Thursday, 28 February 2019
Independent Radio Stations: Motion [Private Members]
That Dáil Éireann:
— more than 3.17 million listeners tune in to radio every weekday;
— more than two thirds of listeners tune in to independent radio stations;
— Ireland ranks joint first with Germany, at 45 per cent, for using radio as a source of news; and
— radio is the most trusted medium for news in Ireland, with 68 per cent of Irish people trusting what they hear on radio;
— independent radio enjoys an excellent reputation for the provision of public service news and current affairs;
— this programming has been provided to date without State support;
— the statutory 20 per cent public service obligation on the independent radio sector to provide news and current affairs programming is increasingly difficult to deliver in the context of the advertising revenue shift to digital social media platforms;
— the ability of broadcasters to invest in Irish content on a sustainable basis depends in turn on their ability to generate revenues in an environment of significant disruption and challenge; — the threat to the viability of the independent radio sector has the potential to erode democratic dialogue both nationally and across communities throughout the country; and
— independent journalism, free to pursue the public interest, is an essential component of the democratic process;
recognises that: — commercial radio revenues, including those accruing to Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), have declined significantly in the last ten years, to €127 million in 2016, compared to €140 million in 2007, leading to significant uncertainty regarding the future of the sector;— the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny T.D., committed to the reduction of the current levy on independent broadcasters in 2016;
— as with most European nations, the Irish broadcast market is already subject to public intervention in the form of funding and oversight;
— in order to address disinformation, Irish consumers believe that it is the responsibility of news media outlets and Government to take action;
— television licence fee evasion in Ireland is among the highest in Europe and millions of euro are being lost to the sector each year;
— the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment published its report on the Future Funding of Public Service Broadcasting in November 2017;
— the Committee recommended methods to reduce evasion aimed at generating between €35 million and €50 million extra to fund public service broadcasting;
— the Committee also recommended that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment establish a scheme to assist independent radio stations in the provision of local news and current affairs programmes;
— the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) has called for RTÉ to receive an increase in public funding of at least €30 million per year to meet its remit;
— at 71 per cent, Irish consumers are more trusting of ‘most news’ than the European Union average, but that some 57 per cent of Irish consumers are concerned about ‘fake news’; and
— some 63 per cent believe the Government should do more to address disinformation; and
calls on the Government to:
— implement the recommendations of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment report on the Future Funding of Public Service Broadcasting by the end of July 2019;
— establish a public service broadcast fund for the independent radio sector by the end of September 2019, to:— invest 25 per cent of funds raised through increased collection of the television licence fee to provide independent radio stations with additional funding to develop and maintain high quality news and current affairs programmes which empower democracy by facilitating democratic engagement and reflect local identity and address local concerns; and
— limit the funding provided to each organisation by ensuring that stations do not receive:— more than 50 per cent of the cost of producing and broadcasting qualifying content;— implement the recommendation of the BAI to provide an extra €30 million a year to RTÉ recognising that this funding would be available from enhanced television licence fee collection; and
— in excess of 20 per cent of their operational budget in a given year; and
— in excess of € 250,000 in a given year;
— implement its commitment to reduce the broadcasting levy to the independent radio sector by the end of June 2019.
We Irish are a nation of radio listeners. More than 3.17 million of us tune into radio every week day and, principally outside of the greater Dublin area, independent radio accounts for the majority of listenership. While these stations provide entertainment, advertising and music, they are also a vital source of region-specific information for local communities. The area and the radio station I know best is Clare FM. Like every other independent local radio station, it captures the life and soul of the area to which it broadcasts, from sport to news and current affairs to carrying special information about weather events right through to the deaths, which form an important part of the information citizens of that particular jurisdiction require daily. It is clear that the proof of the pudding is in the eating because people listen consistently and they expect that service to be provided.
Unfortunately, as a result of changes within the wider media landscape, local radio stations now find themselves operating under increasing financial strain. Revenues have declined very significantly during the past ten years, putting pressure on the independent stations to cut costs to remain viable and afloat. Much of the transfer of revenues away from advertising from the broadcasting sector towards the digital platforms has created a significant gulf in funding and is putting the capacity of these stations to provide the service as set out in their licence agreement whereby there is a necessity to provide 20% of the content from a news and current affairs perspective under particular strain. It is a real challenge for these stations to retain the depth and breadth of journalistic effort in place to provide that service. We have seen where similar situations have emerged with our nearest neighbour across the water where radio stations are unable to continue to provide that service and this has led to an amalgamation of smaller stations, which ultimately will fail to provide the location-specific information that is a hallmark of what local radio is all about. In the context of reduced revenues, local and independent stations are particularly impacted. If this pressure continues, the plurality of sources of news could decline, denying communities access to that vital source of information on issues which are really important in those respective areas.
We believe on this side of the House that the loss of high quality, independently sourced news from the independent radio sector would represent a loss to the democratic dialogue at both national and regional level across communities throughout the country. To that end, we have proposed the establishment of a public service broadcast fund for the independent radio sector and we believe it is vital to ensure the future viability of the industry. Funding additional supports for local radio will not require the introduction of further measures to raise funds. It will only require the collection of fees that are already owed. As we are all aware, television licence fee evasion in Ireland is among the highest in Europe and millions of euro are being lost each year by both RTÉ and the independent sector.
We believe, based on a detailed body of work that was done by the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment, that with an enhanced level of detection and collection somewhere between €35 million and €50 million could be accrued to the State and could provide the resources to fund adequately the independent radio sector in its effort to fund news and current affairs and also address the very significant shortfalls that RTÉ is encountering. The Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment has already examined the future funding of public service media in detail and the joint committee recommended that the Minister establish a scheme to assist radio stations in the provision of such news and current affairs programmes. It also recommended that the Revenue Commissioners should be tasked with the collection of the licence fee. When know how successful the Revenue Commissioners were in the collection of the non-principal private residence tax when responsibility for its collection was transferred to them from the local authorities and consequently the level of evasion was reduced significantly in a very short period.
The additional funds raised could have a dual purpose. They could be used to meet the ongoing funding issues at RTÉ, which the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has identified as being very significant and requiring urgent attention, and provide a much-needed funding stream for the smaller independent producers. We should not forget that the licence fee already provides significant funding through the sound and vision fund to the independent production sector. That is one which we must harness and nurture as part of this.
As with most European nations, the Irish broadcast market is already subject to public intervention in the form of funding and oversight. What we propose is already the case in a number of European jurisdictions where they very much value their independent radio sector, recognising the importance it plays in the democratic process.
Professionally produced journalism is an essential condition for the survival of modern democracies. The increase in fake news across the globe, particularly in the social media area, has increased the imperative to ensure the widespread availability of impartial transparent news and current affairs coverage to the individuals of the State. In order to continue to provide unbiased trustworthy fact-based news and current affairs coverage relevant for Irish society at the expected standard, adequate public resources must be invested in producing it. We should not be in any way reticent about supporting that.
Thanks to the quality of Irish media, Irish consumers are more trusting of most news than the EU average, but some 57% of Irish consumers are deeply concerned about the potential for fake news. In order to address this disinformation, Irish consumers believe it is the responsibility of news media outlets and governments to take action. Some 63% believe that the Government should do more to address this disinformation.
To address the specifics of the proposal, Fianna Fáil proposes that we invest 25% of funds raised through increased collection of the television licence fee to provide independent radio stations with additional funding to develop and maintain high quality news and current affairs programmes. We are also keenly aware that this funding should be reasonable and provide as many stations as possible with supports. To this end, Fianna Fáil proposes a number of limitations. In the first instance, from a political perspective, we do not believe that the body politic should have any role in the administration of the funds or detailing how and where the funds are distributed. We believe that should go to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to do so in an independent and transparent way. We also believe it is necessary to limit the funding provided to each organisation by ensuring that stations do not receive more than 50% of the cost of producing and broadcasting qualifying content, in excess of 20% of their operational budget in a given year, or in excess of €250,000 in a given year, to ensure that there is the greatest spread of the available funds, ensuring that all those stations that provide quality news and current affairs to their respective licensing areas are provided with the appropriate assistance. The additional funds raised could also be used to address other funding shortfalls, as we are also conscious that the national broadcaster together with the independent sector provide comprehensive news and current affairs information and assisting one cannot be at a cost to the other.
I am taken by the level of intervention and the level of discussions that have taken place between RTÉ and the independent broadcasting sector. It is fair to say that there is a level of agreement between both sides to ensure that the future of the licence fee is shared in a manner that allows both sectors to survive.
I note that RTÉ has a funding requirement of €30 million, as identified by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.
In conclusion, I recognise that in the Visitors Gallery today, there are representatives of most of the independent radio stations throughout the country as part of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland delegation. I thank them for their presence and for showing an interest in the work we are doing on all sides of this House. I wish them well in their efforts to continue to provide trustworthy news and current affairs coverage in an independent and transparent way, to the benefit of Irish citizens and for the preservation of the democratic institutions of this State.
I commend Deputy Dooley on introducing this motion. This is a very significant year for independent broadcasting in Ireland. It is the 30th anniversary of the awarding of the first licences and it is the year the Minister will have to get real about its future. We have had many engagements, promises and discussions, but this year the Minister and the Department have to get real about securing the future of the independent sector that has been so successful at national, regional, local and community level. It has been successful in giving local voices and local issues a stage they would not otherwise get; in profiling local sports, local initiatives and local achievements; and in being there when communities are challenged, such as during huge weather events. My own local station, Midwest Radio, broadcast through the night during the worst of the weather last year. In the event of local tragedies these broadcasters are on hand to support local communities. A large national organisation cannot do that. Local, regional and independent radio does that.
The Minister knows and has said himself that fake news is a threat. It is not just some sort of comedy invention. Deputy Dooley's proposals put flesh on an effort to defend the integrity of journalism locally, regionally and nationally. They represent a move to defend it with cash rather than with kind words, which will not pay any bills in an independent radio station. We have to look at the connection between communities and their radio stations. The listenership figures one sees around the country are testament to that in a very intense commercial world. We have to recognise that this connection costs money. It cannot pay for itself commercially. The Minister needs to come to the table with the kind of proposals that Deputy Dooley is putting forward, otherwise we will lose stations and lose that connection.
I also want to point out the success of community radio. Local community-based radio stations in towns like my home town in Ballina, in Erris, in Claremorris and in Castlebar bring local issues and local voices to the fore. That is the diversity Irish radio listeners have but that has been lost in many other countries around the world. We can stand up for that diversity. We can protect it by putting cash on the table from resources that are already there, or we can give it false promises and a pat on the back and see it disappear. I call on the Minister not to let it disappear on his watch.
I am delighted to speak on this motion in respect of local radio because it is an issue close to my heart. I am still a proud card-carrying member of the National Union of Journalists. I worked in local media for 17 years. There is no doubt that local media outlets are under huge pressure. The very existence of our industry is under threat because of the attack on its revenue caused by the advance of social media. Social media is hugely welcome but having been involved in both journalism and politics, I know we need functioning independent local media to inform people, to hold our public representatives to account and to cover council meetings and our courts. Facebook is not going to do that. That medium will not send someone to sit in the courtroom or the county council chamber.
It is also important to stem the advance of that infamous phrase, "fake news". I am very lucky that my local radio station in County Meath, LMFM produces some of the best programming in the country, thanks to its politics coverage with "The Michael Reade Show", its newsroom, its sports team, and "The Late Lunch" with Mr. Gerry Kelly in the entertainment sphere. I know that if I want those shows to continue and want a future for my station, they must have a fighting chance and a level playing field. The proposals brought forward by Deputy Dooley in respect of the public service broadcasting fund provide a platform to allow local radio to survive and invest in its newsrooms.
I also back empowering the Revenue Commissioners to collect the licence fee. I pursued that with the Secretary General at the Committee of Public Accounts in discussions about the level of evasion, which accounts for some €40 million. Quite frankly, that is theft. It is theft from the rest of us who are actually paying the licence fee and from the public purse. It is accessing a public service for free. If that was happening in any other Department, it would be a scandal. It might not suit me to appear every morning on a political show like "The Michael Reade Show" in my local radio station. However, as a politician and a journalist I know the benefit Mr. Reade provides to the people by holding local public representatives to account. I want to see that man's show and local radio stations continue in the future. We need to back these proposals.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. Thirty years after the licence was given, local radio stations are at a crossroads. A huge challenge is facing them. We talk about building strong communities and encouraging people to participate in their communities. One major thing that holds many communities together is a local radio station. They go far beyond any of the national stations. They give a voice to people who would otherwise be voiceless. They provide a service right across the spectrum. We are very lucky in my part of the world. We have the C103 station, which broadcasts the "Cork Today" programme in the mornings with Ms Patricia Messinger and Mr. John Paul McNamara. We also have agriculture broadcasting. Agricultural programmes are unique to local radio stations. Those agricultural programmes speak to the issues of a particular community and part of the world, as distinct from other counties. We also have Mr. John O'Connor, who has been producing and directing his own programmes for many years.
At this point, local radio stations face serious funding challenges. It is time to accept that there is a problem. There has been plenty of lobbying and discussion in respect of local radio, but these broadcasters are at a crossroads. The Minister needs to take direct action. Deputy Dooley's proposals are welcome and should be implemented. We cannot leave to die this gem, which serves communities throughout the length and breadth of the country so well.
I thank Deputy Dooley for bringing this very important motion before the House. There is no doubt that since local radio was introduced people have enjoyed listening to it. That is proven by the verified number of listeners nationwide. I come from an area in Sligo that is serviced by Ocean FM. I would say it has one of the smallest franchise areas in the country and it is surrounded by very successful radio stations such as Midwest Radio, Highland Radio, and Shannnonside. Despite that fact, Ocean FM has been very successful. It employs 35 people full-time and the same number part-time. There is no doubt that a public service obligation is very expensive. Local radio stations need it. They will not survive without it. Despite its small franchise area, Ocean FM has won many national awards for the work it does. There is no doubt but that it comes down to the work of the staff on the ground. It has an excellent staff.
The former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, promised in 2016 that he would scrap the levy. Doing that would definitely make things much easier for local radio stations. Quite honestly I do not agree with all these amalgamations. If they happen the strong will get stronger and the weak will get weaker. Radio will lose its local identity, which is something for which we need to watch out. As for regional radio, iRadio, which also is a very successful radio station, covers the regions. All these stations will need support in the future. There is no doubt about it. That is why I am delighted Deputy Dooley has brought this before the House.
The licence fee is meant to provide for public service broadcasting.
Traditionally, much of it has gone to RTÉ, which provides a service at a national level. At a local level, though, and other than Raidió na Gaeltachta, it does not provide any such service. Local news, local current affairs, local sport and local magazine programmes on, for example, agriculture are provided by local stations. If RTÉ needs a huge subsidy to provide public service broadcasting, how is it presumed that much smaller stations can operate without a subsidy? Therefore, I agree that the levy should be scrapped and that part of the public funding for public services should go to local stations providing these vital services to local communities throughout the country.
I published a Bill during the previous Dáil to deal with this issue. Unfortunately, with the overwhelming majority in the Dáil at the time, it did not make progress. It is now time to act. Is é an dara rud gur mhaith liom tagairt a dhéanamh dó sa cúpla soicind atá fágtha agam ná an difríocht ollmhór idir na costais a bhaineann le cláir a chur ar an teilifís ag RTÉ agus ag TG4. Tá maoiniú an-bheag á fháil ag TG4. Tá éagothroime úafásach ann i dtaobh maoinithe do TG4. Murach TG4 ní bheadh RTÉ leath chomh héifeachtach agus atá sé. Bheadh na costais fós i bhfad níos measa ná mar atá siad. Tá sé in am cothromú a dhéanamh agus cothrom na Féinne a thabhairt do TG4 ó thaobh mhaoiniú Stáit de.
I thank Deputy Dooley for tabling this motion. It is our first debate on broadcasting in my time in this Ministry. It is timely.
I recognise the strong endorsement of the role of local radio stations given by all speakers from the Fianna Fáil benches. That will undoubtedly be reflected in other contributions. Local radio stations are the information lifeline for audiences and citizens. They are also the lifeline for politicians, providing platforms on which to discuss important public issues.
As Deputy Dooley rightly pointed out, we are increasingly seeing the room for sober debate on issues being dominated by the echo chambers of social media with the fury and anger that they can generate. Major changes are under way in broadcasting, both in television and radio. Some of these are cyclical as a result of the crash. We have seen a decline in commercial advertising and the pressure on licence fees. However, some of the changes are structural. The migration online will not stop. Audience penetration among younger listeners and viewers by traditional media is low. As they move to new online communication platforms such as players, it is difficult for many of these traditional broadcasters, which are an information lifeline, to monetise that move. They are under significant pressure. The restructuring that has occurred in public broadcasting as well as many parts of the private broadcasting sector has been necessitated by that pressure. I was not around for the recent Estimates process in this Department, but nearly €2.5 million has been provided to TG4 and €10 million to RTÉ in the past two years in recognition of the pressure that they have been under in recent times.
Deputy Dooley raised a number of issues and I will try to deal with them in the limited time available to us. The revenue collection system is not working. As Deputy Cassells mentioned, the evasion rate is 14% and the collection cost is 6%. The committee also pointed to an 8% exemption, increased from 2.5%. Combined, these figures constitute a 28% drain on licence fee revenue.
As the House knows, my Department chairs a committee involving all the relevant players, including Revenue, which Deputy Dooley believes should be the future collector. The committee has also considered other options, for example, a fresh tender, as a way of raising money more effectively from the licence fee. I understand that the committee's report will come to me by the end of March, and it appears to be on schedule.
The other issues raised by the committee are interesting and I would be open to considering all of them. We will have a thorough debate on them when the broadcasting Bill is before the House. As Deputies have pointed out, that Bill has been delayed. There have been tricky drafting issues around some of the provisions, in particular the putting out to tender and the power of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, to vary levies on different types of broadcaster. There has been an anxiety in the draftsman's office to ensure that proper policies and principles underpin the latter and it is not seen as an arbitrary power. When moving away from a public authority, in this case An Post, the powers of collection must also be properly based. These tricky issues explain the delay, but good progress is being made and I hope to be in a position to present the Bill.
The committee and Deputy Dooley have raised the question of how to use the proceeds of additional revenue. The Deputy recognises that the BAI has recommended €30 million for RTÉ and €6 million for TG4. The Government has made some progress in that regard. The Deputy has also set out proposals as to how a fund might be structured, but we must consider the issue of state aid rules. As I understand the matter, we cannot provide state aid to a commercial entity except for a clear public purpose that is stated in advance and where the competitive delivery of that public purpose is tendered for. We cannot have a fund that gives money to a commercial entity just because it has a current affairs obligation. It would have to be a different structure. Some Deputies suggested that we needed to provide money to commercial stations so that they could keep going, but it would constitute state aid if it were phrased like that. We must identify public purposes for which private, local broadcasters can tender to deliver. Notwithstanding this difference in approach, the principle is there.
To be fair to the BAI, it makes a 7% allocation to encourage content. It does not include local information, but it includes information about international and wider issues. This comes from the legislation. There is an expectation that, while a local station will be good at identifying what is happening in its own community, there may be justification for support when moving to a wider arena. That is in the existing scheme, as are cultural and other important objectives. It is a question of designing something that would be seen as equitable.
Deputy Scanlon raised the issue of the broadcasting levy. It is intended under the Bill that some of the revenue would be used to fund the BAI, thereby reducing the obligation on a levy. I do not think the former Taoiseach said he would abolish it. Rather, he indicated that up to 50% could come off the levy. That continues to be the thinking within the Bill that will come forward for consideration.
The committee also raised some other issues, which Deputy Dooley referred to, such as moving away from TV set ownership to other devices. This is an issue that we need to consider. There is no doubt that we are seeing a huge change in the way people consume media. The penetration of the market of those aged under 15 is in the low single figures. Even if one considers those aged 25, the viewing figures do not even hit 20%. It is only as viewership gets up to people of our own vintage, sadly, that we can see the high figures. A dramatic change is happening. If it continues, and those people are unlikely to change their behaviour as they get older, it will represent a massive change. This issue was raised by the committee and is worthy of thought.
The committee also looked at the idea of retransmission fees. I believe this is a double-edged sword. If one takes public service broadcasting off some of the platforms such as Sky and Virgin, do we achieve the public objective we set to provide Irish audiences with access to quality public service content? It is a double-edged sword but I believe the committee indicated that it is something the station should be allowed to negotiate rather than it being an all-or-nothing situation. The committee asked what we mean by public service broadcasting. It pulled up short of making really strong recommendations but there is no doubt that it raises issues we need to consider.
I welcome this debate. Our broadcasting services are, and continue to be, under pressure. This is the difficulty. There is a long-term migration that will pose challenges for us in the fake news arena and in getting access for Irish audiences to Irish content. We need to focus more on how we drive that content to the audiences.
I move amendment No. 1:
To insert the following after “independent radio sector by the end of June 2019”:“— commit to not increasing the TV licence fee as a means to fund local radio; and
— commit to improving the collection rates”
Sinn Féin broadly supports the motion put forward this morning. We believe the place of public service broadcasting needs to be maintained and supported because it forms an essential part of our media into the future. Local independent radio is an important part of that media landscape. It accounts for the majority of radio listeners every weekday across the State and it provides an important service to communities around the State. It can be the main source of news and a vital vehicle to keeping local communities connected. I see it in the midlands areas of Laois, Offaly and Westmeath. Midlands 103 FM airs across the three counties and well beyond with a weekly listenership of 119,000. Midlands 103 FM provides a very important service to Laois, Offaly, Westmeath and other surrounding counties. It has excellent coverage of news, current affairs, sport and entertainment.From the democracy perspective it has coverage of local government, the local councils and the events here in the Dáil. The station also covers European Union affairs, which is very important. It is vital that the public service obligation for independent radio stations be retained.
Alongside independent radio there is community radio, which has an important role for communities. Community radio in Ireland has some 2,000 volunteers broadcasting to 170,000 people in 21 fully licensed stations. Community radio presents a unique way for the community and voluntary sector, civil society, agencies, NGOs and citizens to work together to make a difference.
With regard to any future funding we have to ask where the money is going to come from. On the issue of the licence fee, RTÉ received €186.1 million from the licence fee in 2017 and it also receives substantial funding from advertising. RTÉ, however, has requested further funding. We understand there is a problem with the funding of RTÉ and the licence fee collection, but current expenditure at RTÉ is also an issue. I raised this with the Minister on the 24 January. I highlighted some of the excessive salaries at RTÉ and the incomes paid out by the broadcaster. Figures of €495,000, €400,000 and €389,000 are being paid for individual presenters. These are substantial sums for a station that serves a population on the whole island of 6.5 million. This is approximately half the population of London. Would a regional TV station in Britain, France or anywhere else across Europe serving a similarly sized population provide such excessive salaries? When I questioned the Minister, Deputy Bruton, about this last month, he committed to meeting RTÉ in this regard. Has the Minister met RTÉ, and if so, what was the outcome? The licence fee paid by the householder needs to be traceable. There needs to be accountability, transparency and justification for how householders' money is spent.
There is a high rate evasion of the TV licence fee and it must be dealt with. The evasion rate is approximately 15% and is one of the highest in the EU. Addressing the evasion rate would generate an estimated €35 million to €40 million per annum. We must take this on board and there are avenues through which this can be done. When this issue was discussed at the committee, Sinn Féin proposed there would be no increase in the licence fee because many households are already struggling to pay the fee, especially those on low and middle incomes. Sinn Féin proposed a different model for the collection of the TV licence fee and we put this forward for the report. There should be a registration onto a database for the purposes of collection of the licence fee at the point of purchase of the television set or at the point of connection for a broadcast service. This would be a very straightforward way to do this and it is done like this in other countries.
Sinn Féin is opposed to the use of the Revenue Commissioners to collect the TV licence. This would be seen as another tax on people, not a licence or a fee. It is totally inappropriate to use this arm of the State for the collection of the TV licence fee. The Sinn Féin proposal to register at the point of purchase does not use the heavy arm of the State or the heavies of private debt collectors to collect the licence fee, which happened across the water in Britain when the collection was privatised and tendered out to private companies. This resulted in huge compensation being paid out to householders who were victims of sharp practice, poor practice and intimidation by some of those companies. We should not take that road.
There should be no increase in the licence fee but there must be improvement in the collection process. We should not opt for the simple option of just jacking up the fee again. There are alternatives that will increase compliance and we need to pursue these options.
The Committee of Public Accounts said that clarity should be brought to the oversight arrangements of RTÉ in addition to the provisions of the Broadcasting Act. I referred earlier to the incomes paid by RTÉ. Householders see these excessive salaries being paid out and wonder if they are justified. The Minister cannot simply pass the buck on the issue of the expenditure of the TV licence. He is the shareholder and the public representative there. The Minister and I both know that it is the shareholders in companies who call the shots. The Minister also sets the licence fee through the legislation, so he has a lot of leverage in his hands on this matter. The Minister has a responsibility to create transparency with the use of public moneys.
Sinn Féin sees the need for a good, proper and well-funded public broadcaster service. We want to see the local radio stations assisted in this. They provide a very important service to communities.
They are important to counter the fake news online and much of the rubbish that is put up from time to time. It is more important now than ever that we retain that service and ensure we have it in the future. They are under pressure. Public service broadcasting is a popular role that local stations provide. We need to retain that. We have an amendment which is very straightforward. It commits to not increasing the licence fee solely as a means to fund local radio and commits to improving the collection rates. Sinn Féin asks that this be accepted by the Government and Fianna Fáil.
I commend this motion to the House. It is long overdue. We in Sinn Féin welcome it. As Deputy Stanley stated, the amendment we have tabled is designed to improve it. The value of local radio to communities throughout this country cannot be overstated. It provides a fantastic service that gives advice to people in every corner of the country and raises issues that would never find their way into this house if not for local radio. I say that in a positive way because it reaches out to communities and provides that service so that communities can partake in debate and publicise issues of concern. It is also open to county councillors and what were town councillors to raise national issues on local radio. The service has to be defended at all costs.
In my county, Radio Kerry has an unbelievable record. It was established in 1990 and has broadcasting studios in Tralee and Killarney. I have just looked at the figures and they are quite startling. The Joint National Listenership Research, JNLR, figures indicate that Radio Kerry has a market share of 48.3%, compared with 14.4% for RTÉ and 6.1% for 2FM. Both of the latter are State-funded organisations. It just goes to show the value of that to Kerry. The station has a weekly reach of up to 81,000 listeners, 67% of the available audience. That shows how important and accessible it is to local communities. Radio Kerry employs 100 people. Some 50 of them are full-time employees. It is currently in negotiations with Clare FM and Tipp FM. If those negotiations are successful, that will double the number of people employed, which would be of significant value to local communities.
Local radio covers a vast range of issues in communities, which is fantastic, including farming, fishing, sport and current affairs. We in this House are called to account by local radio. I have been on local radio a couple of times every month since I became a Deputy. I have been questioned by various reporters, including Jerry O'Sullivan. It has been an interesting engagement. He has been very professional, as are all the staff that I have dealt with there. He is very challenging in the context of holding me and other Deputies to account. That is invaluable because local people connect with their local representatives and want to know how their local representative represents them in this House. Many of our elderly live in rural and isolated areas. Their social connection is local radio. Every morning, the radio programme that comes on right through to late at night is their local connection. They know everything that is happening in their local communities and throughout their counties. That has to be acknowledged and has significant value to the well-being and social connection of people across the constituency.
I was looking last night at a briefing note that I got regarding 9 February for Radio Kerry. It covered three football games that day. I have been involved in the GAA for most of my life. Radio Kerry has been invaluable for local results and so on. It covered three games that day. Two were all-Ireland finals. One was the intermediate championship, which Kilcummin won, while Beaufort won the junior championship. That night, the Kerry garsúns went out and beat Dublin in Tralee. It was a fantastic service. Radio Kerry lost advertising revenue by doing that because there was no break in the programme. That shows what a tremendous connection it is for everybody in our area.
We also need to acknowledge the role that local radio plays in county emergency plans, through the Garda, fire brigade, hospital services and any aspect that is in need. Even during the Beast from the East, local radio gave us news of what was happening all over our county and the country in general, about where people could be in danger and about matters of which people should be aware. Radio Kerry is considered locally as the voice of the kingdom. I have already mentioned that 48.3% of the audience that is connected to radio in the county is connected to Radio Kerry. I am sure that is replicated across the country. That is how valuable and important it is, and why we have to defend it, ensure it survives and continues to develop further. It is an essential part of our life, especially for our elderly, for those of us who have been involved in sport, agriculture and politics in this House, in county councils and so on. It is a great way for county councillors to communicate with communities and take on board issues that have been neglected. Many of those issues that come from local radio stations end up here and some can be resolved here.
I thank Deputy Dooley for tabling the motion, which I commend, and I recommend our amendment to it.
I welcome this debate. It provides an important opportunity to discuss the role of local radio stations. I also welcome the fact that we had a briefing session in the audiovisual room yesterday, which was crowded with Members of the Oireachtas. It is important that the report is published and the broadcasting Bill is brought forward as quickly as possible. This issue has been around for a long time and needs to be addressed. In his contribution this morning, the Minister talked about the need for a clear public purpose to satisfy competition rules. That should not be a problem. Local radio stations serve a clear public purpose, especially in the context of their morning news programmes and the amount of information they disseminate regarding community activities and cultural and sporting events. My local radio station, Limerick's Live95FM, is particularly strong in this regard. That is also true of other stations. They are under challenge from digital media and various sources of news available to people around the country. This is about collecting extra money because we know that our national broadcaster needs to be funded too. Local radio stations are crucial for communities and, in particular, for those who live alone in isolated areas because they provide a link to what is going on.
This has been floating around for a long time and it is now time to ensure there is a response from the Government. We must support diversity and genuine local news and current affairs programme produced in radio stations right around the country.
The Labour Party broadly supports the thrust of the Private Members' Bill and in particular the recommendation on the future funding of public service broadcasting set out in the committee report of November 2017. It was recommended that the Minister establish a new scheme to assist with the funding of independent, regional, local and community radio and television to produce local news and current affairs programming. We know what has been done. There are great political and other debates on those stations and RTÉ has a very important role in this regard also. I proposed an amendment to the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2016 which aimed to insert a new section in the Broadcasting Act 2009 to provide that it would be a condition of the awarding of all sound and broadcasting contracts under section 55(8) that at least 30% of the aggregate amount of transmission time allocated to music content in the programming provided under the contract would be reserved for music components that relate to some distinguishing elements of the culture of the island of Ireland. That was voted down, disgracefully, and Fianna Fáil was accused of political cowardice on that occasion by former members of the party who had sat in the House. I will bring it forward in 2019 and I ask Fianna Fáil to consider it carefully. We now have a chance to get it to a committee and deal with it there.
The debate on Irish community music in the Dáil, when I tried to convince politicians from all parties to back the initiative to introduce a quota, was followed by a dry statement from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. It was expertly covered by Ailbhe Conneely of RTÉ, a brilliant journalist. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, admitted that a proposal for an Irish music quota had been submitted to the EU previously but had been withdrawn following complaints to the European Commission that it was not compatible with legislation. This rebuttal of the campaign was worded in such a way as to hide the fact that it was the independent Irish radio sector which had made the complaint to Europe and derailed the quota in the first place. Indeed, that is evident from Niall Stokes who admitted it in an article in Hot Presspublished some time after he stepped down from his role with BAI. Michael O'Keeffe, who remains on the authority, is following that. It is very important to look at this. Any funding that goes to the other stations should be contingent upon achieving this quota because it is farcical how things are going. What do our actors, musicians, composers and artists need to do to get the House to wake up to what is happening in our country? The powers that be have completely abandoned our national culture. They have only one thing in mind when it comes to culture, namely how to milk it for monetary profit until every vestige of artistic value is sapped from it while giving our artists little or no support. Our actors are on their knees as are our songwriters. Look at the likes of Michael English who employs 15 people every night. Every petrol station is open and every restaurant and hotel is booked because of these guys. One can name a whole clatter of them, including Johnny Brady, TR Dallas, Tony Evans and Foster and Allen. They were in the Gallery. Tom Allen, a former Fianna Fáil councillor, was so disappointed. Let us get this back and teach the Government a lesson. I ask Fianna Fáil to get behind it. It should forget about Communicorp and those boys writing to us and let us get to the real stuff here.
We need to wake up to the impoverishment of a section of our community which has given so much of its talent to create the global image that now exists that we are an artistic nation at heart, second to none in Europe. The support we give to the broadcasting sector - this is crucial - should be contingent on that sector supporting homegrown talent. In truth, the sector does not currently support talented Irish artists. Our actors, writers, musicians and composers have been sidelined in the past 30 years without fully realising how that happened. If anyone in the House wants to gain an honest appraisal of Irish broadcasting in our time and how it has abandoned support for local talent, I ask them to read the relevant chapter of The Bill, a book which will be launched tomorrow night in Galway by Johnny Duhan. The title refers to Bill Whelan of Riverdance fame who came to the House over 30 years ago to try to show us the crisis we were already heading for even back then. We could not listen to him, however. I repeat, therefore, that the support we offer to our broadcasters must be contingent on their support for homegrown talent first. Mr. Tubridy is great for producing a show on Irish music which gained 550,000 listeners, but there is more talent in Ireland than Nathan Carter. It cannot be the one thing. RTÉ ends up with its presenters interviewing each other for entertainment. There are lots of people across the country: let them interview them and give them a chance. Let us look at our own national culture. RTÉ produces six programmes on the Fleadh, which was attended by 500,000 people in Drogheda last year. It should be covered by weeks of programming. RTÉ better wake up to ensure that our greatest national event - the Olympics of artistic and musical culture - is covered much more. FleadhTV has more than 1.4 million viewers. Let us be real here and support Irish artists and composers. I will be back to the House with a Bill before the end of the year which I have no doubt Fianna Fáil will support because its supporters will ensure it does.
During Storm Ophelia and the "beast from the east", websites were of little use because of electricity outages. Even mobile phone masts were without power in some instances. Local and regional radio was a vital tool to update people on what was happening in their own communities. The "Be Winter Ready" campaign and public notices in advance of forecasted severe weather should encourage people to have their batteries on standby and to tune in to local radio to get local updates. Local radio, despite its remit to be a purely commercial operation, provides a vital public service in weather emergencies which will, sadly, become far more commonplace in future. This needs to be reflected in public service broadcasting funding. The broadcasting (amendment) Bill, for which I secured Cabinet approval, is the first definitive step in advancing that position.
I support the motion. In my area, there are many local radio stations, including Galway Bay FM, Shannonside, Midwest Radio, Ocean FM, Midlands Radio and iRadio. They give people a great deal of help and information in rural areas, including for the elderly and young people. Local radio provides information on sport and on weather: local radio does it all. Local events are only covered by local radio and not by the national stations. As I said yesterday evening, we are talking about reports. All we are doing in the Dáil from what I can see is dealing with reports or small pilot projects to test things out. The time has come to recognise and fund the invaluable help local radio stations provide in all parts of the country.
I am a member of the committee that published the report mentioned in this motion. At the time of publication, I made it clear that despite the report containing a wealth of good information on broadcasting and funding models, we fundamentally disagreed with its recommendations, the biggest one being that Revenue should collect the licence fee or a revamped version of that fee. We have huge problems with aspects of the report's recommendations referenced in this motion. The motion is extraordinary. When one strips away some of the bizarre stuff on fake news and possible Government action to curb it, the motion boils down to a demand that the State funds in some way private radio stations to continue to provide what is a condition of their licences to broadcast, namely the condition that 20% of airtime be given over to news and current affairs. The motion tells us this a burden local stations cannot bear anymore, that it is a threat to their survival, and in some bizarre fashion might result in the growth of fake news instead of vibrant, democratic news, the bulwark of which is represented by these local stations. I am not sure if any Members listen to late night shock jocks, many of whom are on private radio stations. They might be surprised to find that fake news is alive and well, and not just on the Internet.
Like many Deputies, I received an invitation to the briefing yesterday by the radio stations in support of this motion. Both Newstalk and Today FM wrote to Deputies about this. One would be forgiven for mixing up the letters as both letters from two different radio stations were identical. That is not surprising as both Today FM and Newstalk are part of the Communicorp group, along with 98 FM, SPIN 1038 and SPIN South West, which are all owned by Denis O'Brien.
I do not accept that those stations in the stable of Communicorp are struggling independent radio stations that require State support to fulfil their obligation or indeed that supporting them will be some kind of bulwark against fake news taking over.
Today FM and Newstalk have 21% of the national listenership. Despite some creative accounting practices that record losses, it is clear these stations are viable and commercial. We know Denis O'Brien has to date advanced loans of over €93 million to the Communicorp group. This man is not renowned for charitable investment for the sake of shoring up loss-making enterprises.
I fully agree with support for local and particularly community radio stations that provide vital sources of information, connectivity and entertainment to regional and local audiences in urban areas. However, that would not be the outcome of this motion. The bulk of any subsidy would not go to struggling little independent stations; let us not kid ourselves about that. The funding would be for the provision of news and current affairs content and would go disproportionately to the bigger players.
Last May, Communicorp renewed its contracts with 28 regional local radio stations to provide news content. The Irish Timesreported:
Communicorp Media has renewed a contract to provide news bulletins to regional and local radio stations.
The radio group, controlled by businessman Denis O’Brien, has been running the syndicated service since 2009, which provides content to 28 local radio stations...
The service supplies local radio stations with news, sport, and entertainment bulletins for a fee.
Limiting how much any entity could get a result of this motion does not mean that the largest and most influential group within independent radio would not gain disproportionately because it is very likely that any funding to pay for or subsidise news and current affairs content would swell the coffers of Communicorp in one way or the other.
I quoted The Irish Timesreport for a reason. The motion waxes lyrical about how the radio sector can shore up democratic dialogue. It is ironic that the main beneficiary of this motion, Dennis O'Brien and Communicorp, continue to have a bar on any journalist from The Irish Timesappearing on their radio stations, something which the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland regrets but appears powerless to do anything about. That ban was because of comments by Fintan O'Toole about the sexism of one radio presentation. So much for fair comment or the democratic dialogue. However, with a straight face Fianna Fáil is suggesting taxpayers' money should fund the news content of Denis O'Brien's stations and help pay for their syndicated news bulletins.
I note also the clarion call in the motion about how independent journalism is essential to the democratic process. I again find it odd that the drafters did not look at media ownership in the radio sector they seek to support or even question whether an over-concentration of media ownership could be having a chill factor on many journalists in pursuing stories of vital public interest if they clash with the interests of certain media owners.
We need a serious discussion on how we should fund public broadcasting, promote plurality in the media, safeguard local and regional voices in media both print and radio, and ensure cultural and current affairs content are not sacrificed at the altar of commercial criteria. That serious discussion is not addressed in this motion.
I am all for seeking ways to fund local radio and the good news and current affairs content it delivers. Over the years west Dublin has had a very vibrant local community radio. It struggles to survive and can only survive by engaging community employment scheme workers. It does a wonderful job in connecting the communities. I understand that is the case everywhere in Ireland. I frequently take holidays in the west and I love to listen to the local radio stations to get the news and get a flavour of what is happening. However, I am less enthusiastic about finding ways to fund Dennis O'Brien’s media ownership. The taxpayers have been generous enough to that particular business man.
I do not know with whom I am sharing. I am the only Member from the Independents 4 Change group present. I will take about three minutes and I do not know who will follow.
I have given the motion considerable thought in the past few days. While its overall thrust is welcome, there are many caveats mainly relating to the ownership of national stations as opposed to local stations, as mentioned by the previous speaker.
All the previous speakers have said that the local radio stations play a major role in local life and local political life. That can even be seen by the number of people who attended the presentation in the AV room yesterday. The ambulance workers were in the room immediately beforehand and a much smaller number attended to hear from people who provide a vital public service and who are on strike today and tomorrow over the mistreatment by their management. The contrast in the numbers attending was immense.
Local radio plays a vital role. The motion stresses that role has a cost, which is true. Local radio stations are very popular. They give local news which is what people want to hear, particularly in rural areas. In Donegal Highland Radio and Ocean FM along with Raidió na Gaeltachta give that local news. That is what sets local radio stations apart from national stations. We have to gauge it in that way. We support local news, and we should support news, but that is also what makes local radio attractive for people to support. That needs to be taken into account when considering the motion.
The national radio stations should be separated out from the motion because that is where the crux of the problem lies. We need to look at how we stop the consolidation of ownership of local radio stations in the hands of a few individuals who may have a different attitude in terms of whom they believe the news is for. We also need to maintain that vigilance with RTÉ. The only way we can do that is through the small local radio stations; that is vital.
I greatly welcome the opportunity to speak and thank my colleague, Deputy Dooley, for tabling this very important motion. The need for funding for our local radio stations and local media goes without question. We need action from the Oireachtas. The support comes unanimously from Members on this side of the House. In that spirit I hope the Government Members will work with us and take the action that is needed now.
There is no better example of effective broadcasting than in my county, where more than 50% of the population, in excess of 83,000 people, listen to Radio Kerry daily. It provides a full range of programming covering music and current affairs. Every morning in the show presented by Jerry O'Sullivan and Treasa Murphy there is no better example of balanced political and current affairs debate. Deirdre Walsh has her "Talkabout" show at 1.30 p.m., which would give Joe Duffy a run for his money any day of the week. There is comprehensive coverage of sport, agriculture and business along with music shows every day.
The legendary Weeshie Fogarty, who unfortunately passed away recently, had a fantastic programme called "Terrace Talk" which won numerous awards.
It was an example of the kind of unique and individual programme which one would not get on national media but that local radio has the opportunity to produce. I fully support this motion. I ask for full support from across the House and that we provide the necessary funding to make sure that all local radio stations can fulfil their public service broadcasting obligations.
I agree with most of the sentiments expressed by my colleagues. I compliment Deputy Dooley on his work on this Bill. I come with quite a bit of experience in local radio, having worked for 20 years with Shannonside Northern Sound presenting and producing. I count working in local radio as probably the best experience of my life. Local radio means so much to people in the communities. It is rather unfortunate that Deputy Bríd Smith has tried to muddy the waters at a very critical time for local radio and for the people who run and work on it. I am sure Deputy Dooley will deal with that in time, but it was an outrageous way to carry on and one which is not usual in the House. I am very sad that it happened here this morning. We are here trying to help people in a difficult situation. We know they have to get help and assistance. As someone who worked in local radio, I remind people that local radio is the local doctor, the local nurse, the local garda, and the local community activist. These stations cover every aspect of life in what they do. Each and every one of them does phenomenal charity work. They raise vast amounts of money for charity.
They are a voice for the old and for the disabled. More importantly, on many occasions they are the unseen person in the room, particularly for old people and for people with disabilities. When families have gone out to work and old people are on their own, the other person in the room is the local radio station. That is vital and important.
Many areas of rural life have declined. I will not go into all that has disappeared from local communities in recent years. The one thing in particular that has been so crucial and important to people in rural areas is local radio. The people who run it and work on it need our assistance now. That is why we are here today and why Deputy Dooley has tabled his motion. There is no other reason. I am sure that the vast majority of Members of this House will agree with me. It is important that all politicians acknowledge the threat local radio and local journalism are under. One sees what is coming out on social media from extreme left-wing and right-wing groups. My own family, myself in particular, has suffered from this. It is so important that we protect what we have, what is good, and what is here by legislation and not allow these groups to dictate and destroy the true voice of the people.
I have only a couple of minutes. I compliment Deputy Dooley on putting this motion before the Dáil this morning. I am delighted to support it. I would like to talk about my own radio station in Galway, Radio West. It was formed back in 1989 by Mr. Gerry Rabbitte, who is in the Gallery. Its name was changed to Galway Bay FM in 1993. Many people have spoken about local radio stations but it is important that we speak about the people who are abroad. A lot of my family unfortunately had to emigrate, to the United States in particular. My local hurling club went to two county finals in the early 1990s. We used to do a deal with Galway Bay FM. The people abroad would ring the local radio station, which would be doing commentary. They would gather in a house and put the phone on speaker. There was no such thing as the Internet at that time. That was the local radio station keeping people in touch with what was happening, particularly with regard to sporting games. I believe that people abroad now listen to the local radio stations more than we do at home in Ireland, particularly to hear local news and sports news. One has to compliment the local radio stations on the tremendous sports shows they put on.
Many Deputies have spoken about their own local radio stations. They broadcast local news, the death notices, sports, and the shows in the morning. Galway Bay FM has Ollie Turner's show in the morning, which has a huge listenership. Many young reporters have started off on the local radio stations before going off to the national stations. I ask that all parties and every Deputy in this House support the motion tabled by Deputy Dooley and Fianna Fáil.
Ireland has a long history with radio, which is still fondly known by many as the wireless. More than 3.1 million listeners tune in to the radio every day. This is a staggering statistic when one considers the population of Ireland. It shows the continuing popularity of radio in Ireland. Regular radio broadcasting in Ireland began with 2RN test transmissions in 1925 and community radio in Ireland has been active in Ireland since the late 1970s, but it was not until 1994 that the Independent Radio and Television Commission established an 18-month community radio pilot project to explore and evaluate the potential of community broadcasting in an Irish context. More than two thirds of listeners tune in to independent radio stations. This statistic shows the popularity and success of our independent and community broadcasting stations.
Independent radio stations such as C103, 96FM, and RedFM have an excellent reputation for providing up-to-date current affairs. Some people may not realise that these independent radio stations do not receive any State support and that there is a statutory public service obligation on the independent radio sector to provide 20% news and current affairs programming. This is increasingly difficult for these stations to deliver, as they rely heavily on advertising revenue to survive. With the modern-day shift to digital social media platforms, it is becoming harder for radio stations to fund themselves. In 2016, the then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, committed to the reduction of the current levy on independent broadcasters. This promise was made three years ago but no action has yet been taken. The Government is now suggesting that the levy may only be halved. The levy was introduced in 2009 for the independent radio stations. This introduction occurred during the most severe downturn in revenues since the independent sector began. Independent radio stations have stated how this levy has seriously affected them in a negative way. These stations are calling for this tax on them to be dropped as the Government promised three years ago. I fully support these independent stations.
We need more supports to be made available for local independent radio stations. We need to look at establishing a public service broadcast fund for the independent radio sector by the end of September 2019. Some 25% of the funds raised through increased collection of the television licence fee should be given to the independent radio stations along with additional funding to develop and maintain high-quality news and current affairs programming.
I have to comment on my own local radio station. While I know 96FM and RedFM are there, C103 has a massive county to cover, the county of Cork. It has played an outstanding role in the biggest county of Ireland in a fair and honest manner, giving both sides of every issue. As Deputy Eugene Murphy has said, local radio is a voice for the young and a voice for the old. I have no doubt that, but for Patricia Messinger and John Paul McNamara of C103, there would have been serious loss of life during recent storms. During every minute of the day they gave up-to-date news from across County Cork about ongoing dangers. I will support these radio stations in any way I can.
I too thank Deputy Dooley for bringing forward this Bill and for bringing in our guests yesterday evening. The local radio stations in my county are Tipp FM and Tipperary Mid West Community Radio. They cover everything from the cradle to the grave, from death notices to notices of births. They share people's joy, and their sadness at the end. This day 12 months ago, we were all sent home from here. The beast had arrived. We went home and dealt with it. I have fond memories of travelling into the Galtee Mountains with Trudy Waters from Tipp FM on a Fastrac - we took it very slowly - to see and meet people. The local radio stations go out and look after people. The team at Tipp FM on Fran Curry's show, including his producer, Ben Sweeney; Pat Murphy on the news; Trudy Waters; and all the others, are just loved by the people. A phenomenal 3.1 million people a day listen to community and local radio.
The beast we are now trying to deal with is the beast of RTÉ. It has too much of a say. It has control and its fingers must be taken off of the sector. A fair share must be given to local radio stations. The then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, promised three years ago to get rid of the punitive levies they have to pay but nothing has happened since. They cannot wait any longer. It is not all about the Pale and RTÉ. I was out last night and saw the fabulous new entrance to RTÉ's studios on the N11. There was no problem for it in getting planning permission. There was no objections from the National Roads Authority or anybody else. I wonder why. I welcome it, as we can now get in and out more easily but Dublin gets everything it wants. We want our radio stations to be allowed to breathe, to be safe and to be able to look after people.
People would be dead in their houses only for them. People would not have had health issues dealt with if they did not have the outlet of Fran Curry or Joe Pryce's shows to air their issues. With support from the likes of us and with a bit of nudging, the HSE can perhaps then be shamed into doing something.
Deputy Pringle was giving out about the big crowd yesterday evening but why would we not be there? They are our connectivity with the people. They sell our message and they bring the people's message to us. I fully support the ambulance drivers and paramedics and will be on the picket line with them tomorrow. Today we are talking about communication with the people. Ní neart go cur le chéile. It is vital that we support independent radio, which began with pirate radio stations such as Clonmel radio and Tipp Mid West Radio run by volunteers and ordinary people who loved radio for different reasons. They brought the independent sector to where it is today, providing professional services. Independent stations need to have a modicum of resources and need not to be weighed down by the punitive taxes imposed on them. They must be allowed to connect with the people and give a voice to the people. The people are being shut out of Government. This Government has closed down town councils, Garda stations, post offices and so on. Indeed, the post office in Thurles is being shifted out of the centre of town.
People want to have local radio stations and all that these stations want is a level playing field so that they are able to compete. The people have voted with their ears by listening to them and talking to them. They are listening to the Minister as well and are waiting for him to come good on his promises. The Government said that it would be fair and it would give the independent sector a modicum of respect. It must support local radio. So much is here in Dublin and that is the problem with this Cabinet, or rather, the cabal of Dublin people who are controlling the Cabinet. It is to hell or to Connaught with us in rural Ireland but we will not stand for this. The local radio stations need fair treatment.
I compliment Deputy Dooley for bringing representatives of the sector to the House today and for tabling the motion. I was shocked to hear the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, say last week that she would not listen to a motion that had been tabled and a vote of this House that called for something else to be done. The Government is ignoring democracy. It is ignoring the local radio stations, with their voluntary or paid boards and their volunteers. As Deputy Grealish said, these stations give young people an opportunity to get into journalism. They encourage young people to do research and to work during transition year, they support many charitable events and they are very successful. They want to be allowed to continue to do that. I have heard interviews by Fran Curry, Trudy Waters and others and they are riveting. They go into people's homes when people cannot come to them. One does not get that with RTÉ, which had a wonderful south east correspondent, as I am sure Deputy Butler will agree, in Damien Tiernan, for many years. He is gone now but has not been replaced. There is a lady coming from Kerry, who is fine in her own right, to do the job now but we need our own reporter for Waterford, Wexford and Tipperary, which are just as good as Dublin and the counties around the Pale. That position must be filled but, above all, we need local radio stations to be supported. Ní neart go cur le chéile.
There is an interesting article by Stephen Collins in The Irish Timestoday in which he argues that new politics is not working. Most often when it is not working, the blame can be laid at the feet of the Government. I can think of lots of examples to illustrate this, including the Petroleum and Other Mineral Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill introduced by Deputy Bríd Smith. That legislation deserves to get to Committee Stage but is being blocked by weird mechanisms which are keeping it in a legislative limbo. My party's Waste Reduction Bill 2017 is in a similar position. I read in today's Irish Independentthat it is being officially blocked by the Government because it is in breach of European rules. In actual fact, the Bill is ahead of Europe in some ways and completely reflects what the European Commission has argued must be done in this area. It beggars belief that a Government and a Department can say black is white in that way and just block legislation. The Waste Reduction Bill is awaiting a money order.
On the other hand, there are examples of new politics working well. It often works when members of the Government and Opposition work together. I am sure Deputy Dooley will agree that the work of the Joint Committee on Climate Action is an example of this. The work being done by that committee is proper politics. The committee has held more than 30 meetings at this stage, many of which were hours long, during which members fought over every line. That is good politics. Another example of this Dáil working well is the work done by Government and Opposition Deputies at the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment on the future funding of public service broadcasting. That is as good an example as one can get of new politics working. The work of that committee was done properly and was not rushed. We invited all of the relevant stakeholders to participate and took a very innovative approach. We had a day long session at Dublin Castle at which we listened to arguments from every side. We listened to people of different ages and from every media background. We took our time and examined the issue in detail. We came up with a series of recommendations that aim to address the crisis in the profitability of Irish media whose survival is under threat. We came up with practical measures and, while not all of them might be acceptable to Government, the committee's clear aim was to raise significant additional revenue that would go to a range of different Irish media providers, including RTÉ, Virgin Media as well as local and independent radio and other digital and print media. We took the brave decision to do some of that hard work, to make some hard calls and to provide solutions. The Government has done nothing and I am not sure why. It is not as if it is going to get a political kicking if it implements some of the measures suggested by the committee. One of the measures is to allow RTÉ to require Sky TV to bid for transmission rights. That is not an attack on the Irish public but it could raise a significant sum. We suggested a change to the levy on local radio stations, which is not going to be an unpopular or difficult measure to implement. While there was no suggestion of an increase in the licence fee itself, nobody can agree with the current system where up to 15% of people do not have a television licence. That is an obvious inequity. The committee sought to iron out the inequities in the system and to restore revenues to Irish media organisations which are in crisis but the Government has done precisely nothing in that regard.
This is not an insignificant issue. All of the other analysis done by the communications committee shows that in many countries now, the very fabric of democracy is threatened by the media debate on what is happening in politics. A report was issued last week by the House of Commons on disinformation and fake news, which we will ignore at our peril. It is not just the fact that the bulk of the revenue from digital advertising is going to Facebook and Google; it is also the fact that the structure of those media organisations, in some ways, leaves them open to exploitation and extremism, as referenced by Deputy Eugene Murphy earlier. These digital platforms can generate a kind of nasty bubble, with no real editorial or quality control. We get proper editorial and quality control from professional journalists in Irish media companies and this is not an insignificant issue for our democracy, 100 years after the first meeting of Dáil Éireann.
I do not know if Stephen Collins is right in his predictions on the length of the current Dáil but regardless of how long this Government lasts, the Minister has an obligation to act. If he does not do so, he will have to answer the question as to why, in this instance, new politics was not able to deliver what everyone agrees are necessary measures. I have yet to hear an answer to that. I acknowledge that he is relatively new to the job and that his brief is complex and includes a range of different portfolios. However, he has a chance to start implementing some of the practical measures suggested in the committee's report. If he thinks that the proposals for a fund for the independent broadcasting sector needs to be tweaked, he can do so. It is my understanding that Deputy Dooley envisages the BAI managing it, similar to the existing fund which works well. That fund has delivered good programming and is compliant with European state aid rules and so on. There is no significant legislative or administrative burden involved in extending the existing broadcasting fund.
If the Minister does not want to do anything on the licence fee, although he should, then he should examine the issue of transmission rights. The fact that Sky TV is taking €500 million out of the country every year and we are doing nothing, that another €500 million goes to Google and Facebook and that the Irish media is left to manage on crumbs is just not good enough. The Government cannot continue to ignore this issue because of the fear of a political backlash. There would not be a backlash were the Government to implement some of the practical measures proposed.
The Minister has to act quickly in the remaining months of this Parliament and pay respect to the work that all Members, including Deputies Naughton, Dooley, Stanley, me and others, did in that committee. It was proper politics and policymaking. It is time it was implemented.
I commend my colleague, Deputy Dooley, on bringing this motion to the House and I support it. I would like the Minister to listen very carefully to the outpouring of support in this Chamber, to those in the Visitors Gallery, and to the public support for local and community radio. It plays an important part in ensuring the proper functioning of our democracy and provides a public service. My local station, Midwest Radio, covers local sporting events, council meetings, elections, emergency events, school closures and death notices. We sometimes take these services for granted, but if they were to close tomorrow, who would provide that service? It is nothing that the national newspapers would or can do or would have an interest in doing. That local information and news would be a massive loss to our communities and our citizens.
Local stations also give young broadcasters their first chance. Many local broadcasters started off in their community radio stations. I think of the station in Castlebar town where I cut my teeth as a young local politician. Westport, Ballina, Claremorris, Erris and many small communities have their own local stations. They provide an important opportunity for young people to start out, to cut their teeth in broadcasting, to get that experience and, it is hoped, to move on to bigger stations and maybe up to the national media arena.
These stations provide an important service and they run on a shoestring. There is no money wasted. Everything is used efficiently. They fundraise, run advertising campaigns and get support from local businesses and politicians. They are looking for only a small percentage, a little bit of help, to keep the lights on and keep going. We are not here just to give out but we are offering concrete solutions. Our suggestion is to increase the revenue taken from the TV licence and 30% of that increased revenue would be directed to local radio stations and not more than 50% of the operating costs of that station would be covered by these State funds. It is a reasonable request and I ask the Minister to give it serious consideration and listen to the people and the public support. If we lose what is a vital public service, it will be a sorry day in our communities where that local news and information is lost forever.
Ireland is a nation of radio listeners with more than 3 million people tuning in to their local stations every day to catch up on current affairs, entertainment, local news, sports and music. However, despite their popularity, local and regional radio stations have seen their revenue decline substantially over the past ten years. My local radio station, Waterford Local Radio, WLR, has an amazing number of listeners, with 71% of all adults living in Waterford listening to it every week. That is a phenomenal vote of confidence in the presenters and the programmes. The station employs up to 50 people. The amount of employment these independent stations give has not been mentioned here today. One cannot mention WLR without mentioning the late great Billy McCarthy, synonymous with local independent radio for many years. We are also very lucky to have a second station, Beat, the go-to mighty platform radio station for entertaining and informing young adults in the south east. The familiarity of the voice on the radio every day brings the presenter into our homes. Whether it is the current affairs programme with Damien Tiernan, or the "Lunchbox" with Geoff Harris, or Teresanne on "The Drive Home", the effect is immediate.
Local stations have a contractual obligation to fulfil the 20% public service obligation to provide news and current affairs programming, but they are finding it increasingly difficult to find the funds to maintain a full service newsroom. If this pressure continues, the focus on local and regional stories may have to be reduced. This motion today rightly puts the focus on the financial pressures many stations come under to fulfil these obligations and the important role these stations play 365 days a year.
I am happy to support this motion seeking additional funding for our local and regional radio stations. There is no doubt, and I am sure the Minister knows, that local and community radio and regional radio takes the true pulse of Ireland and can take the temperature on every single issue around the country on any given day. In Limerick we have an outstanding service provided by Live 95FM which covers a complete range of topics, including current affairs, local and national politics, sport of all codes, including live broadcasts of inter-county GAA games, Munster rugby, farming, business issues, the arts and culture, obituaries, crime and Garda reports, to name but a few issues. I compliment Joe Nash and his team on the outstanding work they do in Limerick.
We also have a very popular regional radio station, SPIN South West, which provides a very good, eclectic mix and holds its young listenership, and huge congratulations are due to Nessa McGann and her team. These radio stations are run on a shoestring and we need to think innovatively and find ways to encourage, promote and foster them. They protect our democracy and our transparency and fight against the fake news agenda. That is why I am supporting the recommendations in Deputy Dooley's motion, which are the recommendations of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment. We need to avoid the demise of local and regional stations. We need to protect the jobs of the people who work in our local and regional stations and to avoid yet another attack on rural Ireland. We have to invest in them. I was told recently of a community radio station that has €250,000 in the bank, yet some local and regional radio stations are nearly operating on the breadline every day of the week. That has to change.
I thank Deputy Dooley for bringing forward this very important motion on local radio stations. More than 70% of us tune into local radio every weekday. Local radio stations focus on local issues and provide an opportunity to give our local communities a voice. They have a key role in the dissemination of news, current affairs, sports and entertainment. They inform people and allow local communities to participate in decisions that affect them, serving as the arteries of communication by empowering people to stay informed of what is happening in their local communities. They provide life-saving information in times of extreme weather events. They can facilitate and empower communities whose representation is generally ignored by mainstream media. I think of the invaluable community resource that South East Radio provides and in particular the news and the Alan Corcoran show. I also think that the critical contribution of BEAT events for young listeners in the south east. The commercial local radio industry is critically important to our economy as a whole and to local economies in particular. It provides jobs, an opportunity for young people especially to cut their teeth, and an outlet for local businesses to advertise and raise awareness, which businesses could never afford to advertise with mainstream media. This important value to local economies is often overlooked and in many cases taken for granted. The survival of local radio, like that of the local newspapers, is at risk. Unfortunately, as a result of changes within media, local radio stations now find themselves operating under increasing financial pressure. Revenues have declined significantly in the past ten years, putting pressure on independent radio stations to stay afloat. Fianna Fáil believes that the loss of high-quality locally sourced news from the independent radio sector will represent a loss to the valuable community and undermine our local democracy. That is why Fianna Fáil is proposing the establishment of a public service broadcast support.
It is clear from this morning's debate that everybody in the House shares the concerns raised in the motion. The Opposition and Government agree and recognise the important part that independent radio stations play in society and the difficulties they are facing. As highlighted in the motion today, 83% of the population listen to radio daily. Radio stations, whether national or local, make an enormous contribution to the lives of individuals and communities, and we should work very hard to make sure that this valuable service continues in every way. As the Minister outlined, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is working on a range of issues in this area that are close to completion. The working group established to examine the Oireachtas Joint Committee's recommendations on the future funding of public service broadcasting is almost complete. The Minister looks forward to the findings of this group and the recommendations that will be made.
The Minister also wishes to point out that independent radio stations have benefited from the BAI sound and vision scheme funded by the licence fee. The motion also calls on the Minister to implement a reduction in the broadcasting levy by June 2019. I and others am aware that this measure is highly anticipated by broadcasters and everybody here in the House but this cannot take place until the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2018 containing these amendments is enacted. The Office of the Parliamentary Counsel is working towards its finalisation and publication, at which point it will be brought through the legislative process in the House.
I and all Deputies on this side of the House are hopeful that there will be all-party support for it when it is brought before the Dáil and the Seanad.
Like Deputy Niall Collins, I and other Members from Limerick listen to Limerick's Live95FM and the other stations in the mid-west region every day and I appreciate the difficulties faced by the independent broadcasting sector. That is the reason we are here today. The Minister and the Department are working to ensure that positive changes are made and to provide the necessary and relevant assistance. Progress is being made in this area. I thank Deputy Dooley and other Members who brought forward this motion and contributed to the debate on this important issue which affects people across regional, rural and other parts of Ireland.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, for sharing his speaking time with me on this important issue. I wish to re-assert firmly my support for the introduction of the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill to provide for a 50% reduction in the broadcast levy. It should be brought forward for debate in the House without further delay. I am conscious of the large amount of new priority legislation that has jumped the queue due to Brexit, but I believe there is now enough political support and will across the Chamber for this Bill to be given the priority required. I hope that will be the case in the weeks ahead. As a cross-party gathering, so to speak, today's motion and debate will emphasise this point and I believe the Government is listening.
This debate occurs at a pivotal moment considering the disappointing news from the UK that Global Radio, one of the UK's leading regional radio station owners, is to cut 100 jobs and reduce its news output across all its independent radio stations. No Member wants something similar to happen here. As a result, the Government must take action and I am confident that it will. Our local radio stations operate at the heart of the community. They are the bedrock of the daily lives of our constituents. It is clear that they need increased financial support to survive and thrive. Members will be aware that local radio stations have been pushed to the pins of their collars in recent years to comply with public broadcasting licence regulations. They need a break and assistance now, just as they did 12 months ago when the Bill was first proposed.
Local radio stations have as great a public broadcasting remit as RTÉ given the fact that they must have a minimum of 20% news coverage in their shows and that they cover every election, referendum and local news stories hourly as well as covering sports, arts, agriculture and current affairs. At this stage the public expects this news service. I am sure that if the public had an option they would prefer to see an allocation of the TV licence funding going to local radio stations rather than for big salaries for presenters in RTÉ. While I do not wish to discuss the RTÉ funding model at length, I must highlight one example. "Morning Ireland" is Ireland's most popular radio show with 450,000 listeners, but at the same time hundreds of thousands of people across the country are tuning into local radio stations for the same news service. These stations get no funding or relief from the State currently to help them to provide the same service. This must change quickly to ensure the survival of the industry.
I am told by good sources that the effect of the proposed 50% reduction in the levy for a radio station such as award winning Ocean FM in Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal would mean additional funding of approximately €9,000 being available to the station per year. While that might appear to be an insignificant sum when compared with the budget of RTÉ, this funding would help to ease the pressure on the station. There is no lavish spending at these radio stations, just honest hard work and commitment in attempting to provide a service to the public. For a number of local radio stations staying afloat is getting harder each year.
I welcome this motion and I welcome the fact that the Government is committed to passing the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill. I call for urgency on this issue in the weeks and months ahead.
I commend my colleague, Deputy Dooley, for bringing this motion before the House. I listened to the various contributions to the debate in my office earlier. We cannot overestimate the importance of local radio stations to communities. Tipperary has Tipp FM, an independent station, and Tipperary Mid West Radio, a community based station. The community stations are under extreme pressure. Only for the fact that all their work is carried out voluntarily they would be unable to survive. I was talking to the chief executive of Tipperary Mid West Radio this morning and she said that one of the things she finds most annoying is that if the station gets a grant for any refurbishment or improvement, it is forced to pay a levy on that grant. It is nonsensical. These stations are finding it extremely difficult to keep their heads above water. Tipperary Mid West Radio runs two draws per year. It is the only way to get income to keep the station on the air.
As politicians, we cannot over-stress the importance of local radio stations. They give us a platform to communicate to our electorate. They give coverage to all politicians. This morning there was an issue in my local town and I was able to get onto Tipp FM to put across my point of view. Otherwise I would have been unable to convey to the people my view of a decision being taken in the town. The stations are important for us and for all groups who wish to advocate on a matter. They provide a platform for a local viewpoint and for local groups to get their message across.
We must step up to the mark. The radio stations are under economic pressure and we must ensure they are kept financially viable and on the air.
The Acting Chairman, Deputy Eugene Murphy, when he spoke earlier, adequately explained the importance of local radio throughout Ireland and the role its work and service play in communities. It is invaluable and, as Deputy Niall Collins said, it plays its part in ensuring that democracy prevails. That is true of all stations, including Midland 103 in my locality.
All the stations have endeavoured to meet their remit under the licensing laws dating back to 1989. At that time, and it remains the case, there was an obligation to allocate 20% of their broadcasting to news, sport and current affairs. They have met that remit, but currently they are finding it very difficult to deliver it in the way they did initially. That throws the ball back firmly into the Government's court. The Government of the day recognised that the stations had an ability to generate revenue through advertising, but the playing pitch has changed greatly in the 30 years since then. Currently, the radio stations can no longer meet the challenge due to competition from online news feeds and so forth. The onus of responsibility, therefore, is firmly on the Government to amend the means by which that challenge and remit can be met.
This motion is an offering on our part to which we hope other Members and particularly the Government will respond. It is a mechanism by which that remit can be met. We hope that if the motion is passed today it will not just be a token motion, to be put in the pile of other motions that have been passed in this Dáil, but that the Government will meet the challenge head on. We will ensure, on behalf of the people we represent, that the task of the Government is relayed and delivered.
I thank Deputy Dooley for sharing time with me. I wish to echo what my colleagues said earlier. I hope this is not a motion that has no teeth but that it will lend itself to the broadcasting Bill.
These stations cannot continue to exist without any funding. There is a serious obligation on us as legislators to ensure that we support the people who support our communities because they give their time to the communities day in and day out. Rural isolation is a significant issue. The only constant in some houses is the radio station and the link it creates. It is Galway Bay FM in the morning and Keith Finnegan's voice on the radio. People feel they are having a chat with the broadcaster and that they are at one with it. They are up to date with the news and the death notices. Radio stations provide a valuable service day in and day out, and we must not overlook that. They also make people aware and make them feel as though they are part of the hurling or football match. Although they mat be incapacitated or unable to attend, they feel very much included. Local, community and regional radio stations have significant value in rural life.
I thank Deputy Dooley for bringing the motion before the House. Independent local radio has played a massive role in media news distribution over the past 30 years. There has been a complete transformation of the listenership in our communities and local radio has increased radio listenership throughout the country during those years. As many of us will know, journalists have used local radio as a launch pad to become national journalists. In County Donegal, we are fortunate to have two local radio stations, namely, Highland Radio for most of the county and Ocean FM for the south of the county, both of which have stood the test of time, even through many difficult years. If what we say in the House is to be relayed to our constituents at home, it will not be through national radio but rather through local radio, which takes the clips from the Dáil and makes them locally available. I was elected a number of years before the inception of independent radio but, since then, there has been a major change and it is a considerable advantage to us in bringing our message to constituents. I am reminded of Raidió na Gaeltachta, which, while it covers the country, is all about local radio in the various regions, whether sa tuaisceart, san iarthar, ná sa deisceart. Although I do not know whether it will be enough, it received some additional funding this year and I would make a case for that.
In addition to local radio, I refer to community radio. In County Donegal, next door to where I live in Dungloe, we have Rosses Radio, South West Radio, Owenea Radio and Finn Valley FM radio. They are manned by volunteers who receive no income and they must also be supported. While some might say that some of them have a lot of money in the bank, the ones we know in County Donegal definitely do not. They, too, need assistance and must be helped. I know the Minister is pragmatic and there can be no procrastination. The motion will be passed, if not unanimously, by the vast majority of the House, and the Minister should put into effect the wishes of its Members.
I welcome the opportunity to bring the debate to a conclusion and thank all those who have indicated a willingness to support our efforts. I listened with interest to what the Minister said and it is clear that he shares our view that there is a problem that needs to be resolved. He spoke about disruption and the fact that people are migrating away from listening to the radio or consuming public service news and information in a different manner, perhaps within a digital environment. We are trying to protect the collection and telling of stories. It is about trying to protect journalism rather than the means by which the information is transmitted. If one believes in public service journalism, which I think most people do, it must be paid for. The traditional method of paying for it, however, principally through advertising revenues, is not working and the model is broken. We cannot allow a period of procrastination just to see where the dust settles because if we do, the noble profession of journalism will effectively evaporate. In the world of journalism, there is a recognition that a younger cohort of students does not consider journalism in the traditional way as a career for the future, which is deeply troubling.
I challenge what Deputy Bríd Smith said when she sought to place some negative connotations on the motives of Fianna Fáil and the people who support the proposal. It is not about supporting the owners of radio stations, whoever they might be, regardless of who or what they are. Rather, it is about preserving and protecting high-quality public service journalism and I believe that Newstalk fits neatly into that characterisation. It provides high-quality, independent public service journalism. Seeking to undermine the work of Newstalk or any other radio stations based on whatever certain individuals think of the stations' owners is unfair to the people who work hard for them daily. We must be prepared to stand up against that kind of chat from the shadows which is aimed at undermining the principles of democracy espoused by high-quality public service journalism. Similarly, in the case of our national broadcaster, we all have differences of opinions about the way certain programmes are occasionally run, but we cannot take away from the fact that the people who work on those programmes or who perform their duties in an independent and coherent way do so as a major tenet of the protection of the democratic principles by which the State should stand. As I stated earlier, if we are serious about that, we need to pay for it.
The Minister mentioned the idea of the sound and vision fund being a suitable method of funding. As he will know, however, that fund has a stipulation under which, I believe, it cannot fund live speech content and, therefore, unfortunately, it would not be a suitable way of doing it. He also stated the scrapping of the levy was not a part of a commitment by a previous Taoiseach but my understanding is that it was and that he indicated that it would be fully scrapped. Will the Minister bring forward proposals at the earliest opportunity to give effect to the motion?