Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Priority Questions

Broadcasting Legislation.

2:00 pm

Photo of Liz McManusLiz McManus (Wicklow, Labour)
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Question 2: To ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources his views, in the context of the Broadcasting Bill, on setting up one regulator, combining ComReg and the authority, particularly in view of the economic climate and the convergence of technologies taking place in the communications area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10717/09]

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Information Society and Natural Resources, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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The Broadcasting Bill 2008 proposes the establishment of a single content regulator, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, which will encompass the existing functions of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and any remaining content regulatory functions of the RTE Authority.

In formulating the Bill consideration was given to the question of whether there was merit in amalgamating the Commission for Communications Regulation — ComReg — and the proposed new content regulator. However on reflection it was decided not to proceed with such a combination.

The principal rationale for such a decision is that the two regulators address very different sectors and as a consequence require very different skill sets. In essence the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland is intended to be a content regulator whilst ComReg is a network or distribution regulator.

Whilst convergence is undoubtedly happening, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and ComReg will continue into the future to address separate questions, for example, how we encourage Irish language programming or objective and impartial current affairs journalism in the case of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland as opposed to how we ensure the development of next generation telecommunications infrastructure in the case of ComReg.

There is no doubt there needs to be close liaison between the two regulators, as is the case at present between the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and ComReg, for example in the allocation of spectrum for radio services and digital terrestrial television services. In addition there may be scope for the proposed Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and ComReg entering into an agreement to share common services in an effort to achieve administrative savings. Indeed the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, although two distinct statutory bodies, have an agreement to share services, with the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland providing staff to service the administrative needs of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

While different arrangements may be required in the future, at present we are best served by two separate regulators. The matter, however, will be kept under ongoing review.

Photo of Liz McManusLiz McManus (Wicklow, Labour)
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Does the Minister of State accept that other countries are adopting a different approach by having one regulator dealing with content, communications and technologies? It is an affront to people who are being forced to pay a heavy price for the economic crisis to find that the Government is insisting on pursuing the establishment of another regulator in the communications area, which will involve a costly levy on broadcasters, including RTE. Is the Minister of State aware of the terrible straits RTE is currently in due to a €68 million shortfall in advertising revenue this year? The Minister of State should ensure that this legislation will not be unpicked as soon as it is passed, which is essentially the message in his reply. We should do this correctly by pooling resources in one regulator and recognising that convergence is the future, if not the present. We should not continue on this crazy plan of having two regulators, which is costly to the industry and ineffective in terms of streamlined, joined-up Government. The Minister of State should submit that case to the Minister and the Government generally.

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Information Society and Natural Resources, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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We gave that serious consideration and while a good case might be made for joining the two together, weighing up the pros and cons, it was decided that at this stage we would not amalgamate the two, but have two separate regulators. The forum on broadcasting, which was set up in 2002 and is the genesis for the current Broadcasting Bill, recommended what we are doing. It also recommended certain co-operation and liaison between both groups. One can argue a good case for amalgamation, but taking everything into consideration we are making the right decision. Two separate sets of knowledge are required. In essence, the commissioner for communications regulation is a network regulator, while the RTE authority, the BCI and BCC are content regulators. In a single organisation there is always a danger that broadcasting regulation might not receive the level of attention it is due in comparison to the sheer size of the telecommunications sector. The turnover of the latter sector is a multiple of the broadcasting sector's.

Photo of Liz McManusLiz McManus (Wicklow, Labour)
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That is not the experience elsewhere, if the Minister of State looks at it. When this was considered, the economy still appeared to be doing well, whereas it is in a desperate state now. Surely that should inform the Minister of State's judgment. We will move to converge both regulators at some point in the future. Quite apart from the economic argument, we must also meet the needs of changing technologies by adopting a modern day approach instead of one that applied seven years ago.

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Information Society and Natural Resources, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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Looking at the experience of some other countries, Ofcom in the UK and the Australian communications and media authority are unitary organisations. Both have separate internal structures to deal with broadcasting content and telecommunications regulations.

Photo of Liz McManusLiz McManus (Wicklow, Labour)
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That is exactly what I am talking about.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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That is what Deputy McManus is proposing.

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Information Society and Natural Resources, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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At the same time they are separate and have separate internal structures.

Photo of Liz McManusLiz McManus (Wicklow, Labour)
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No problem. They share resources.

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Information Society and Natural Resources, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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There can still be a sharing of resources, while making savings and having efficiencies between the two. At the moment we thought it was not the appropriate thing to do, but it is something we will keep under review.