Wednesday, 7 October 2015
Broadcasting and Media in Ireland: Statements
I thank the Seanad for the invitation to address the House. Public service broadcasting is provided for in Part 7 of the Broadcasting Act 2009. The Act sets out the principal objects of the public service broadcasting corporations, RTE and TG4. These objects provide the companies' statutory mandates and reflect national policy on public service broadcasting. They include the specific objective of providing national free-to-air public service broadcasting services. They also include provision of a broad range of other additional services that are seen as fundamental to the role of the public service broadcaster. The Act subjects the public service broadcasting corporations to a range of additional requirements in their pursuit of these objects.
Licence fee funding for public broadcasting provides an independent and reliable income which allows the two public service broadcasters to meet their public service objectives with a high level of editorial independence. The licence fee also allows some funds to be made available to commercial broadcasters and independent producers. As in many other small EU member states, a mix of commercial and public funding is used to support public service broadcasters. This model is not unusual in a European context and the funding balance of many European public service media organisations is similar to Ireland's. Under this model RTE is statutorily obliged to use its commercial revenues to further subsidise its public service obligations.
RTE and TG4 are accountable for the public funding they receive. They publish detailed commitments on an annual basis setting out how they intend to meet their public service obligations and objects as set out in the Act. The extent to which the commitments entered into by the two public service broadcasters have been met is reviewed annually by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. In addition to the annual review and five-year processes, RTE has been subject to a high level of independent scrutiny of its efficiency and performance in recent years, notably through the NewERA review, published earlier this year. These reviews benchmark operating costs against the public service semi-State sector, private sector and other public service and commercial media organisations. In a competitive and converged media marketplace the availability of public service broadcasting on various platforms has implications for other media. This means that the structure and mandate of public service broadcasters needs to be continually monitored in order to ensure that they meet their objects but do not unfairly constrain commercial media, which have their own equally vital role to play. Commercial broadcasters, while bringing choice and competition to the market, are privately-owned and funded companies that have entered the market on the basis of a commercial proposition.
In terms of radio, station owners sought and accepted licences on clear terms, which included the requirement to broadcast a specific amount of public service content. In many cases their success in the licence application process was assisted by the voluntary commitments they gave in regard to the provision of public service type content over and above that required by the relevant legislation. The licences were bid for and accepted in the knowledge that public funding was not available. That said, I fully recognise the contribution of the commercial sector to broadcasting in Ireland, including that of many local radio stations, both rural and urban. These broadcasters perform a very valuable function in the communities they serve, adding value particularly in the reporting of local news and current affairs. I recognise that many of those stations face financial pressures, particularly but not solely those in rural Ireland. Public funding is available to all public, community and independent commercial broadcasters through the broadcasting funding scheme, which encourages programming on Irish culture, heritage, adult literacy and global issues. Funded by 7% of net TV licence fee receipts, sound and vision II funded 477 projects worth over €3.6 million from commercial radio stations. This represented 40% of the total radio allocation. By contrast, allocations to public service broadcasting stations in the same period were worth less than €1.6 million or 18% of the total allocated.
The question of further distribution of public funds to independent commercial broadcasters beyond the supports that already exist would constitute a major change to broadcasting policy. It would have to be justified and would of course require legislation.As matters currently stand, the net effect of such a move would be to reduce the funding available to all other broadcasters, community and public.
It may well be worth considering whether the obligation on commercial radio to provide a minimum of 20% news and current affairs remains either necessary or desirable. At the time this provision was introduced, there was a concern that commercial radio stations would only broadcast so-called "wall-to-wall" music, but in the spirit of the debate we are having, if there is a demand for music stations, why would there necessarily be a statutory requirement for all of them to have 20% news and current affairs? This is an issue that we should, perhaps, discuss.
Senators will be aware that other groups have also been calling for public funding to be allocated to their members, including those representing community radio and the print media. There are continuing challenges confronting all media organisations in Ireland and none is immune to the changes that are taking place. As with the national economy, the television and radio advertising markets are showing signs of recovery and some small degree of growth but it is universally accepted that, as a result of continued fragmentation, revenues will never reach the levels that prevailed prior to the economic collapse.
The media landscape has been transformed and is increasingly fragmented, with the proliferation of new services, devices and providers available to audiences and consumers. In this rapidly changing environment, the core public purpose of RTE and TG4 is as important and relevant as ever. Irish audiences need strong, independent public service media organisations that can both compete with international media and provide a distinctive Irish voice and perspective, culturally and in news and current affairs. In this regard, our independent content creators have been badly affected by the fall in RTE's revenues. RTE needs a thriving independent production sector if it is to produce challenging and high quality programming. In turn, the independent sector needs RTE as the key commissioner, funder and broadcaster of Irish-made programming, yet while it is obliged to spend approximately €40 million a year on independent commissions, its capacity to invest in additional Irish programming of any kind is now severely diminished
The Government is committed to providing funding for public service broadcasting, as, indeed, all Governments have been over the years. A public service broadcasting charge would contribute to this, while reflecting the changing ways that viewers now access public service broadcasting. More and more, proposals for similar charges are being developed and introduced in other European countries. It is inevitable that a public service broadcasting charge will be introduced here. However, this will not happen before we build the necessary public understanding and support for such a charge.
In the meantime, I recognise the limitations of the current licence fee system. Work needs to be done in the short term to ensure that the stability of funding is maintained, at least at current levels. It is my intention to bring forward a number of proposals to amend the current regulatory framework for advertising. In regard to commercial radio advertising, I propose to give the BAI oversight and control of the amount of advertising minutes allowed to such broadcasters. I will also bring forward amendments to ensure the BAI's reviews of public service broadcasting funding will always take account of the impact of its recommendations on the broader advertising market. These proposed changes, along with others I intend to bring forward in respect of licence fee collection and the database, will lead to a more sustainable financial, advertising and regulatory framework for all broadcasters. In the context of an improving economy, these measures will help deliver a viable future for everyone in the sector, public service and commercial. I welcome the opportunity to engage with Senators on this important issue and to hear their views and suggestions.
I fully endorse that.
I welcome the Minister. He and I had an exchange of views earlier on this topic under the mechanism for reviewing his Department's performance at the Joint Committee on Transport, Communications and Natural Resources and I was grateful to him for the clarification he brought to a number of issues. However, I would like to put a number of them on the record in this House.
I applaud and welcome his reiteration of his support for the concept of public service broadcasting. I am a firm supporter of it. People might say, "He would, would he not?" because I spent most of my broadcasting career in RTE but I had the honour of representing the country as a member of the Council of Europe during which time I acted as a rapporteur in producing a report on public service broadcasting across Europe. It brought home to me the challenges facing public service broadcasting, which the Minister has outlined, and also the threats to it across the Continent, particularly from the commercial sector. I am totally convinced that if there was a free market in broadcasting, there would be a significant dumbing down. Italy is a perfect example of that under Mr. Berlusconi. Radio and television has been dumbed down to such an extraordinary extent that people have no knowledge of public service issues or current affairs.
I welcome that the Minister has continued the proud tradition of his Department in supporting public service broadcasting. I acknowledge that he would do so on an ideological basis apart from the fact that he also spent time in the public service broadcasting sector. He has a valuable insight into how it works. For those who criticise RTE, one only has to consider the popularity of the organisation's programme every year. Nine out of the top ten programmes annually in terms of audience share are broadcast by RTE. They relate not only to sport but are spread across the gamut of television programming.
The Minister has certainly opened a debate on how we go forward in this regard and the focus in this political arena, in both Houses, is on RTE's licence fee. There are people in my party and in Fine Gael who would like RTE to be emasculated and they believe it would be in the wider public interest to do that. I do not share that view. RTE should be protected but not cosseted. As the Minister said earlier, management has embarked on a severe cost cutting exercise over the past five or six years. I was a victim of that in that I was one of the foot soldiers in RTE doing programmes on a freelance basis. I was never a member of staff and I operated at freelance rates, which were reduced so drastically and radically that I reached a point that I did not think it was financially worthwhile for me to be doing the programme anymore, when I took tax into consideration. I am aware at ground level of the impact of the cost cutting. Hopefully, the organisation has reached a new dawn and is moving forward. It will, hopefully, have a trading surplus soon. Any diminution of the income it receives from the television licence would be a challenge for RTE and management would resist this.
However, I am also a firm supporter of local radio and I recognise its value. The Minister stated: "In terms of radio, station owners sought and accepted licences on clear terms...". In other words, this is the argument that has been used since 1990. They knew what they were getting into, and now they are coming crying to Government looking for money as commercial operators when they knew what the playing field was from day one. They were going into a commercial environment and it was going to be sink or swim. I am sure the Minster will agree, however, that the radio landscape has changed dramatically since 1990 and the Broadcasting Act, which introduced local radio. It has changed in such a dramatic fashion that not only is there a number of commercial broadcasting stations but, as a result of the setting up of the BAI, there are specific music interest stations throughout the country as well as community-type stations, short-term stations and so on. A constant throughout that, particularly in rural Ireland, is the enormous bond generated by local radio between the listener and the local station. That bond has grown, strangely enough not because of the fact they are playing music but because they are reflecting the community in which they are broadcasting.That bond is then exemplified by the highest listening audiences given to mid-morning programmes, on which the Minister in his capacity as Minister and a politician would have appeared around the country and continues to do so. That is the 9 a.m. to 12 noon slot. There is a Gay Byrne in every local authority area and they are all very good people. A great deal of research goes into those programmes and most importantly there is engagement between the listener and the station so that they feel they own the station.
That is the context in which I am putting forward the view that the IBI has put forward about them continuing to provide the type of programming we are discussing, which is news, current affairs and sport which, as the Minister knows from his time as producer, is very labour intensive. To put it in simple terms, any one of us here could walk into a radio station with a bunch of CDs under our arm and spend two hours playing music. There is no cost other than the cost of the transmission. All one is doing is chatting and playing music. However, running a story or finding out about a local issue requires drilling down to the detail in order to convey to the listener what the story is about. That requires manpower, skill and expertise.
Therefore I believe the IBI is justified in suggesting that the Government should acknowledge that fact. They do so in the context of the broadcasting levy proving to be a very heavy financial burden on them. I declare an interest in that I present a programme on Ocean FM in the north west. I have been told that the cost of the levy to Ocean FM is €30,000 a year. At local radio pay rates that would employ one if not two extra people, who would almost certainly be used in a research capacity rather than an on-air capacity in order to expand the news or sports service the radio station is providing. The single biggest source of advertising comes from the 9 a.m. to 12 noon slot. That is where the money is generally being generated by local stations because they have such high audience figures.
I believe the Minister quoted figures from surveys indicating that 85% to 95% are listening to local radio. Dublin is a different kettle of fish. While this had nothing to do with the Minister, at the time I could see it. The licences given for Dublin stations were licences to print money because they are primarily and almost exclusively music-driven stations, and the Dublin market has now become very competitive. I do not know what can be done about it.
Dublin Deputies and Senators look with envy on the rest of us down the country as we can get our points of view on local issues across on local radio. However, there is no comparable station in Dublin that represents Dublin interests. I do not know how the BAI can address that; it is such a vast conglomerate. At the same time it is a flaw in the entire radio landscape that there is not what might be termed a "local" radio station in Dublin to which Dubliners can relate on current affairs issues. That is no reflection on the existing stations. God bless them and good luck to them; they are making money under the terms of their licences.
I support the IBI's suggestion and ask for the Minister's response. I know he will be very protective of the licence fee and any dilution of it. The IBI has suggested that the broadcasting levy be absorbed by the licence fee, which it believes could be cost neutral. An Post's experience to date of collecting the licence fee raises serious questions about its efficiency. At this morning's committee meeting some of my colleagues pooh-poohed the notion of any dilution of An Post's involvement. I do not suggest for one moment that the business should be taken away from An Post. Every day on television and radio we hear very clever and imaginative An Post advertisements exhorting people to get a television licence and predicting the direst circumstances if they do not, and yet we have a 20% evasion rate which equates to approximately €30 million per year. In the UK the equivalent evasion rate is only 5% and I understand a private company is involved.
I am not suggesting that this should be taken away from An Post. I believe the Minister has indicated he would like to have discussions with An Post as to how it can improve the rate. There must be some logical reason for such a high evasion. If that evasion rate could be reduced even by 5%, it would provide the financial flexibility to fund the local radio network specifically in the areas of news, current affairs and sport.
There should be a parallel concept to the sound and vision concept. The Minister said that 7% of the net licence fee under sound and vision funded 477 projects worth over €3.6 million from commercial radio stations. My information is that most of that money is going to the independent production sector rather than to local radio. Local radio has found it extremely difficult to come up with the criteria necessary to provide the type of programming under sound and vision and therefore it has been taken over to a large extent on the one hand by RTE which is able to access the fund and the resources it has, and on the other hand by the independent sector, which should be flourishing because it is creative and entrepreneurial. The Minister should make it a more level playing field by promoting the concept that local radio has changed to such a dramatic degree that in order for it to be maintained at its current level in news, current affairs and sport, radio stations now desperately need some sort of financial injection in order in some cases for some of them to survive.
People will point out that no radio station has given up its licence voluntarily. However, everybody in the entrepreneurial world lives in hope. The last thing somebody involved in business wants to do is to go bankrupt so they will continue to try to keep going. However, they are cutting costs to such a degree that they are leaving nearly a skeleton staff operating in the key areas of news and current affairs. It is also encouraging local radio owners to dumb down or take out of the schedule news, current affairs and sports coverage in order to put in the cheaper form of broadcasting which is playing music.
I am concerned that by putting in the 20% the original creators of the broadcasting landscape could find increasingly owners of radio stations saying, "We can't do it anymore. Change the 20%." However, they are not saying that, they are asking for a bit of a leg-up and it can be done by making it cost neutral in the budget if the evasion rate can be reduced and we can use some of the money found. Not only would local radio benefit from this, but RTE would also benefit and the entire country would benefit.
I could go on. I am grateful for your indulgence, a Chathaoirligh. I thank the Minister. I know his heart is in the right place. I know he wants to get the right balance between the national broadcasters and the local broadcasters. I wish him well in that regard.
I welcome the Minister and I welcome today's debate on public service broadcasting, its cost to the taxpayer, and its fairness and balance to those who provide broadcasting services to our citizens throughout Ireland.
What value for money are we, the citizens, getting from the licence fee imposed on us? On average €220 million is collected. In the main, €180 million goes to RTE and TG4, providing approximately 50% of their required operational funding. Our national broadcaster spends €11 million on its orchestra. We talk about transparency. It has recently confirmed, without naming the individuals, that two of its presenters are paid between €400,000 and €500,000 a year. Two more are paid between €200,000 and €300,000 a year. Seven contractors are paid between €150,000 and €200,000 a year and five RTE staff members are paid between €200,000 and €250,000 a year, with most of those at the higher end of the scale. It is wrong for RTE to withhold information on who is getting what taxpayers' money. RTE is a commercial radio and television station. From now on, its State-collected funding must be reduced and ultimately at some stage discontinued.
We no longer live in a world that can be State subsidised. I fully respect the Minister's views, but we must move away from State subsidies in all our State-subsidised bodies, including RTE.Currently, our local radio stations, in the main, contribute a 2% levy on all their turnover. This levy should be abolished or, at the very least, reduced. The local radio stations are an integral part of our pubic service network. If one were to check the JNLR figures, our local radio stations would have a greater listenership than our national broadcaster and my own Clare FM would be pretty high up on that one. There is an onus on us as legislators to support our local radio stations, if we are to continue to collect the television licence fee as it stands, by abolishing the levy. If we could reduce the television licence fee for hard-pressed taxpayers - I do not believe that can be done in 2015 given the Minister's statement - to in or around €100 we would be making a reasonable start.
I do not believe that long term we can continue to subsidise the State entities. A note of caution must be sounded to many subsidised State bodies, including RTE. If a far left, Sinn Féin Government was to be elected in the next election, bearing in mind that party promotes paying its Deputies and Senators the minimum wage, or a working man's wage, which is around €30,000, many in RTE and other State bodies might find themselves earning €30,000 a year and that their salaries would be reduced fairly quickly.
The issue of the introduction of a broadcasting charge was raised. I would like some feedback on how it would be collected and fairly distributed. I would not be in favour of any new charge or burden on the taxpayer while we currently collect in excess of €200 million a year from the television licence fee.
If one likes to watch rugby, of which we are getting a bit now, and was watching the RaboDirect league in the off-season, one would have to pay six TV channels to watch the PRO12 or the RaboDirect league to watch every game. It is hard to believe that but that is a fact. I tend to go out to watch one or two of them because one could not be having six television channels.
I respect the difficulty in trying to find the balance. I come from a business background and the concept of somebody handing me €200 million a year to run my business does not wash and it cannot wash into the future. I do not believe we can do it. I know we do it for Iarnród Éireann, Bus Éireann and the other entities. This is a debate and I would like to hear the Minister's view on that, but those are my views. I do not believe we can continue to do that.
I welcome the Minister to the House. This is a timely debate and it is important that we are having it in a public space in order that we can tease out these issues. I would like to broaden the discussion. It is listed on the schedule as broadcasting, communications and media. When we talk about this issue we tend to boil it down to a discussion about RTE and the television licence fee and we tend to get sucked into that space.
In the first instance, I would like to say that I would not be in favour of abolishing the television licence fee. I would have to stoutly disagree with my esteemed colleague because I think that would be tantamount to not only pulling the plug on RTE but to pulling the plug on public service broadcasting and everything that goes with that and everything that we expect to go with that. This is not an issue about RTE or the television licence fee. For me, it is about standards, public service broadcasting, diversity of ownership and content, and the quality, credibility and independence of the content. That would be a very dangerous road to do down.
It is through no fault on the Minister's part but successive Governments have failed down the decades to address the thorny and complex issue of media ownership and control. As a result, the media mergers and the media competition legislation that we ultimately introduced last year was a classic example of closing the stable door after the horse had well and truly bolted. It is immaterial to me who owns the commercial media, in broadcasting or in print in this country. It is immaterial to me whether it is Johnston, Mooney and-or O'Brien or any other O'Brien. What is important for me has never been what gets into print or into broadcasting but what does not get there. It is what is prevented for whatever reason that is important.
Very often some of the best programming can take months, if not a year or more, to research and to finally get to print or to get to broadcasting. If we were only to assign commercial criteria, we would not be getting the standard of programme, to be fair to RTE and it is easy to beat it up, and I agree with some of the comments my colleagues have made. RTE is in place in one part to hold the public bodies of this country to account, certainly to hold the Government of the day, politicians and public figures to account but, by the same standard, it should not be afraid to have the mirror of accountability and transparency put up against its organisation and operation. It is also a public body but sometimes it bristles when we dare to ask a question or to probe into its activities and standards, and that is unfortunate.
The commercial stations provide a very valid public service broadcasting remit throughout the country. We have all become fond of our local stations. As I drive through the country, I like tuning into the local stations to hear what is going on in that community and get a flavour of what is happening in that area. We have very good stations in my community where we have Midlands 103 and in Kildare we have KFM. As Senator Mooney mentioned, we have our own Gay Byrnes, Pat Kennys and Seán O'Rourkes in Will Faulkner and Shane Beatty who do tremendous work for the community by holding the public system and the State to account on a daily basis, and people tune in and enjoy that.
It is not a question of our beating up RTE to help the other local stations. The two prospects of supporting RTE in its remit and helping local stations are not mutually exclusive and we should not see them as being at opposite ends of the spectrum. However, I would like to add a note of caution. I come from a background of having had a legacy of 30 years working in the regional press, the local newspapers, which also provide a very strong local function within their local communities, local parishes and across the different counties. It would be unfair on them in a competitive and commercial context to be put at an unfair disadvantage if we were, for argument sake, to subsidise or support commercial radio stations at the expense of small local newspapers which are also struggling in the current climate of flux, change and challenge that the media sector is going through. It is quite a convulsion.
The Minister has been around as long as I am and he will remember the famous song, "Video Killed the Radio Star". It seemed like that at the time but video has gone and the radio has survived and is prospering. We do not know how this is going to pan out or where it will end up, but we are entering into a new era. It would be wrong to pull the plug on RTE, to try to undermine it. Certainly it should be challenged and expected to present and produce programming of the highest standards in current affairs, news, the arts, agriculture, in all the spectrum that we expect from a strong State public service broadcaster, but to say that it could do that and at the same time abolish the licence fee outright would not be compatible or sustainable. That would be a dangerous place to venture and, certainly, it is not a view I would support. While it is easy to beat up RTE and some of its precious presenters, we have to look beyond and behind that and see on the day-to-day basis the quality programming we get on television and on radio and the information provided to the public in an independent fashion, regardless of who is in government or who is the Minister. Certainly, RTE puts it up to the Government of the day and that is a good thing. It does so across a whole range of public bodies and public services that need to be held to account.RTE cannot have its bread buttered on both sides - and with jam - through both the licence fee and commercial revenues, and then not fulfil its public service remit. The Minister should instruct, or at least advise, RTE management that it is high time they provided space on the Saorview band to broadcast the Oireachtas TV channel. Under the provisions of the Broadcasting Act 2009, sections 125 and 126, RTE is obliged to do so. It is getting millions in what my colleague, Senator Mulcahy, refers to as a subsidy and yet it refuses to broadcast Oireachtas TV. It wants another €1 million from the Exchequer, the Government or the taxpayer before it will agree to do so. RTE cannot have it both ways. The Ceann Comhairle and the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission have engaged exhaustively with RTE and ComReg for four years now. I am of the view that the station has failed to live up to its public service broadcasting remit. There is a provision in the Act for the Minister to advise and direct RTE to do so.
Ironically, RTE went to the courts to seek permission to broadcast elements of debates in the Dáil. Those elements were already being broadcast constantly on the Oireachtas TV channel via the Oireachtas website, Sky, UPC and Eircom. While those three commercial channels broadcast Oireachtas TV, the State broadcaster, whose duty and responsibility it is to do so, continues to dodge the issue and refuses to broadcast it. It is time RTE lived up to its status as the State broadcaster. It must accede to our request and, if it does not, some intervention from the Minister will be timely.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire. Tá lúcháir orm deis a fháil tagairt a dhéanamh don ábhar díospóireachta seo, a bhaineann le cúrsaí teileachumarsáide sa tír seo agus an táille atá gach teach ag díol fá choinne an tseirbhís phoiblí atá á chraoladh trí RTE faoi láthair.
I have just been listening to the debate from my office. I am glad it is taking place because this is an issue of concern to the independent radio stations in particular, of which I understand there are 34 throughout the country. We must ask whether the moneys collected through the licence fee by the Government and given over to one particular organisation are serving the public good, in economic terms or from the point of view of the taxpayer. The figures would suggest that this is not the case and that those resources could be used more effectively and efficiently by making them more widely available to other providers. The independent radio stations commissioned a report which was published recently. Taking a snapshot of time in July, 68% of listeners were listening to local radio stations. The listeners are tuning in because the content is relevant. Very often it is locally based. We saw a programme recently on which death notices were discussed. I think Ardal O'Hanlon edited and produced it. The topic is so relevant in rural areas. People tune in to get the death notices, the local news, sports, and current affairs. The figures are backing that up.
Is it right that a pot of money is collected through the licence fee, which is now being revised, and given over to one organisation which is also in the commercial field? RTE is using that taxpayer-funded resource to compete against other commercial organisations. That is not right. There has to be a levelling of the playing field.
While RTE provides an excellent public broadcasting service, I would certainly question many of the salaries it pays as being excessive, and in the extreme in some cases. That is a matter for the RTE board, however. The fee that is being charged could be used much more effectively if it were divided amongst other radio and broadcasting providers, some of whom are struggling to make ends meet at the moment. They are struggling to cover local council meetings and local events because they do not have the resources. Many have actually diversified into other activities in order to make themselves financially viable.
There is an obligation on the State to make the playing field a little more relevant. It should either withdraw the fee entirely - I do not think that is the right thing to do - or level the playing field. This is an issue which needs to be addressed. The area was identified in the programme for Government and I know the Minister is working towards a solution.
The whole of Irish-language broadcasting and the work which has been done by go háirithe TG4 agus RTE Raidió na Gaeltachta, atá faoi bhrú faoi láthair. Cé go bhfuil lucht éisteachta Raidió na Gaeltachta ag méadú de réir a chéile, tá an stáisiún faoi bhrú ó thaobh buiséid. Ós rud é go bhfuil brú orthu, tá sé tábhachtach nuair atá airgead á thabhairt d'aon eagras cumarsáide sa tír seo go mbeadh sé de dhualgas ar an eagras sin céatadán áirithe den airgead sin a chur ar fáil do chláracha Gaeilge agus do Raidió na Gaeltachta agus na stáisiúin eile anseo i mBaile Átha Cliath atá ag craoladh trí mheán na Gaeilge.
It is about providing fairness and developing the most effective use of the resources that are available.
Go raibh míle maith agat. I very much welcome the Minister to the House and acknowledge his recognition of the contribution the commercial radio sector is making to broadcasting, including the many local radio stations. In that regard I should declare, as I have already, a small interest in one of those stations.
I commend the Minister's realism about the rapidly-changing environment and note his point that it is worth considering whether the obligation for commercial radio to provide a minimum of 20% news and current affairs content is necessary or desirable. I was struck by what Senators Mooney and Ó Domhnaill said. The JNLR figures are huge for the programmes provided by these stations, particularly their news content and morning slots. That is the case for Highland Radio, Midlands Radio, Radio Kerry, thanks be to God----
Quite understandable. I liked what Senator Mooney said about public service broadcasting and the bond between a listener and a station.County and regional loyalty is huge in this country, thanks be to God. As Senator Ó Domhnaill said, the services they provide, such as death notices, are vital. Many people do not read the papers anymore but they know the times to tune in for the three times a day that these death notices are played. They never fail to tune into that. That is very important.
I welcome the Minister. He had called for a debate and I am glad that this discussion is now taking place on the definition of public service broadcasting and the 2% levy payable by the independent stations. I believe it is time to have a serious and meaningful conversation, as is happening, about the definition of public service broadcasting. The fact that local radio stations, which undoubtedly play a role in public service broadcasting, must pay a 2% levy on all of their turnover, as Senator Mulcahy has said, while RTE benefits from the national licence fee is unfair. We recently met with the local radio stations and all 34 of them were of one view about that. I accept that the Minister is looking at this matter but public service broadcasting is, in my opinion, provided not only by the national broadcaster, RTE, but also by these independent stations. These stations broadcast news and news programmes that are of interest to the public and fall within the remit of public service broadcasting and I have referred to the JNLR figures which support them hugely in what they are doing. While I appreciate the high quality of programming that RTE produces, I believe that its monopoly-like treatment does a major disservice to local stations and this has been said by my opposite number, Senator Ó Domhnaill. We must level the playing pitch and address this issue without delay and I appreciate that the Minister is looking at the entirety of the matter. The Minister called for debate on this issue and I am delighted that it is now happening. It is ridiculous that the local radio stations provide such a high quality service and receive nothing in return. They feel very aggrieved, as I think the Minister is aware.
A redefinition of what public service broadcasting means is needed. I am glad this discussion is taking place and I very much welcome it and the Minister's realism and the fact that he has stated that he intends to bring forward a number of proposals to amend the current regulatory framework for commercial radio advertising. That is very much to be welcomed. The Minister proposes to give the BAI more oversight and control of the number of advertising minutes allowed to such broadcasters and he is prepared to bring forward amendments to ensure that the BAI's reviews of public service broadcasting funding will always take account of the impact of its recommendations on the broader advertising market. I welcome that. I think the Minister is very well qualified in the role that he is in and I think he will be fair and objective.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Is díospóireacht iontach tábhachtach í seo. Ba cheart dom a admháil ag an tús gur chaith mé riar mhiath blianta ag obair in earnáil na meáin idir TG4, RTE agus mar sin de. Bhain mé an-sásamh as an obair sin.
Media is a major factor in shaping the ideas, opinions and debates on political, cultural and civil topics. Therefore, in a democratic society, the ownership of media has an important impact on how debates on issues of national and local importance are framed. In democracies, the source of political legitimacy rests on the citizens and their political choices. Since citizens have many political decisions on the information received from media, the media's role as a source of news and its ability to influence ideas translates into a capacity to shape governance. If media limits information or narrows the breadth of political debates, citizens are precluded from properly exercising their two political powers, and political control is more likely to shift to the hands of a single constituency or a small elite. This not only threatens the integrity of a democracy by limiting informed consent but also undermines the role of citizenry within democratic society.
Since the 1980s, across Europe there has been a move away from public broadcasting towards more private ownership of broadcast media. This has meant that newspaper companies were able to enter the broadcast media arena and create multimedia corporations, and we have seen examples of that here. A number of the larger players in Ireland have turned Ireland into profit centres where some of the bigger players, for example TV3 and 3e, have been bought out. They would be seen as profit centres and the profits from those will leave the country. UPC has been bought up and rebranded as Virgin Media. UTV Ireland was set up and we can see that that might be sold off in the future as well. It is all part of a global picture that we see around media ownership.
The advance of media online and news sources has furthered the reach of many of these media holding groups. In Ireland, in recent times, it appears that one particular player has attempted to gain control of a large portion of the media. As a result, it is clear that changes must be instituted to how media mergers are handled by Government. The current situation regarding media control in Ireland will remain the same because these new guidelines will not be applied retrospectively. Only mergers that are considered in the future will be under new scrutiny.
It is essential that Ireland has a diverse media. A diverse media should not be only defined as a variety of entertainments in a commercial media market but should also encourage political and civil discourse and the exchange of ideas. A free and open media requires that as many diverse voices as possible be heard and that areas such as the Irish language, gender representation and ethnic and religion minorities should be allowed adequate space in the media market.
It is important that we commend our national broadcaster, RTE, on the work that it does and the high quality that is broadcast to the Irish public. Caithfimid bheith cúramach freisin ó thaobh an ról atá ag RTE. An bhfuil an Rialtas chun stiúir a thabhairt dóibh le bheith mar chraoltóir náisiúnta, nó an bhfuil an Rialtas díreach ag féachaint ar an lucht féachana atá acu agus mar sin de? Is RTE only to be seen as a competitive profit-making entity or are we also going to look at the high quality of the programmes that it provides and the public service remit that it has? It has had some fantastic programmes over the years and recently its coverage of the GAA championship, its news and current affairs shows and dramas such as "Love/Hate" stand on an international stage. However, as RTE receives a substantial level of funding from the licence fee, it is not unreasonable for the Government to ensure that the public receives value for money from its broadcasts. High quality broadcasting should be seen as a priority and this is the direction that RTE should point itself in the future.
Maidir le cúrsaí Gaeilge, tá sé luaite cheana féin go bhfuil sár-jab amach is amach déanta ag TG4 ó thaobh cur chun cinn na Gaeilge le riar beag blianta anuas. Sílim go bhfuil éad ar chuid mhaith craoltóirí eile, ní hamháin anseo go náisiúnta ach go hidirnáisiúnta freisin, ar an gcaighdéan ard atá bainte amach ag TG4. Tá sé fíorthábhachtach aitheantas a thabhairt don ról sin agus don obair sin. Tá sé suntasach go bhfuil gearradh siar déanta ar an maoiniú do lucht TG4 in ainneoin cé chomh maith agus atá ag éirí leo agus cé chomh feiceálach agus chomh tarraingteach don Ghaeilge atá siad. Tá daoine ann a déarfadh gurb é an rud is fearr a tharla do chúrsaí Ghaeilge le blianta fada anuas ná bunú TG4. Is deacair dul ag troid leis sin. Nuair atá an Rialtas ag ullmhú do chomóradh an chéid 1916, caithfidh said breathnú ar an tábhacht a fheiceann siad leis an craoltóireacht Gaeilge inár féiniúlacht mar shochaí agus mar Phoblacht. Ar chóir don Rialtas, dá bhrí sin, tuilleadh tacaíochta a thabhairt do leithéidí TG4 mar gheall ar an ngean atá i measc an phobail orthu?
Ba mhaith liom rud eile a lua ó thaobh na craoltóireachta Gaeilge de. Tá an ciste craoltóireachta Gaeilge i dTuaisceart Éireann tar éis an-tacaíocht a thabhairt don earnáil físe ó Thuaidh. Tá TG4 ag baint buntáiste as sin freisin. Ba chóir don Rialtas níos mó brú a chur ar Rialtas na Breataine le cinntiú go bhfanfaidh an ciste tacaíochta sin ann. Tá an ciste iontach tábhachtach seo mar chuid de Chomhaontú Aoine an Chéasta.
Ní dóigh liom go raibh Raidió na Gaeltachta luaite beag ná mór go dtí seo. Silim go ndéantar beag is fiú den ról atá ag Raidió na Gaeltachta, i ndáiríre. Tá caighdeán idirnáisiúnta bainte amach ag na cláracha den chéad scoth, cláracha cúrsaí reatha ina measc, atá curtha le chéile ag Raidió na Gaeltachta ar mhaoiniú an-bheag. Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar an Aire agus an Aire Stáit ó thaobh an tsoláthair airgid atá ag Raidió na Gaeltachta. An dóigh leo go bhfuil dóthain maoinithe á fháil acu le leanacht leis an ardchaighdeán atá ann? An mbeadh sé i gceist acu go n-ardófaí an méid airgid a bhíonn ar fáil?
Is é an ról sonrach atá ag Raidió na Gaeltachta atá i gceist agam. Sílim go bhfuil siad thar a bheith tábhachtach sa phictiúr iomlán. Dá bhrí sin, cé go bhfáiltím roimh an polasaí nua Gaeilge atá á chur chun cinn ag RTE, tá ceist fíorthábhachtach ann i ndáiríre píre faoin ról seirbhíse poiblí vis-à-vis an ról tráchtála atá ag na meáin, agus an tionchar atá ag an gceist sin ar na polasaithe eagarthóireachta atá acu ó thaobh na nuachta agus cúrsaí reatha ach go háirithe.
I have listened carefully to what my colleagues have said. There have been some extremely interesting insights which will be very helpful to me in terms of surveying the legislative environment that exists and considering what type of changes it would be appropriate to make.
In the first instance, there is a philosophical debate about public service broadcasting. Although all of the contributions were excellent, Senator Mooney, with his background and knowledge of the area, and Senator Whelan did justice to the underlying philosophy that has always existed in respect of the funding of public service broadcasting. As I said to the committee this morning, it dates back through Governments of all hues and does not involve just this Administration. I state earlier that it dates back to the 1960s but, of course, we have had radio broadcasting from the 1920s. There has been an ethic of public service broadcasting running through the approach taken by all Governments throughout that period.
There are no issues that are off the table or that cannot be debated. However, and Senator Mulcahy probably put this at its sharpest, the notion that one would remove or abolish the licence fee and take away public funding for public service broadcasting has not been widely canvassed over the years. It is an argument the Senator is entitled to bring into the debate.
Personally, I believe it would be a huge pity if we decided to alter the perspective that all parties and people who are not members of any parties have always had on public service broadcasting. They have always recognised the importance of having, as Senator Whelan described it, the public service broadcaster - and, of course, it is not peculiar to it - stand up for high standards, strong content, quality broadcasting and editorial independence. These are all the qualities we associate with public service broadcasting and all the things we expect from it.
However, it must be funded in some way. The method of funding in this country is through a television licence fee. It is already an anachronism, because there is no radio licence. However, consider how enormously the world has changed since the 1960s and even since the introduction of commercial radio and television in Ireland. People use many different platforms to watch television, to say nothing of how they listen to radio. People can listen to radio on their mobile telephones. They can even listen to American radio stations on their telephones. The debate about a broadcasting charge has grown from this acknowledgement that the pattern of viewing, where people view their television, how they do so and all of the different devices they can employ to watch television have changed and expanded remarkably.
To return to the basic philosophy, if we are having a debate we must discuss all issues and admit all points of view. However, my strong view is that public service broadcasting is as important now as it ever has been. Arguably, it is even more important. It requires funding and the method of funding should be subject to debate in the Oireachtas, because the funding mechanism is a statutory one and this House has a role in setting down the law and changing it, if that is what we decide to do. That is my first general point.
The second point, arising from what Senator Mooney and others stated, relates to how, while recognising and upholding the importance of public service broadcasting, we recognise the critical role played by commercial broadcasters and in particular, although not solely, local radio stations and those outside the main cities, although Senator Mooney referred to those outside Dublin. We must recognise that many of those stations face real commercial pressures notwithstanding that they are commercial propositions. This is a point I made earlier and which irritates people sometimes but it must be made for the record. People came into a bidding process for a licence with their eyes wide open, knowing that this was a commercial proposition and that they would either rise or fall on that basis. They needed to make money and presumably they had a business plan to ensure that they would. That aside, and I do not wish to labour that point because it might not be helpful to remind people of it all of the time, let us consider how one could get more supports and recognition for commercial local radio. There are two ways. Either one reduces their overheads in some way or finds a way to ensure that their overheads or costs are reduced or else one finds ways of channelling more money to them. There are not many different ways of doing these things. People here and elsewhere have canvassed the idea of having more of the licence fee go to commercial stations and commercial radio. I will return to that in a moment.
The other option, as Senator Mooney and others have suggested - I raised it previously and prepared to debate its merits - would be to see if there is a case for the levy that is raised to fund the regulator coming from the licence fee, which would then remove the requirement for the stations to pay out or write a cheque, as it were, for the BAI periodically. I believe there is a case for that. The problem is that we have a limited pot at present in terms of the funds that derive from payment of the licence fee. We had this debate this morning in the committee. My view is that we would have to grow that pot before we could contemplate migrating the levy away from the broadcasters and into the licence fee fund. I believe there is a good case for it. It emphasises even more the need to look quickly at how we can increase compliance with payment of the licence fee. If the new broadcast charge is introduced, and I believe it will be, it will be down the road. It is certainly not something this Government will introduce, as we have made clear. It may well be that the next Government, whoever it will be, will consider it.
It is coming, but not very quickly, so we must work out ways in which we can increase compliance with payment of the licence fee. I intend to bring forward proposals in that respect. I have mentioned them previously. Until we grow that pot, we cannot really contemplate the idea that has been advocated, that the regulator be funded from the licence fee. Otherwise, one would have to reduce the funding that is going somewhere else.
That is very good. People have put that on the agenda and as far as I am concerned it is very much on the agenda. That is the idea for, as it were, seeing if there are ways the overhead could be reduced.
The other option is whether there are ways of channelling more money to the commercial broadcasters. This is where we get to the proposal or argument that more of the licence fee should go to the local radio stations. There is a conceptual problem here and a definitional one in respect of public service broadcasting and what it constitutes. We have been arguing about this for decades. What constitutes public service broadcasting? Can one come up with a definitive statement of what public service broadcasting is? The responsibilities of RTE in the context of its public service remit are set out in the Act. Can an individual programme, be it a sports, music or current affairs programme, be definitively categorised as either public service or not public service?
Many programmes are both. Many programmes have a commercial value. They can attract advertising because people want to listen to them and they are popular, so advertisers will advertise in them. They are commercial propositions. They are also fulfilling a public service remit. Sport is a perfect example. All of us would regard the coverage of sport as a public service, but sport is also where some of the biggest pots of money can be made in the commercial sector through the transmission of sports events.One could not say that a sporting event is either one or the other, or at least it would be very difficult to do that, but it would require one to do that because one would have to analyse each and every programme, or each and every strand of programming on each and every station, and try to ascertain how much public service broadcasting had been done and on that basis work out each company's entitlement to the licence fee. At a very basic level, it would be extremely difficult to do. One could ask why we have not done that historically or what approach has been taken previously. The approach that has been taken is not to spread the licence fee funding so thinly around the place and across all the players in the country that it might end up not counting for very much at all because it would be so dissipated. Historically, the licence fee has been regarded as existing to fund the public service broadcaster, namely, RTE and TG4. Historically, that is the decision that has been made, not by me, but that has been the approach taken by all Governments. The view is that what one needs to do is have a broadcaster with sufficient critical mass and independence to ensure that a menu, as it were, of public service programming, be it orchestras, as one speaker indicated, or sports would serve all of the audiences, not just audiences from whom a commercial return could easily be derived. The public service broadcaster has a responsibility. That is reflected in all the audiovisual directives in Europe. The BBC is the classic public service broadcaster. The remit is to serve all of the audiences, not just those that one can commercialise quickly. That has been the philosophy over the years. If we want to change it, we must be very careful about how we do so and about whether we can really define this or that programme on this or that station as having public service merit and is, therefore, deserving of a subsidy from the licence fee. That is the issue.
I agree that we must reduce the evasion rate. I have proposals which I will bring forward in that respect. Senator Mulcahy made some very strong and interesting points and I have touched on one or two of them already. To remove the licence fee would constitute an enormous change. It would be an immense change to the basis of our broadcasting regime. It would be a mistake because what we want is strong public service broadcasting side by side with, as another speaker - perhaps Senator Mooney - said, a thriving commercial sector. We want both. We must get away from the idea that it is one or the other, that it is a zero sum. It is not. We must maintain the objective of promoting both and trying to ensure that both thrive.
Senator Whelan set out the basis for why public service broadcasting has been funded and should continue to be funded. As he rightly said, that does not mean RTE should be immune from criticism or accountability. Some have criticised the Act as being overly onerous and detailed, but it contains the basis for very rigorous scrutiny of the public service broadcasters. The reason we have the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, and the reason we must fund the regulator is because there are so many elements to the accountability we require of the public service broadcasters. The BAI produces reports every year which are laid before the Oireachtas. The five-yearly report of a couple of years ago led to the NewERA report. I then had the Indecon report. There are constant reports and there has been considerable scrutiny of RTE for many years, in particular on the financial side in recent years.
It is not my role to trespass into the area of programming, and I will not do so, other than to say there is a robust regime in place in respect of complaints and in respect of complaints being brought to the compliance committee of the BAI. We know that complaints are brought because we periodically hear the BAI reporting on those complaints. Speakers are correct in saying that RTE is not and cannot be immune to criticism. It must be prepared to take criticism. I agree with the Senator in that regard.
I have much sympathy for what Senator Whelan said about Oireachtas TV and Saorview, and others raised the point as well. There is a provision in section 130 of the Act which provides for the possibility of ministerial intervention. However, at the same time, there is a recent decision of ComReg in respect of regulating those kinds of tariffs under a European directive. There is a legal question as to the relationship between my power under the Act and that of ComReg to regulate the tariffs. I have been asked to address the issue and to intervene. I hope we will be able to resolve the matter quickly. We are taking legal advice as to whether the powers I have under the Act override the provisions that now arise in respect of the European directive or vice versa. Once we have that advice, we will be able to respond to the Senator and to the Ceann Comhairle of the other House. That is the position in relation to Saorview.
Senator Ó Domhnaill also raised the philosophical question of whether it is right that one station, RTE, should be the recipient or beneficiary of the licence fee. That is exactly the point we are debating here. That has been the basis of our funding regime for public service broadcasting for a considerable period and if we want to change it, we must be very clear about what we want to replace it with and how or on what basis we would seek to divide up such scarce funding that comes from the licence fee. I do not hear anybody arguing for an increase in the licence fee. I was listening carefully and nobody mentioned that.
I can take it there is consensus on there being no interest in the licence fee increasing. That being the case, therefore, the pot of funding is a limited one, until such time as we manage to enhance compliance and bring in more money.
That is right. In fairness to Senator Mulcahy, and in the spirit of debating the matter with him, I do not wish to sound like I am being remotely dismissive of any of the issues being raised but a temporary reduction in funding means a temporary reduction in services. It affects staff, jobs, programmes and services, what goes and for how long it should go. It means all of those things. We just need to look at the implications of any of those proposals.
I agree with the points Senator Ó Clochartaigh made on TG4 and Raidió na Gaeltachta. There is a direct nexus between the Minister and TG4 in terms of the funding but not between the Minister and Raidió na Gaeltachta, which is funded by RTE from within the limits of the funding available to it.
We discussed media merger guidelines in the legislation at considerable length last year when I published the guidelines. The guidelines are just the guidelines; they follow the legislation. As Senator Whelan pointed out, the critical decision of the Oireachtas in respect of how to approach the issue was made in the legislation, which was in July 2014. The guidelines simply follow that. As to the question of how the guidelines will work, in time they can work, and they will be seen to work.It is the first time any Government has addressed media ownership, concentration and media mergers. I am confident these guidelines will work and we must give them time to do so. Does the Acting Chairman wish me to wrap up?