Thursday, 11 October 2012
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Radio Broadcasting Issues
To ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will consider favourably the request by the independent broadcasters of Ireland for funding to support public service broadcasting on independent commercial radio in view of the fact that EU law on State aid would not apply in such a situation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44073/12]
As I have told this House on a number of occasions, I fully recognise the contribution of the independent radio sector in bringing diversity to the airwaves, and serving the needs of communities, often at a very local level. As I noted when I addressed the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland annual conference earlier this year, "Local radio gives a voice and enhances social dialogue for people of all ages - it provides a forum for local communities; it enhances a local community; its gives confidence to people and indeed is an expression of the community in which the station is broadcast".
However, it should be borne in mind that these stations were founded as commercial operations, with the profit motive as their primary objective. Station owners sought and accepted licences on clear terms, terms which included a limited amount of public-service type content. Moreover, in many cases, their success in the licence application process was assisted by the voluntary commitments they gave in regard to the provision of public-service type content, over and above that required by the relevant legislation. The licences were accepted in the knowledge that public funding was not available for small broadcasters. The fact that some of these stations are now undergoing an understandable degree of financial stress does not mean that the State should immediately step in and provide funding. They remain commercial enterprises.
Moreover, it should also be noted that their very popularity in the communities they serve is, in many cases, as a result of the local news content and current affairs type programming that they provide and which, in turn, gives them a strong advertising presence and thus earning potential. Overall, I cannot see how it is reasonable to expect the Government to consider dispersing licence fee revenue to private broadcasters.
I would like to clarify for the Deputy that even if I were minded to provide public moneys to private investors as the Deputy seems to be suggesting, and I have given consideration to whether I can do that, state-aid rules definitely apply in this case. While it is true that neither the Altmark principles nor the general state-aid rules prohibit the State funding of services of a general economic interest, it is categorically not possible for the State to simply decide to fund a set of incumbent licence holders during a licence period. Such a move, quite apart from the reaction of the European authorities, would expose the State to the risk of prosecution from other operators who may have considered applying for a licence were the revenue stream available. In order for funds to be dispersed in the manner suggested, an entirely new scheme would therefore have to be constructed involving primary legislation and a new licensing round whereby revised licences would be offered to the market. Clearly, this is not what is being proposed here.
I thank the Minister for his frank reply. Approximately 2.5 million people tune in to independent radio stations across the country every day. Having served as a local representative for many years, as Deputy Rabbitte did in Dublin, I am keenly aware of the contribution that independent local radio stations make in serving the needs of communities and in enhancing local dialogue. That cannot be over emphasised.
In many cases local radio services, although commercially run, provide a real public service with a local perspective that helps bind communities together. This could be highlighted in many constituency of Waterford where, for instance, the local radio station, WLR, has a listenership of 71% of all adults on a weekly basis and its daily share of radio listenership is 48%, making it enormously influential in the broadcast area.
Given the considerable cross-section of local news, sport, current affairs and drama programmes it broadcasts, it would be a contradiction in terms to say that it is primarily run for commercial purposes. My question is if two thirds of my constituents are listening to a local radio, and the same would equally apply across the country if 2.5 million are listening, surely there is a democratic deficit where all of the licence fee goes to a national broadcaster?
The board of IBI is of the belief that EU law does not constitute an obstacle on the establishment of a funding scheme for the independent radio sector. It maintains that the principle of additionality has no application whatsoever where the aid in question is domestic rather than EU funding. In its document it put forward a viable proposal as to how funding could be brought about without infringing any EU or State law up to approximately €66,000 per station per year. I am not sure whether the Minister read the document but he should do so. It negates the belief that under EU law the Minister cannot provide funding.
I do not agree with Deputy Halligan's conclusion but I do not dispute anything he has said about the merit and value of the independent broadcasters. I entirely accept what he stated about the extraordinarily high listenership of his local radio station, WLR, which I accept provides a quality service in the region.
Of course, I did read their document and I met the board to discuss it. I repeat my own admiration for the quality of work that it does throughout the country. In the present difficult financial environment, I find myself being the subject of representations on behalf of the private sector, the independent sector and even the print sector. Clearly, Members of the House would accept that dispersing the licence fee across all of that would not make any sense. There are legal public service requirements imposed on the national broadcaster and it must deliver on that, and there is a certain irreducible minimum revenue that is necessary to do that.
My advice contests Deputy Halligan's contention and the contention by the IBI that state-aid rules would permit of State funding. My advice, for the reasons I stated in my reply, is that state-aid rules would not permit funding in the circumstances he describes.
I cannot dispute the Minister's advice but I will not go into that. When local radio stations were set up it was not envisaged that they would have such a significant listenership. If the Minister's advice is at odds with the advice of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, would he consider meeting the IBI again to marry up both his and its advice to see exactly what advice the IBI got and the advice the Minister has. Either one or the other is wrong or perhaps there is a difference that could be breached.
I do not have any objection to meeting the IBI but I do not want to mislead it. I stated what my advice is. I repeat that these are commercial ventures. I recall a colleague in his House who is no longer with us described it at the time as a licence to print money. There was fierce competition to get those licences. They were commercial ventures. I do not know what the difference in principle is in us intervening where a private sector enterprise unfortunately fails in the present difficult environment. What would be the difference in principle?