Thursday, 7 October 2021
Broadcasting (Amendment) (Protection of Journalism) Bill 2019: Second Stage [Private Members]
I doubt I will take the 15 minutes. I welcome the Minister. This is a Bill I moved a number of years ago, I think in 2019 - the name of the Bill is the Broadcasting (Amendment) (Protection of Journalism) Bill 2019 - responding to particular circumstances of which I am sure the Minister is aware. It was in the lottery of Bills and I am happy it has been selected.
I introduced the Bill, as I said, in 2019, following Communicorp Media's outrageous act of blacklisting in 2017 from its radio stations certain journalists, including highly respected and award-winning journalists, Tom Lyons and Ian Kehoe. In October of that year, Teachtaí Dála from all parties signed a joint letter to Communicorp Media urging an immediate end to the ban with the support of the then Taoiseach and all party leaders. The ban on Currencyjournalists ended in December 2019, thankfully, but the ban on journalists from The Irish Timeswas not lifted until the acquisition of Communicorp by Bauer Media Audio over the summer. I commend the integrity of those journalists who stood in solidarity with their peers in The Irish Timesand who limited their engagement with the offending party until the ban was lifted. It is welcome that this practice was ended by the new administration but it is worrying that it could occur in the first place. It has set a precedent that we must act to end.
The Bill would amend the Broadcasting Act 2009 to make it a breach of contract or licence under the Act to prohibit a member of the National Union of Journalists from communications media for reason or reasons of occupation, employer or employment status. It would ensure that the targeted censorship we have witnessed could not happen again without a mechanism for accountability. At this point in time, there is no accountability and no such mechanism. No journalist should be banned from any communications platform on the basis of their occupation, place of work, who their employer is, the status of their employment or the type of work they perform.
A free, independent and pluralistic media based on freedom of information and expression is a core element of any functioning democracy. We have seen free speech and the free media attacked in very recent times from some quarters in the United States. We in this country who believe in a free press stood against that type of intimidation of the media, and we should not tolerate any intimidation of the media in this State either. No entity, government or private corporation should have the ability to manipulate the media and censor or silence journalists who are recognised as journalists by their adherence to the relevant professional standards. It is not for a private corporation to determine for itself what those standards should be. It was extremely disconcerting when one of the largest media corporations in the State was able to ban respected journalists from respected institutions, whether this was to protect commercial interests or for some other reason.
Large media conglomerates are becoming more dominant and more globally intertwined. Our laws must be robust if they are to ensure protections for a free and open press in a more global and less accountable environment. I am not insinuating there is foreign or corporate interference in the press but we must ensure the safeguards are in place, learning from our experience to prevent any further unjustifiable restrictions.
I have limited the scope of the Bill to members of the National Union of Journalists, NUJ, for a number of reasons. First, professionalism in the media is essentially governed by the terms of membership of the NUJ, as well as the integrity of individuals and editors. The union plays an integral role in protecting the free press, editorial independence, and the rights of journalists and their sources. We have seen that happen time and again. As part of the International Federation of Journalists, it plays a part in the collective, global effort to ensure the safety of media workers, freedom of information, open government and, crucially, plurality of the media.
Second, as we do not have a legal definition of "journalist" in law, to apply the legislation to journalists more broadly might open broadcasters to the possibility of court cases being taken by any person who uses the label "journalist". This could result in frivolous cases being taken that are designed to punish broadcasters for what might be a genuine reason for not including a person or persons on a programme. Limiting the scope of the Bill to NUJ members creates a certain standard or threshold as to who can, or cannot, avail of the legislation, if passed.
Finally, and importantly, I am proposing this threshold as I believe in trade unions and that all journalists should be in the NUJ or another union. Workers are stronger for being members of unions and the legislation supports this. Unions are self-governing democratic organisations and are an important pillar of democracy. They have a wide, constructive and institutional role to play. For these reasons, I am proposing membership of the NUJ as the test for whether a person would qualify for protection under the proposed section 78A to be inserted in the Broadcasting Act 2009.
I will not be accepting the Minister's amendment, the rationale for which is seriously lacking. It is not the first time the Government has proposed to impose a delay on the Second Reading of a Bill brought to the House by an Opposition Member. The Minister is proposing that she needs 18 months to look into the matter and deal with any anomalies she might find in its provisions. This makes a mockery of the process we have in the Oireachtas whereby we propose Bills on First and Second Stages. Committee Stage is there for a reason and I have no problem, as the proposer of this Bill, coming before any committee of the Oireachtas to do what needs to be done in terms of amendments the Government or any Opposition Member might wish to put forward. I do not like this practice of simply kicking the can down the road for 18 months, especially given that this Bill was introduced in December 2019. It seems the departmental officials, in the almost two years since I brought it forward, either did not examine the scope of the Bill to determine what they might see as the complications or unintended consequences arising from it, or this is simply a tactic to kick the can down the road. If the Minister's officials genuinely believe that a huge amount of work needs to be done, that can be dealt with in committee. That is why we have Committee Stage. As I recall, the Ceann Comhairle has raised this issue in the past.
It is very important that there be a consensus across the political divide that the actions by Communicorp Media some years ago were absolutely unacceptable. For a renowned and respected journalist to be blacklisted in a modern democracy is entirely unacceptable. It is equally unacceptable that there was absolutely no recourse whatsoever to achieve accountability. How can that be? The company was simply allowed to get away with its actions until it was bought out. We cannot tolerate that. There must be standards and they must be enforced. That requires legislation, which is why I am proposing this Bill.
As my colleague, Deputy Cullinane, outlined, he drafted this Bill in late 2019 in response to the blacklisting of journalists by Communicorp Media, which banned those journalists from appearing on its radio stations. In October 2019, a cross-party letter was sent to the company calling for an end to the ban. Since then, a great deal has changed. Denis O'Brien's position as a media tycoon in this State, controlling large swathes of print and broadcast media for several decades, has come to a close with the sale of both Communicorp Media and Independent News & Media. The lack of media pluralism in the State during his time was, frankly, outrageous and the subsequent change in the media landscape is to be welcomed. Media pluralism is an essential component of any modern, democratic state. The State needs to step up to ensure that media freedoms and media plurality are maintained and protected.
While there have been changes in media ownership in Ireland in recent years, the regulatory landscape has remained much the same. There has been some progress, such as the establishment of the Future of Media Commission, the proposed online safety and media regulation Bill, the proposed electoral reform Bill and a number of EU directives. I look forward to reading the commission's report. It had a very wide and interesting remit and I hope that matters such as media concentration and freedoms of the media will be included in its findings. The 2021 report on Ireland by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom notes that the only survival plan for many Irish outlets is to become an element of larger international media groups. The issue of the consolidation of media ownership remains. Only this week, we were reminded of such concentration on a global scale when Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp went offline due to a Facebook server error. We might not be able to enact regulation in this House to manage media ownership but we can regulate how media companies do business here. I look forward to the publication of the online safety and media regulation Bill, which will bring about a number of major changes in the regulation of online media in this State. The Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media, of which I am a member, is currently finalising a pre-legislative report on the Bill. We have a large number of recommendations for the Department on how to improve it. I hope our suggestions will be taken on board as we need robust legislation to reform how online media operate in this State.
The Bill we are debating today will make it an offence for a broadcaster to ban a journalist who is a member of the NUJ from the airwaves for reason of occupation, employer company or employment status. Its provisions are limited to members of the NUJ as there is no legal definition of a journalist in law and we want to be fair to broadcasters and ensure the Bill is not so broad that anyone who self-identifies as a journalist can potentially take a case. There is a serious lack of legislation at this time regarding certain aspects of the media. The Bill will address one small, unregulated area and I hope the Government will support it. Every broadcaster has a responsibility to be fair and impartial regardless of who its owner is. Without this legislation, the obligation of impartiality is open to abuse. That is why it is needed.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following: "Dáil Éireann resolves that the Broadcasting (Amendment) (Protection of Journalism) Bill 2019 be deemed to be read a second time this day eighteen months, to allow for greater analysis of the complex issues concerned and for such considerations to be taken into account in further scrutiny of the Bill."
Is mór agam deis a fháil labhairt leis an Teach faoin gceist thábhachtach a ardaítear sa Bhille seo agus gabhaim buíochas leis na Teachtaí Cullinane agus Crowe as aird a thabhairt uirthi. Is fiú i gcónaí díospóireacht chuiditheach a dhéanamh sa Teach. Tuigim an réasúnaíocht a bhaineann le moladh an Bhille seo. As Deputy Cullinane rightly pointed out on First Stage, the banning of journalists by media outlets is a step in the wrong direction.
It is something that needs to be challenged in order for the media sector to function as it should. Journalism at its best informs us as citizens, engages us as a society and challenges us as representatives. It is a public good and I recognise it as such. It plays a crucial role in shaping a healthy democracy and is one of the pillars of a democratic society. A strong and independent media sector is central to our parliamentary democracy and freedom of speech, as well as to the provision of quality and impartial information.
As Minister, I firmly believe in the safeguarding of media plurality and in protecting the freedom of journalists to perform their jobs without fear of reprisals from other media organisations, such as in the form of bans. To elaborate on this point, I bring to the attention of the House the adoption by Ireland of the Council of Europe resolution on the safety of journalists. The resolution was tabled at the Conference of Ministers responsible for Media and Information Society, which I attended in June of this year.
Point two of the resolution is particularly relevant in the context of this debate. In summary, it asserts that the key role of journalists and other media actors in exposing wrongdoing, corruption, crime and abuse of power exposes them to intimidation, threats, harassment, violence, arbitrary surveillance or interception of communications, misuse of national laws, abusive litigation and sometimes to arbitrary deprivation of liberty. In adopting the resolution, the Government affirmed its commitment to the support and protection of journalists. We acknowledged that in order for journalists and other media actors to effectively and safely fulfil their role as public watchdog, they require appropriate protection. They also require an enabling environment for freedom of expression and media freedom in which vigorous public debate can thrive.
The Government recognises that journalists and other media actors play a central role in enabling the full enjoyment of freedom of expression. They are critical to the healthy functioning of a democracy. In support of this point, I bring the attention of Deputies to a line from the final declaration adopted by the Conference of Ministers. It asserts that all forms of attacks on journalists and other media actors intended to undermine their ability to perform their public watchdog role must be regarded as attacks on democracy and strongly condemned. It is the responsibility of states to act to effectively prevent, investigate and sanction threats and attacks of all kinds against journalists.
The relevant provisions of Bunreacht na hÉireann, as well as Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the relevant case law of the European Court of Human Rights, remain the fundamental standards to be applied in the exercise of those rights. Robust frameworks for the protection of freedom of expression and freedom of the media must be in place to ensure that journalists and the media can effectively perform their professional duties, including in times of crisis.
These points demonstrate the seriousness with which this Government views the importance of journalistic freedoms. As Minister I thank the Deputy once again for bringing forward this Bill so that a thorough debate can be held, and all arguments considered. Discrimination of any sort is something this Government vehemently opposes.
As the House is aware, the Bill seeks to amend the Broadcasting Act 2009 by making it a breach of contractor licence for a broadcaster to prohibit any member of the National Union of Journalists from appearing on its communications media for reason or reasons of occupation, employer, company relationship or employment status. However, while I welcome the debate brought on by the proposal of the Bill, I believe that, as drafted, it raises complexities. These could lead to significant unintended consequences which I will set out presently. It is the view of the Government that these issues require further consideration to ensure the Bill is suitably robust to ensure its effectiveness. It is on this basis that the Government is proposing to defer the Second Reading of the Bill for 18 months in order to allow further consideration of the matter.
The proposed change to the Broadcasting Act envisaged in the Bill would lead to a requirement to amend existing broadcasting contracts. Potential inconsistencies of application of the measure may arise across the broadcasting sector, as contracts are agreed for a fixed period of up to ten years. This would lead to a piecemeal landscape in which contract changes are implemented by the broadcasting regulator on an incremental basis over an extended duration of time, in line with the timeline for contract renewal for each individual broadcaster.
Furthermore, as the Bill provides for the amendment to be inserted in Part 6 of the Broadcasting Act 2009, it would only apply to commercial and community broadcasters, and not to services operated by RTÉ or TG4. As a Government, it is important that we take account of the right of broadcasters to determine the type of programming and content they wish to broadcast, subject, of course, to meeting relevant licensing and legislative obligations. It is a long-established principle that a decision about who should be invited or not invited to appear on Irish radio or television programmes is solely a matter for individual broadcasters. As the Bill could constrain broadcasters' freedom of action on decisions regarding inclusion or exclusion from programming content, the implications of the Bill in the context of freedom of expression would require further research to establish the legality of such an approach.
Another issue with the Bill is the lack of detail as to how it would work in practice. It is unclear how the regulator would determine whether a violation has occurred. For example, it is unclear whether this would have to be explicit written policy or an unwritten practice within an organisation. Furthermore, it is not clear how an investigation would initially be triggered. The Bill does not give details as to whether, for instance, such an investigation would be on foot of a complaint from a member of the public or initiated as part of the regulator's routine compliance monitoring.
I have concerns regarding the fact the Bill only specifies members of the National Union of Journalists as being able to benefit from this protection. Consequently, it may be deemed discriminatory to journalists not affiliated with this union but who are members of other recognised unions, such as journalists who are part of unions in other member states. Moreover, the Bill does not account for journalists who do not belong to a recognised union.
It must also be noted that the context in which the Bill was initiated was the ban imposed by Communicorp Media on journalists from The Currencyand The Irish Timesfrom appearing on its radio stations. As the latter of the aforementioned bans was rescinded following a change in ownership of Communicorp Media in June 2021, the Government does not consider that there is an urgent requirement in the short term for legislation of this nature. What matters more is that we get it right.
As regards the next steps, the timed amendment I am proposing asks that we take the necessary time to consider the issues and complexities that I have put forward this evening.
To reiterate, we as a Government are keenly aware of the issues raised by the Bill, and I thank the Deputy for bringing it forward and encouraging this debate. A free and pluralist media is one of the cornerstones of a modern democracy. It should quite rightly be supported. In times of crisis, freedom of expression and information and freedom of the media are vital components of the functioning of democratic societies. As I stated, the Government deems this issue of the utmost importance. We will continue to strive to foster free, open and democratic debate across all forms of media. Ireland's adoption of the resolution on the safety of journalists at a European level reinforces this statement. This timed amendment will allow for the necessary care to be taken when assessing the proposal in the Bill. I know the Deputies speaking on the Bill will make a valuable contribution to the further consideration of the proposals at the heart of the Bill.
I thank the Minister. The Labour Party supports the Bill because at its heart is addressing an issue that should have made everybody in Ireland feel extremely uncomfortable, that is, that a multimillionaire tax exile who owns several radio stations and did not like what certain journalists were writing about him decided to ban entire publications and representatives who work for those publications from speaking on the radio stations he owns. This ban even extended to the sports programmes on those stations. What was at the heart of this was an attack on journalism, free speech and democracy.
As was stated, there are many things we have taken for granted, such as the way democracy works, how people carry themselves in public forums, the way the Judiciary works and the way that journalism seeks the truth. Members have seen that in the United States the media have been portrayed as being the enemy of the people. In this country, two journalists have been murdered in the past 25 years. Journalism is at the heart of democracy because journalists seek the truth. All those in political circles have complaints about individual publications, and sometimes about individual journalists, and we sometimes feel that we have been unfairly criticised, but central to our belief system in a republic is that journalism is allowed to do what it is supposed to do. As such, for a radio station that, effectively, gets its licence from the Oireachtas to ban several publications from appearing on any programme on that station is an outrage and the Oireachtas has to react. That is why the Labour Party is in full support of the Bill.
The Minister outlined several issues pertaining to the Bill and it is important that she and her Department examine proposed legislation. I accept that if legislation is to be enacted, it must be workable.
I also accept the point made by Deputy Cullinane in respect of having Second Stage in 18 months. We have also been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment in respect of Bills that we have brought forward. It almost feels like an attempt on the part of Government to delay. It does not want to be seen to vote the Bill down, so it will elongate the process and hope it will almost go away. It is almost 12 months since I introduced legislation and was told we would come back to in 12 months. It does not feel as if there is the urgency that is needed on this issue. It has been discussed within these Chambers over the past two years. What is to stop another tax exile, or the same tax exile, from acquiring another radio station that currently has a licence from the State and to issue another ban on whatever publication he feels should not be allowed to give its point of view? It could happen tomorrow, yet the Government has said that it could take 18 months for something to be done about it.
I wish to make another point on a responsibility that all of us in political life share. I have noticed in the past number of years, and certainly, since the dawn of the social media age, that there have been personalised attacks on journalists from certain political quarters or supporters of certain political entities or movements. They have been trolled and abused and the abuse is often quite misogynistic. Attempts are made to assume that because a person writes for a certain publication, they are from a certain part of the country or they are related to somebody who may be involved in politics, they have a certain point of view. All of us in politics, regardless of our political party, have a responsibility to call that out. It is wrong that somebody engaging in journalism, producing copy, trying to seek the truth and giving what they believe to be a fair analysis of what is happening in these Chambers would be targeted by the supporters of any political entity here - Government, Opposition or otherwise - and be accused of being political, biased, having a political slant, or whatever. We speak regularly in these Chambers about the type of poisonous culture that we sometimes have to deal with in politics. Just as we want to encourage people into politics, we also want to encourage people into journalism and to seek that essential truth. We want to encourage that life and career. It is going to be difficult for someone to be attracted to a career in journalism if, by virtue of where they are from, the fact that a member of their family may have been politically aligned at one point or other or assumptions that can be made about them, that they will be on the receiving end of vicious abuse. We have all seen it and we cannot pretend that it does not happen. All of us have responsibility to ensure that whatever supporters we may have for our political entities online, they behave in a much more responsible fashion. I have seen some quite poisonous attempts made to silence journalists, whose job it is to analyse and report, online in the social media space. The agenda is often to ensure that they will second-guess a comment, a column or a question that they may ask of a political leader. That is wrong and we need to be mindful of that.
To be clear about the Labour Party's stance on this issue, it is an attack on democracy for somebody who has deep pockets to own a radio station and to limit those who can come on purely because of the profession that they hold or the publication that they write for. That is an attack on democracy, and Government and the Oireachtas must respond to that attack. It is not good enough to say that we can respond effectively in 18 months because circumstances have changed and this ban is no longer in place. That is not good enough. I remind people that we live in a country where two journalists have been murdered over the past 25 years. The vitriol and poison thrown in the direction of certain journalists has to be called out. It is making some people wonder why they are in the profession. It certainly is making some people second-guess whether they will go into the profession.
Finally, I wish to speak in support of Deputy Cullinane's point about the delaying tactic. Politics works best here often on evenings such as this when Government and Opposition can work constructively together. They do not get much media coverage and people are not necessarily watching in great numbers. However, some of the energy is taken out of constructive politics when a Member brings legislation forward in good faith, and rather than just voting it down or letting it move to Committee Stage and having a thorough investigation of it, the Government kicks it down the road for 12 or 18 months. As a result, the energy, intent and ethic behind the bill is lost. The Minister is just going to have to hope that multimillionaires stay out of the communications sphere and do not introduce more bans on The Irish Timesor other publications. That would be a situation that the Minister would regret.
With those comments, we support the Bill and look forward to seeing it enacted, even if it does take 18 months.
I recognise the work of my colleague, an Teachta Cullinane, in this regard. It is important legislation and, indeed, as the Minister herself has stated, media plurality and freedom of the press are essential parts of a functioning democracy. I am a bit confused by her contribution. She said she wanted to draw our attention to the adoption of the Council of Europe resolution on the safety of journalists, and went further to state that journalists "also require an enabling environment for freedom of expression and media freedom in which vigorous public debate can thrive". That is grand. That is contained in resolution and it is stated that that should be done. Then we bring legislation to the House, which attempts to go some way towards that. It would certainly make a contribution to that sentence, which, in and of itself, is simply just a nice thing that one might like to do but not a thing that will actually happen. This legislation seeks to put some structure on that, but for some reason, that is not deemed to be a priority and it has to be kicked down the road. That is where there was a contradiction in what the Minister said.
On the one hand, she stated that the legislation is necessary, and I believe her party was a signatory to the letter that was signed at the time the ban was put in place. However, now the ban is no longer in place, she stated that given that the last of the aforementioned bans was rescinded following a change in Communicorp Media's ownership in 2021, the Government does not consider there is an urgent requirement in the short term for legislation of this nature. I find that outrageous, actually. It is either necessary or it is not. If it is necessary, let us build on the work that has been done by an Teachta Cullinane. If it is not necessary, the Minister should say so. We find ourselves in this kind of in-between space, where the Government is not opposing the legislation. Indeed, it is opposing very little at the moment. This is not the only Bill it has failed to opposed outright, as referred to by Deputy Ó Ríordáin. The Government is not opposing the legislation, but it is saying it is not necessary now, although it might be necessary in a while. The Government is just waiting for the next billionaire to come along and put in place another ban and attempt to destroy the career of another group of journalists. They could work for another publication or any organisation. The Government is content to wait for that to happen and then perhaps to act in haste. However, we have time now. The Ceann Comhairle, an Teachta Cullinane and Deputy Ó Ríordáin referred to the practice of kicking things down the road for 18 months with the argument that more time is needed to consider the legislation.
It is like the Government is saying it needs more time to consider it or that it will do it but just not now. This is nothing short of disrespectful to the committee process and the people here who give of their time. The Government does not expect that every piece of legislation brought to the floor of the Dáil will be perfect and will work and will not require scrutiny. This is what Committee Stage of legislation is for. On Committee Stage we have an opportunity to interrogate the legislation.
What the Minister is effectively saying is that we should do it, or perhaps that we should not do it as the Minister is certainly not committed to it, but that we definitely should not be doing it now. The Minister is content to wait for the next billionaire to come along and for the next group of journalists to be blacklisted or banned or whatever word she wants to put on it. This sends a very dangerous message to people working in journalism. Importantly too, as has been alluded to, it sends a very dangerous message to anyone considering a career in journalism.
The Bill seeks to make it a breach of contract or licence under the Broadcasting Act to prohibit a member of the NUJ from communications media for reason or reasons of occupation, employer or employment status. As I understand it, most journalists are members of the NUJ. The Minister referenced other trade unions from outside the State of which they might be a member. They are all part of a European or global union movement. These are small issues that could be addressed. This is exactly the type of thing that Committee Stage would be an opportunity to do.
There was a chilling effect, and it was discussed by my colleague, Senator Lynn Ruane, who commissioned a very important report into this area. A concentration of media ownership is not good for journalism or democracy. It is not healthy. The notion that the Government is content to park this until the next billionaire comes along or there is another chilling effect sends a very poor message. I urge the Minister rather than seeking to kick the can down the road to accept that this legislation is necessary and that it complements the resolution the Minister signed. It does not undermine it in any way but enhances it. It is a necessary element to put some structure on what the Minister has committed to, which is that journalists require an enabling environment for freedom of expression and media freedom in which vigorous public debate can thrive. The Minister is content for this not to happen for 18 months. This sends a very poor message not just to members of the press but to anyone considering a career in journalism.
I urge the Minister to withdraw the amendment and engage with the democratic process we have in the House and the committee rooms. If there are issues those issues can be teased out. If amendments are required those amendments can be considered and made as appropriate so the message goes out from the Chamber to journalists that we respect what they do, that we want them to be protected in their work and that we as legislators are prepared to use our powers to legislate in their favour and in favour of protections for this group of workers.
To do what the Minister is proposing sends out the message that perhaps the Government is not that committed to freedom of the press or protecting journalists, is not interested in doing anything about it now, and is content to wait until the next billionaire comes along. This is a very poor message to send out from the Chamber. I urge the Minister to reconsider the amendment, back the Bill and allow it to proceed, as all legislation must, through the procedures we have so it can be scrutinised, enhanced if necessary and amended as is required.
I thank the Members who have contributed to the debate. I am grateful to Deputy Cullinane and other colleagues for highlighting the issue and for contributing to the debate. I do not doubt the Bill has been tabled in a sincere effort to ensure the Irish media landscape continues to be an open and pluralist space. I have listened to the Deputies with interest and I thank Members of the House for all of their comments. We agree that the banning of journalists by media organisations raises serious concerns and we must now ensure we consider all of the points raised in the debate. It is also imperative that we take into account possible future consequences of the Bill. As I stated earlier, there are fundamental weaknesses in the structure of the Bill, as drafted, and it is crucial to address these before considering whether a legislative response is the right one and, if so, what approach that legislation should take.
A strong and independent media sector is central to our parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and the provision of quality and impartial information. As a government we firmly believe in the safeguarding of media plurality and in protecting the freedom of journalists to perform their jobs without fear of media organisations. Our work at European level, as highlighted earlier, shows the seriousness with which we treat the function of journalists and the media in this country. In adopting the resolution on the safety of journalists we reinforce the idea that a functioning democracy requires media freedom.
I want to bring the attention of the House to the 2021 World Press Freedom Index as compiled by the international non-profit organisation, Reporters Without Borders, in which Ireland ranks 12th in the world out of 180 countries listed, just two places outside the top ten. This serves to emphasise the high regard with which we hold press freedom in this country. However, I must reiterate the concerns raised earlier in the debate. It is the Government's view that these concerns require further consideration to ensure the Bill is suitably robust and that it is the most appropriate course of action. Of major concern is that the Bill may be rushed through at this point and have far-reaching consequences in future. The Bill was tabled in the context of bans that have now been rescinded. It is essential that we take into account there is not a requirement in the short term for legislation of this nature. The proposed 18-month period will allow us to give adequate consideration to the Bill and ensure we can explore the full range of policy options around the matter. Allowing sufficient time to consider all of the issues involved is the best way to make sure any legislation or policy measure we put in place on the matter takes a careful, measured and well-evidenced approach and will do the best for journalists and our media sector. A free and pluralist media is one of the cornerstones of a modern democracy and we should do our utmost to protect and support this ideal.
As I indicated, I am broadly supportive of the aims and objectives of the Bill but I have laid out the issues and reasons for proposing an amendment with regard to 18 months. As the Deputy is aware, the online safety and media regulation Bill is being drafted. It is a priority for the Government. The Deputy is also aware it will provide for the establishment of a media commission. Once established, it is my intention to consult it on this specific issue. The establishment of the media commission seemed to be something the Deputy has not considered during the debate. The period of assessment sought is very much needed, particularly for a new media commission to have a role. Gabhaim buíochas le mo chomhghleacaithe sa Teach arís as páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht seo ar bhealach tuisceanach agus soiléir agus táim ag tnúth le tuilleadh plé a dhéanamh ar an ábhar seo.
I thank the Minister for her response. I also thank the Members who spoke in support of the Bill. Drafting legislation is complex. We have to call a spade a spade here because we have all been in this position. We have not yet been in government and, hopefully, at some point we will be. We certainly have been in opposition as has the Minister. Others have been in government and in opposition. When we are in opposition we have very limited staff, as the Minister knows. It is very difficult to draft legislation. I do not ever remember a Bill brought forward by a member of the Opposition where a Minister came in and said it was a perfect Bill, that the Government would support it, that there was no need for amendments and that the job was done. As we know, this is not how a parliamentary democracy works. Even Government Bills brought forward very often have a lot of Government amendments that must be introduced, sometimes at the 11th hour on Report Stage. I am illustrating the point that this is how legislation is drafted. If the heart of the Bill, as the Minister says, is sound then it should be supported and allowed to proceed to Committee Stage.
I will bring this back to what we are speaking about and the reason we tabled the Bill in the first place. What was the rationale for the Bill? Respected journalists were blacklisted and banned from appearing on a certain radio station and certain media outlets because they worked for other media outlets. The owner of that organisation decided he did not like what they were saying or what they were writing and he took this course of action, as other people have said.
The only thing the Oireachtas could do, including the Taoiseach, was write a letter. That was it. We all wrote a letter and nothing happened. It reminds me of what happened in a completely different situation when we were left powerless when it came to people who needed the support of the State, namely, the closure of Clerys. The Minister may remember the case. The company was broken up, its assets removed and sold and its workers left high and dry. Again, the State could do nothing about it. We saw this in the case of the Debenhams workers when we also raised concerns in the Chamber. All we got from the Government then was tea and sympathy and statements that nothing could be done about it.
We are not powerless. We are the Oireachtas and our job, as legislators, is to legislate and ensure that where wrong is done, sanctions, penalties and recourse to fairness are available. If there is unfairness in how the law is being applied or if a licence issued by the State is being used or misused in any way, we must ensure citizens have recourse to justice and having bad decisions overturned. In this case, there was no such recourse.
I listened to the Minister's contribution and I accept her point on the need for changes to this Bill precisely for the reason I gave, namely, that we can only do what we can with a Bill. I accept there will always be unintended consequences that can be fixed but I do not accept that we can kick the can down the road for 18 months, hope it will not happen again and forget about it because - in the eyes of the Government - Communicorp Media has been sold on. That is not the way to do it. It is exactly what we did in the case of the Clerys workers and in other circumstances. However, what happened to the Clerys workers was repeated time and again and every time it happens the Government asks what it can do, it does not have legislation and is powerless to act. It is as if we are impotent in this House when it comes to being able to solve problems, put legislation in place and address these problems. That is fundamentally untrue. I will be blunt and say the political will does not exist to deal with this issue. It is not that we do not have the ability as legislators to do something about it. We do but the political will does not exist.
It is not clear from the Minister’s speech what the Government is saying the remedy should be. She did not give us even a glimpse of one. She spoke about looking at this issue over the next 18 months. How would we look at it? What would the format of this “looking at it” be? It will not be through the Oireachtas committee because the Bill will not even be sent to the sectoral committee. What will the Department do? My guess is it will probably do very little, if anything. This goes back to the experience of previous speakers when a timeframe is given that a Bill will be revisited in 18 months in the hope that it will go away and even if it does not go away, the Government will not deal with it anyway. It shows real disrespect for the Opposition when that happens.
I concur with the remarks made about pushing back against any attacks on journalism. I have seen these attacks on social media and I have called them out. They are wrong. Journalism is a profession, the same as politics. I have seen many politicians abused on social media, sometimes on my own timeline on social media accounts, and I have called it out. Every time I see what I believe is someone being abused on social media, certainly on my timeline if I have posted and have some control over it, I will call it out. Even if I do not have control and it is not on my timeline, I will call it out. I have done so in the past and I will do again. In more recent times, it was to do with a disgraceful article written about the appearance of certain female politicians. The Minister may remember that case. We have a responsibility to call out abuse, including abuse of journalists.
I mentioned what happened in the United States for this reason. Donald Trump created a toxic culture that the media were the enemy of the people. That was a very dangerous and deliberate tactic on his part to turn a section of the electorate that he saw as his base against the media so that no matter what he did or what wrong was done, the media were the enemy. That is how he wanted his supporters to perceive the media. We can never allow that to happen in this State. We have to protect freedom of expression and a free media and defend journalists, who are not perfect as they will admit. Sometimes we have robust exchanges with people in the media in the cut and thrust of politics but we should always call out abuse when we see it. Equally, we have a responsibility to deal with discrimination and discrimination occurred in this case.
The Minister, in her statement, notes that "As a Government, it is important that we take account of the right of broadcasters to determine the type of programming and content they wish to broadcast". I accept, of course, that that is their prerogative. Broadcasters are perfectly entitled to decide what topic they will discuss and who they will have on their programmes. No political entity should seek to interfere in that, whether with regard to the national broadcaster or any private broadcaster. We can have our view and engage in discussions but we certainly do not have a right to dictate to any journalist what he or she can do.
The Minister's statement continues: “It is a long-established principle that a decision about who should be invited or not invited to appear on Irish radio or television programmes is solely a matter for individual broadcasters.” I also agree with that. However, the Minister also states: “As the Bill could constrain broadcasters' freedom of action on decisions regarding inclusion or exclusion from programming content, the implications of the Bill in the context of freedom of expression would require further research". I do not agree with that statement because what happened in the case we are talking about was pure and blatant discrimination. We, as an Oireachtas, agreed - and I believe the Minister’s party leader signed the relevant letter - that it was blatant discrimination. We have a responsibility to deal with it and to ensure it does not happen again.
To be helpful, a Cheann Comhairle, I will oppose the amendment but I will not call a vote. I would like the Minister, on another occasion, perhaps in private, to communicate to me over the next 18 months how this Bill or its intent can be progressed in order that we can bring about the changes which are necessary.