Tuesday, 3 April 2007
Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2006 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil]: Report and Final Stages
This is a Seanad Bill that has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 103, it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and is placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question "That the Bill be received for final consideration", the Minister may explain the purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil. This is looked upon as the report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. For Senators' convenience, I have arranged for the printing and circulation of the amendments. The Minister will deal separately with the subject matter of each related group of amendments. I have also circulated the proposed grouping in the House. Senators may contribute once on each grouping. The only matters that may be discussed are the amendments made by the Dáil.
Amendments Nos. 1, 9 and 11 to 22, inclusive, are minor necessary improvements to the text of the Bill as pointed out by the draftsperson. Amendments Nos. 20 to 22, inclusive, are similar to amendments proposed by Deputy Durkan on Committee Stage in the Dáil. After a discussion with the parliamentary draftsperson, it was agreed the amendments would enhance the text of the Bill.
Amendment No. 2 requires the RTE authority to move quickly to begin the implementation of digital terrestrial television roll-out and to ensure the extent of coverage of its channels RTE 1 and RTE 2 through DTT roll-out is similar to that available from the analogue network currently. It is important that viewers in regional and remote areas continue to have the same access to the public service broadcasters on a free-to-air basis as they do now. In a number of years, it may be the case that a small percentage of the population who receive analogue terrestrial television will receive digital television by means other than terrestrial. In the main, the DTT coverage area or footprint should mirror the analogue footprint. From recollection, there was strong debate in this House on this matter.
The amendments in group 3 deal with the issue of the right of carriage of TV3 and TG4 on the national multiplex service established by the RTE authority. Amendments Nos. 3 and 6 allow for consultation with ComReg regarding the charges for carriage and will give greater certainty to TG4, TV3 and other parties as to the transparency around transmission costs charged by RTE.
Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 clarify the role of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland in requesting whether the television programme service contractor, currently TV3, is carried on the RTE multiplex. Amendment No. 7 allows for further consultation with the BCI to ensure TV3, if carried, has adequate digital capacity on the RTE multiplex. Amendment No. 8 removes some uncertainty pointed out by the BCI as to whether it must endeavour to provide for TV3 on a separate multiplex in advance of TV3 being carried on the RTE multiplex. Amendment No. 10 allows for further consultation with the BCI to ensure both TG4 and TV3, if carried, have adequate digital capacity.
Amendments Nos. 23 and 24 relate to the issue of digital switch-over. Amendment No. 23 places a duty on RTE to have a role in providing public information about how to access digital television services and the practical issues involved for viewers. This is similar to the duty placed on the BBC regarding digital switch-over in the United Kingdom. Amendment No. 24 provides that RTE must report to the Minister at intervals on progress made with digital broadcasting. Any report submitted in this regard will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The latter amendment derives from an amendment raised by Deputy Broughan on Committee Stage. It is essential that a full roll-out of DTT takes place before digital switch-over can be facilitated. The aim of the DTT pilot project under way is to provide insight into the issues associated with the roll-out of a national DTT system and the potential impact on the analogue television network. In addition, the experience gained during the initial years of DTT operation by RTE under this legislation will also help to inform any decision in this regard. Section 11 puts in place a general framework for high-level consideration and planning for analogue switch-off. However, the availability of digital services throughout the State and the consumer uptake must be assessed before tackling the specific details surrounding switch-over.
They are next. Amendments Nos. 25 and 26 require the RTE authority to review and report to the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources on the third and fifth anniversaries of the coming into force of this measure on the provision of broadcasting services to Irish communities abroad, as mandated by the Bill. The amendments also require that the Minister lay such reports before each House of the Oireachtas. These amendments derive from an amendment proposed by Deputy Eamon Ryan in the Dáil.
I wish to raise an issue with the Minister that I raised on Committee Stage. I have no objection to the amendments, but I would like clarification. The question of Irish people living abroad accessing Irish broadcasting is a matter of some significance in respect of which the Minister has been supportive in his comments during the years. I am trying to establish the situation regarding access to Irish radio and television for people living elsewhere in Europe, which are shown on the Sky digital system, the Astra satellite. People with digital dishes and decoders and who are living anywhere in the satellite's footprint in Europe can tune into RTE Radio 1, Radio 2, Lyric FM and Raidió na Gaeltachta without paying Sky. The reception is clear. Recently, Newstalk may have been added.
People's access abroad does not concern the amendment precisely, but RTE television is encrypted on Sky. Someone without a Sky card who is living in Brussels with a dish on his or her roof and a satellite decoder can tune into free-to-air BBC 1, BBC 2, BBC 3, BBC 4, ITV 1, ITV 2, ITV 3, ITV 4 and the broadcasts of many small countries, such as Cyprus and Malta, but RTE is encrypted. This is a significant loss.
When the Minister and I went to school, approximately 60% of our imports and exports came from and went to, respectively, the UK. I was astounded to see the latest figures from Enterprise Ireland to the effect that our exports to the European mainland are far greater than our exports to the UK. That would have been unthinkable ten years ago, when we were talking about joining economic and monetary union. Ireland has a huge engagement with Europe. It is completely wrong that RTE is encrypted in certain areas. I have written to the RTE Authority to ask why that is the case. The Minister explained it once by talking about copyright issues.
I want to make clear what I am talking about. I accept that if RTE buys an American television series for a price that is based on this country's population, it would not be able to make that programme available to people throughout Europe without running into difficulties. If a person living outside the UK tunes into the Scottish version of ITV or BBC as a Celtic football match is about to be broadcast, he or she will find that the transmission stops just as the match begins. The television stations in question are not allowed to show certain programmes in other jurisdictions. I am not concerned about such programmes, however. I would like home-made programmes like "Prime Time" and news programmes, in respect of which no copyright law other than Irish copyright law arises, to be broadcast overseas. Not only would such broadcasts help Irish people who live abroad to keep in touch, but they would also help to sell this country to people in the wider world who want to know and hear about Ireland. While I do not want to talk about tourism, it is also relevant in this regard.
The Government has an opportunity to do something easy by ensuring that RTE broadcasts are not encrypted. Three months ago, the French authorities established a new 24-hour news channel, France 24, which broadcasts in English rather than French. Who would have believed it? It is available on channel 515 on the Sky platform, where the ITV News Channel used to be. While the French authorities hate the English language, they understand the importance of broadcasting in English to the wider world. Ireland and France have exactly the same level of access to the Astra satellite. I will set aside the issue of whether we should be pushing out these services on other satellites. No other satellite can match the footprint of the Astra satellite, which covers an area from Belmullet to the far east of Europe. I would like to know whether any progress is being made in that regard.
I welcome the Minister's recent announcement that RTE is to set up a new channel for emigrants, taking over from what Tara Television was doing when it broadcast into the UK eight or nine years ago. Will the new channel be encrypted? Will it be available on a single platform only? One of the amendments under discussion relates to the need to ensure that television services are available to all of Ireland. The point I am making is that we all should have the same access. This is of huge cultural importance in terms of the Good Friday Agreement. In a week when it was revealed that Ian Paisley has ordered his clerical garb from a Catholic wholesaler based in County Donegal, we should take a broad look at matters like this. The same platform of programmes should be available in Belfast and Dublin, to those who want them. There should be an understanding that allows everyone on this island to delve in and out of, and deal with, the same group of programmes.
Issues like access are important. Will the new station that is being put together by RTE be encrypted? Will people have full and easy access to it? Is it based on a recognition that Irish people living abroad, as well as other people overseas who are interested in Ireland, are entitled to access these services? Does the Minister acknowledge that such access is important for reasons of culture, economics and growth? It is a pan-European issue, as we said earlier today when we discussed the Schengen Agreement. It is as important as having a passport. Why should Sky decide that people cannot access a certain television channel because it is encrypted? We will lose out badly if we allow that to happen — we will do not do ourselves any good when trying to exert a wider influence over a larger part of Europe. I am keen to hear the Minister's views on that.
I thank Senator O'Toole for his comments on this matter, which he has raised previously in the House. The Government is encouraging RTE to broadcast to Irish people abroad — it is providing for that in legislation. It is not limiting RTE's ability to provide such services. During the debate in both Houses, I have focused on the need to reach out to the Irish community in the UK. I do not suggest that our role in helping Irish people abroad is limited to the UK. This legislation gives RTE a mandate to deliver a broadcasting service to Irish communities in all countries and not just the UK. It allows RTE to decide what platform it will use to that end, and in what way it will use it. Obviously, RTE will want such services to be provided on a free-to-air basis, as far as practicable. Most of RTE's domestically produced programming is available on its website. I refer to the kind of programmes which were mentioned by Senator O'Toole, such as news programmes and "Prime Time". It is likely that such matters will be covered in the broadcasts which will be aimed at Irish communities abroad.
To be honest, I am not really sure why RTE is encrypted on the Astra satellite when similar stations in other countries can be accessed throughout Europe. I presume the reason relates to deals which have been done on copyright, as I said the last time we considered this matter. It is a matter for RTE and Sky in the first instance. I agree with Senator O'Toole's aim of getting Irish-made programmes to as wide an audience as possible in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The Government will support anything that facilitates the achievement of such an aim. I have amended this legislation to try to ensure that such programmes are as widely available as possible.
I thank the Minister for returning to the House this evening for the final part of the Seanad's consideration of this legislation, which was the subject of good debate in the House on Second and Committee Stages. I thank those who spoke on the Bill, particularly those on the Opposition benches. I thank the Minister's officials for their co-operation.
I welcome this Bill on behalf of Senator Finucane, who is unable to be present for this evening's debate. He appreciates the work that has been done on the legislation by the Minister and his officials in the Department. I am sure these provisions will strengthen this country's broadcasting sector. I thank everyone who was involved in introducing this legislation and getting it through the House in such a speedy fashion.
I recognise the intensive work that has been done by the departmental officials. I thank the Minister, who has been well advised on the legislation, for being so open to the views of Members. The review provisions are crucially important because it is so hard to keep up with the changes in technology. One can go to the local car park and buy a card to receive various channels. A slingbox allows one to tune into television programming from Ireland on a laptop, irrespective of where in the world one is. The technology is amazing and we must keep up with the game.
I agree with the point made by the Minister. I did not want the Government to interfere with RTE but I wanted to make the opportunity available to it. Perhaps the Minister could write to RTE to encourage it to answer my questions.
The Acting Chairman and the Minister will be interested in the motions proposed for the GAA congress next week. I read them during the week and noted one that suggested the Ard Comhairle make available the official guide to the GAA in all official languages of the EU to spread the game. That is a move forward and it would be nice if other countries could see the games as well.
I thank Senators for their contributions to the Bill. Many of the points raised have been reflected in amendments to the Bill, which have improved it considerably. I acknowledge the contributions from sectoral players and various interested parties. People were positively disposed to the Bill and made constructive suggestions.
The twin issues in this Bill were of particular interest to Members. It is crucial that Irish viewers can enjoy access to a quality free-to-air service and that we look after the needs of the Irish community living abroad in respect of access to Irish public service broadcasting. I thank Members, my staff and the staff of the Houses for their assistance and co-operation in passing this Bill.