Dáil debates

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Report on Future Funding of Public Service Broadcasting: Motion


6:50 pm

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment entitled ‘Report of the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Public Service Broadcasting’ copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 13 December 2017.

I represent the committee today in my capacity as Vice Chairman because the Chairman, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, is not available to present the report to the House.

6 o’clock

We have a report, which was published at Christmas, on the future funding of public service broadcasting. It is quite a substantial, significant report and I thank the members of the committee, Deputies Ryan and Stanley who are here and the other members who contributed very constructively to the report. I also thank the many organisations we consulted and conferred with in the generation of the report for their submissions, culminating in a very large and well run event in Dublin Castle where we consulted many stakeholders, media outlets and organisations. The Minister gave the keynote speech on that day and was involved very much throughout the process.

I also welcome some interested parties. The chief executive officer of Screen Producers Ireland, Elaine Geraghty, is in the Gallery. Screen Producers Ireland has been very engaged in the debate. The former Minister, John Gormley, is also in the Gallery and it is good to have him here today. He is the former Minister for environment and heritage, which goes to the core of much of this. I will present the report and I look forward to the debate and responses from the Minister, other committee members and other Deputies.

The media landscape is changing as never before. Digital technologies are challenging many long-held assumptions about the role and relevance of everything from the traditional broadcast media to print. Consumers get their news and entertainment from an ever expanding range of sources and the multitude of channels, online options and non-traditional sources of news and media continue to expand and multiply and indeed to confuse and to dazzle at the same time. Much of the diversity is welcome but, as was made clear by many recent events not least in the social media space, the abundance brings with it a lack of transparency leading to some uncertainty about the origin and reliability of what is being transmitted and consumed, what is the single source of truth, what are the authoritative sources and what is public service content and what is not. In such a context, the need for balanced, impartial, well-resourced and independent public service broadcasting has never been stronger and, to my mind and the mind of committee members, it represents a clear public good.

We know RTÉ and TG4 among others are funded through a mix of licence fee revenues, grants from the Exchequer and commercial revenue, and reports are published annually on how the funding is used. As well as challenging the status of established media, however, digital media are also disrupting the funding model on which traditional media have relied. The current funding model for public service broadcasting relies on that combination of licence fee and commercial revenue. However, income from the TV licence fee is undermined by evasion and by an increasing number of consumers who consume their media through devices, be it iPads, iPhones and other digital devices, or through other non-traditional means rather than a television set. In many cases, they can additionally opt out of the licence fee model entirely. Without evading, they can claim with some grounds they are not actually consuming the traditional media or public service media through the traditional channels. We also know the rate of evasion by those who do enjoy the medium is 14% in Ireland, which is very high compared to 5% in the UK. Certainly to my mind, this is a public good in the same way as schools, hospitals and other essential services. We may not always use them but we consume them and avail of them and society is the better for having them funded from the public purse.

We know commercial revenues are coming under pressure. As I have said, advertiser spending is stretched across many more platforms. Clearly the funding model is no longer fit for purpose. As part of the 2016 work programme the committee decided to carry out elective research on the future funding of public service broadcasting followed by a public consultative process to investigate viable alternative funding models and we devised a series of recommendations.

To continue to add context, public service broadcasting was introduced in Ireland in 1926, with radio and television ever since then becoming an essential part of people's lives. Having a strong diverse public broadcasting sector is essential to Ireland and to every country, but we can only control our own. It ensures that Irish citizens have access to political and social commentary as well as entertainment and cultural productions specific to our nation and people that is indigenous, home grown, represents the best we have to offer and has a particular, unique cultural significance on our landscape. Of course, we often look back to the 1916 commemorations as one such example of public service broadcasting at its very best, highlighting the role of the nation from our unique standpoint.

Irish broadcasting has expanded, as we know, to include State funded commercial and community radio and television stations broadcasting in English and Irish and catering for various age groups in every corner of the island. We have a particular challenge in public service broadcasting in Ireland.

As an English-speaking country we are susceptible to competition from the Anglophone world, from the United States and the UK, perhaps unlike similar countries in Europe which, because of the language situation, may have less alternative content.

A strong broadcasting sector requires steady and sufficient funding. That funding has dropped in recent years because of licence fee evasion and because many people do not have traditional television sets. The committee has come up with a high-level set of recommendations. As the report runs to 373 pages, I will not deal with every line in it. The main recommendations however, are that the responsibility for the collection of the licence fee should be awarded to the Revenue Commissioners, that the licence fee be altered from the obsolete approach of a television set per licence to a broadcasting charge that is applicable to every household, that the public service broadcasters be allowed to negotiate with media platforms to procure fees for the transmission or retransmission of public service broadcasting channels, to distribute the broadcasting charge revenue more equitably across public service broadcasters and to begin examining the funding of independent and local radio as part of that remit, to remove the funding cap; to restore the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection's payments for the licence fee waivers to pre-2010 levels and to link the licence fee to the consumer price index.

This is in line with seven other EU countries. The key recommendation is that the existing charging regime be expanded to capture every household consuming media, regardless of the technology used, incorporating all households with a range of devices and not just those in possession of a traditional television set. On the Revenue Commissioners, I acknowledge there were dissenting voices on the committee but the majority opinion was that the committee would recommend that the responsibility for collecting the fee should be assigned to the Revenue Commissioners. It is known that the Revenue Commissioners are efficient, methodical and have a high rate of collection, and that should tackle the 14% or higher evasion rates we have seen to date.

The level of the fee should be reviewed two years after the Revenue Commissioners take over and every two years thereafter in light of consumer price index changes. It should be noted that this is separate from the indexation formula as set out in the Broadcasting Act 2009, which continues to assess the performance of RTÉ.

The committee is conscious of promoting a sense of fairness and equity in society. With this in mind, concessions which are presently available to old age pensioners and any other concessionary holders - those who currently qualify for discounts or waivers - should be retained and carried over into any future funding model.

I mentioned the removal of the cap. The Committee recommends removing the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection's funding cap for RTÉ. Under the National Recovery Plan 2011-2014, funding for the free television licence scheme had been frozen at 2010 levels of expenditure for the duration of the plan. While this decision had no impact on those benefitting from the scheme - in other words the recipients of such waivers - the funding for RTÉ was reduced by €4 million as a result of this cap.

The committee also recommends that all references in the legislation to public service broadcasting and public service broadcasters should be changed to public service media where appropriate. Public service media covers a wider range. Broadcasting is traditionally a reference to television and radio. Public service media covers a wider arc and the multitude of different channels and types of media that now exist.

In terms of the allocation of funding generated by the fee, the committee recommends the existing allocation be reviewed to ensure that resources are provided to a diversity of existing and new sources in a fair and equitable way. Priorities may include restoring TG4 to more sustainable funding levels, funding independent regional, local and community radio and television stations or amending the Broadcast Authority of Ireland's sound and vision fund to allow funding for a wider category of broadcasting to be supported. The committee also anticipates that the expected additional funding achieved by these measures will lead to increased funding for the independent production sector. This is to be welcomed.

Following on from the consultation process and the forum on the future funding of public service broadcasting, the committee recommends that the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment should undertake a detailed economic analysis to assess the viability and sustainability of introducing innovative alternatives to the current funding model. The committee recognises that traditional media providers, including national and regional newspaper providers, are under financial pressure and are operating in a digital environment. The old lines between print and broadcast media are becoming blurred. The committee agrees that this area requires further analysis, which the Department may be in a position to carry out following the report.

In terms of retransmission fees, the committee held a number of hearings on this matter, both during the consultation and at subsequent dedicated meetings with the principal stakeholders, largely the broadcasters themselves and subject matter experts, economic and otherwise.

The committee agrees in principle to the introduction of retransmission fees and to give RTÉ the capacity to negotiate with suitable platform providers as long as this does not conflict with its public service obligations. Legislative restrictions have hitherto impeded our public service broadcaster's ability to compete in an increasingly competitive and diverse marketplace, so we recommend lifting that restriction and amending that legislation to enable RTÉ to negotiate and explore the model of retransmission fees.

In June 2017, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, requested the committee to scrutinise the general scheme of the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2017 and retransmission fees. The joint committee decided to select the draft Bill and retransmission fees for pre-legislative scrutiny in tandem with consideration of this report on future funding of public service broadcasting. Indeed, the items were taken in parallel because there is significant overlap and it made sense to do so. That report was laid before the Houses on 8 March 2018 and is available to all Deputies and Members who wish to read it.

Those are the key recommendations of the report. As I said, significant work has gone into that, but I look forward to the debate and hearing the views of other Members and of the Minister. On behalf of the committee I would like thank our event management team, Connect The Dots, a facilitative event management company which performed a tremendous job in organising the forum on the future of broadcasting in Dublin Castle, as well as related events, social media and other consultative initiatives.

I would also like to thank the Oireachtas staff members who were involved in that initiative, including the committee officials, and Oireachtas news, TV and sound staff. They broadcast many items live, produced a short documentary after the fact and were very helpful in giving guidance on maximising the engagement from members of the public as well as from the committee members themselves. I also thank the distinguished guests who took part in the panel at our forum, Ms Karlin Lillington of The Irish Times, Mr. Steve Dempsey, Mr. Anton O'Loughlin of Digital Rights Ireland, Ms Patricia Cronin, Mr. Tom Maguire and all of the participants, stakeholders, media organisations and interested parties, as well as all the Deputies, Senators and members of the committee who attended that forum and participated so valuably.

I think we have made a good stab at the report and I think its recommendations are well worth scrutiny. I hope they meet the favour of the House and I look forward to the debate.

7:15 pm

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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First, I take this opportunity to thank the Chair, the Vice-Chair and the members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment for the excellent work they carried out on the review of public service broadcasting, both in preparing the report on the future funding of public service broadcasting, published in November, and more recently the pre-legislative scrutiny report on the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2017.

I fully recognise the important part that public service broadcasters play in our democratic society. The provision of stable and adequate funding is essential to ensuring their survival. The role of a strong and credible national broadcaster is more important than ever in a world of misinformation and fake news. The problems posed by fake news will only be combatted by strengthening traditional media and by quality journalism.

Journalism goes to the heart of who and what we are as Irish people and how we interrogate ourselves as a society. The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017 survey shows that 66% of respondents used RTÉ as their main source of news, which is significantly higher than the international average of 49%, while trust in RTÉ as a news brand stands at 57%. With an increasing number of channels available from the UK and elsewhere, and the advent of international content providers like Netflix and Amazon, it is more important now than ever that we invest in Irish content. We need strong public service broadcasters that have the resources to produce and broadcast material that says something about who we are as a people and which helps sustain a distinctive national identity. Strong public service broadcasters are important not just for their own sake but because they support a vibrant independent production sector in Ireland.

In any given year, the majority of Irish television programming is made or commissioned by RTÉ. This ensures Irish audiences have access to high-quality Irish programming. It is also vital to sustain and grow Irish talent on-screen and in the independent production sector.

I must also mention the importance of TG4 to Irish audiences. The national Irish language public service broadcaster is responsible for bringing Irish language content to audiences in Ireland and around the globe. While the majority of TG4's funding comes from the Exchequer, it is reliant on €4.2 million in funding from the television licence. It is also a crucial element in regional television production and has played a key role in supporting the sector outside Dublin.

RTÉ and TG4 support thousands of jobs across the Irish economy. Both public service broadcasters spend millions of euro each year on independently produced programming, which is having a significant impact on local and rural economies. In financial terms, however, public service broadcasting is in deep trouble. Falls in commercial income and advertising revenue and television licence fee evasion have all had a negative impact. Both RTÉ and TG4 have prepared five-year strategies for the period to 2018 to 2022. These are being currently considered by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, as part of its five-year review of public funding. I expect its view on these documents shortly. However, in order for RTÉ and TG4 to plan for the future, carry out the objectives required of them and remain relevant in an increasingly changing digital world, significant additional resources will be required in the years ahead.

As Members are aware, RTÉ is funded through a mix of licence fee revenue and commercial revenue. In 2008, the total income was €440 million while today that stands at €340 million. RTÉ returned an operating deficit of €2.9 million in 2015 and a €19.7 million deficit in 2016. There were further operating losses in 2017. Deficits are inevitable in the coming years. This cannot be allowed to continue. The television licence fee system faces a number of challenges, with the current unacceptable levels of evasion being the most obvious. While the rate has fallen from 15.3% at the end of 2013 to the current rate of 14.6%, it is still very high. The high level of evasion represents an annual loss of approximately €40 million to public service broadcasting. Effectively, everyone who pays for the television licence pays €39 to cover the cost for those who will not pay. This affects both the public service broadcasters and the independent sector. Reducing the evasion rate would provide a mechanism to support a vibrant broadcasting sector without imposing additional charges on the public. Ultimately, the public is the loser here as the lack of funding means it is not getting access to the quality Irish content it is entitled to, especially those who pay the television licence fee.

In October 2016, I requested that the committee examine the longer-term issue of the future funding of public service media. I commend the committee on the thorough and extensive public consultation and stakeholder engagement that fed into its work. The recommendations in the report are wide ranging. Some of them can be implemented in the shorter term. Others will require a longer timeframe. I fully agree with the committee's recommendation that the current system of providing free television licences to those in receipt of the household benefits package should continue. In addition, the committee recommends removing the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection funding cap that was introduced in 2011. This action froze payments for free television licences at the 2010 level, and a further €5 million reduction was introduced in budget 2014. While there has been some restoration in this funding, there is merit in exploring this recommendation. I intend to discuss this issue with my Cabinet colleagues during the Estimates process.

The committee also makes recommendations on sharing licence fee moneys across a wider range of broadcasters in the independent, local and community sectors.

However, it has been recognised by the committee that before this can be achieved, additional resources are required and the current evasion rates in respect of the television licence fee must be addressed. I concur with this view.

There has been no increase to the licence fee since 2008 and the committee recommends this should be reviewed in the coming years. However, I believe the priority should be reforming the current collection model. Otherwise, the same people will end up paying more while others contribute nothing to the cost of public service broadcasting. As I mentioned above, while the evasion rate has reduced to 14.6%, it is still very high. Sales figures have improved gradually since their lowest point in 2012 and, in fact, provisional figures for 2017 show that TV licence sales last year were at their highest since 2010. This improvement has been achieved through a number of alterations to the current system. While the improvement is very welcome, we need a far more significant shift in the evasion rate if we are properly to fund public service broadcasters as well as to broaden the pool of contributors.

As the House will be aware, I have obtained Government approval to draft a number of legislative amendments to the Broadcasting Act 2009, including amendments on the tendering of TV licence fee collection services. Once these legislative amendments have been enacted, it will be possible to hold a public procurement competition to tender for a new collection agent, if required. In addition, I have made a number of proposals which will assist the broadcasting sector once implemented. For example, I have proposed the introduction of a new funding scheme to offer bursaries to journalists working in local or community radio stations. I have also proposed a reduction in the broadcasting levy to alleviate the burden on broadcasters. This proposal will reduce the overall levy to be paid by the sector and will be applied evenly across all broadcasters.

Since my appointment as Minister, I have spoken to many individuals in commercial and community radio stations and I understand the financial pressures they face. By reducing the amount of levy they are required to pay, we should manage to ease some of the difficulties they face. It is my intention that community radio stations will be exempt from this levy altogether. Recently, I announced my intention to seek Cabinet approval to further amend the Broadcasting Act 2009 to remove the only limit on advertising for commercial radio stations. In conjunction with this, and to ensure fairness across the market, I will also give RTÉ greater flexibility in respect of its own limits on radio advertising.

The committee issued its pre-legislative scrutiny report on these proposals on 8 March and my officials are currently examining the contents. The report is also being considered by parliamentary counsel in the drafting process. In relation to retransmission fees, I note the committee agrees in principle to their introduction but has proposed that further analysis is required to examine all financial and economic implications for stakeholders. I agree with this course of action. I am extremely grateful to the committee and appreciate the work it has carried out at my request. It is very useful for committees to look at long-term issues and challenges across the economy, not just within our own Department area. While I have been criticised by some for referring this matter to the committee, it was the right thing to do. We now have a very detailed report which gives me a body of work on which to base my proposals. The level of consultation and engagement which has taken place has been very useful. As I indicated during last week's discussion on the Estimates, it is my intention to examine and explore carefully the recommendations made in the future funding report and to bring the matter to Government in the coming weeks.

7:25 pm

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to discuss the report today. I welcome the fact that we have it also. It is important. We are all agreed that there is a problem with funding for public sector broadcasting and that something needs to be done.

There is one part of it that I would approach differently and I will come to that shortly. That aside, public sector broadcasting needs to be maintained and my party believes that it forms an essential part of the media framework for the future.

There are problems. There is the widespread evasion of the television licence and a funding shortfall of €35 million to €40 million. The committee thrashed out those matters and I agree with the Minister that those who pay their licence fee are paying €35 or €40 a year to cover those who are not paying it. That is not sustainable or fair in the long term.

The most important point is that there should be no increase in the licence fee. That should be deferred for as long as possible, and a two-year review is in place. The licence fee is index-linked which gives some protection and in the future Ministers should be careful about imposing an increased charge on those who are paying because they are the ones who wind up carrying it, and low-income houses will be the hardest hit. However, I am glad certain proposals in the report that were put forward for pre-legislative scrutiny in the broadcasting Bill, such as the privatisation of collection of television licence fees, are not being countenanced, and they should not be.

We in Sinn Féin fundamentally oppose the recommendation in the report on collection and have made that clear on a number of occasions. In connection with the Revenue Commissioners collecting the licence fee, I still believe it is not appropriate for that arm of the State to be used to collect a fee for what is a utility. The collection should remain with An Post but we should move to modernise it and use a database for newly purchased televisions. The Minister mentioned that the numbers regarding the purchase of televisions are recovering. Last year saw the highest number purchased since 2008. Another way of capturing information is when people access and are registered for a service, such as cable television or satellite. The recommendation of a household charge collected by Revenue is not the way to go and there are workable alternatives. The alternative I mentioned is being used in other European states. At the committee, my party put forward that proposal, which is, as I stated, to pay at the point of purchase for the television licence and be registered, and the same in the case of services for reception. It would link the household directly to availing of that service. We need to be careful about using the heavy arm of the State.

The licence fee, for many households, is a substantial sum from their income. For many households, it is almost a week's income. In the case of many low-paid workers, such as those on the minimum wage, it is more than half their income. The total collected is a substantial amount of money. There is the gap of €40 million that needs to be made up, but €179 million is collected by the Department each year and goes to RTÉ.

The licence fee paid by householders needs to be traceable. There needs to be accountability, transparency and justification for how householders' money is spent and the value they are getting for their money. Indeed, the Committee of Public Accounts, in its report this week, stated that "clarity should be brought to the oversight arrangements of RTÉ, in addition to the provisions of the Broadcasting Act". This has been examined and discussed at the Committee of Public Accounts this week, as the Minister will be aware. Householders see millions of euro being spent and it is important that they can see value for money. We need to find a way of tackling the excessive pay of a small number of people in RTÉ, and it needs to answer to the Minister, to us and to the licence holders as to how those sums are justified.

Returning to the report, my party welcomes the recommendation on re-transmission fees. That is a sensible way to go. With the re-transmission fees, we are in favour of RTÉ being allowed at least to negotiate with any commercial entity. It should be entitled to do that and legislation should not prevent it or restrict its ability to do that. RTÉ is expected to look for all commercial avenues available to it to raise revenue. Re-transmission fees allow for a normal commercial opportunity and that should be availed of.

In terms of funding for local and regional community radio and the independent sector from licence fees, we need to remember that while these are commercial entities and there is a difference, there is a strong argument which we went over well at the committee regarding the public service element of their output.

We all know they are very popular and that they have a huge listenership at local and regional level. Those media outlets are popular and some are very good public service broadcasters, especially local radio. This needs to be recognised, encouraged and protected. The report strikes the right balance on that. Whether they are commercially run, they provide local news and funding to assist in public service broadcasting is important.

A suggestion was made at the committee that newspapers should be brought into the loop. The suggestion did not get wings but my party and I are certainly opposed to that. It would completely blur the lines of the different roles played by different media in a functioning democracy.

We can see the importance of having a well-funded public broadcaster in recent years during the era of fake news and fantasy turned into facts on the internet. It is important that we have investigative journalism. We are fairly well served in this country but there is always room for improvement. We should not be smug or become content about it and think we are the greatest, but we are a long way ahead of many other countries nevertheless. It is one of the things we do well and we need to continue to do it well. We need to be efficient in doing it and do it better. This report will help that. Sinn Féin disagreed on the collection method suggested in the report and had put forward a viable alternative, but overall the report is good. The Minister has a lot of material with which to work and hopefully the report will lay the foundations for a good public sector broadcasting system in the coming decades as we have to look out towards the future. I recommend the report.

7:40 pm

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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There has been much discussion about new politics and whether this Dáil is working. This report is interesting in that regard because it shows that new politics can work. Parties can come together and do detailed analysis and, as Deputy Lawless said, do some really innovative stakeholder consultation and consider very complex issues. What has been done in the past year - I wish it had been done more quickly - is a credit to Dáil Éireann and the Oireachtas staff, including the research capabilities of the Oireachtas Library and Research service.

There are different views. We have just heard Deputy Stanley. He and I probably have diametrically opposed views but the Oireachtas committee came to clear conclusions both on a report on future funding of broadcasting and later on transmission. We could not have been clearer, more succinct, more specific or more practical and positive in what we were presenting. What we have seen here is a complete failure of Government to do the same, to show any sort of leadership or urgency towards one of the critical issues of our time.

I listened to the Minister's response with real intent. It was fortunate that this debate was drawn in the lottery because there was no chance that it would have come up for debate otherwise. It is a very important debate. The select committee met last week when we went through the Estimates and went into some of the similar arguments with the Minister. I was hoping that the Minister might have listened to some of those arguments and used the opportunity to come here today and deliver a speech that would be far more specific, positive, proactive and real. The Minister has said that as part of the Estimates process, he will talk to the Cabinet to see if we can get back some of that social welfare funding. That is welcome but it is not the scale of response we need. The Minister has been speaking for some time about a bursary scheme for trainees. That may have some potential benefit but that is not the scale of the response we want.

The licence fee collection system is fundamentally broken and needs to change. It does not need some new tendering operation. The Minister should take the recommendation of the committee and go to the Revenue Commissioners with some urgency to see how to decrease that level of evasion which, as the Minister pointed out, is deeply unfair. Those who pay subsidise those who do not. We have suggested it be done through the Revenue Commissioners but, if it is not through them, the Minister needs to find another quick action to deliver the funding.

The retransmission issue is complex. We looked at it in real depth. To my mind, the last thing we need is further analysis, study and yet more "Yes Minister" discussions with stakeholders and so on. A decision needs to made. For a year and a half the committee has said clearly that we should give RTÉ the right to negotiate. What is stopping us from doing that at this stage? If there are legal concerns, they will come out in the legislative process but I do not think there are.

One can take a line from a 100-page report like ours which says there should be further analysis. Officials will always say that there should be further analysis, but sometimes in politics the time comes for a decision to be made and that time is now. RTÉ has published a new strategic report. I am not here to sing on behalf of RTÉ, but one line in the report is fair and honest. By and large, it is a reasonably good strategy. We are not here to debate it, but one line is important. It states that RTÉ is a company that is losing money. The whole sector, not just RTÉ but also local radio stations and the print media, is in deep financial trouble. Unlike Deputy Stanley, I would like us to support the print media in some way.

There is a recognition that in order for this to mean anything, the sector has to start to have proper funding by the first quarter of 2019. The budget process, as we all know, starts now. We will have to do a lot of work to get it over the line by the summer, which is when the real crunch decisions are made, in order to have funding in place for budget 2019. Some of the revenues will take time and are uncertain. We do not know how much we will get from retransmission fees negotiations, but we should aim for a pot of between €50 million and €70 million. That should not go to RTÉ alone, it should also be a significant fillip to local radio stations and other media organisations across the State.

We should be ambitious and aim to raise an extra €60 million or €70 million in 2019. The tentative "Yes Minister" type of analysis, putting things out to tender for consideration and not adopting the fundamental reforms we need will not work. There will be a household charge. I fundamentally disagree with Deputy Stanley because the TV licence is no longer a key source of funding. One cannot measure the use of media based on whether someone has a television. The system needs to change. We could have changed this five years ago, but it is time to change it now. We need to get rid of evasion. Unless the tendering process can be quick and provide a cast-iron guarantee that we would get the sort of compliance that would occur if the Revenue Commissioners did the work, we will fail in our obligations.

As I said, this is important. Why do we want that money? There is always a tension between politicians and the media. It is a weird symbiotic relationship. There is a recognition from those on the committee that telling the story of where we are and putting a mirror to ourselves to reflect where we are is important in this country at this moment. Having a fair, honest and keen assessment of what is happening in Irish democracy and politics is important.

As I said, creative content industries are on their feet because the truth is that all of the money is going to Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon and other international companies. This is not a small issue. How content creators are paid in a digital revolution is not a marginal or sideline issue; rather, it is of central importance in terms of where we are in the digital revolution. We should be willing to support content creators and that is why we need €60 million or €70 million to pay film-makers, dramatists, people involved in production, storytellers and musicians. At a time when Google and Facebook are not paying them, someone has to and it is our job as politicians to stand up to that responsibility even if it is difficult politically or there are different views on how that should be done. We have to do something. It is not good enough to just tread water for another year or two when the industry is in real crisis, when there is a new strategy in RTÉ and when all sorts of changes are taking place.

Representatives from The Anglo-Celtand another media group came before the committee.

They described how they just cannot get the digital revenues. We went into detail looking at the Independent News and Media takeover proposals, and it was interesting that those media said they just cannot make it in the digital market, they are not getting the revenues and they do not have the power of the other platforms. We must therefore step in and provide some kind of revenue to ensure that Irish media survive and thrive, as I believe they can and will if we give them a stable funding platform. That is the scale of the importance of this - and it concerns all media. We are moving away from television and radio. That is what I like in the RTÉ strategy: it will be one channel but will still maintain the traditional channels as real parts of the whole. We also have a chance here to support and present media which is Irish-focused, which does not chase ratings and which is not just about trying to excite listenership or viewer figures. Therefore, we should put it into the BAI fund and expand what that fund is able to invest in. While we should not get directly involved in any way, through regulation we should argue that sometimes at prime time, one should put on something that is perhaps of marginal interest but is important in terms of how we tell that story about ourselves to ourselves. However, one cannot do this without money. One cannot run two proper orchestras without money. One cannot have a news service that reports what we say here and reflects the debate we have without it being properly funded, which it is not at present. That needs to change, and the Minister has one chance in this budget cycle to do it. If he does not do it, it will be a black mark.

7:55 pm

Photo of Declan BreathnachDeclan Breathnach (Louth, Fianna Fail)
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I speak to acknowledge the work of the committee and its members and to welcome the contents of the report. Others have alluded to the fact that this sector is in dire straits. This reminded me of Mark Knopfler's words: "money for nothing" but your television licence for free. There is nothing free in this world but I was amazed to hear the figure to which the Minister referred. I think he said €38 out of every €160 paid subsidises those who will not pay. It is frightening that every four people who pay their licences are subsidising a fifth person. I equally came here to state that I was not necessarily able to have a direct input into the committee and to give my tuppenceworth on areas that are of concern, particularly to the region I represent.

Public service media, or broadcasting, be it local or national, is the lifeblood not just of the old, but also of the young, in the formation of their opinions, the communication of news and information interaction, not to mention the educational and entertainment value of cultural activities, sports and the community. People in Ireland on average, we are told, watch more than three hours of television and listen to more than 3.5 hours of radio every day. This statistic is set to grow with technology trends; the high-speed broadband the Minister promises us, with residential penetration of 90% expected by 2020; the use of smart devices; and mobile data usage, in respect of which there has been a fivefold increase in use since the fourth quarter of 2013.

All our public media organisations in Ireland must adapt to survive in an environment that is ever changing and becoming more and more competitive. For many years, especially when we had a recession and lack of investment, one regularly heard people saying the content of RTÉ news and documentaries and other media were excellent but that the entertainment-type programmes were not so. Now, with "Mrs. Brown's Boys", "Derry Girls" and "Love/Hate", not to mention the langers in Cork, "The Young Offenders", suddenly the audience is abuzz with praise. However, this cannot be done without investment. The same can be said when we can broadcast free-to-view sports or when our local radio stations produce many extensive local, award-winning documentaries.

I allude particularly to Screen Producers Ireland, some of whose members are in the Gallery tonight, and to national independent representative organisations in film, television, animation and digital production. They produce such excellent programmes as "Ear to the Ground", to name one. The fact that €64 million is being lost in the licence fee is affecting and will continue to affect those independent producers. Indeed, it has been suggested that there has been a cut of €18 million to €40 million, with a loss of more than 300 high-value jobs in recent years. If we want this sector to expand and create further employment, it is important that those in this House and those who are not buying their licences see the importance of the sector. I am not an advocate for RTÉ but I note that Dee Forbes, director general of RTÉ has said that the organisation will need to adapt to compete. She has also spoken a lot about the age of streaming services. She stated that RTÉ will be adopting a digital-first approach and, most importantly, that RTÉ needs to engage with and better understand its audiences. I think that could be said for all media.

I am not a member of the Oireachtas committee but as a spokesperson on North-South bodies and co-operation, I ask about the audience in the North of Ireland. According to the Department and RTÉ, 94% of households in the North have access to RTÉ services free to air. I have read reports about Multiplex Broadcasting Services, which was established in 2012 to make these services widely available in the North. On the ground however, the story is very different. People are not getting access to RTÉ services for free; only those who subscribe to premium services are able to get the national channel. As we know, people are moving away from television and are using smart devices and laptops etc. as a viewing platform. As a result, it is proposed to broaden out the collection of licence fees to account for this and to bring in more funding to develop the digital services. I support that but ask here today - and will do so again and again - that when developing these new services, RTÉ remembers to provide full access for our EU and Irish citizens in the North.

At the moment, citizens in Northern Ireland cannot access the RTÉ app as it is presumed they are in Britain due to IP address issues when they try to log on. What is the point in carrying out extensive improvements to our digital service when RTÉ is limiting or blocking access to citizens in Northern Ireland? This is not acceptable. It has been stated that RTÉ's current strategy is focusing on developing the digital service. There are Irish citizens in Northern Ireland who have the same loyalty to the brand of RTÉ as I have myself and they should not be discriminated against by being blocked from using it. Residents in the Six Counties must be and should be treated the same and have the same access as residents in the South, not to mention those with Irish connections who live abroad and have similar problems in respect of only being able to watch certain programmes. I want RTÉ and others to take this into consideration in their current strategies, including RTÉ's five-year strategy.

I allude to the issue of Brexit and North-South relationships. The Ceann Comhairle might ask why. I have long contended that we are influenced by the print and social media that we read. If we do not provide access and a balance of opposing views on many issues, such as North-South relations and, indeed, Brexit, it is my view that we will never understand the middle Ireland I know and the area from which I come. I commend the committee on its efforts and ask that we talk about an Ireland of equals and an Ireland for all.

One can go anywhere in the world and log into one's local radio station or RTÉ News, at times. Every citizen of this country living abroad wanting to hear news from home and people living on this island need access to all these services but they also must respect that they have to pay for them. It might not be popular with the electorate to say this but I support the concept of paying for services. It is unfair that some people are not subscribing. I agree with Deputy Stanley that we should retain the fee at €160 until such time as issues in regard to those are not paying have been sorted. I agree with Deputy Lawless that those entitled to free access, such as the elderly, should continue to be exempt from paying the fee.

8:05 pm

Photo of Niamh SmythNiamh Smyth (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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Since the introduction of broadcasting in Ireland in 1926 radio and television have become an essential part of people's lives. A strong, diverse public broadcasting sector is vital to Ireland. It ensures that Irish citizens have access to political and social commentary, as well as entertainment and cultural production, that is specific to our nation and its people. For example, the national broadcaster played a critical role in capturing the spirit of our 1916 centenary celebrations, bringing them to a much wider audience. From the starting point of one national radio station, Irish broadcasting has expanded to include State-funded commercial and community radio and television stations which broadcast in English and Irish and cater for various age groups in every corner of this island.

Technology advancement and changing attitudes present new challenges and opportunities for the sector, for which Fianna Fáil has formulated incisive policy proposals. A strong broadcasting sector requires a steady and sufficient level of funding. This has dropped in recent years owing to evasion and people viewing programmes online rather that on a television set. To address this, Fianna Fáil has suggested the introduction of a broadcasting fee which will be applicable to all devices with streaming capability. Furthermore, we believe that we need to strengthen our collection regime to minimise evasion and ensure we have a fairer system for all.

In addition to the national media, local independent and community radio is a vital part of public sector broadcasting in respect of coverage of local, special interests and sporting events and in helping to preserve our local cultural heritage and providing local news and information. I was delighted to hear Deputy Eamon Ryan reference The Anglo-Celt,which contributed to the committee's findings. The Minister will be aware of Shannonside Northern Sound radio, having been interviewed on it many times. All of these play a vital role in terms of public service broadcasting. It is with this in mind that we proposed legislation to provide funding to local radio stations for the production of current affairs content. To further preserve Ireland's public broadcasting sector, we have a range of innovative policy proposals.

Legislative restrictions have impeded the ability of our public service broadcasters to compete in an increasing competitive and diverse marketplace. We support measures to support broadcasters in creating additional revenue streams. With this in mind, we favour examining policies regarding retransmitting fees and opt-out advertising.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Roscommon-Galway, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the report and I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for their input into it. The Minister, Deputy Naughten, was right to allow it to come out. I have had only a brief look at the report.

As somebody who spent 20 years presenting and producing on Shannonside Northern Sound radio, as the Minister knows, and having spent some time presenting on Irish television as well as doing some work with TG4, I have a fair understanding of the business. One fact that emerges from this report is that 110,000 households in the country are without a television set, compared to 42,000 without a set in May 2013. That is a startling statistic. If one were to take a message from this report, it is that we have to tackle this situation because obviously it is a revenue issue and we will have to raise more revenue. All the independent radio stations have to live up to their responsibilities. There must be a news input, and the news input in local radio stations is outstanding. Local radio stations also link to the national broadcasters at times for particular broadcasts.

Our party spokesperson in this area, Deputy Dooley, in a submission for this report on the possibility of raising more revenue referred to retransmission fees. I understand the Minister is anxious to consider that. It is a new area that needs to be examined. Also, we must acknowledge that local print media in many parts of the country are under enormous pressure. We must look at that and consider how we can support them in some way. There are a considerable number of jobs tied up with the print media and local radio and if we do not come up with a modernised system of supporting these outlets many jobs in the sector could be lost.

I welcome the report. It is a huge volume of information from many sectors. We will have a great deal of discussion before we get down to putting real meat on the bone on this issue.

8:10 pm

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I thank the committee and all the civil servants who worked very hard on compiling this report. It is comprehensive and a great deal of work went into it. It is a very interesting report. That does not mean we support all the recommendations, but it is an excellent source of information about broadcasting models and proposals for the funding of public broadcasting. I welcome it and I welcome this discussion because it is important.

We are strong supporters of public broadcasting and the proper funding of public broadcasting. As we look back over the decades of the national broadcaster and, indeed, if people 50 years from now look back on what is being produced today, I do not believe what will be of significant interest culturally and historically from television and radio archives will be the commercially driven and often sensationalist reality television shows but the documentaries, the serious investigations and the high quality musical and cultural productions that reflect deeper and more profound aspects of our culture and society. I am of an age that I can remember the production of "Strumpet City", a brilliant series that looked at the legacy of the Lock-out in 1913, and "Amuigh Faoin Spéir", which was produced as a nature programme but was a groundbreaking piece of work in its day. Currently, the "Documentary on One" radio programme is a massive source of entertainment, information and historical wealth. It receives much kudos and prizes internationally for its work.

Although we might disagree on what might be of aesthetic value here or there, it is obvious that much of what we treasure nationally from our national broadcaster would not be produced by commercially driven or profit orientated production companies or television outlets. It is because it is being done by the national broadcaster that it is of such significance and high quality. Therefore we need to look after public service broadcasting, to support local and community outlets and to nurture, develop and enhance cultural works that otherwise would not see the light of day in a purely commercially driven world.

7 o’clock

The big question is how we fund this. It appears that this question is no different to the question of how we fund any public service. In this debate, there is always an emphasis on the TV licence fee, on evasion and on increasing the fee or handing it over to an agency other than An Post. Now the proposal is to hand it over the Revenue, like another household charge, and to collect it in a move that will ask people to pay €160, via Revenue, for owning a mobile phone. It is not for the ownership of a 24-inch or 40-inch screen. This will be quite shocking to a lot of people. It seems like an austerity measure rather than a sensible way to fund broadcasting.

It is staggering that 1,693 people are currently facing the courts for refusal or failure to pay the TV licence fee. During the key austerity years - 2012 to 2014 - the number of people who faced prison sentences soared to 400, most of whom were women. Dealing with the matter in this way is a staggering waste and this is why we are having this discussion. Apart from the waste, there is the humiliation of putting people into prison - be it for a few hours or a day. This is also staggeringly incomprehensible. Most of these people are women and most are dispossessed and vulnerable. It is no accident that these numbers peaked during the austerity years. We need to ensure that poor people and single parents who do not have the means to pay the fee are protected and do not face the threat of jail.

A recommendation to hand the licence fee collection over to Revenue takes no account of the impact on the An Post network if such a move is taken. This is another aspect with which the Department has to deal. There is a huge threat facing many rural post offices and to take the collection function from post offices is like splitting one's head and putting on a plaster. Our national post operator lurches from one crisis to another, with threats of doomsday approaching. We utter platitudes about the importance of the post office network but it is now proposed to introduce steps that will reduce An Post further in terms of its health and its ability to continue.

I acknowledge the various submissions from many stakeholders such as Screen Producers Ireland on how to collect and dispense the funds needed to properly fund a decent, wholesome, native film and arts sector with indigenous producers. This is what we believe needs to be done, but not in the way that is being proposed. I do not agree with the emphasis on the licence fee collection. We are clearly in favour of levying retransmission fees. This move would raise much more revenue. It is only right that the large multinational operators that make big profits in the State from broadcasting should be compelled to pay for the national broadcasting. I also support the idea that the amount paid by the State to the national broadcasters for the TV licence fee for recipients of social protection should reflect the actual value of that licence. This is very similar to the situation where the amount paid by the State to subvent public transport was capped in 2009 and frozen at that level. This needs to change.

I do not want this debate to concentrate on how ordinary viewers or owners of mobile phones and laptops can be shaken down. A special levy on Internet service providers and other sources of profits that are raised in Ireland would be absolutely appropriate. Profits from advertising, for example, largely go to firms outside the State but do nothing to support broadcasting here or fund local and regional art and cultural development.

Ireland seems content to ignore the fact that while consumption of media is changing, massive profits are being generated for several multinational companies involved in the production of that media. This is where we should be seeking to raise the funding for our public broadcasting services.

8:15 pm

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I have a point of order. I want to make this point because I may not be able to come in on the response. One of the proposals announced by the Minister today as a way of funding our broadcasting is for increased advertising minutes. This is a fundamental mistake. My children watch their television on Netflix. If we start to put more advertising on TV or radio, people will watch Netflix and listen to Spotify.

They will not listen to or watch Irish media. Funding it through increasing advertising minutage is not the way to go.

I appreciate the latitude granted to me by the Ceann Comhairle.

8:20 pm

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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Deputy Eamon Ryan has been given a huge amount of flexibility.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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He is Deputy Eamon Ryan.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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He moved from there to there.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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That is a huge amount of latitude.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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The online photograph might be an issue too.

Deputies Bríd Smith and Eugene Murphy will agree that local radio produces a great deal of live sports broadcasts and that it is not possible for it to facilitate advertising and provide live broadcasts for games, whether hurling or football. That is the reason for this, to allow them that flexibility. The minutage would not increase but they are being penalised for broadcasting matches at present. This allows the flexibility to be built in at local radio level and for RTÉ. It is a very valuable service that we all avail of around the country. Many young Irish citizens abroad want to be able to access that service to hear how their local clubs are doing through media players.

I thank those who contributed to this debate. It is a very important and necessary discussion. I welcome the opportunity to engage on these issues. Something that did not come up in the course of the contributions is that a report by the most senior civil servant in the State was published online this week. It was approved by Cabinet on Tuesday. I refer to Martin Fraser's report on the strategic communications unit. These sentences from the report are quite significant:

... the issue of the financial health of the Irish media should be a matter of national policy debate.

A thriving, independent Irish media – whether in the public or private sector - is essential to a healthy society. In the modern world of global media, online platforms and reduced audiences and readerships, it cannot and should not be taken for granted.

This must not, of course, involve any element of inappropriate influence from the Government.

This whole area involves important and complex policy issues which should be the subject of consideration by the Government, the Oireachtas and in the wider public debate.

What the committee has done facilitates that. There is now a role for Government to move forward in these areas and that is what we intend to do. Public service broadcasters play an important role in our democratic society. It is essential that they receive adequate and stable funding to ensure the continued delivery of their role and the ability to meet their remit as set out in legislation.

I accept the challenges that exist. I commend the committee on its work on this issue. I thank the Chairman, the Vice Chairman and members of the committee for their work on this report and the pre-legislative scrutiny report. I intend to bring these issues to Government soon.

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister and all the Deputies who contributed to this debate. This report came out of a lottery but it is very appropriate that it did so and it was important to have the opportunity for this debate in the Dáil after many detailed sessions in committee and work over the preceding 12 or 18 months.

I welcome the Minister's comments and engagement. I note that he is to take the report back to the committee. He asked that the report address issues in the wider public service broadcasting area and particularly the general scheme of retransmission fees.

He passed the ball to us and we took it and ran. We made our own of it and now we are giving it back to the Minister. I ask him to put that ball in the net at his end and follow it through to implementation.

We had a broad consensus at the committee but, it is fair to say, we had a couple of dissenting voices also. We heard a few concerns from Deputies Bríd Smith and Brian Stanley in particular. Although they agreed with the broad thrust of the report and the broad principle, as is their entitlement they took issue with a couple of points and I note this. It is worth noting as well that where concerns were raised about charges, the impact on households and poverty issues, the report also states the existing household benefits package, existing concessionary schemes and existing waivers and discounts all continue to apply and will roll over into a new model. While I acknowledge there were concerns, I hope we have dealt with them in the body of the report.

It is important we support content creators, and this has been mentioned also. The gist of the report and the challenge to fund public service broadcasting is to capture the funding model and funding streams, be they commercial or State or all of the above, and ensure that independent and State media and all forms of public service broadcasting media can compete, generate revenue and source revenue, so this public good is supported in much the same way as other public goods, be they schools, hospitals, roads or rail. People may not use them but they generally agree that the State benefits from having them and it is so important to the greater good that we have them.

Along this vein, we have multiple sources of competition for content. We can avail of international content and global content. It is important that we have moved away from the traditional box in the corner type of device, because there is a multitude of different avenues of content today. We have Moore's law on computing power doubling every 18 months, and this has continued to happen since the early 1960s. The only thing technology will do is to continue to surprise us. Having a broader and wider definition makes an awful lot of sense rather than trying to be prescriptive about which devices do and do not qualify, what they might look like and how big or small they should be.

For the avoidance of confusion, it is important that newspapers be considered as part of the broadcasting spectrum. One of the recommendations of the report is that we move from the traditional definition of "broadcasting" to a definition of "media", whereby public service media would become the new term. It is a wider term and incorporates other channels.

I spoke about content creators. It is about the quality of that content and, in terms of public service, it is also about indigenous, localised and regional content, which can include programmes aired at State level but aimed at particular regional audiences. It can incorporate local channels and stations, and programmes that may not be commercially viable but fulfil a particular real cultural and informational need. This is so important, particularly in the area of news media, in this age of fake news. I believe "fake news" was the word of the year in 2016 or 2017. Perhaps it will carry over into 2018. There is a need for impartial, objective, adequately funded and adequately resourced news coverage to report accurately, fairly and objectively the events of the day, be they in the political arena, the discussions in this House or other fora, and to capture them correctly.

On a slightly aside note, but on a related matter, the Minister alluded to Mr. Martin Fraser's report on the strategic communications unit, which was released on Tuesday night. It is a very important report and I read it with interest. One piece of legislation was singled out in it, which is the social media transparency Bill I introduced. Mr. Martin Fraser, the most senior civil servant in the State, as the Minister said, acknowledged the very real need for such legislation and such regulation with regard to the very real issues that arise from it. I look forward to working with the Minister and the committee when the legislation comes before the committee in a fortnight. I also welcome the Taoiseach's commitment on the floor of the Dáil on Tuesday, when he told my party leader he is very open to working with us on advancing this legislation with regard to the very real needs it would tackle.

I echo a comment made by Deputy Eamon Ryan and I endorse it. This is an example of new politics at work. Sometimes new politics is derided and sometimes people feel it is a charade or not productive.

I have seen it up close for the last 18 months. All members of the committee have collaborated with each other, with the Department, the Minister and with other stakeholders. Even though we have had dissenting voices, which is healthy and natural in a democracy, all involved have got together to produce a significant report with outside consultation and engagement. We can all be very proud of it and stand over it. It is an example of politics functioning as it should and politicians doing what they are elected to this House to do, which is to produce reports for consultation, to source inputs, produce outputs and formulate an action plan based upon the best available evidence. I believe we have done that well.

I thank all my colleagues on the committee and the staff involved. I commend the report to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

8:35 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Leis sin tá gnó an lae inniu tagtha chun deiridh. Bíodh Cáisc mhaith ag na Teachtaí go léir.

The Dáil adjourned at at 7.15 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 17 April 2018.