Thursday, 22 May 2008
Broadcasting Bill 2008: Second Stage
I am very pleased to introduce the Broadcasting Bill 2008 for the consideration of the House. The Bill is a detailed, comprehensive legislative proposal, which seeks to deal with virtually all aspects of regulation and provision of broadcasting content in Ireland. It introduces many new concepts, grants a range of new functions to broadcasters and regulators and sets the framework for new activities and services, especially in light of technological changes. It liberalises and streamlines the regulatory burden on broadcasters. Its primary focus is, however, to support and grow the wide variety of services, information, diversity of viewpoints and entertainment available to the Irish listener and viewer.
The Bill's broad intent is to deliver a level playing pitch to different broadcasters and put the viewer and listener at the centre of our broadcasting legislation. The Bill builds on a number of policy developments over the past six years, including the report of the forum on broadcasting in 2002, one of the main recommendations of which was a level playing field and an independent regulator to oversee it. It builds on the outcome of the 2004 radio licensing review, the conclusions of the e-consultation initiative undertaken by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in 2007, the objectives of the programme for Government, the telecommunications regulatory framework directives of 2002, and the recently agreed audio-visual media services directive of 2007, which replaced the television without frontiers directive. It includes consideration of the recent agreement with the European Commission in the context of the Commission's closure of its investigation into the public funding granted to RTE and TG4 and takes into account the increasing convergence in digital technologies between our broadcasting and telecommunications industries.
The Bill represents a consolidation of 50 years of Irish broadcasting legislation going back to the Broadcasting Authority Act 1960, which established RTE. It amends a number of Acts in between, including the Radio and Television Act 1988, which allowed for independent commercial broadcasting, and the Broadcasting Act 2001 which established TG4. The entire corpus of that broadcasting legislation is brought together in one, consolidated, modernised Bill.
It may be of interest to politicians that one of the key developments of the Bill is the new approach we are considering taking towards appointments to the board of the new broadcasting regulator. This is as relevant to Members of the Seanad as to Members of the Dáil because we seek to give the Oireachtas committees real influence and responsibility in the appointment of the board of the new broadcasting authority of Ireland, BAI, and the boards of RTE and TG4. It proposes that a significant proportion of the appointments to each of these boards would be subsequent to the advice of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.
Subsequent to the publication of the Bill there have been a number of comments on that provision. Some Fine Gael Members would prefer an alternative system whereby the Oireachtas committee would have a vetting role rather than a proposing role. I look forward to hearing the contributions or views on this. The power to be proactive and to suggest is far more useful, interesting and effective than a vetting power. It is better to be proactive rather than reactive and that is what we seek for Members of both Houses to be in this style of appointments of boards. We want them to go out and search for people and talk to people who may be willing to take on a public service role. Public service roles are crucial in our system. The amount of hard work people do on State boards for no reward other than the sense of being part of a public service is often not recognised. The provisions set out in the Bill are a first and will require teasing out as to how the Oireachtas committee will do it, but I strongly believe it is the right way to go. It is preferable to an alternative whereby an Oireachtas committee would act as a vetting mechanism. It will require detailed work between us and the committee to set out exactly how it will operate and I look forward to this work.
There will be nine board members of the BAI. Of these, five will be appointed by Government and four pursuant to the advice of the Oireachtas joint committee. As we work towards the enactment of this Bill we will have to establish how the committee will do that. Both RTE and TG4 will have 12 board members. Of these, six will be appointed by the Government after nomination by the Minister, four in the same way but pursuant to the advice of the Oireachtas joint committee, one will be a member of staff elected by the staff in a similar fashion to today and one will be the director general of the corporation, on an ex officio basis.
I propose to outline the main provisions contained in each Part of the Bill. I trust Senators will have had a chance to read the explanatory and financial memorandum which explains the Bill's 181 sections and the one Schedule to the Bill. It is a long, complicated and detailed Bill and warrants detailed consideration.
Part 2 of the Bill establishes the BAI and its two operational committees, the contract awards committee and the compliance committee. The BAI will assume the existing roles of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, BCI, and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and will undertake a number of new functions. It will have responsibility for developing and adopting a contract award strategy for commercial and community broadcasters, preparing codes and rules for broadcasters, advising the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on appropriate resourcing of public service broadcasters, establishing schemes for the disbursement of moneys from the broadcasting fund, establishing a scheme for the exercise of the right of reply, and setting a sectoral levy on all broadcasters to meet the costs of the BAI.
The contract awards committee will have the role of managing the award of contracts to commercial and community broadcasters, whether local radio stations or digital television providers. The compliance committee, which subsumes the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, will have the role of ensuring all broadcasters, whether public service, commercial or community, comply with the appropriate broadcasting standards and the terms of their contracts with the BAI. The compliance committee will also hear complaints from the public in respect of broadcasts and will consider requests for the right of reply.
Part 3 sets out the duties, codes and rules that will apply to broadcasters, including the limits on advertising minutage. Sections 42 and 43 continue the existing broadcasting codes and rules developed by the BCI, including the children's advertising, programme standards and advertising codes and the access rules. We have signalled the children's advertising code for some time. It is in the programme for Government and European directives. I very much sense this is the right direction to go and advice from organisations such as the Irish Heart Foundation and the World Health Organisation has suggested we have a responsibility to exclude the advertising to children of food products that are high in salt, fat and sugar. I look forward to giving the powers for the authority to set the regulations to achieve that.
Sections 39 and 43 retain the various limits that apply in advertising minutage and requirements on the provision by radio services of a minimum level of news and current affairs. Section 42 empowers the BAI to create additional broadcasting codes, particularly in respect of objectivity and impartiality in news and current affairs and on encroachments on privacy. Section 42 allows for the children's advertising code to which I referred earlier.
Part 4 sets out audience redress mechanisms in respect of the output of broadcasters. Section 47 requires broadcasters to develop a code of practice for dealing with complaints from the general public. Section 48 sets out the grounds and processes for the making of complaints to the compliance committee. Section 49 proposes the development of a right of reply mechanism that is quick and inexpensive and of benefit to both the person seeking redress and the broadcaster concerned. It proposes that any person whose honour or reputation has been impugned by an assertion of incorrect facts in a broadcast will be entitled to a right of reply.
It also improves the situation for the broadcaster in the sense that the intent is that the broadcaster, in granting such a right of reply, is not in any way admitting liability should there be a future libel case taken on the particular issue, but it can be used in consideration of whatever damages would be appropriate in any such case. It may well help broadcasters through what is a minefield in the libel laws of which they rightly must take cognisance, while at the same time providing a flexible and appropriate mechanism for persons who have been affected by something that is damaging in whatever broadcast material to have the right of reply to set the record straight.
The section requires the BAI to develop a scheme for such a right of reply within the framework proposed and sets out that scheme in order that it can be applied by the compliance committee in its role as a watchdog on the audience's interests in future programming.
Part 5 sets out the enforcement mechanisms available to the BAI. Chapter 1 provides, in line with existing legislation, that the BAI, after due process, may suspend or terminate a broadcasting or multiplex related contract in certain prescribed circumstances.
Chapter 2 provides for a new enforcement mechanism whereby the BAI may seek the imposition of a financial sanction of up to €250,000 on a broadcaster. This mechanism will apply to broadcasters in respect of a breach of a broadcasting duty, code or rule, or for exceeding the maximum level of advertising minutage permitted. This new mechanism is intended to be a proportionate alterative to the more onerous sanction of contract revocation and one that would apply to all broadcasters, not just commercial or community broadcasters, as is the case at present.
One of the misunderstandings that arose from the publication of the Bill on which there was much media attention was whether we would be seeking to fine every broadcaster should there be foul language used. That is not the intent of the Bill. Our intent is for a light regulatory touch. One cannot have such restrictive, onerous provisions. The intent of the Bill is that where there is a serious breach of trust with the audience, such as in a recent example abroad where someone operated a texting competition scheme which was not honest and fair, there is an ability to set a fine, or where programming was genuinely continuously in breach of the audience's trust or the intent of the codes, there is a mechanism to establish a fine rather than revoke the licence. With such a fine, one would not have to go through a detailed lengthy court system. One would accept the fine in recognition of the breach of the code and then moveon.
Part 6 revises the existing provisions contained in the Radio and Television Act 1988 and the Broadcasting Act 2001 in respect of the award of contracts to commercial and community radio and television broadcasters. It provides a number of new features including: the definition of community radio broadcasters as a separate class of independent radio broadcasters; the provision of temporary contracts for up to 100 days for community radio broadcasters, with a view to developing the community radio sector in Ireland; providing that the BAI may conduct audience surveys with a view to ensuring the contract award formats take account of potential audience as well as sectoral suggestions; providing for a fast-track procedure for the award of a radio contract where there is only one substantive applicant — allowing the applicant involved to avoid incurring unnecessary costs; allowing for an extension of existing radio contracts where the contractors are willing to broadcast on a digital multiplex, such as DAB; amending the criteria to be considered by the BAI in reviewing contract award or change of ownership applications, with a view to strengthening plurality of ownership; mandating the BAI to ensure preservation of culturally valuable radio programme material in order that it is not lost for future generations; and the introduction of a single content provision contract for services provided on cable, digital terrestrial television, IPTV and satellite, as opposed to the various different categories and approaches that pertain in existing legislation.
Part 7 outlines provisions in respect of public service broadcasting. The Bill retains RTE and TG4 as statutory corporations and broadens their public service remits to encompass the new digital content delivery platforms, in particular, web broadcasting. It introduces, or places on a statutory footing, a number of mechanisms designed to ensure the appropriate oversight of the level and use of resources by public service broadcasters. In particular, it requires RTE and TG4 to produce public service broadcasting charters and annual statements of commitment outlining the details of their proposed public service outputs.
The Bill also proposes a role for the new BAI to provide oversight and advice to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources in respect of the oversight of the public service activities of public service broadcasters. In particular, it requires the BAI on an annual basis to recommend to the Minister adjustments to the level of the television licence funding to RTE, or to the level of Exchequer funding made available to TG4. It also requires the Minister and the BAI to conduct, respectively, public value and sectoral impact assessments of certain new activities proposed by RTE or TG4.
We have been looking with RTE at reviewing the licence fee review process, recognising that RTE has been successful in the past five years in putting money given to it in licence fee increases back into programming, but we need to fine tune the mechanisms of its assessment, not just in order that we measure the hours of programming but that we start to take in qualitative research of the audience experience of the programming and that we also start to examine the flexibility and efficiency with which RTE is doing its measurements as part of an overall assessment of future funding or any increases in licence fee. That is a matter that the BAI will continue following enactment of this Bill.
In terms of RTE and TG4's relationship with the independent production sector, section 112 requires both public service broadcasters to publish a code of fair trading practice outlining their proposed terms of trade with the independent production sector. This code will be subject to the oversight of the Minister, following the advice of the BAI.
Section 116 increases to €40 million per annum the amount that RTE must spend on independent production. It also introduces a requirement on RTE to spend a minimum of €500,000 per annum on independent radio production, a new departure which will assist in increasing the plurality of voices and creative programming available to the listeners of RTE's radio services. Section 96 requires both RTE and TG4 to maintain audience councils. This is intended to ensure there is a voice for the listener and viewer at the heart of our public service broadcasters.
Chapter 6 of Part 7 establishes two new public service broadcasting services. One of interest to the House is the proposed Houses of the Oireachtas channel. This is a matter on which the Oireachtas Commission is working. It is examining how we will take from best practice, from the Parliament Channel in the UK and from such channels in other jurisdictions and apply those lessons here. The technology is available to us. The cameras, sound system and editorial control systems are in place. We need to make that as widely available as possible. We need to add to the programming schedule by showing other free-to-air material, be that from the European Parliament, European Council of Ministers meetings or from other parliaments further afield. It is appropriate for us to make the workings of our democracy transparently clear and as widely available as possible. Hugely interesting work goes on in these Houses, particularly in the committees. Making it accessible, even in the case of a small audience with a specialist interest in a particular area, is a proper public service. I hope the channel can be delivered as quickly as possible in order that it is launched at the same time as our new digital television service next year.
I hope we can also launch a new Irish film channel, which is intended to avail of the existing film archive material. The State has spent extensive sums of money developing a digital archive and supporting film production. We can show that material on an Irish film channel and this will add greatly to the enjoyment of the Irish viewing public. The Irish Film Board has been the instigator of this proposal, which is something I am keen to support and see delivered in conjunction with the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism.
Part 8 restates much of the existing provisions of the Broadcasting (Amendment) Act 2007 in respect of digital terrestrial television and radio broadcasting. It prescribes certain targets for RTE in respect of the roll-out of public service digital terrestrial television services. We will be launching a free-to-air mux, which will include RTE, TV3, TG4, the new film channel and Oireachtas channel. There are three alternative platforms, or muxes, for which there is a competitive bidding process at the moment. Three major consortia are seeking to deliver a further 30 channels for this new digital television service, which will replace our main analogue system. I am very confident that we can deliver that complex project, with the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and the new BAI working with RTE and the other private sector operators.
Part 9 shifts the legislative basis for the television licence regime from wireless telegraphy to broadcasting legislation, thus allowing for a significant future revision of the existing wireless telegraphy regime that currently dates back to 1926. It empowers the Minister to designate persons other than An Post as the television licence fee collection agent. It provides that the Minister may at some future date introduce a separate television licensing regime for non-residential premises. It increases the fines for possession of an unlicensed television set from €635 to €1,000 for a first offence, and from €1,270 to €2,000 for second and subsequent offences. It allows for the introduction of the option of fixed payment penalties as an alternative to court proceedings with a view to increasing compliance and reducing the workload of the courts.
In respect of the fixed payment penalty mechanism, section 149 proposes that where the television licence fee collection agent believes that a person is committing an offence in respect of the non-possession of a television licence for a television set, the agent may, after two reminder letters and a period of 56 days, issue a fixed payment notice. This notice will state that if the person buys a television licence within 21 days and pays a fine of a third of the value of the television licence, then the agent will not pursue a prosecution. It should be noted that the offer of this alternative to court proceedings will not be entirely at the discretion of the agent. If the agent is of the view that it will serve no utility then the agent may progress directly to court proceedings with the possibility of a significant fine. The fixed penalty payment mechanism has been designed to be a proportionate and modest instrument, while at the same time negating the possibility of a person benefiting by using it to delay purchase of a television licence.
Part 10 restates the provisions of the Broadcasting (Funding) Act 2003. It makes a small number of changes to the provisions of that Act, including permitting the funding of Irish language programming by commercial and community broadcasters in off-peak periods. The Bill maintains the percentage of the television fee allocated to the broadcasting fund at 5%. This is an area of the Bill that provides a subtle and difficult legislative task to assess the editorial decisions and the mechanisms through which such a fund would apply. It has been very successful and we want to maintain that success.
Part 11 in essence restates for good order the provisions of the Broadcasting (Major Events Television Coverage) Acts of 1999 and 2003. Part 12 sets out a number of transitional provisions in respect of the dissolution of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission on the establishment of the BAI. This part also provides for the continuation of appointments made to the boards of the RTE authority and TG4. Part 13 provides for the updating of sanctions in respect of breaches of wireless telegraphy legislation. The Schedule to the Bill sets out the various Acts proposed to be repealed in order to achieve a single Act, addressing all aspects of broadcasting content regulation and funding.
Senators should also note that I intend to bring forward, at a later stage, provisions in this Bill for the more effective regulation of premium rate services in Ireland. RegTel is the body to which one would turn if one was the victim of a mobile phone scam. This is a common occurrence, particularly for younger people, and causes real anger for parents and young people when they discover that they inadvertently run up large bills on their mobile phones, due to premium rate texting services that were not clearly identified. Up to 30,000 complaints were made last year by people who were victims of these scams. It is important to strengthen the regulations in this area in order to make sure that the rogue operators cannot continue. The mobile phone industry is getting a bad reputation from all this, which is not in its interest. The industry leaders are as keen as anybody else to rid the public of this nuisance marketing activity. We are using the provisions of this Bill to strengthen the regulatory powers to make sure that Irish consumers are not exploited in this way.
The Bill has been a long time in gestation, going back to the recommendations of the broadcasting forum in 2002. It sets a number of very valuable and useful precedents. Going to a public forum and speaking to the stakeholders is a good starting point for proposed legislation. The use of e-consultation within our own Oireachtas committee to consider the heads of the Bill two years ago was a positive new development in how we process our legislation. The new appointments mechanism that we are considering in this Bill is a progressive development in the workings of this House, especially the workings of its committee system. Giving responsibility to the committees of this House is a positive and rewarding experience. With responsibility there is much more consideration, more innovative thinking, better results and greater focus on the work being done in the committees.
I hope that the Bill strikes the right balance between our interest in maintaining and developing public service broadcasting and the development of an independent production sector in this country. The 20 years since the 1988 Act that introduced new independent broadcasters in television and radio has led to an improvement in the standard of broadcasting in Ireland. We want to maintain our public service broadcasting, but also a vibrant new independent broadcasting sector.
The Bill must put the interests of the Irish viewer and listener at the heart of our broadcasting legislation. The codes we set out must guide those broadcasters in the style and nature of the broadcasting that we want. The mechanisms by which we raise revenue and give broadcasters redress must be appropriate. This Bill puts the listener and the viewer at the heart of our endeavours in this area. It is written and framed in a way that serves the interests of viewers. I look forward to the support of the House in consideration of the Bill.
I welcome the Minister and I also welcome the fact that the Bill is beginning its passage through the Oireachtas in the Seanad. It is welcome that legislation be initiated here. The broadcast media is an all-pervasive part of our lives. They contribute to our enjoyment of life, our knowledge, our democratic system, our values and our economy. Legislation seeking to regulate the sector, incorporate existing statutes and adapt to change is of the utmost significance. I welcome the Bill as a reform measure. I am happy to commend and affirm what I and my party believe to be legislation that is sufficiently reforming and regulatory. I will draw attention to areas where the legislation can be improved.
The Bill proposes a new authority, the broadcasting authority of Ireland, with a membership of nine. In a praiseworthy attempt to reform the way in which State boards are appointed, the Minister proposes that five members be appointed by the Government on the advice of the Minister and four be appointed by the Government on the advice of the Minister on the nomination of the Oireachtas committee. The Fine Gael Party proposes that in addition to the Oireachtas committee proposing a panel from which the Minister can choose four appointments, there be a hearing by the Oireachtas committee to vet all nine nominees. Our proposition is that the hearing would focus on competency in the broadcasting sphere and the degree to which those involved represent the sector from which they come. It would not be a hearing investigating anything extraneous to the broadcasting brief and their role on the board. We submit that this procedure would be a further democratisation, adding transparency to the process, and would enhance it. We welcome the initiative but ask the Minister to go a stage further by allowing oral hearings. This would set a precedent for other areas and is one that the Oireachtas badly needs in order to get away from the archaic system of questionable patronage.
The proposed compliance and contracts committees will have particularly necessary functions in the control and supervision area. The Bill provides for the collection of a levy from broadcasters and independent contractors and from the public service to fund the regulatory authority and its two committees. While the levy must be adequate it should be no more than that. The levy taken from the broadcasting sector should be capped. A realistic figure should be set and it is a weakness of the Bill that it does not set a ceiling on the levy. It is possible to extrapolate from data the likely cost of running the authority. Given the potential of the sector to yield a levy it should be possible to suggest a capping of the levy. This would enhance the legislation. We do not want to give a blank cheque to anyone or to allow for extraneous expenditure. Tightness of control will make for a better quality of programming to ensure profits across the sector. I recommend the Minister goes back to the drawing board on the question of levies.
Section 39(1)(a) requires that all news broadcast is reported and presented in an objective and impartial form. Section 39(1)(c)(i) dictates that 20% of broadcasting time be spent on news and current affairs. It is a pity that there is no stipulation on Irish language and cultural programmes. Explicit provision should be made in this section. It need not be 20% but should be mandatory rather than an exhortation to broadcasters to have Irish language and cultural programmes. Tá ár dteanga agus ár gcultúr an-tábhactach agus ba chóir go mbeadh sé sin ráite go díreach sa mBille.
I welcome the proposed prohibition on junk food advertising. As a teacher and parent of three young boys, I am acutely aware of the pernicious influence of the advertisements. Whether in the form of stings — the sponsoring of programmes by drinks companies — or direct advertisements, this is a matter of grave concern in the context of our national crisis of binge drinking among our youth.
The legislation must be amended to allow the authority and the drinks industry to draw up a code limiting and controlling alcohol advertising. The right to completely ban alcohol advertising should also be included within the remit of the authority. We should work towards minimal alcohol advertising and, in so far as we have it at all, only at certain times and in small amounts. This should be tightly controlled in content and in timing. We should work towards the complete elimination of alcohol advertising. Just as the Minister is correct about junk food, I am correct in saying that the advertising of alcohol by all methods is a contributing factor to our drink culture and drink difficulties. A code should be put in place and a mandate included in the Bill for that.
The capping of advertising to ten minutes in the hour is reasonable and proper but media professionals tell me that ten minutes in a specific hour can sometimes be difficult if there is an outside broadcast, a particular interview or a cataclysmic world event. They suggest ten minutes per hour over two consecutive hours. I commend this and it should be examined on Committee Stage. The principle of ten minutes per hour is correct and we should not go down any other road. I look forward to the Minister's response on Second Stage to this point.
Section 43 states that the authority shall make rules on specific steps to promote the understanding and enjoyment by people who are deaf or have a hearing impairment, people who are blind or partially sighted. There should be an explicit commitment in the Bill to the use of sign language and subtitles. This is mentioned, which is good, but there should be an onus to have subtitles and sign language so that people in those sectors can enjoy media as much as the rest of us. This should be mandatory.
I welcome the introduction of a right of reply. This is vital and, as the Minister stated, will be without prejudice to defamation actions. This is an important step that exists in the print media and it is correct that this be extended to the broadcast media.The media has extraordinary power which it uses constructively in most cases. However, it also has the power to destroy careers, individuals and families. The right of reply is vital as a disincentive in this area. I will deal later with the fines in this regard.
The power of media is great and all mechanisms in this area are crucial. The financial sanction of up to €250,000 for non-compliance by broadcasters with broadcasting codes is to be welcomed. I favour this provision over the cancelling of a licence or non-interference. It is vital this provision is in place and I commend it. As I stated at the outset, we commend this legislation. While this is the type of approach we like to take in respect of all legislation that comes before this House, it is our duty to seek improvement in legislation we believe is not in order.
The Bill provides for local community broadcasting contracts where appropriate. This is important as the pressures of modern day society are anti-community. It is also important in the context of a multicultural and multiethnic society. I ask that the Minister place emphasis on the community broadcasting sector and focus on encouraging communities to obtain special licences as appropriate.
Section 66 sets out the criteria for the granting of independent radio licences. I welcome and agree with the provisions in this regard. However, subsection (2)(d) and (e) concerning the Irish language, culture and new talent development could be more specific. They are, in their current form, too aspirational. I believe we should tighten up this section on Committee or Report Stage. Section 67 provides for fast-tracking licence renewal applications where there is no competition for a licence. The Bill proposes that the term of any contract extension should not exceed five years. I propose this period be increased on the basis that the staffing, long-term planning issues and capital expenditure involved might render a five year term too insecure. I ask that the Minister give reasonable consideration to this proposal. I do not believe the term should be increased by a bizarre number of years but it should be realistically increased to, say, seven years.
It is proposed to grant a four year extension of a licence in respect of a broadcasting service which develops a niche station as a result of digital broadcasting, gains acceptance and is up to scratch on all levels. Given the capital outlay of developing such a niche station and embracing digital broadcasting, a greater incentive should be provided. It is always to the advantage of the entire broadcasting sector when we improve or develop new stations of the quality of Lyric FM and so on. I propose that where this is done properly those involved should be incentivised to the maximum degree.
I am particularly in favour of the audience council which is to have a statutory footing. It is important there is qualitative research in this area. The introduction of an audience council will ensure compliance and it will have a watchdog dimension. I will not insult the House by listing the massive advantages to society of broadcasting media, as Members are well aware of them. However, when we cite the many advantages of media we can never lose sight of the potential for harm that exists. Audience councils are important in the context of quality of programming and so on.
Section 101 proposes a public broadcasting charter. While I welcome most of what is contained in the charter, it should include a reference to the Irish language and to religious programming. Religious programmes are vital to our broadcasting sector. We should not have any inhibitions in this regard. We must sustain our distinctiveness and our national identity. Our different religions of which we are proud are part of this identity. There should be a specific reference to this in the charter.
Section 116 provides for the independent programme account. Our independent radio producers are made up of small companies and individuals in 13 counties in this country. They make documentaries and feature art, music, drama and children's programmes. Maccana Teoranta on my own local Northern Sound Radio station, of which I am very proud, won the BCI New Adventures award in 2007. A documentary about the extraordinary life of Hanna Greally, whom I met in passing and who was the author of Bird's Nest Soup won the Celtic media festival award. The independent radio sector has also produced an important series on refugees and asylum seekers.
Section 116 proposes that €40 million be made available for this sector. Television productions which are expensive will receive 95% of the fund, which is fair enough. Obviously, the cost of administration, which I believe is high, will also be paid from this fund. It should be stipulated in the Bill that the remaining 5% be allocated to independent radio producers. Currently, this sector is guaranteed only 1.25% or €500,000 of the fund. I propose that this sector be guaranteed 5% of the fund. This is an efficacious move and an endorsement and enhancement of a native industry of great importance to our quality of life and our evolution as a society. We should applaud this sector.
The Bill provides that RTE shall have discretion in respect of €1.5 million of the fund. I do not believe this should be the case. This money should go directly to independent producers. I have no difficulty with this being achieved over a five year period or a greater number of years. There is not at issue here a matter of principle. I believe this would be an efficacious move and we should find a mechanism through which to achieve this.
We propose that in addition to the above provisions the percentage allocated for independent production be doubled from 5% to 10%. There are many good and compelling reasons for this. The Minister stated he had an open mind in this regard, which I welcome. In this regard, I ask that he consider this proposal as an endorsement of our independent and commercial productions sector, audio and visual. I propose a doubling of the percentage from 5% to 10% and will submit an amendment in this regard on Committee Stage. I ask that the Minister embrace this as a radical step, one which I do not believe he will regret. The reasonable controls on expenditure will apply to it as well and it will be properly spent.
I especially welcome the provisions regarding a new film channel. It is a good and meritorious suggestion and should be brought into being. My party's view would be that RTE, as the public service broadcaster, should administer this channel. We would ask the Minister to look at that option. There should be no inherent objection to having advertising between films rather than during their course. It is likely, given the nature of such a channel and its potential audience, that the advertisements would be of a certain artistic quality. There is surely no reason why there might not be some modest advertising with a view to making the film channel self-financing. That would enhance other suggestions that I made earlier.
I welcome the Oireachtas channel. The Minister made reference at the launch of the Bill to the possibility of having local government proceedings broadcast during times when the Oireachtas was not in session. I would very much like to see local government proceedings used in abundance on that channel. Our local councils are the real democracy in this country, the true contact with people. County councillors are the champions of democracy and government and they are the great unsung heroes of Ireland. I commend to the Minister that there be a real, if not indeed a mandatory, emphasis on having local government broadcasting in the Bill in addition to Oireachtas programming. Yet again, perhaps RTE, a public service broadcaster of the highest calibre and excellence and of which we are very proud, might administer this channel in addition to the film channel.
Regarding licensing, my party will propose amendments on the grounds that we are not convinced that a licence can, any longer, be attached to an individual television set. In the future people will look at television via the Internet and other modes, therefore, the question of the licence and the cost of collecting licence fees requires examination. We intend to propose constructive amendments in respect of this.
It is not our intention to oppose Second Stage if we get a clear signal that worthy improvements in the Bill will be taken on board and that Committee Stage will be a positive exercise, an interchange with amendments to improve content. This is a very important business for all of us. Broadcasting is of critical importance in terms of its absolute and often undetectable power and that is why its regulation, organisation and enhancement must be important business for any sitting of the Oireachtas.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I worked with him at local authority level some years ago and he is a person who listens and takes points on board.
Senator O'Reilly raised many issues in his contribution and I will address them now before I forget them. I agree with the proposal to cap the levy. I believe we should have more Irish language and cultural content on television and radio. Senator O'Reilly made a relevant point about the glamorisation of drink in television advertising. The Senator and I do not need advertising to avail of drink because we know it is available. The advertisements do not have to encourage us. I do not wish to make light of this but his point is apt because drink is glamorised to such a degree now that a person might almost begin to believe that it is better than medicine. That is a fact.
I had intended to raise an issue in my overall contribution but Senator O'Reilly also mentioned it , namely, the broadcasting of programmes of a religious nature. About five years ago a broadcasting company, United Christian Broadcasting, UCB, set up and operated here for a number of years, taking a signal from the BBC. The programming was very good and featured all religious denominations, not merely Catholic or Protestant ones. It was good for everybody, young and old. There was nice gospel music and good messages. One of the broadcasters was involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland at the time. The company applied for a licence on numerous occasions but was refused because the then Minister deemed it inappropriate to grant a licence to a religious broadcaster of any kind. I ask the Minister to consider that point and perhaps we could re-visit that issue when there is an opportunity.
I welcome many aspects of the Bill but have reservations about others. Senator O'Reilly has pointed out some of these. There have been representations from various groups which is a good thing. That is democracy. They put their points forward and we can learn much from meeting them. I met one such group, Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, IBI, which made some excellent points that I shall explain later. It is important that we meet and interact with such representatives because we gain better knowledge about the area. I do not know the technical aspects of broadcasting. I worked in communications but things have moved on since then.
Section 9 sets down the requisite experience required for persons to be appointed as board members of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, and its two statutory committees. It is important that at least one member of such a board should have a knowledge of the relevant business, in this case, broadcasting. As a former trade union official, I suggest that the system of appointing this person should be by way of direct election from the staff in the organisation. I say this although it is said that there is no democracy in unions any more.
Section 16 provides for the establishment of a superannuation scheme for the staff of the BAI and also provides that the pension entitlements of existing staff should not be adversely impacted by the transition from the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, BCI, to the BAI. I would go further and remove the phrase "adversely impacted". I would like to see that changed to read that the employees' status would be retained and that their conditions would not be worsened. Staff in this organisation, as in any other, might be encouraged to participate in a real way if they were given the opportunity to have share options. That might be looked at because it would enhance the progression of the company and have a good effect on staff morale.
Section 23 requires that the BAI draw up a code of conduct with regard to conflicts of interest and ethical behaviour as they should apply to the membership of the authority and its statutory committee staff and to contractors appointed for services. I welcome this, particularly as it pertains to conflicts of interest and ethical behaviour. I do not wish to point fingers at anybody but there are perceptions on the part of the public that there are people in the broadcasting business who have conflicts of interest. I do not say that they have or they have not. A question that is often posed concerns the fact that there are people working in the broadcasting business whose annual salary is twice what the Taoiseach earns. In other words, the Taoiseach is paid half of what such people earn. I wish to make it clear that I am not having a go at anybody. I make this point because I have been asked by members of the public to raise the issue. The person goes to the opening of a supermarket or a town centre, probably for a fee of €10,000. I do not know whether one could regard this as a conflict of interest but it could lead to one. We should examine this matter.
Section 62 provides that the board may not grant a sound broadcasting contract to a person who has been convicted in the previous five years of certain offences relating to wireless telegraphy. It is good to have this provision but it does not go far enough. A person convicted of any criminal offence and not only of an offence connected with broadcasting or radio should not be granted a licence. We know it has happened in other business areas, especially in the taxi business, that people have been granted licences and it is later discovered they had criminal records for offences such as child abuse or rape. I will not go into this any further. This must not be confined to offences related to wireless telegraphy.
Section 70 provides for the awarding of analogue television broadcasting contracts to a television programme service contractor and establishes terms and conditions to apply to the contractor. The section also provides for the continuance of the existing contract held by TV3. I welcome this as I believe TV3 provides a good service. TG4 also provides a good service with brilliant documentaries and European news. It is underrated to a degree.
Section 72 allows the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, to award community content provision contracts for the provision of community television services to people representing local communities. Senator O'Reilly also raised this point. I welcome this provision because it is important. I am not into religion to the degree one might perceive. The Catholic Church has established its own broadcasting units to broadcast mass into the houses of those who are sick and in hospital. These units are in a precarious situation because they do not know whether they are legal. They are going ahead and a blind eye is being turned to them.
We could examine this. It is a necessary service to people who cannot attend religious services. I do not mean Catholic services only but services of all religions. If churches want to provide transmission of services there is not much wrong with it. It might do something for our community if we heard more of it. Section 73 provides that the BAI may carry out an assessment of the needs of the community in respect of broadcasting and this is connected to what I have discussed and I welcome it.
Section 83 established the process for the election of staff members for appointment to the boards of RTE and TG4. Staff members appointed to the board of any organisation should not necessarily be the high flyers on €500,000 a year. They are not necessarily the best people for the board. We do have to go down this road because we do not always get the value out of it that we think we do. The best person could be a clerical officer, technician or a rigger. Will the Minister keep this in mind?
Section 125 provides that the Commission of the Houses of the Oireachtas may establish a free-to-air television service in respect of the proceedings of the Houses of the Oireachtas and certain other matters to be known as the Houses of the Oireachtas channel. Section 126 amends Schedule 1 to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003 to provide for the funding of the Houses of the Oireachtas channel. This was referred to by the Leader on the Order of Business today. I welcome this because it is important.
It is also important that our local authorities are recognised. As Senator O'Reilly stated, they play a vital role in our communities which filters through to Government. The councillors throughout the country are underrated in what they do. Being a councillor is now a full-time job. Since the most recent local elections, 27 people have resigned from Dublin City Council. Of the people co-opted in their place, 10% have also resigned. The reason is because the job has become so demanding. One attends meetings every day and decisions are made on developments. Senator Brendan Ryan knows about this in Fingal. One must be on the ball and know what one is talking about. People cannot get time off work to attend meetings so they have no option but to resign. My point is that councillors do a tremendous job and work hard but do not receive recognition for it.
As Senator Reilly stated, it would be useful if people could see this work at first hand. Some people believe politics in general is a glamorous job and a bed of roses and that one comes in and swans around eating lunches, drinking wine and attending functions. This is because this is where people see politicians. As most councillors and Senators know, when one attends a partnership launch or other function, one meets the same crew all the time. The politician thinks they must be going around doing this all the time and they think the same about the politician. Of course, they will state, "I met Martin Brady," and will get the response, "Again? He was there last week."
It would be good if the proceedings of the Houses were broadcast to homes and people could see at first hand what we do. The same can be said about our committee system. We had an inquiry into Iarnród Éireann which lasted nine months. Luckily it was televised as we received coverage on TG4. Only for that, nobody would have known about it. People told me they never knew we had such committees. People do not know what we do here. The coverage we receive at present is broadcast too late at night. As Deputy Pat Rabbitte once stated in the Dáil, it is for insomniacs and alcoholics coming in at 2 a.m. It is a fact that the number of viewers at 11.30 p.m. or midnight is not high. We should examine this and broadcast it at an appropriate time when people are up, alert and available to listen to it.
Section 71 provides that the BAI may award content provision contracts to commercial and community radio. I have already made sufficient points on this. I wish to make points on some of the representations we have received from various groups such as the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland. The fast-tracking system proposed in section 67 allows for a contract extension which would not exceed five years. By halving the term of the licence, radio stations would be forced to run their businesses on a short-term plan. As we know, it is difficult to run any business on that basis, irrespective of what type of a business it is. Uncertainty creeps in and staff morale is affected. Many of these issues are not positive when a station is being run on a short-term basis. This provision will make it difficult for stations to attract and retain staff because if a person joins the staff not knowing whether he or she will be employed for five or ten years, for example, the uncertainty will lead to him or her to look around for something else coming down the track and moving on before the station collapses. The provision would also make it difficult to justify investment in a broadcasting organisation.
We are interviewed every five years but the financial risk is not as great. However, this provision will punish existing radio stations because of the lack of competition for licences. The most valuable asset any broadcaster has is the licence. The proposal would also undermine certainty for future investment and broadcasting quality. As Senator O'Reilly said, the term of the independent commercial radio licence should remain at ten years, regardless of the number of groups that declare an interest in it. That would lead to a more productive and efficient organisation.
Section 134 addresses digital radio broadcasting. I did not know much about this until I met a number of interested parties and they answered my questions. It will result in a greater station choice for consumers and the available spectrum will increase. Digital broadcasting is in its infancy and work is under way on the introduction of digital television with the termination of analogue broadcasting mooted for 2012. FM radio broadcasting may also cease because of digital radio broadcasting for commercial radio stations but that proposal has been put on the long finger. For digital radio broadcasting to be successful in Ireland, it is vital all broadcasters, both independent and public service, buy into the format, given the uncertainty surrounding such a service and the lack of proper information on issues such as the technology that will be used, the radio stations that will be carried on the platform and the benefits it will afford radio broadcasters. Every encouragement must be given to broadcasters to ensure participation. The advertising cap is set at 15% of station output and a maximum of ten minutes per hour but flexibility should be provided in this regard because if a station exceeds these limits, it is fined and so on.
NTL has a monopoly on the provision of cable television. The company signs up people, thus preventing them from accessing other providers such as BSkyB, and they are trapped. The worst aspect of NTL is the diabolical service it provides to the consumer. Last year, the company tried to encourage consumers to pay their bills by direct debit and it stated it would introduce a levy of €2 per bill if they did not sign up for this. Many of us opposed this and the company dropped the proposal. NTL does not provide appropriate customer service. One cannot get a member of staff on the other end of the telephone if one has a query. It provides no service to the public. Members receive numerous complaints about NTL and its behaviour is not good enough. I have met company representatives on numerous occasions and they made all sorts of promises but nothing has happened. Consumers deserve better. They have pointed out to me that I am in Government, not NTL, and they have asked that the Government sorts the company out. I ask the Minister to take my views on board.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome the Bill, which presents us with an important opportunity, not only to reflect on the structures and mechanisms proposed but also to reflect on the importance of broadcasting in our society, the role media play in our society and how, as legislators, we should seek to influence things for the better using our broadcasting structures. We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the establishment of RTE television and I often think television exploded into the lives of people. We could not have foreseen this as a community. The then President, Éamon de Valera, warned about certain dangers on the advent of RTE but society did not foresee the revolutionary impact television would have on people's lives, most of it for the better. However, it also presented challenges.
Of all the inventions that emerged in human experience over the past century of tremendous progress, television was probably the one about which we were the least educated. Media education programmes are provided by schools and so on nowadays but people were never well educated about how to be discerning consumers of media products and families are becoming increasingly aware of this issue. Parents comment on the challenges they face inculcating good values in their children when they are competing with messages in the marketplace, whether that is the school yard or the field of entertainment and culture. Television is one of prime bearers of the message from the entertainment industry into our lives and we should consider this.
We need to take a decision on another issue. Are we, as politicians and legislators, only trying to address people's needs in terms of a bare understanding of them as consumers or are we will try to give leadership in shaping society and the role media play in it? Political leaders, politicians and policy makers are scared stiff of being seen as overly paternalistic in seeking to shape our cultural environment, of which the media are a significant element, and they are also scared of the media. The media are a tremendously powerful force in our society, although largely a force for good, but much of their power is unseen. I was party to the debate on the Defamation Bill 2006. The then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, in bringing the legislation forward, was philosophically opposed to the emergence of a scenario where media would have greater protections against defamation actions but nonetheless afforded such protections to them and I could not but concur with the folk wisdom that the media are a more powerful and influential lobby with Government than the consumer. I have many conversations with politicians and there can be an element of special pleading on our part when we give out about the media, which is usually related to the last occasion on which we were on the receiving end of harsher than justified treatment by the media.
Accountability, visibility and transparency are issues where power is involved. The reason I raise this is to encourage Members to adapt their thinking to shaping the media environment without fear or favour and very much with an eye to the common good. I have every confidence in the Minister. In addition to being a family man he is also a very considerate and thoughtful person and I have no doubt that he has an eye very much on the common good as he brings forward this legislation. I would encourage him not merely to think of the common good in terms of an idea of the consumer — I am not suggesting he is doing so — but rather in terms of the community.
When we had the debate yesterday about the health services and in many debates about health and education, particularly when we are talking about the needs of the more vulnerable members in our society, we heard and increasingly hear calls for joined-up government and interdepartmental delivery. We often hear the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs praised because it has access to the work of different Departments and is able, hopefully, to influence legislation so that the needs of children and youth are taken into account.
I hope that this would extend also into the field of all that pertains to regulation regarding the broadcast and print media. We are legislating not just for the consumer interest; we are legislating for the common good. That must be our philosophical starting point, which will require leadership and us standing up to vested interests in some cases. It will require us to remember that far from it being paternalistic of us as elected representatives with a mandate to try and shape this environment to seek to establish clear boundaries that will govern the way the media does what it does in respect of issues like fairness, balance, taste, decency and invasion of privacy, it is paternalistic of the industry to say, "Leave it to us. We are the best guarantors".
I know that I am only speaking on Second Stage and reserve the right to consider these matters further as I prepare my amendments. However, I sense a hands-off approach in certain parts of this legislation that mirrors what happened with the Defamation Bill. I know that it is possible for the Broadcasting Complaints Committee to review matters and to have matters appealed to them. However, I know that in the first instance, broadcasters are the ones who are charged with dealing with complaints.
It should be said that the history of accountability among Irish broadcasters has not been good. There has been a tendency to gloss over legitimate complaints from relatively powerless members of society. There is a tendency for certain mindsets which perhaps predominate in the media to be reflected in the way that news and current affairs are treated. It is no secret that the Broadcasting Complaints Committee, which this Bill in a way supplants through the new broadcasting authority of Ireland, has been all gums and no teeth. There has not been a proper sense of accountability. We all know what has happened where people have had complaints upheld. It has been buried somewhere. There has been a bit of an improvement in recent times where there would occasionally be a short written statement before a "Prime Time" documentary. If we really value people's reputations and the obligation of the media, especially the public service media, to have considerable and rigorous fairness in the production and dissemination of material, we will have strong penalties where that falls down.
While one part of me commends what the Minister said about the fines mechanism being merely a light regulatory touch, it should not be too light. We should not just talk about fining people or organisations when they carry too much advertising within an hour or so. There are other ways to damage the public interest and, very often, they happen when issues or people's reputations are being dealt with.
I remember how, in the wake of the divorce referendum in 1995, the then director general of RTE, Bob Collins, said that if somebody was to come down from Mars and observe the coverage of the divorce referendum, they would never think the country was as divided as it was on that issue. I am very much speaking from memory so I apologise to all the parties concerned if I in any way misrepresent what was said. What does Mr. Collins's statement say about the way our media has operated? Has that situation improved in the past 13 years or since John Waters spoke about the discordant drum in his book "Jiving at the Crossroads" when he spoke about the Dublin 4 media dictating to the people down the country whom it despised without really understanding their values? Do we, as legislators, have sufficient understanding and respect for the fact that there is to be proper treatment of the diversity of viewpoints in our society?
We all speak about the issues on which we are most expert. I am the first to put up my hand and say that there are issues I probably watch more closely than other people. I welcome other people's voices on this matter. I was very disappointed recently and have been repeatedly disappointed by media coverage of issues like stem cell research. Perhaps it is wrong to pick out examples but since they are public service broadcasters, I will give myself the liberty to do so. Very often, emotive arguments are made in favour of research that would be destructive of human embryos. That tends to get balanced against the so-called harsh, intellectually rigorous, principled position. It is done very subtly. Do we have a mechanism that can catch that kind of thing, respect people who make complaints about that kind of thing and take action to ensure it does not happen again? It also happened in respect of the same-sex marriage debate recently on RTE's watch. The Small Firms Association, the farmers or other people who have expertise in other areas might be able to tell one the same thing.
Will we move in this Bill towards a situation where we have more teeth and less gums when it comes to the adjudication on legitimate complaints? I am not talking about the complaints of cranks but about complaints that can stand up on the evidence. Will we have mechanisms that will allow the Broadcasting Complaints Committee not just to look at the offending broadcast in question but a series of broadcasts, which I believe the Minister suggested, not only in terms of whether they have satisfied the requirement of balance but also because the series of broadcasts might establish the clear condemnation that there has not been balance over a period of time?
There are some highly paid celebrity broadcasters and media people in this country. I do not begrudge them; they are highly talented people. Sometimes they go too far in their shows, ratings being all-important, and engage in a manipulative kind of current affairs setting. Can we look at that not because we are paternalistic but because we have the public interest at heart? They are the ones who are being paternalistic and we are allowing them to be paternalistic if we do not challenge them.
Every politician worries about being seen to moralise but this is not about moralising. This is about an authentic search for where the common good lies and a determination to try to pursue the bringing about of the common good. That is my philosophical overview of the situation. In saying what I have said, I am in no way suggesting that these issues are not being or will not be taken on board. I am reminded of the first director general of the BBC, Lord Reith, whose dictum that the media should be there to educate, to inform and to entertain. That dictum still persists in the BBC's mission statement. Our media does very well on the entertainment front and somewhat well on the information front. The educational function is there but perhaps the three are not in perfect harmony as things stand, which is something to which we should have regard.
In respect of the common good and joined-up thinking, a lot of people in this society are worried about the fragmentation of things and individualism. I attended an excellent presentation this morning from Headstrong, an organisation that is dedicated to the promotion of positive mental health experience among young people in our country. One of things that clearly emerges from any of these kinds of talks one attends is the need to restore community among people. Even at our meeting, speakers spoke about the importance of people having someone to talk to.
That is offset by the fact that many people are extremely busy and are retreating into their own life experiences. It is our job to ensure our media does not exacerbate that problem but deals with it by promoting a communitarian vision in society and by ensuring that material that is exploitative, abusive or tends towards individualism is not only discouraged but, where appropriate, punished.
I welcome the provisions in section 8 relating to the procedures for the appointment of the membership of the BAI and its statutory committees. I commend the Minister on providing that the joint Oireachtas committee will have a role here, which is very innovative. I wonder if it might be appropriate to ensure that the Oireachtas committee has as direct a role in the appointment of the two committees. It will have an indirect role, in so far as the BAI will be involved in the appointment of the two committees. Could we take it even further, now that the toe has been dipped into the water? I hope it will not be just a case of whispered consultation among members of the committee but that there will be some mechanism for hearings to take place and for interested parties who believe they have something to offer to be heard by the committee. Obviously, it cannot be too self selecting but I hope there will be some way in which the committee will hear possible contenders before making its recommendations to the Minister. That will make it more likely that the recommendation will be heard and heeded.
I note provisions relating to gender in more than one place in the Bill. I know the Minister is under obligation here and the programme for Government refers to achieving a minimum of 40% representation of women on State boards. While we should have policy on these matters that is strongly oriented towards gender inclusion, I am opposed to quotas. I am opposed to such a strict laying down of the law because it is not necessarily meritocratic. While I would want the legislation to refer to the importance of gender inclusion, I would warn against a situation where the only type of inclusivity we think of is gender. That is the problem with a gender quota — it forgets that there are other interests in society. It also, perhaps, in an indirect way perpetuates a division between men and women. That is a personal view but in expressing it I am in no way suggesting that careful regard should not be paid to the need for gender inclusivity in choosing the boards of TG4, RTE, the BAI and so forth.
I wish to focus on the Minister's comments regarding section 42, which allows for the children's advertising code to specifically prohibit advertising for foodstuffs aimed at children. I know the Minister is sincere about that but I did not come down on the last cloud either and I know it is an attention grabber. If we are going to be so specific, should we not be also equally specific about alcohol? Can this Bill do something more than merely enable strong regulations that might see us prohibit, over time, the advertising of alcohol? Do we really need alcohol advertising? When one considers the amounts of money that alcohol companies spend on advertising, it is clear it is doing some good from their point of view. Although the code requires, for example, that alcohol advertising should not be associated with sporting or sexual success, the reality is that alcohol advertising is extremely manipulative. The day is coming when we should not see such advertising on our television screens. I ask the Minister to give equal attention to that issue.
I ask the Minister to give attention to things such as tarot cards, which target and exploit, not just financially, but emotionally and play on the vulnerabilities of people who wish to know about their future. We could take a laissez-faire view of this and say if they are fools enough to buy these services, then so be it but that should not be our approach. There is an element of protection called for here. I would also say the same in the context of human trafficking. We must ask what we can do in our broadcasting legislation to ensure that any broadcaster operating in this country does not carry advertisements of an exploitative nature, particularly where women and sexuality are concerned. That has been a feature of our television diet in recent years, although not on RTE. That is the kind of public interest consideration the Bill should not overlook.
There are other issues which I could raise with more time but I have raised the salient ones for now. I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill and I am glad that it has been initiated in the Seanad. I hope that is a hint that there will be more than mere discussion of the various amendments that are tabled. I trust that serious issues will be dealt with in the course of the debate on the amendments and I look forward to further discussion. I also hope the Minister will take the Bill on Committee Stage.
I welcome the Minister to the House and am glad of the opportunity to discuss the Broadcasting Bill 2008. This is very significant legislation and I congratulate the Minister on producing it within the first year of assuming his portfolio. The Bill seeks to revise the law relating to broadcasting services and content generally and repeals all the existing broadcasting content legislation.
The Minister's capacity for policy innovation is well recognised and on examining the legislation, it is clear that he has put his own stamp on it. The Minister has a very high regard for public service broadcasting and the important role it could and should play in public life. This is reflected in the provisions of the Bill, whereby a statutory and legal framework is put in place for the broadcasting sector that recognises the special character of public service broadcasting, provides appropriate supports for it but also has legitimate expectations of that sector. The Minister's well-recognised business acumen means he sees the need for the public service broadcasting sector to provide value for money and the Bill recognises this by requiring it to be financially accountable and to function in an increasingly competitive environment.
It is clear the Minister wants to encourage healthy competition to the sector. The Bill very clearly sets out and defines the different sectors, commercial, community and public service, and attempts to cater for the very specific needs of each sector and succeeds very well in that regard.
The Minister is also known for his consistent promotion of high ethical standards in public life and some of the provisions of this Bill reflect that commitment. The measures dealing with the systems of appointment to the new structures within the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and those relating to disclosure of interests are clear examples in this regard. These provisions will help to ensure the integrity, transparency and public confidence in the system.
The Minister has great imagination and confidence and in that context, I wish to refer to a number of measures in the Bill which reflect these attributes. All Members of the Oireachtas will benefit from the provision of a free-to-air television service in respect of the proceedings of both Houses. To include such a provision took a certain amount of confidence on the Minister's part. There is a popular perception that the proceedings of the Houses of the Oireachtas should be aired only late at night by the public service broadcaster because there is such a lack of public interest in those dull proceedings. I do not believe that is the case. It will present a challenge to those who provide the service to do so in such a way that they engage the public's attention. I commend the Minister on including that provision in the Bill. It is up to us to perform well in the Houses of the Oireachtas, to be well prepared and so forth, in order that when members of the public tune it, they see people who are capable of discussing the issues of the day and dealing with complex legislative issues in a way that they can understand and relate to.
Another very innovative measure in the Bill is the creation of the free-to-air Irish film and television channel. I commend the Minister on this provision. One of the provisions of the Lisbon treaty deals with measures for member states who wish to protect their cultural and audiovisual services.
There is a recognition in international trade negotiations that the broadcasting sector is especially vulnerable, as is the general cultural sector. There is a saturation of these sectors largely by American produced programme content. There are special provisions in the Lisbon treaty to protect the unique cultures of all the member states of the European Union. The particular measure the Minister has inserted in the Bill providing for the Irish Film Board to establish a free-to-air Irish film television channel will do just that. It will broadcast largely Irish film work and it will ensure there will be a platform and an opportunity for Irish film makers to present their films and cultural products to the Irish public.
I congratulate the Minister on the broadcasting fund and grant scheme. It will be made up of a certain percentage of the revenue from the television licence scheme. That is a positive and innovative development, which I welcome.
The Bill seeks to establish a broadcasting content regulator to be known as the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland which will perform the existing functions of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, but it will also undertake new functions. One of the important ones it will undertake, which relates to my earlier point, is the oversight of public funding to the public service broadcasters. There is a strong public demand for this. The public have no difficulty in public service broadcasters being generously supported by the State as long as there is clear oversight of the expenditure of the revenue that is given to them. The Bill will ensure that. It also revises the statutory basis for the television licence, which was due.
Another innovative measure of the Bill I welcome is the proposal that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland should be funded primarily by way of a levy on the broadcasting sector. This is right and proper. If the Bill, once enacted, is successful in its objectives, it will deliver much better outcomes for the operators within the broadcasting sector. It is not unreasonable to ask that the broadcasting sector would support the creation and maintenance of this regulatory authority.
In terms of other provisions, the Bill provides for a clear definition of commercial, community and public service broadcasters and their role. This is important, especially as far as the community broadcasting sector is concerned. This is a growing sector, which to a certain extent has been neglected and overlooked in official terms, possibly because of its newness. The Minister showed great foresight in setting out a very clear role for the community broadcasting sector and putting supports in place for it.
Sections 5 to 7, inclusive, provide for the establishment of the broadcasting authority of Ireland. There is a sensible separating out of the different functions of that new authority and its two statutory committees, the contract awards committee and the compliance committee. The Minister, who is committed to ethical standards being integrated into the Bill, has made sure that it sets out procedures for the appointment of the memberships of the broadcasting authority and its two statutory committees.
I welcome, as Senator Mullen said, the inclusion of the advice of the Oireachtas joint committee with responsibility for broadcasting matters in the nomination of some of the members of these structures. It allows for all-party input, which is a welcome departure from practices in the past, but it also recognises the expertise of the relevant Oireachtas committee. It also sets down specific and necessary provisions on the experience that people require to be nominated to the board, the terms and conditions of membership and procedures for removal, suspension or exclusion from membership. All these provisions are important.
Several sections deal with disclosure of interest, codes of conduct and so on, which are welcome. The independence of the authority is also ensured because section 30 empowers the Minister to issue policy communications to the broadcasting authority, but while the Minister's communications must be considered by the authority, they do not bind it. This section excludes the functions of the contract awards committee and the compliance committee, which is right and proper.
The Minister also mentioned the issue of excessive regulation. The Bill rightly requires the broadcasting authority and its statutory committees to review the regulatory burden they impose on broadcasters, which will ensure the level of regulation is as light as it should be.
I congratulate the Minister on a well-thought out, comprehensive and innovative Bill in the important area of broadcasting. I am confident the broadcasting sector in Ireland will be well served by this Bill, once enacted. It anticipates the challenges of the future in the broadcasting sector and makes imaginative provision for those. I commend the Minister on the Bill.
I also welcome the Minister to the House to introduce this Bill. The Labour Party broadly supports it, but we will table amendments to it on Committee Stage.
The provision that the appointment of some members of the new broadcasting authority will be made by the Minister with advice from the relevant Oireachtas committee is to be welcomed. The Minister might expand on how this will work and the mechanics of it when we resume the debate on the Bill next week. Will he retain any veto in that respect? I would be interested to hear his comments on that.
It is disappointing that the broadcasting fund, to which Senator O'Reilly referred, has not been changed and that only 5% of the revenue from the television licence fee will be allowed for the independent sector. We had hoped there would be an increase in the fund to encourage and support the independent production sector. There had been strong indications and considerable speculation that the fund would be increased and, therefore, it is disappointing it has not been. We may table amendments in this respect.
Given that the Minister has expressed strong support for TG4, would it not have been possible to have given the station long-term funding as opposed to the current approach of funding on a year-to-year basis? Will the Minister consider that matter? We may table an amendment to that effect.
We face a changeover to digital television in 2009, the most immediate effect of which will be the loss of service from Britain to analogue television users, especially on the east coast. We are disappointed there is nothing in the Bill to assist the viewers who will be affected. I would like the Minister to comment on that.
One of the main issues on which I wish to focus is the code of advertising targeted at children. The Minister has provided for a code to control the advertising of food targeted at children in an effort to tackle obesity. I wish to focus on this issue. The provision in this respect is wishy-washy and does not go far enough to deliver the type of change that is needed to protect children. It should go beyond prohibiting the advertising of junk food and cover other forms of advertising targeted at and focused on children. It is inappropriate for advertisers to target children, particularly in terms of fast food which may possibly be injurious to their well-being. Children are entitled to a childhood free from commercial pressures.
We should ensure as legislators that RTE and other Irish broadcasters provide a number of periods of children's programming during the day which are advert free, as happens in other jurisdictions. We know that advertising targeted at children works. It is considered to be lucrative in the advertising industry. Practically all the top advertising agencies today have introduced children's divisions with the obvious objective of targeting this group of citizens. Children under the age of 12 may not be able to recognise traditional advertising as opposed to routine programming or recognise its sales promoting nature.