that public service broadcasting is now not merely challenged, as many write concerning it, but is seriously degraded. I make another distinction, that which lies between the role of a public service broadcaster and what one might call a sprinkling of public service broadcasting. When I was Minister I went through all these arguments. Often people would say to me concerning a commercial station that gave news about weather, deaths and funerals that such material was surely public service broadcasting. Of course this is part of the remit of a public service broadcaster — it is an aspect of public service broadcasting.
Therefore, a distinction is made between the role of the public service broadcaster, which in this case is also a State broadcaster, RTE, supported by the licence fee with certain obligations, and those people who might be performing a public service function. There is a crucial difference. I spent a great deal of my time as a Minister, and it was a great privilege to be Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, a Department that was wrecked after I left, in a rather vindictive sense. It was a great honour to be introduced to the Council of Ministers in Europe and to be president of the Council of Broadcasting Ministers and Audio-visual Ministers, to have the Department represented there and to be introduced as "the Minister for Culture". It was the first time that Ireland had been represented. The Ceann Comhairle will not be embarrassed if I say that he was a distinguished successor of mine in this role.
I have described what is happening in broadcasting in Ireland and Europe as a degradation of the public service broadcasting ethic. It is so in a most comprehensive sense.
While I cannot defend everything I have ever written, I have written about this subject. My last book, Causes for Concern: Irish Politics, Culture and Society, which was published in 2006 by Liberties Press, contains a chapter based on a lecture I gave in New Zealand when the future of its broadcasting licence was under discussion. That chapter could be summarised as the decline and fall of public service broadcasting. It has declined in every sense. It has declined in respect of the application of technology for the benefit of all the people. I mean that universal access as a principle is less than it once was. As for attempts to balance what I described as issues of the population as consumers or as citizens, it has swung over heavily to the side of the population as consumers. I also argue something that I am free to state clearly at my age, namely, that among broadcasting practitioners, there also has been a lessening of practice. One cannot compare celebrity culture, which exists as an alternative, to the fine moments of broadcasting, even in the Irish sense, of the past.
I should state immediately that the Irish broadcaster always has had a fine standard next door to it. Irish broadcasting was built on a comparison with, for example, the standards of the BBC service, which is one of the great broadcasters of all time. Moreover, Irish broadcasting regularly surpassed that standard. However, when one has a station in which people ape commercial programmes brought from across the Atlantic and end up rather pathetically interviewing themselves as celebrities, it is both incestuous and cheap. As for news, current affairs and so forth, it is frightening to think that the new technology in which television is a hot medium is one whereby coverage has changed entirely, in so far as the requirement to have a context for the news that is current has disappeared. The suggestion, for example, that the elaboration of an opinion now is no longer possible but that one must offer sound bites rather than the presentation of an argument and so forth also is frightening. This reveals both a change in broadcasting and a change in broadcasting practice.
The finest book about Irish broadcasting that was ever published is Sit Down and Be Counted — the Cultural Evolution of a Television Station, with its introduction by Raymond Williams. The book's editors and contributors, Bob Quinn, Lelia Doolan and the late Jack Dowling, were people who were at the cusp of something that was extremely important in respect of the history of Irish broadcasting. They took their stand because they wanted to defend the right of the programme maker with regard to broadcasting values and norms against the administrative direction of programming that later would collapse into being a commercially-led venture. It also is interesting that the person who wrote the book's preface, the late Raymond Williams, entitled his last paper, "How to be the arrow, not the target". In so doing, he was pointing to the value of citizenship and the right, for example, of citizens to participate. While Lord Reith's values have been described somewhere else as a kind of authoritarian paternalism, they were sound broadcasting values. It was the acceptance of the obligation of being able to allow several narratives to be present at the same time and to be treated with respect.
I find it extraordinary that the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, would sail in with the Broadcasting Bill on Second Stage without making a single reference to any such issues pertaining to values. It may be that the values of which I speak are out of date in these cheapened times. I defend my statements in the Green Paper I published on broadcasting when I held office as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, the statements I made before the European Parliament as Minister with responsibility for broadcasting and culture and elsewhere. I contrast such statements with the Minister's up-beat presentation on Second Stage to the effect it is great to be here fixing up all the technical bits and pieces.
This is a Bill of substance that contains good measures. However, if one examines its definitions section to ascertain what is public service broadcasting, the answer is that RTE is a public service broadcaster. While other Members can tease this out for themselves, how satisfactory is it to produce such a Bill? This is akin to asking what is a hen and receiving the reply that a Rhode Island Red is a hen. It is meaningless. There is no definition of public service broadcasting in the Bill. It only goes as far as stating that RTE is a public service broadcaster. That is about as valuable as stating that something that lays an egg might be a hen. It contains no definition and does so by entirely escaping all of the tedious matters about which people are commenting and that I propose to repeat to an extent.
My views in this regard are not only held by me. I refer to further issues that were not discussed in the Minister's Second Stage speech. What is happening in broadcasting globally? Ownership is being concentrated. Does this not matter? Does it not matter, for example, that an oligopoly operates in respect of product? Does it not matter that approximately 85% of all the games that are watched by children and teenagers in Europe are produced by a single company? Does it not matter that Berlusconi, Rupert Murdoch and others dominate the airwaves? Was it not of cultural significance that Mr. Berlusconi crossed over from television and radio to establish monopolies in the print media? Is cross-ownership not important? The issue of concentration of ownership and cross-ownership and its effect within a culture was not worth a single sentence in the introductory speech on Second Stage.
I will turn to the next big issue, namely, the merging of technologies. I called this a convergence of technologies 11 years ago, when one was able to talk about concentration of ownership and convergence of technologies, by which I meant that one was facing into the digital age and also was dealing with new forms of electronic capacity with regard to broadcasting. This was not mentioned either. I will turn to a matter that was going to be most important, namely, the fragmentation of audiences, driven on by commercial pursuits. Members should recall that Rupert Murdoch stated he would use sport as the battering ram, as he made his way towards the destruction of television. While Members may not be able to do much about this in an Irish item of broadcasting legislation, it is a sad day when the issue does not even surface in the debate and is missing from the Minister's speech.
I have stated there are positive aspects to the Minister's speech, to which I now will turn. I welcome the idea of a channel that will cover the proceedings of the Oireachtas. That proposal fits well with my suggestions in respect of accepting the importance of a discourse that is based on principles of citizenship. It is good that this proposal is contained in the Bill. It also is good that there is a recognition of the importance of Bord Scannán na hÉireann — The Irish Film Board, the film industry and its future possibilities. However, I simply state that the philosophical underpinnings of the reason Ireland has a public service broadcaster are missing. I suspect that none of my observations necessarily is partisan. When I became a Minister and attended meetings in Europe, I was the only Minister attending the Council of Ministers who was in favour of public service broadcasting. During the years from 1993 to 1997, everything was going the other way and was going commercial. At home, I was fighting a battle, with support from all sides and parties in the House, to establish a new aspect of public service broadcasting, that is, what then was Teilifís na Gaeilge. However, I was opposed by those who had a vested interest in oligopoly and monopoly in newspapers. The Sunday Independent ran a disgraceful campaign against the concept of Teilifís na Gaeilge and public service broadcasting, and it was directed heavily against me. Individual journalists would later describe TnaG as Teilifís DeLorean and so forth. Against the grain I was establishing and extending public service broadcasting consciously because I believed in it. That is why I feel it necessary to speak now when I see public service broadcasting dragged down into a pit of commercialism and broadcasting practice at its lowest ebb.
On the other side there is the very interesting issue of what happens when the values of broadcasting are not set out as they should be. Broadcasters lose confidence, as so many did when I was dealing with that other controversial matter, the order under section 31 prohibiting the appearance of certain organisations on the airwaves. A third of the organisation felt it could relax under that section and it made life easy as they did not have to take on the burden of what I had argued, that if we wanted to deal with subversion and threats to the State, we would do it in public order legislation. We were not to use broadcasting legislation with a purpose for which it should never have been used and which would deteriorate into an instrument of censorship.
I remember members of the Progressive Democrats, when they were opposite, standing up and saying how the results of my action would be that everybody would join the IRA and denying there was any aspect of censorship involved. I held my views on that broadcasting issue since the time of a very fine intellectual debate between Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien and myself in the Seanad in the 1970s. We laid out our different positions and I respect that.
There must be a debate in what broadcasting is for, who should have access and the space that is broadcasting. It is necessary to make the technical arrangements but they are instrumental to the bigger issue. I recall that after I left in 1998 once again we went through another cataclysm about how digitalisation would happen. I should tell the Minister, in case he forgets with the airbrush approach that the Green Party has to history, that it was in June 1998 that then Minister, Síle de Valera, announced that the Government had taken a decision at Cabinet on the form of the introduction of digital technology. A debate then appeared on the sidelines as to whether it should be a commercial venture and the role of Radio Teilifís Éireann.
It is now ten years later and everything in the "Happy Happy" Ministry is hunky dory. It is all a matter of, gee whiz, everything is so technical, shiny, beautiful and so forth. It reminds me more of an approach to broadcasting that is like somebody going into a toyshop.
That brings me to another issue which did not surface, that of direct advertising to children. It is very interesting that the toy manufacturers of Europe would hold conferences in London and hire psychologists and lobbyists to ensure no parliament in Europe would even dream of forbidding the advertising of toys to children in certain circumstances. That does not arise. It is not just the Labour Party spokesperson on broadcasting who would be interested as many decent Members are concerned with the issue of protecting children against the predation of those who have no standards with regard to commercial advertising.
This is a Second Stage speech but I have many detailed submissions to make on Committee Stage regarding different sections.
One of the reasons for strong broadcasting values and so forth is quite interesting. I was Minister with the relevant portfolio from 1993 to 1997. On Tuesday, 21 September 1993, François Mitterrand gave a speech, having received an honorary doctorate from the University of Gdansk, in which he stated:
We must be on our guard. Although the spirit of Europe is no longer threatened by the great totalitarian machines which we have successfully withstood or by war, it could be more insidiously endangered by new masters, namely economism, mercantilism, the power of money, and in a certain way, technology. Just think of the tremendous impact which audio-visual media are having in our lives.
He went on to state:
So I ask the question, can media ratings and commercial profit override the demands of thought and ethics without serious consequences? Europe has generally been successful in reconciling the freedom to engage in business with the freedom to create, the expansion of wealth and the development of the arts and ideas, competitiveness and our national identities.
It was no joy to me to know that I did not succeed in holding back the sea of American domination in European culture. What do our American partners want? They want to include the production and distribution of images in the general agreement.
He went on to raise the question of why should we be so dominated. What are our broadcasters doing to establish something that is distinct? Mitterrand quoted Jean Claude Carrière in arguing:
Imagine if the Germans were to say to the Irish "You listen to Bach and Beethoven far more often than your own composers, so just stop making music. And if the French said to the Portuguese "You read Balzac and Proust more than your own authors, so you should stop writing".
The idea that a Minister would give a Second Stage speech and not introduce any of the issues I mentioned fills me with great despair and disappointment. Broadcasting is located within culture and culture has to do with citizenship. To have a long elaborate statement of how all the technical adjustments will be made to what is essentially a commercial ethos, without discussing these issues, is a source of sadness. I will return in detail to all these issues on Committee Stage.
I do not have any quotes to match those so I will stick to the basics. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which had over 420 submissions during the consultation process. Notwithstanding the comments of Deputy Higgins, it is a positive Bill which will clearly change the shape of broadcasting in Ireland.
Some of the main points may not address the concerns of Deputy Higgins but they make a positive contribution to broadcasting. The new and overarching broadcasting authority of Ireland will address much of the concern that viewers and citizens have with public and private broadcasters. The introduction of sanctions of up to €250,000 for licence and code infringements is a positive move. Previously, the BCI had to take what was the drastic option of revoking a licence for a code or licence infringement. That the punishment will be staggered and the penalty will suit the crime is probably a good step.
The establishment of audience councils is a positive move. Two new stations will be set up, Oireachtas TV and the Irish film channel. I will come back to the Oireachtas TV channel in a moment.
I have a number of observations to make on the ban on the advertising of junk food aimed at children. With recent figures indicating that almost 300,000 Irish children are affected by obesity, it is clear that addressing the problem will be a major challenge for society, especially parents.
I read in one of the submissions on the legislation that while carbohydrate intake has not increased in the past ten years, exercise levels have declined significantly. If people eat more and exercise less, it will clearly have a knock-on effect in terms of the rate of obesity. As a parent and someone who is involved with local sporting groups, I believe addressing the problem of obesity is best done through parental and school involvement rather than in the media. When children are active and involved in local activities it has a positive impact on reducing obesity.
The ongoing development of sports facilities must be maintained. The Ceann Comhairle in a previous life did much to address the shortage of sporting facilities. This has made a major difference in all sections of the community, whether elite athletes or those who wish only to participate in sport. One problem we face is to persuade parents to stay and become involved in clubs and activities rather than dropping off their children or using sports facilities as crèches.
The decision to introduce a ban on junk food advertisements aimed at children is a positive step but no more than a tiny piece in the jigsaw in terms of our efforts to tackle obesity. Deputy Coveney lamented the fact that a restriction similar to the ban on junk food advertising does not apply to alcohol advertisements. I agree that this is a missed opportunity and I hope the proposed broadcasting authority of Ireland will have the power to introduce strong measures to restrict the advertising of alcohol on television. I hope the Minister will examine this issue and, if necessary, beef up the authority's powers in this area. In saying this, I do not seek to detract from the positive measures in the legislation.
The Ceann Comhairle has led the way in making the Houses of the Oireachtas more accessible to members of the public. While I have no doubt that an Oireachtas television challenge makes sense in theory and will, in time, become necessary, I am not convinced that such a channel is currently required. Knowing that this legislation was pending, over the past week I asked a number of people whether they had ever followed contributions in the House live on the Oireachtas website. Not one of those whom I asked had visited the website to watch the live feed of proceedings and many of them were not aware that it was possible to do so. For this reason, it may be preferable to raise public awareness of available services before we seek to establish an Oireachtas television channel. Our current media infrastructure, specifically the RTE, TG4 and TV3 television channels, are the appropriate vehicle for improving the connection between the Oireachtas and members of the public. At this point, the establishment of a new channel would amount to a duplication of services. Perhaps someone will provide a technical reason showing that a new channel would not generate additional costs.
People are not ready for an Oireachtas television channel. "Oireachtas Report" is a top-class, professional programme.
I hope it will have a large audience.
Although "Oireachtas Report" is a high quality production, it is shown at such a late hour that only insomniacs and political anoraks watch it. People are sometimes right to accuse Members of living in a bubble, especially if we believe many people watch "Oireachtas Report". The programme should be moved to a slot earlier in the evening or presented as an item in the afternoon schedule.
Many people would be interested in watching "Oireachtas Report". For this reason, its remit should be extended to include regular rather than occasional coverage of proceedings in the European Parliament. Deputy Coveney will understand better than most of us that drawing attention to European issues is a difficult task, particularly in the wake of the difficulties we experienced with coverage of the Lisbon treaty campaign. It is important that proceedings in the European Parliament are given greater coverage. Given that news programmes feature country round-ups, why is it not possible to broadcast a summary of proceedings in the Oireachtas or European Parliament each evening?
We have not used up all available resources to maximise the connection between the Houses and members of the public. As the resounding success of recent open days showed, many people have a keen interest in the work of the House. Public interest will not increase overnight but over time and in incremental steps. The Oireachtas channel is a step too far at this point. It would be akin to fitting an ashtray to a motorbike in that it would look great but would not be practical.
On the establishment of an Irish film channel, I am not a great fan of television. As a radio person who does not watch much television, I may be biased. Nevertheless, the Bill will make a difference in this regard and it is good to examine all the options available to us.
I share other speakers' concern about the ban on advertisements for religious vocations. A large number of people find comfort and solace in religion. During the summer I was fortunate to be able to travel to Gambia in western Africa with Voluntary Service Overseas where I met a Holy Ghost Father from Blackrock, Bishop Bobby Ellison. He has spent more than 40 years there, quietly, gently and efficiently getting on with making a difference in people's lives. Gambia and other countries in Africa have gone through a great deal of turmoil but through all that the Holy Ghost Fathers and Bishop Ellison, in his work, have made a positive difference. Bishop Ellison's work has been a cornerstone on which improvements have been made within Gambian society. He has made an incredible contribution to that society. It is amazing that an order such as the Holy Ghost Fathers cannot advertise on television for religious vocations. The members of the order get on with their work. They are quiet, non-intrusive and constructive in the work that they do in Africa and elsewhere across the globe, work of which we should be proud.
However, when it comes to Ireland, people here consider we have become a modern society and television advertisements for religious vocations are old-fashioned. Deputy Higgins made the comment that perhaps he is part of that old valued world. The banning of advertisements for religious vocations is a backward and retrograde step and such advertising should be permitted in the context of this Bill.
The Minister has a chance to break the cosy cartel that appears to operate in broadcasting media. I very much welcome his decision, for the first time in the history of the State, to facilitate an Oireachtas committee, the Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, to nominate four members to the board of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and four members each to the boards of RTE and TG4. That is a positive move because it provides a link between the work of this House and the committee with the broadcasting sector. Many people may criticise the committees and say that they do not do this or that, but this is a visionary move by the Minister to empower a committee with a degree of influence and a central role in the decision-making process. His decision to allow the committees appoint such members is positive.
I ask that he takes the lead in such board appointments and in the appointment of members to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. I would like him to set an example by appointing not the usual suspects but people who will challenge us. I do not mean that they would agree with everything we say but that they would challenge us in a positive way and stimulate debate within the broadcasting sector. There is, in many ways, a lack of debate within the sector. By appointing people who would be challenging, that would have an impact on the ongoing development of this process, namely, the change the Minister is seeing through.
I would like the Minister to appoint ordinary people from around the country. We all know and meet people through our day to day work who would make ideal members of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, but we know that they would never be appointed to it. However, I would like people who work within the community or are involved in community groups or industry and know people's views on various issues to be considered in this respect. Referring to the Lisbon treaty, many people within the broadcasting sector were detached from the views of ordinary people. That was reflected in the coverage of that debate and the way issues were handled, but I acknowledge other issues affected the type of coverage it received.
However, there is a group in society who are detached from the views of the vast large majority of people on various issues. That group lives in a bubble and, therefore, it is important that members who will challenge issues are appointed to these boards. I refer to people such as Senator Ronan Mullen and David Quinn, with whom I disagree on many issues. They would challenge views and create good debate, and that is what we need. We need people who will challenge us, the establishment and cosy cartel in society. There is a segment in society who look down on our traditional values and on people who hold values that are not considered cool, trendy and modern. We need to not look down on them but to engage and debate with them.
I hope the Minister will set an example in his selection of members and ensure that this Bill will work as well in practice as it does in theory. In theory, this is a good Bill and it will make a big difference to the broadcasting sector and to society, but it must also work in practice. I hope the Minister, in his appointments, will make this Bill work in practice.
I was struck by Deputy Higgins's contribution. Not blowing too much sunshine his way, he is one of the last great orators in this House. We got an example of that today when we heard his views and passion for public service broadcasting. I have many proposals and views on the detail of the Bill that I would like the Minister of State to convey to the Minister. I understand the reason he is not here, with which I have no difficulty. However, it is appropriate at the start of a Second Stage contribution to focus, emphasise and reflect on the fact that we are asked why public service broadcasting and regulation of broadcasting outside the public service sphere is important. The answer to that question is that as a country changes, grows and transforms, as Ireland has done during the past ten years, if we respect a core value system for a people, country or community, we must figure out ways of keeping that value system alive, supporting and cherishing it and informing new people and communities as they join this country and our people about what Irishness and Ireland are all about.
Broadcasting is the most effective media by far to do that. That is why public service broadcasting is so important in Ireland today. As our country has been transformed during the past two decades, we need to use the tools available to us to keep in perspective what is important in this country. Public service broadcasting, in particular, plays a hugely valuable role in that regard.
On Committee Stage, perhaps we might tease out what we want from organisations such as RTE in respect of how they spend public money in the pursuit of an agenda which relates to cherishing what Ireland is and to our future aspirations for it. We might also consider how we could support this in a non-commercial way. We must, however, take into account the commercial realities and acknowledge the competition RTE faces from other broadcasters and from the other technologies that can inform people and influence their views.
I welcome the Bill, which will bring about much needed change in the area of broadcasting. The new structures it will introduce, namely, the broadcasting authority of Ireland, BAI, and the two sub-committees relating thereto, make some sense. If, however, we were starting afresh — we are not doing so — it would make sense to consider creating the post of communications regulator rather than having ComReg and a broadcasting regulator. Ofcom, the communications regulator in Britain, deals with matters such as the roll-out of broadband facilities, IT infrastructure, telecommunications, mobile telephone technology etc., but it also deals with broadcasting matters. Such a model makes sense.
Many people watch their televisions or are informed, in a broadcasting sense, via computer screens, mobile telephones or some form of personal digital assistant, PDA. There is going to be a great deal of co-operation and links between ComReg and the BAI. It would have made sense to consider creating a super-regulator for the area of communications, under which those two organisations would have been united, rather than establishing an entirely new structure. My remarks are particularly relevant in the context of trying to streamline matters by reducing the number of quangos and State-sponsored bodies in existence.
I wish to comment on the effect the Bill will have in respect of a series of areas and perhaps the Minister can reflect on what I have to say before Committee Stage. I appreciate from where the Minister is coming in respect of appointments to the new boards of the BAI, RTE and TG4. I welcome the fact he is recognising that the way the Government appoints members to State boards is wrong, inappropriate, overly political and, at times, corrupt. It is often a reward system for people who have supported a particular political party in government. I am not stating that people who have been appointed to boards relating to broadcasting in the past have been corrupt. I am merely highlighting that the principle which allows a Minister to make decisions on appointments without any form of oversight is inappropriate. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, recognises that in the Bill. However, his proposed solution will not solve the problem.
It is not the role of an Oireachtas committee to put forward nominees to be appointed to the board of the BAI. It is the responsibility of such a committee to interview a panel of people whose names have been put forward by the Minister. That committee should vet these individuals, ensure they are suitable for and capable of performing the duties to which they will be appointed and have some say in approving those who will serve as the members and chairperson of the board. If this does not happen, the status quo will remain. There will be Members who will know individuals with whom they have relationships and whom they believe might like to be on the boards of the BAI or RTE. That will come through the system.
I would prefer if the Minister chose people in a non-partisan or non-political way and then charged the relevant committee with assessing their suitability to serve. If they come through this process, such individuals could then be appointed. That is the kind of structure with which Fine Gael would be more comfortable. It is the job of the Government to fill State boards; that is what it is elected to do. However, it is the job of the Oireachtas and its committees to offer oversight and ensure Ministers do not abuse their position. That is what the committee should be charged with doing. Fine Gael will table an amendment on Committee Stage to try to change the position in this regard.
I welcome the section relating to enforcement and sanctions, which is extremely sensible in nature. The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland cannot sanction a broadcaster if it breaks the rules, breaches codes of conduct or whatever. The only sanction it has, namely, that it can revoke a licence, is nuclear in nature. There must be a system of lesser sanctions by means of which fines can be imposed and the necessity of going to court can be avoided. That is a sensible proposal and it will be receiving our support on Committee Stage.
I wish to make a number of points regarding the codes and rules. Members who are involved in dealing with this legislation have been the subject of much lobbying in respect of it. They have been lobbied by the industry with regard to threatened bans on junk food and alcohol advertising and various other matters. Fine Gael takes an uncompromising approach to protecting children, young people and adults from irresponsible advertising. We should not, however, be attempting to introduce heavy-handed measures, such as bans or whatever. We should instead be conferring power onto the new broadcasting authority of Ireland to be heavy-handed if the necessity arises. The authority should be obliged to come before an Oireachtas committee or seek ministerial approval before introducing new measures relating to codes of conduct, punishment etc.
Will the Minister equip the proposed broadcasting authority of Ireland to introduce those measures that are necessary in respect of alcohol advertising, junk food advertising or any other form of advertising, be it relating to children's toys or whatever? If he does so, we will be able to assess, from year to year, the abuses taking place through the medium of advertising on television and address them in as tough a way as is necessary in order to force change within the industry. It would be far more suitable to proceed in this way rather than try to legislate in respect of bans. The Minister probably recognises that. As matters stand, the Bill only proposes that the BAI will have the capacity to introduce a ban on the advertising of unhealthy foods. It must be more broad-ranging than that. We should apply to alcohol advertising the same value system that applies in respect of junk food and other irresponsible forms of advertising.
It is completely hypocritical to insist on a ban on all religious advertising when also allowing the Angelus to be shown before "Six One" or permitting "A Prayer at Bedtime" to be shown at night. Is Ireland becoming so politically correct that it is not possible to allow someone to advertise the sale of a crib at Christmas? That is the point we have reached. I accept the need to ensure there is not incitement to hatred through advertising or that the aggressive promotion of any one religion does not occur. Ireland is a secular state, but it is also Christian, Celtic, multicultural and multi-religious. It is an open, liberal country and it should permit advertising by any church as long as such advertising is tolerant and reasonable. Let us try and adopt a sensible approach rather than take the politically correct attitude that we are secular and therefore cannot allow any promotion of Catholicism, religion, or Islam for that matter. Let us try and introduce some flexibility that will allow sensible, tolerant advertising where appropriate.
A number of elements of the Bill relating to licensing have been welcomed by independent radio licence holders in the context of introducing a pragmatic sensible measure that will fast-track the renewal of licences. The current system is ridiculous in that anybody who has had a licence for ten years must, despite the fact nobody contests that licence, go through a long, expensive procedure to renew the licence. Even though it is only a formality, it costs the radio station a fortune. I am glad this Bill will get over that.
There are issues with regard to the length of time for which new licenses will be granted and there is deliberate positive discrimination in favour of broadcasters who will offer a digital radio platform. I understand what the Minister is trying to do in this regard, but I am not sure he is doing enough. We need an honest debate about digital radio. Currently, unless I am misinformed, digital radio is going nowhere. If we want to promote digital radio here, we will have to consider promoting it more aggressively than in the Bill.
I welcome the section that allows a right of reply to someone whose good name is called into disrepute on a radio or television programme. However, I want the Minister to go further. The right of reply should apply with regard to people who have died. There is an anomaly in Irish law with regard to the defence of the good name of someone who is dead. Obviously, dead people cannot defend themselves, but neither can their family defend their good name in law. We have an opportunity to address this issue from the broadcasting point of view in this legislation. In other words, if someone dies in tragic circumstances and the media gets the story wrong — unfortunately, we had such a case when a member of the Government party died some time ago — the family should automatically have the right of reply. The family should be allowed reply on the programme of the broadcaster that abused its position. I urge the Minister to deal with this issue.
With regard to the proposed new television stations, this plan has not been thought out or costed and is unworkable as proposed. A new Irish film channel and an Oireachtas channel are proposed. The transmission of each of these channels would cost €750,000 alone, not to mind production and other costs. We need to rethink this plan. If we are to have a film channel, that I anticipate will cost more than €1 million annually, we must consider how we can fund it. We do not want Oireachtas and film channels that cost a fortune and that nobody watches apart from a small group of people involved in the sector. That is nonsense.
In the case of film, public service broadcasting must be about bringing Irish film and how it is made and Irish talent to the masses. We can discuss the Oireachtas channel another time, but if we are to have a film channel we should get RTE to use one of its digital channels as an Irish movie channel. Let us allow RTE show blockbusters and a set quota of Irish films, documentaries and animated programmes. In that way we could introduce large audiences to Irish film. We should also allow advertising for it. It makes sense in terms of paying for it and in terms of getting bigger audiences, rather than having a cult 24-hour channel watched by a few thousand people. I am a fan of Irish film and want to see it on our screens, but it must be done properly.
The current method of funding public service broadcasting is flawed. It is flawed to link television ownership with the funding of public service broadcasting because it is only a matter of time before a television screen is also a computer screen and a vehicle for tele-conferencing and computer games. It is an entertainment and communication system. Public service broadcasting needs to move with that. We sponsor it, therefore, we cannot have a situation where we have an army of people knocking on doors around the country to check if there is a television in the bedroom and whether it is licensed. This system of funding is inefficient and expensive. It costs €14 million a year to collect €220 million. This is not good value. Up to 15% of people evade the television licence fee, which is unfair on those who pay.
Let us examine a more pragmatic way of dealing with the situation. I suggest we should have household and business broadcast levies so that, for example, hotels with a television in every room would pay a reasonable set charge. All homes in the country, whether they have a television or not, should pay some contribution towards funding public service broadcasting. People who do not watch television will use computers or listen to radios. We must get real about the licence and ensure people pay their fair share, there is no evasion and it does not cost a fortune to collect. I have serious concerns with regard to how it is proposed to fund the broadcasting authority of Ireland and how the levy will be paid, but will return to that on Committee Stage.
On advertising standards, the focus in this debate has been on the quality of advertising and, in particular, abuse of children during advertising time. We must also consider the programmes to which children are exposed. How many cartoons or animated films broadcast during children's programme time are from Ireland? The answer is very few, yet we have some of the top animation studios in the world. They export cartoons and animated films across the world, yet our broadcasters import the major part of animated programmes from the United States. The Minister must not look just at advertising, but must also consider the content of the programmes to which Irish children, teenagers in particular, are exposed.
This debate is topical. Deputy Coveney mentioned religious advertising. Some weeks ago it was brought to the public's attention that yet another advertisement from a religious organisation had been banned from the airwaves. This ban highlights once again the need to amend current broadcasting legislation so as to ease the onerous restrictions on religious advertising. The advertisement in question concerned Veritas and it is worth citing it to demonstrate how innocuous it was. It read:
Come to Veritas for great confirmation and First Holy Communion gift ideas. Choose from our diverse range of religious and inspirational gifts, including children's literature, prayer books, rosary beads, religious medals and candles.
So if you want to give your loved one a spiritual gift that relates to what Holy Communion and confirmation are really about, visit Veritas at Abbey Street.
The advertisement went on to list a number of other Veritas locations and invited people to visit the Veritas website. There is nothing offensive about that advertisement. This is not the first time a Veritas advertisement met this fate. Last year an attempt by a station to broadcast an advertisement over Christmas fell foul of the current legislation because it mentioned the word "crib". Clearly, this is absurd.
These bans are being imposed on two grounds, both of which are set out in section 41 of the Bill. The first is that no advertisement directed towards a religious end can be broadcast, while the second prohibits advertisements which address the merits or otherwise of belonging to a particular religion. Only religious publications and events are exempt from this legislation. In 2002, however, an advertisement for The Irish Catholic was banned because it mentioned a feature series entitled The Good the Church Does, which concerned the work done by organisations such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
The most recent Veritas advertisement which somehow made it to air on RTE in April was reported to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission by a member of the public and in the middle of September the BCC upheld the complaint based on the above-mentioned legislative grounds. Specifically, it deemed that describing rosary beads and prayer books as "spiritual gifts" fell foul of the law, as did mention of the Veritas website because it made the link between Veritas and its owners, the Catholic bishops. Any reasonable person would have to agree this is an overly strict and literal interpretation of the law.
The legislation also bans advertisements directed towards a political end but advertisements for secular newspapers are permitted all the time, even though such advertisements often have highly politicised content. For example, a recent advertisement for Village magazine referred to the lies of the European Union. The drafters of the current law cannot have imagined that it would be interpreted so as to ban advertisements that mentioned cribs or gifts for First Holy Communion. What is happening now is ludicrous and indefensible.
The one defence offered in respect of the status quo is that if organisations such as Veritas are allowed to advertise their products, extremist religious groups might be able to gain access to the airwaves. However, no one fears that if the now defunct Village magazine is allowed to advertise, neo-Nazi publications will also be allowed. The fears are directed towards religion rather than politics. When a Christian organisation called Power to Change was banned from the airwaves in 2003, it was allowed to advertise on UTV, which show that the North's advertising regulations are more liberal than the Republic's.
It is patently clear that the legislation needs to be amended and, with a new Broadcasting Bill before us, we should take the opportunity to do so. We need to take a more liberal approach to religious advertising and permit any advertisement not deemed harmful to the common good. In this way extremist organisations can still be kept off the airwaves, while allowing mainstream and long established organisations such as Veritas and The Irish Catholic the same access that secular organisations and publications enjoy. I urge the Minister to take this into account by amending section 41 of the Bill.
I could speak all day about the Bill because I served as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in the last Oireachtas. That committee did extensive work on the process of e-consultation for the Bill. I welcome the officials from the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, including Mr. Bill Morrissey, who worked extremely hard on it. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, was also a member of that committee.
The huge success of independent commercial radio stations in Ireland has been built in a short length of time. I need not look outside my own county with its three successful radio stations, Cork 96 FM, C103 and Red FM, which broadcast to different sections of the community and give the people of Cork city and county local information, news, music and entertainment. Their importance is further emphasised when one considers the reduction or cessation of RTE's local services throughout the country, including County Cork. In excess of 2.5 million people tune in to independent radio stations on a daily basis and the celebration in 2009 of 21 years of independent radio services in Ireland makes it hard to imagine life in Ireland prior to their arrival.
I have discussed many aspects of the Bill with representatives of the independent radio sector and people who work in the independent stations in Cork. I am pleased to say the reaction has been largely positive. I have a strong interest in the Broadcasting Bill in the light of my involvement in its inception and early stages. The Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources broke the mould in that regard and I hope it will be a template for future committees when legislation is drafted and discussed. The history of the Bill stretches back to 2003 when the joint committee, with the assistance of former Senator Kathleen O'Meara, produced a report on the licensing process as experienced by local radio stations. In January 2007 public hearings allowed interest groups, broadcasters and interested members of the public to comment on the Bill. The process of e-consultation for legislation was first used in regard to this Bill.
Senator O'Meara's report highlighted several areas of concern to the joint committee, including the high cost of radio licence applications, the automatic roll-over of licences for compliant radio stations and the fast-tracking of radio licences for compliant radio stations where there has been no other expression of interest in the licence. I am glad that Deputy Coveney spoke about that issue. As Chairman of the joint committee, I considered these three provisions could bring a level of practicality to a costly and time consuming procedure and would benefit both the radio stations and the regulator.
I am delighted that the Minister and his officials took on board the recommendations made in Senator O'Meara's report but puzzled as to why certain other provisions were introduced in respect of the granting of a radio licence. The term of a licence will now be reduced to seven years. As a business person, I realise that a seven year licence will mean that local radio stations will not be able to form a long-term strategic plan. This makes it difficult to attract and retain talented staff or justify investment in premises, equipment and staff training. In essence, such a reduction in the term of licences punishes existing radio stations for the lack of competition. I ask the Minister to allow the term of a commercial radio licence to remain at ten years, regardless of the number of groups which declare an interest.
Digital broadcasting is a reality in Ireland. Digital television services will be available in every household in the country by 2012. A large number of houses have already installed the necessary equipment. During my time as Chairman of the joint committee, I visited London to see what steps were been taken in the United Kindgdom to further the digital cause. I spoke with practitioners and experts from the BBC and commercial radio stations. To encourage investment, development and involvement in digital radio services, commercial radio stations in the United Kingdom were offered a 12 year licence extension, with the result that the development and take-up of digital radio services are years ahead of those in Ireland.
There is a high degree of uncertainty surrounding digital radio services in Ireland. The shortage of concrete information on technology, carriage on the digital platform and the benefits that digital affords radio broadcasters means that every encouragement needs to be given to broadcasters. The Minister has offered a contract extension of not more than four years to commercial radio stations which invest in digital radio services. This is not a sufficient incentive for any commercial broadcaste; I suggest offering a contract extension of not less than seven years would result in a greater level of interest and involvement from the commercial radio sector.
I welcome the proposed establishment of a single regulatory body as an open, fair and equitable system for all broadcasters. However, I have two concerns. In regard to membership of the authority, the BAI will regulate a diverse sector. It is vital those who are appointed by the Minister or nominated by an Oireachtas committee to sit on the board have significant knowledge, experience and interest in broadcasting if they are to fulfil their duties to the level that the sector requires and demands. A board member with industry expertise would be of significant advantage to the authority. Proof of this can been seen in Mr. Joe O'Brien of RTE news and current affairs who is currently sitting on the RTE authority and Mr. David Tighe of Live 95FM in Limerick who sits on the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, both of whom bring a practical understanding of the issues at hand. It is important that we strike a correct balance in the composition of these boards and committees.
My second concern pertains to finance. The current economic climate and the upcoming budget forced me to look at the BAI in a new light. I would like to ensure ongoing built-in scrutiny and examination of the BAI budget are included in the Bill. Such a mechanism would eliminate the incremental rise in the cost of the regulator. I recommend to the Minister the suggestion made by the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland that the BAI present a three-year budget to the Oireachtas joint committee for its approval and consent.
We have already spoken about section 41 of the Bill which deals with advertising. The independent radio sector has raised the matter of the provision in the Bill for a maximum of ten minutes of advertising per hour. This is the same, as Deputies know, as commercial radio stations are currently allowed and is carefully monitored by the BCI. One more second of advertising than is permitted equates to a breach by the broadcaster in question. Given the live environment in which radio services operate, with breaking news and live interviews, a degree of flexibility should be built in to the advertising requirements of the Bill. I suggest the advertising cap be averaged over two consecutive hours. This would not mean that broadcasters would benefit from an increase in advertising minutes or from extra revenue, but it would eliminate petty breaches and the associated administration requirements, while providing a more free-flowing service for the listener. I noted with interest the discussions on this topic in the Seanad. A bone of contention surrounding this section was that of broadcasters overloading particular hours with advertisements when listenership was high in order to gain financially. I support the proposal of my colleague Senator Jim Walsh that the cap of ten minutes per hour be averaged over two consecutive hours, while maintaining a requirement for a minimum of eight minutes of advertising in any one hour.
I have often been on local radio with Neil Prendeville in Cork, fighting hard and almost coming to blows, if I could describe it that way, only to run into news time and subsequently lose my train of thought.
I think Mr. Prendeville is mellowing a little, as he has not fought with me for a while. However, I will send my regards to him. He has given us a very tough time on occasions, rightly so, as a broadcaster.
Section 8 is a new provision which deals with the membership of the authority, about which my colleague Deputy Andrews spoke, as did Deputy Coveney. Five people will be nominated by the Government on the advice of the Minister who will nominate four people from names sent to him by the joint committee. This is a welcome move and a major shift from current Government policy, under which the Minister nominates and appoints all members of State boards and statutory bodies. I would like this issue to be teased out. I have not heard much more about it but the Minister of State, Deputy Power, mentioned it at our parliamentary party meeting last night. How will it work? Will there be a list of suitable candidates? Will people be asked publicly to send in CVs? Will there be advertising? Will expressions of interest be required? Is it envisaged that the committee will sift through the CVs in private session before it comes to public hearings and examination of witnesses? What background will be required? What will be the make-up of the authority? What is required to get the balance right?
If we are asking people to attend a meeting of the committee, what examination will take place? Will we be grilling witnesses, similar to the American system under which names are sent either to the Senate or the House of Representatives for scrutiny and examination? If so, I foresee a major problem. I discussed this issue recently with Mr. John Bruton, the former leader of Fine Gael, in Washington DC when I was there to examine the committee system in my capacity as Chairman of the Working Group of Committee Chairmen. As Deputies know, we are compiling a draft report for consideration by the House and the Government. I asked Mr. Bruton whether we should have a system whereby people nominated to any State board would be sent before a committee. He said we should be careful because such a system would put people off and they would not put their names forward. They will not want to serve if they are to be grilled about their suitability at an Oireachtas committee. Prior to that discussion, I was of the view that we should have the right to interview people. Mr. Bruton made some very important points, for which I thank him. I look forward to receiving a submission from him on the whole committee system because he had some very good ideas.
I ask the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and his officials to consider this issue closely and carefully. If a list of names is sent to an Oireachtas committee, some people might have political pedigrees, while others might not. A person may be ridiculed on the floor of the committee, even if he or she was the most qualified for the position, and not recommended by the committee. I would like to know more about this. Unfortunately, as I am not a member of the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, I will not be able to hear the results. However, perhaps I will tune in to hear them.
I commend the Minister who is probably the most suitable person for the job he holds. I had the pleasure of working with him for five years on the committee and he was an outstanding member, with outstanding vision and tremendous ideas. He was most helpful in every report we produced. Whether it was on fisheries, energy, broadcasting or mobile phones, he had a major input. I commend him on this Bill and his tweaking of it. I see his fingerprints all over it in certain areas, which is good. I have no doubt that during the lifetime of the Government he will do a tremendous job for it, the Oireachtas and the people.
How much time do I have left?
I wish to share my time with Deputy Clune.
I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute to the Broadcasting Bill which, in general terms, is welcome. We badly need to catch up with the rapidly changing world of broadcasting.
There were two defining moments in Irish broadcasting: the setting up of the RTE television station which broadcast for the first time on New Year's Eve in 1961 and the birth of local radio stations in 1988. Both events changed the face of Ireland. The power of the broadcaster to shape public opinion and influence the direction of our lives was firmly established. We are now facing even more rapid changes. Modern technology provides a multitude of challenges and opportunities that must be met head-on if we are to have the necessary matching legislation to regulate the process.
It is to be welcomed that the Bill suggests one authority for broadcasting, replacing the RTE authority and that of TG4, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. The reform in the method of appointing the board is a welcome development, but I support Deputy Coveney's view that it does not go far enough. Each appointee should be able to demonstrate his or her competence, objectivity and fitness to perform the functions required. Deputy Coveney went into great detail on how this should be done, but I will say only the change goes some of the way but not far enough.
Rather than go through the Bill from A to Z, I will refer to a few points of personal interest in the area of broadcasting. The switching off of the analogue transmission in 2012 and the oncoming of the digital era in television and radio will have positives and negatives. The introduction of the Oireachtas channel and the film channel has been mentioned. On a recent visit to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs by our counterparts from Northern Ireland concerns were raised about this change. I believe the public are not aware that in 2012 people in the Northern part of our island will need to pay for the reception of the RTE and TG4 channels. Likewise we will need to pay for the individual BBC and ITV channels. People should know more about the matter which should be teased out by the North-South Ministerial Bodies well in advance of 2012. From our perspective the availability of RTE and TG4 channels and radio stations to our people in the Northern part of the country is vital and also an important aspect of cultural life up there.
The control of junk food advertising is a good move. I have no doubt the glamorisation of junk food on our television screens particularly at times when there is a large young audience has played a major part in the increase in obesity in our young people. In some respects it may be bad that they spend too long watching television in the first place. However, encouraging them to eat the wrong kinds of foods is another thing. The authority to do that need not be contained in the Bill. As previous speakers have said, perhaps it should be regulated by the broadcasting authority. It is an issue that needs to be addressed.
There is also need to review regulations for alcohol advertising. This subject has been debated in the House on many occasions and this is an opportunity to do something about it. Just as the junk food advertisements need to be banned or regulated strictly during children's programmes the times of alcohol advertising need to be strictly controlled. For instance, drinks advertisements should not be connected with sports broadcasts particularly if the events involve people at under-age level. It is totally contradictory to give the impression that the high level of commitment, discipline, fitness and training achieved by these people can be linked to the alcohol products that are advertised or might even be sponsoring the programme. The sports organisations have rightly been criticised for accepting alcohol sponsorship for major events. However, these advertisements may be linked to the sports events being broadcast, which needs to be stopped and here is an opportunity to do so.
I will comment briefly on the section in the Bill setting up the broadcasting fund at 5% of the licence fee. As Deputy O'Flynn mentioned, independent broadcasters are constantly complaining of not getting a slice of the licence fee. Local radio stations, for instance, in the guise of independent and community radio, are providing a wonderful service to their areas. They are very close to the community and the people feel they can gain access to the broadcasters. The Gay Byrnes and the Michael O'Hehirs of the 1960s and 1970s in our neck of the woods are now the Tommy Marrens, Joe Finnegans, Willie Hegartys and Mike Finnertys of today. They are the people identified with at local level. They can work alongside our national broadcasters and in many ways provide a different type of service.
While I accept the independent radio stations are profit-making organisations, in some way it is a two-way process. Funding could be given to them by providing them with part of the licence fee revenue, which should ensure they provide programming in areas such as documentaries which they do not do at the moment. Sometimes on these stations the same person reads the news, the death notices, weather forecast and then does a sports commentary. Quite often the same person will also do some of the advertisements. That area should be considered. Nobody could imagine Ireland surviving without these local stations and community broadcasting stations. Particularly in rural areas, they provide a social service for the people as much as everything else.
While I am handing out plaudits, I compliment the former Labour Party Minister, Deputy Higgins, on establishing TG4 some years ago. The decision was truly visionary. At the time nobody could have understood the role it would play. From my involvement in sport I know the role it plays and the wonderful programmes it produces on a shoestring budget. Every weekend over the winter it broadcasts two or three GAA matches. It has coverage of tennis from Wimbledon, which has been abandoned by the national channel. It also broadcasts Eircom League soccer matches — I am not promoting the GAA over the others. I am talking about the service and how the people feel about it. It has done more for the Irish language in a way the community did not expect. I would be concerned over the packages handed out by the sporting organisations to it. I hope it never gets to a stage where it cannot have access to them because I do not believe any other station could provide the service it does.
The Bill overall is welcome and contains many good points. However, it needs fine tuning which I hope it will get along the way.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Broadcasting Bill 2008, which is welcome. One of the primary objectives, which I hope will be delivered, is the establishment of the new broadcasting authority of Ireland, a development that has been mooted for some time. It is great the Bill makes provision for it to happen. The broadcasting authority of Ireland will in future perform the functions of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. It will also bring RTE and TG4 under its remit. At present RTE and TG4 are self-regulating and it is good to have one authority regulating and overseeing the functions of broadcasting. It is a very positive move that has been welcomed across the board. As previous speakers from my party have said, we would welcome the Minister's recognition that not all appointments to the board would be done politically by the Minister without consultation. He has made some moves in this regard to ensure the Oireachtas committee will have an overseeing role in appointing members to the board of the BAI. The Bill provides that five members will be appointed by the Government who will be nominated, while four will be recommended by the Oireachtas committee. Fine Gael has a different view of how State appointments should be made. This week we have published a Bill outlining how this should be done, indicating that all ministerial appointments to State bodies should be put before the relevant committee. I heard Deputy O'Flynn discussing this point and he used the word "grilling". I do not believe it is intended that any potential member of a board will be grilled. Individual candidates will certainly be put through their paces and questioned as regards their credentials. A position such as this, a member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, must be considered very important and individual candidates should be willing to promote themselves and justify their position. Certainly, the word "grilling" does not come to mind. It should be seen as an opportunity for them to promote themselves and justify their proposed appointment in the public domain. It will be a State board sponsored and supported by the taxpayer. We shall be tabling an amendment to this effect on Committee Stage and there will be an opportunity to tease matters out and hear the Minister's views. I have read his comments in the Seanad debate on the matter.
I welcome the fact that if a broadcaster infringes the terms of the licence or the requirements of the code, that fines can be put in place, up to a maximum of €250,000. It is good that fines are being graduated to that high level. This is a positive step. Before this, there was no recourse other than to withdraw the licence but nobody wanted to avail of that nuclear option. Introducing the system of fines is a very positive move. I also welcome the fact that there will be a speedy right of reply. Within 15 days somebody can have a right of reply — at present it can take a long time to obtain redress if somebody believes his or rights have been infringed, In today's news I see that the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland upheld a complaint from a member of the public regarding an item on the Gerry Ryan show in July. The complaint was upheld, but it has taken almost three months to do so. When this legislation is in place, it will take just 15 days. Certainly, this is contentious and there has been some reaction in the media, but having a right of reply within 15 days is a positive step.
I want to address the issue of advertising. The Minister has included a provision in the Bill, whereby the advertising of junk food will be banned or restricted. I am not sure about this and know it is to be teased out on Committee Stage. On the face of it, this is a good idea. While I support the principle, the devil will be in the detail on the question of what constitutes junk food. One person's idea of junk food may be completely different from another's and I am sure those who produce foods which look exciting on the supermarket shelf or television will have something to say about this because many of us have been the subject of correspondence on the matter.
I was interested in a survey conducted by the Consumer Association of Ireland of children's breakfast cereals. Coco Pops contained 9% fat in Ireland, but only 1.3% in Australia and New Zealand — same box, same brand, same packaging. Rice Krispies had 13% sugar content here but only 10% in other countries. The fat levels were 1.3% here but only 0.7% in the USA, Australia and New Zealand. The figures were defended by the Irish Breakfast Cereals Association and its comments should be noted as regards the claim that there was a nutrition factor in its members' cereals. However, figures such as these suggest producers of such products might be forced to act, if we look at advertising as it is geared towards children. They could be permitted to advertise if they keep their sugar, fat and salt levels down. Perhaps there is a mechanism for addressing the advertising factor because it needs to be done on the basis of these figures. Producers of such products should be forced to act because we are living in an era where children and adults exercise less and less. It is an era of fatty and easy food, of which we need to be conscious.
I will be interested to hear the debate on Committee Stage as regards the advertising of religious products. There must be a mechanism around this. Instead of banning all advertisements for cribs at Christmas, for example, First Holy Communion and confirmation gifts etc., we must be able to allow such advertising provided it does not exceed certain boundaries. It is ludicrous that all advertising should be banned on the threat of opening the floodgates to extremism. I do not believe that is in anybody's interest, nor does the general public want it. Certainly, this can be a dangerous area, but it can be looked at and regulated. It is another case of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
On the whole, the most positive step in the Bill is the establishing of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, bringing the regulation of the broadcasting sector under one body. I look forward to Committee Stage developments and enactment of the Bill.
I congratulate the Minister for bringing forward this comprehensive legislation. It is both important and influential and deals with a sector of Ireland's social fabric which is constantly changing and updating itself. It is difficult to believe the strides that have been made in the technology of broadcasting and it behoves us as legislators not only to keep pace but also to try to stay ahead and deal with each new development as it takes place. In the space of one generation we have come from so-called one-channel land to a modern and fully updated IT society. Even the most remote households now have access to dozens, if not hundreds, of television channels at the flick of a switch. Sometimes I wonder if we fully understand or accept the extent of the service available, the access it gives us to worldwide communication and knowledge and the influence it has on our everyday lives.
Who could have foreseen a generation ago that not alone would the business of the Dáil and Seanad be broadcast nightly on our television screens, but also the work of the committees? Now a dedicated Oireachtas channel is being proposed to allow people to tune into the work of either House during the course of the day. While I do not expect it to have ratings to challenge those of the "X Factor" or "Fair City", it will have a dedicated audience and make for better information and greater transparency for those who have an interest in the affairs of government. At the very least it may provide an opportunity for insomniacs to catch up on their sleep.
On a more serious note, I am pleased that the Bill proposes to combine two State agencies into one, thereby effecting a saving and avoiding unnecessary duplication of work. The functions of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission will be brought under one umbrella body, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. Having one body fewer to service and finance will result in a payback to the Exchequer. The benefits will be further enhanced by virtue of the BAI being funded primarily by way of a levy on the broadcasting sector that will result in savings to the Exchequer, which is particularly welcome in the present financial climate. This is also in line with the Government's goal of reducing the number of such agencies that are State funded, thereby effecting savings, increasing efficiency and modernising the public service bit by bit. I very much favour the provisions of this Bill but I would like to touch on a few issues. My reservations are only of a minor nature.
In a number of my contributions, I am probably influenced by my local radio station, which has been a huge success, as has the wider local radio service. While many people consider broadcasting solely in the context of television, radio listenership figures, particularly during the day, tell a different story. Local radio has had a hugely beneficial effect on provincial Ireland, and rural Ireland in particular, because since the advent of the service, ordinary people have had access to the airwaves. While there are access programmes on the national stations, people fully air their views on local issues on local radio.
I congratulate the local station serving my constituency, WLR-FM, because it provides an excellent local service and runs a truly professional operation. It has benefited accordingly by being consistently graded in the top few commercial stations in this country. Listeners throughout the State appreciate the benefits of local radio, having been without such a service until relatively recently, and I am disposed to protecting their interests as much as possible. Provincial stations provide a much better service by having more local content and dealing with issues that have an immediacy for listeners.
I am, however, a little concerned about the fast-track process for radio licences provided for in section 67. Currently the period of the licence granted is ten years, which is open to competition after that period. If the holder of the licence is the only applicant, that licensee will be granted a renewal for seven years and not ten. If there is competition, the successful applicant receives a ten-year licence. Having regard to the investment required to get a station up and running and to maintain a professional operation, successful applicants should be awarded a ten-year licence. They need that time to plan ahead and to spread their costs accordingly to obtain a proper return on their investment. The costs of a station will not be reduced because it is the only contender for the licence.
The alternative for a station seeking a licence renewal without competition is to generate artificial opposition not capable of contesting realistically for the licence to qualify for the ten-year term. That might involve a station from the other end of the country submitting a spurious application to fulfil the requirements of the licensing procedure. If that were to happen, it would bring the licensing system into disrepute. The Minister should examine this issue closely as we do not want the system diluted in any way. It was never intended to punish licence holders seeking to renew their franchise.
We are entering the age of digital broadcasting, which opens enormous new possibilities for the industry. The Independent Broadcasters of Ireland argue that for digital radio broadcasting to be successful, it is vital that all broadcasters use the one format. For instance, a date has been announced for the switching off of analogue broadcasting for television, which is 2012. From then on, only a digital signal will be available from RTE and others. No switch off date for analogue radio has been announced, even though RTE would probably like to know. It is unlikely, however, that RTE will fully equip for digital broadcasting while its competitors can continue to broadcast without having to make a commitment to major financial investment. It is a scenario where all or none make the transition and that will have to be introduced in some fashion.
The most powerful form of encouragement is an extension of the broadcasting contract for stations that make the transition, as many financial and human resources will be necessary to convert to digital radio. Currently, a four-year period is proposed, but that is not sufficient, as the investment is not guaranteed to be returned in that time. A seven-year extension for those stations that will become involved in the provision of a digital service is a more realistic alternative. The Minister might consider a seven-year extension instead of the proposed four in order not to place any obstacles in the way of the development of this superior service.
The BAI and the composition of the membership of the board is innovative in that, for the first time ever in legislation, the joint Oireachtas committee with responsibility for broadcasting will choose and nominate four members of an authority. This is positive as it represents a good opportunity to achieve countrywide representation rather than a concentration of Dublin members. The same will hold for the boards of the RTE authority and TG4. I congratulate the Minister on taking this course, which will have benefits for provincial Ireland and even for rural communities. Perhaps his colleagues might follow his lead in the future when appointing boards. Deputy O'Flynn expressed reservations about this provision earlier but these can easily be overcome if the committee conducts its deliberations on appointments in private session.
Section 33 proposes the introduction of a levy on broadcasters to fund the BAI and the industry broadly accepts this. I urge the Minister to be prudent when deciding the levy, as it will, inevitably, have an effect on the amount that can be invested in further development and the changeover to digital. Funding for operational costs and output may be affected. The BAI's budget should provide for built-in scrutiny. The industry has also reasonably requested that it should be given an estimate of what it is expected to pay for the following three-year period. This is not unreasonable at a time business planning is vital and all commitments into the future should be made known and provided for. There is no room for this to be foisted on broadcasters at short notice, because they will need to know those of their future commitments which are possible to know as far ahead as possible.
I alluded to scrutiny, which the Minister has provided under section 19. Under this provision, the BAI must report to the Committee of Public Accounts in respect of its expenditure and activities. As a member of the committee, I am fully aware of the tremendous work carried out by its members and the insight they can generate regarding the organisations that appear before them, mainly because of the way the committee is constructed. The committee is taken more seriously than other committees because of its constitutional status and the successes it has registered over the years. It is also required that a statement of strategy be produced within six months of the commencement of the authority and every three years thereafter. This highlights how this body will have to be accountable and this will happen in regard to other agencies in the future.
Section 41 provides for a 15% cap on the total daily broadcast time that can be diverted to advertising and a maximum of ten minutes per hour is permitted overall. No one can quibble with that, as we do not wish to be overwhelmed with advertising. However, I urge that a little leeway and flexibility be allowed in the overall working of the limits because broadcasting is not an exact science and any number of difficulties could disrupt the schedule and the aggregate time devoted to advertising. This could be as a result of a breaking news story, a newsflash or the necessity to stay with a particular broadcast or item because of exceptional circumstances. Currently, the enforcement of this provision is unnecessarily rigid and I urge the Minister to adopt a more flexible approach under the legislation.
Section 126 makes provision for the Houses of the Oireachtas to set up a dedicated channel for the broadcast of their deliberations in the various Houses and committees. This will be made possible through unlimited benefits of digital broadcasting and the lack of boundaries and constraints of the old analogue system.
During the coming weekend, in common with a small number of other cinemas around the country and the world equipped for digital screening, the SGC cinema in Dungarvan will show the performance of the Metropolitan Opera of New York live to its patrons through this up-to-the-minute system. It is a new innovation and, according to the publicity for the event, its roots are as recent as 2006 when the Metropolitan Opera of New York broadcast a live stage performance of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" in high definition in cinemas across the United States. It was such a success that the entire Met season can now be seen live on cinema screens worldwide, drawing large new audiences to opera. Opera Ireland, in association with RTE Lyric FM which will also simulcast the performances on radio, is presenting this unique operatic experience to Ireland. Now an international phenomenon, this is the first time these spectacular high definition live broadcasts from the Met in New York will be seen in Ireland and are sure to be a great addition to operatic life. This is just one of the great benefits of the digital system and opens up a new frontier to the industry internationally. These are exciting times in broadcasting and I am glad we are taking advantage of the opportunities presented and proud that the Dungarvan cinema is at the forefront of this new technology. It seems that if we marry a satellite and a digital link, the possibilities are endless worldwide.
Under section 127, the Irish Film Board will establish a free-to-air Irish film channel to exhibit Irish cinematic works. Sometimes, we do not fully appreciate the products of our film industry which has been able to compete at the highest levels all over the world. The prizes it has garnered in festivals from Hollywood to Cannes have not come easily but have kept our name among the cinemagoers of the world and in the highest echelons of the business.
Another welcome provision is the broadcast funding scheme proposed under section 54. It will be useful to promote Irish culture in all its forms, helping to counteract some of the less than useful programming from abroad which has little or nothing to offer our population, particularly young people. I do not see this as protectionism in any way. Rather, it is a levelling of the playing field in regard to international cultures and a recognition that ours is a rich and varied one, comparable in all its aspects and facets with any other in the world. Far from what some will say, our culture is well worth preserving and promoting, particularly in a world fast losing any recognisable identity.
In my constituency our culture needs little enough help from the State beyond a positive affirmation of the work of many voluntary organisations and some modest funding to enable them to do it. Coming from a constituency which includes a Gaeltacht area, I am proud and pleased that our culture, in its many facets, is alive and well in An Rinn. However, it is not only the population of that small but vibrant area that keeps our language, music, singing and dancing alive and in active use. Many young organisations around the county are dedicated to passing on to the upcoming population all that is best in our tradition. We can point to various cabaret shows, particularly those run during the summer, in which people as young as ten and as mature as ten times that age show their skills nightly for the benefit of our population and visitors. This is the product of many winter nights spent teaching, learning and enjoying Irish entertainment, just like our forefathers before them.
A successful Tionól an Fhómhair, a weekend of Irish cultural activity, promoted by Waterford County Council and the local community of Coolnasmear and surrounding area was held just a couple of weeks ago and there is a full programme arranged for Seachtain na Gaeilge which will be held shortly. However, there are far more activities than just the highly publicised ones. I pay tribute to the many voluntary organisations and branches of Comhaltas that keep our culture alive on a daily basis, promote its use and popularity and ensure its future through its young membership. If there is a dividend in the Bill for them — I hope there is — no more deserving section of the population could benefit from it. Molaim iad go léir.
Part of section 32 attempts to extend the protection of the public health interests of children through the curtailment of advertising aimed specifically at them and promoting food and drink that does not assist them towards a healthy lifestyle in terms of excess sugars, unhealthy fats or, in later stages, alcoholic drink. We are consistently warned by the Department of Health and Children of the growing time bomb that is the overweight condition. Many find the word "obesity" offensive, particularly when they recognise and acknowledge their problem, which they consider to be one of only being slightly overweight.
We must protect our children. While those who promote such foods and drink suggest advertising has minimal impact, they are merely trying to delude people and, worse still, take them for fools. No company or business will pour millions of euro into advertising without an expectation of a return through increased sales. That is what the €1 billion advertising industry is all about. For their own sakes and that of an already overburdened health care system, we need to deliver a healthy next generation. If this means protecting them from an unhealthy diet promoted by saturation advertising, that is what we must do.
It is even more important in the case of alcohol, in respect of which there is an everlasting debate about what level of advertising should be allowed on radio and television. During the passage of the Bill through the Seanad the point was well made that we were able to introduce a nil advertising regime for cigarettes. Many believe we should do the same in the case of alcohol in the interests of the population's health. Economically, this would also have benefits, ranging from fewer people occupying beds in our hospitals suffering from liver disease to a reduced number of road accidents and of those who occupy our mental health institutions. Add in the sanctuaries for battered wives and partners and there is a significant improvement we could make to our lifestyle, if we could only come to grips with the negative effects of alcohol.
This is an excellent Bill with many positive and forward looking provisions. With the few minor reservations I expressed, I confidently commend it to the House.
The most important issue raised in the Bill is that of addressing the future of the broadcasting sector, above all the protection of standards. In our homes every Deputy has viewed on the multiplicity of channels available to us total rubbish, much of which promotes violence and abuse, particularly of women. The standards of some of the programmes broadcast are disgraceful. While, in general, the standard of television and radio services in this country is high, we can see the need to exercise vigilance, given events in other countries. In particular, we need to ensure public broadcasting retains its central role. This is important when we see the so-called dumbing down of much of the broadcast media, particularly television.
While there are those who argue that so-called reality shows, sensationalised chat shows and so on are a reflection of popular culture, it is equally valid to state they actually help to form popular culture and in many instances not in a beneficial way to society. Likewise, there are those who argue that recent changes in RTE radio in respect of specific areas of the arts are a reflection of public demand. This argument has been used as justification for reducing the amount of time devoted to less popular forms of music and other items of minority interest. In general, however, RTE radio is far superior to most of its competitors in that regard.
The role of public broadcasting ought to be the same as that of any other public utility or service, namely, to cater for all sections of society, regardless of whether there is massive demand or whether it is commercially viable. If the main criterion was commercial demand and applied to museums, public parks, libraries, playgrounds or football pitches, they would disappear. It is vital, therefore, that the Bill protects the central role of public broadcasting and is all-inclusive. It should protect those with minority interests. It appears to provide mechanisms to ensure unsuitable individuals or companies will not be licensed. Section 66 also appears to set stringent criteria for content, including in paragraph (d), as well as conditions regarding the Irish language and other aspects of Irish culture. However, I would be happier if the Bill spelled out in concrete terms how this will be implemented by setting out, for example, the percentage of programming and airtime devoted to Irish language broadcasts and the level of Irish produced content. It must be more specific. I hope this suggestion will be taken on board.
I note the concerns of the Association of Independent Radio Producers of Ireland which welcomes the provision in section 116 for RTE to commission independently produced radio programmes but expresses concern at the level of funding available to ensure the sector will be able to meet any such demand. It is calling for 5% of the independent programme account, €2 million, to be set aside for the independent radio sector, which appears a reasonable request. It is something that could be redressed by way of an amendment to section 116.
It is necessary to clarify a number of issues regarding TG4. Everyone agrees TG4 has been a welcome development, not only with regard to Irish language programming but also in its coverage of sport and other areas, including some very interesting historical documentaries. I take great pleasure in watching footage of old all-Ireland games. I watched two or three of them last Christmas. I also take an interest in its controversial documentaries on the H-Block hunger strikes and the escape from the H-Block. It is a fantastic facility for those of like mind and with other interests and I would like to see the funding available for it continue. It is incumbent, therefore, on the Minister to ensure the channel is placed on a proper funding basis. It is not enough to leave it contingent on what might be decided by a new authority as proposed in the Bill. This would display the confidence of Members and those living on this island in the ability of TG4 to continue with the necessary confidence. It must be placed on a proper and secure financial footing. The Taoiseach has made clear and is obviously sincere in regard to his commitment to the Irish language. The Government has an opportunity with this legislation to introduce the required amendments to ensure TG4 is properly catered for and I urge it to do so.
Other provisions require amending. For example, the Bill should specifically refer to an obligation on broadcasters to prioritise the coverage of domestic sport events. Sports news should give first place to important events here rather than those in other countries, as is regularly the case. I welcome coverage of and watch practically all sports but from our perspective it is important that national games and domestic sport events should receive priority in the coverage available. Likewise, section 87 could be amended to ensure broadcasters fulfil their commitment with regard to programme content reflecting all aspects of Irish culture, including domestic sport events. The role of sport and the obligation of publicly supported broadcasters to cover it could be made part of their responsibilities by amending section 82 to include a specific reference to sport as one of the areas they are obliged to cover, particularly domestic sport events.
Section 96 provides for the establishment of an audience council. The section should include a specific reference to the inclusion of persons representative of cultural organisations with an involvement in various aspects of Irish life. It is important to get the balance right.
One other issue of which many will be aware is that of the changes made to the manner in which RTE formats its broadcasts. This has led to people outside the State not being able to access radio broadcasts and some digital coverage. I experienced this in the recent past when I was unable to pick up RTE radio services in parts of Belfast. RTE has been a great resource for Irish people abroad during the years and it would be a pity if they were to be denied what they regard as an important part of their identity and heritage. This is also a matter that could be addressed by amending section 114 to include a provision obliging the public broadcaster to ensure digital and radio broadcasts, particularly of major events here, are accessible outside the State.
The Bill is long overdue, requires some amendment and should be more specific in certain areas I mentioned. However, I welcome the fact that we are discussing it. I hope amendments will be taken on board to enable all of us to support it to its conclusion.
This legislation is timely and I commend the Minister for publishing it in May. It has passed all Stages in the Seanad. The Bill is detailed and comprehensive, dealing with all aspects of regulation and broadcasting content in Ireland. Technology is improving at such a rate that it is important to update legislation to take account of changes in broadcasting. I wish to comment on a number of proposals.
The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland will assume the existing role of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. I am glad that the Minister has taken note of the report of the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and that it will have an input in deciding the membership of the authority. The authority will consist of two independent statutory boards — the contracts award committee and the compliance committee. The authority will have responsibility for the strategic direction of the organisation, as well as tasks such as preparing codes and rules for broadcasters and the running of the organisation.
Other Members referred to the section that allows the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to introduce regulations on advertising, particularly with regard to food advertising aimed at children. The inordinate increase in the problem of obesity, particularly in young teenagers, has not gone unnoticed and must be tackled. I am glad that the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Power, is present. In his previous role as a Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children he had a significant input in that area. This matter is something we should deal with because we have seen its effects on young children. The Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Wallace, is acutely aware of the problem and supports the section dealing with the consumption of high-fat foods and their advertising at particularly sensitive times early in the afternoon when young children are watching. The advertisements are professional and colourful, carry music and use cartoon characters. They are certainly effective from an advertising and business point of view. However, there are over 300,000 overweight and obese children in Ireland and the rate is rising by around 10,000 per annum. We must deal with this matter because advertising has a significant impact on what young people eat.
Regarding other parts of the Bill, yesterday the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources met the Screen Producers Association of Ireland which represents 180 members. The delegates were fair in their comments in welcoming this legislation, of which they were supportive. However, there are issues that they asked be addressed. I ask the Minister to take into account their views on Committee Stage. In particular, they mentioned that the Bill provided for a figure of €40 million per annum for RTE to spend on independent productions. While that is welcome, taking into account that last year RTE spent €77 million on such productions, the producers are of the view that rather than have a fixed sum assigned, a percentage of RTE's revenue should be used instead. They proposed a figure of 35% of the station's annual revenue. As RTE is the dominant player in broadcasting and, therefore, the biggest customer of independent film producers, the screen producers have a case.
Irish people like to hear stories told by Irish people. We have a creative vision in telling stories. It is important, therefore, that we support those creative people who work in the independent television production sector. The change would be for the good of licence fee payers, would benefit RTE and have a positive impact on jobs in the economy. As we face a difficult time, it is important that we recognise and acknowledge the role the people concerned play. Their proposal would be good value for money. The independent sector produces 50% of top-rated prime time entertainment programmes on a highly cost efficient basis for RTE. If RTE had to make these programmes, they would be considerably more costly. A percentage rather than a fixed annual spend would be good for RTE, as it would recognise that the station's commercial revenues are dependent on market conditions and that as these fall, advertising falls. Therefore, the percentage the station would have to spend on the indpendent sector would also fall, an aspect the independent producers acknowledged. Part of RTE's stated vision is to nurture and reflect cultural and regional diversity and provide distinctive programming with an emphasis on home production. The proposal would offer a way of delivering positively on this. The current spend is €77 million, which demonstrates the licence payers' appetite for independently produced programmes.
The Screen Producers Association was also concerned about rights to programmes. The current position is that a producer of a programme buys the rights from performers, writers, musicians and packages them for sale to the broadcaster, in this case RTE. Under current broadcasting contracts, however, RTE buys all rights in perpetuity for 100% funded programmes. This causes problems for producers who find that RTE takes programmes, broadcasts them and pays for them. After that, however, there is no aftersales service by RTE. The independent producers would like to see a situation where, after a certain time, perhaps two or three years, they would be allowed to take back the rights and sell them on to other international broadcasters or as rights for DVDs. They gave the example of "Riverdance". A producer retained rights and developed a stage show which generated millions for RTE and the producer. They would like to see this expanded upon in order that a producer who makes a programme under contract for RTE can have the rights returned if after a number of years the station does not use the programme. The producer might then exploit more revenue from the programme after that time lapse, perhaps on the basis of a 50-50 share of profits.
The third issue I wish to mention concerns children's programming. There are over 28 children's channels available, broadcasting from the United Kingdom into Ireland on terrestrial, cable and satellite signals through different providers. We must have a new strategic plan for such programming in Ireland. From pre-school to the formative teenage years our children should be provided with Irish programming relevant to them that will entertain, educate, stimulate and provide a cultural awareness for them. Irish-produced children's programming currently represents only 9% of what is broadcast on Irish television channels. Almost 80% of children's programming on RTE comprises international imports, many of which are repeats. This is an area in which there is scope to improve. We can reinvest with Irish film producers who are keen to make such programming and who have the capacity, wherewithal and talent to do so. We should exploit the talent available. Much new young energetic talent is available for such programming. I would like to see this happen.
The Broadcasting Bill proposes a new approach to the appointment of boards of semi-State companies. In the case of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, there will be nine board members, five appointed by the Government after nomination by the Minister, and four by the Government after nomination by the Minister on the advice of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. I welcome this proposal and the committee of which I am a member will actively participate in making recommendations for this panel to be considered, first, by the Minister and then by the Government. In the case of RTE and TG4, there will be 12 board members, six appointed by the Government after nomination by the Minister and four after nomination by the Minister, again on the recommendation of the Oireachtas joint committee. That is a positive step because it gives Members of the House from both sides an opportunity to have an input into the appointment of board members.
The joint committee recently visited TG4 and was very impressed by the work it does. One of the concerns of personnel there was the lack of control in respect of television channels that beam into this country and how greater control might be exercised. They have a particular problem in this regard.
Referring to the previous contribution by Deputy Ferris, I also commend TG4 on its sports programming. It has been first class in picking up the ball and running with it in terms of Gaelic games, in particular the football club championships. I am pleased that the GAA in its wisdom decided to spread coverage of football and hurling beyond the sole remit of RTE. This affords a smaller television station such as TG4 an opportunity to reach out to a wider audience. The public has accepted and embraced the channel because of what it is doing. It is a small channel but has taken on this new challenge and with limited resources competed with the best.
As for soccer, a number of League of Ireland matches are televised by RTE and some other channels. However, it is a challenge for that league to compete with what is coming in from across the water. Perhaps it could take a leaf from what is happening in the rugby sector in which limited professionalism obtains. However, Irish rugby teams compete on the European and Magners League stages where it has specialised in special matches and, therefore, attract an audience. The FAI needs support and I encourage it to examine this aspect of their coverage, thereby supporting the game in Ireland, because it is important to have a young population active in sport. As this, again, ties in with the aforementioned obesity problem, it is important to encourage young people to participate actively in sport.
I wish the Bill every success in its passage through the House and look forward to a lively Committee Stage debate at the Select Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to the Bill. Our democracy is built on a number of core values, namely, free elections, free speech and freedom of assembly, of which free speech is among the most precious. In recent decades Ireland has given greater scope to freedom of expression. Long gone are the days when classic films and works of literature were censored. This went on for too long and constitutes a black mark against the early days of the State. We now are much more liberal about what is permissible to be sold and broadcast.
It seems, however, that some things are still forbidden. For example, a recent radio advertisement for the Catholic bookseller Veritas was banned by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, BCC, because it associated the phrase "spiritual gifts" with Holy Communion and confirmation. As the advertisement made clear, the spiritual gifts in question were items such as rosary beads and prayer cards. Last Christmas another advertisement by Veritas was not carried on RTE because it included the word "crib". While it beggars belief that advertisements for cribs and First Holy Communion gifts are deemed to be in breach of the law, that is the case. Perhaps this is a good example of what the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, called "aggressive secularism".
It appears that our new found tolerance does not always extend to religion. In fact, religion, even in its everyday form, is regarded as something suspect to be kept in a box. How else is one to regard legislation that bans advertisements for cribs from the airwaves? To bring home the absurdity of this latest advertisement ban, I will read it out in full. It reads:
Come to Veritas for great Confirmation and First Holy Communion gift ideas. Choose from our diverse range of religious and inspirational gifts that include children's literature, prayer books, rosary beads, religious medals and candles. So if you want to give your loved one a spiritual gift which relates to what Holy Communion and Confirmation are really about, [come to] Veritas.
Could anything be more harmless? In spite of this, the advertisement was held by the BCC to violate section 9 of the general advertising code, as developed in accordance with the Broadcasting Act 2001. The relevant section states advertisements "directed towards a religious end" are "not acceptable". The legislation also bans advertisements which appear to promote the merits or otherwise of any particular religion. To be fair, I also should point out that advertisements directed towards a political end also are banned. However, this never has stopped secular newspapers from advertising their often highly political content. There appears to be a double standard in the application of the relevant legislation.
The American constitution creates an absolute right to free speech. Politicians and religious groups are free to broadcast their views on air as long as they can pay to so do. No one is calling for such a free for all regime in Ireland and no one wants to see the negative advertising that occurs in the United States filling our airwaves. However, it must be possible to find a happy medium. How can the use of the word "crib" or the phrase "spiritual gifts" in connection with First Holy Communion seriously be considered harmful to society? Such advertisements should not be banned out of an unreasonable fear of opening the door to the sort of extreme religion of which Members are rightly wary.
Although one can advertise tarot readings on the airwaves, one can only place religious advertisements on the airwaves in the most limited possible circumstances, even though religion, despite some of the legitimate criticisms which can be made against it, does much good in this country. The new Broadcasting Bill presents Members with an excellent opportunity to amend the section dealing with religious advertising and introduce a law that is more in keeping with common sense. I call on the Minister to seize this opportunity.
Yes, it will be tomorrow and I will contribute on both days.
I welcome the Broadcasting Bill 2008. Undoubtedly, while the media have transformed our lives, things have changed dramatically in that sector during the past 40 years. I recently read an account of President John F. Kennedy's visit to Ireland in 1963 highlighting what a major undertaking it was for RTE to broadcast the visit live. In all, it broadcasted approximately 14 hours of live coverage of his visit, which constituted a major task for the station at the time. Great technological advances in television broadcasting certainly have been made. While President Kennedy's visit took place a long time ago, all Members can recall the events of 11 September 2001 when people witnessed the second aeroplane crashing into the tower live on their television screens. The dramatic changes in broadcasting during that period have been such that the attack was beamed into every home in the United States and Ireland.
This legislation is long overdue and although it contains many good provisions that I welcome, some areas will require fine tuning. "Digital" is the new buzzword and Members have been informed that digital broadcasting will come into force in December 2012 when analogue transmissions will cease and the new era of digital broadcasting in the form of digital terrestrial television, DTT, will commence. While the European Commission is anxious to push this date forward, that is unlikely at this stage.
There is very little information on how the transfer will come about or its costs. The Minister should comment on this issue in his response to Members at the conclusion of the Second Stage debate. Consumers will be obliged to acquire a new set-top box to receive the channels and I wish to ascertain what it will cost. While Members have been told that RTE will provide four free-to-air channels, I seek information on the cost involved, particularly on whether elderly people living in isolated rural areas will be obliged to pay a charge. Radio and television services constitute a lifeline for those living alone and for many, serve as the candle in the window. Members must find out whether the service will continue to be free to air? I refer to the example of television licences. Everyone remembers when a television licence cost £5 per annum. The annual cost subsequently increased to £50 and then to the present amount, which I understand to be €150. Clearly, the licence fee has increased greatly as the years have passed. Moreover, Sky Television which has been installed in many households in recent years costs a phenomenal amount. Many householders who subscribe to the film and sports channels pay more than €100 per month to receive such broadcasts.
Do I have much more time before the debate must adjourn?