Tuesday, 23 May 2017
Public Service Broadcasting: Statements
I thank the Seanad for the invitation to discuss the funding of public broadcasting. The opportunity to discuss our views on public broadcasting and its funding is both timely and welcome. Senators will be aware that I have asked the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment to consider the future funding of our public service media and, indeed, how we might define that media. I also look forward to hearing Members’ views on this important issue today.
Internationally, the broadcasting sector has seen enormous change due to the growth of digital and online technologies. Audiences now expect to be able to view or listen to whatever they want, whenever they want and usually at no extra cost. Traditional broadcasters, both public and commercial, face increasing competition from large international players and need to adapt quickly to maintain their relevance, audience and commercial revenues. The Irish market faces the same challenges as an ever-increasing number of non-Irish channels compete for audience share and advertising revenues. Competition from UK opt-out channels is having a serious impact on the viability of Irish services. Brexit also had a significant effect on commercial revenue in the latter half of 2016. The increasing importance of online platforms and the use of hand-held devices are impacting on Irish broadcasters’ audiences and revenues. In the case of public service broadcasters, these issues are affecting licence fee revenues. Online advertising revenue is now greater than television advertising revenue in Ireland, as it is in Europe. The consensus is that commercial revenues are unlikely to return to where they were before the downturn. The increasing use of mobile data and improving broadband penetration will continue to drive greater choice for consumers.
Despite all this, our television and radio services have shown themselves to be resilient in the face of these challenges. Irish people still watch a great deal of live television, averaging over three hours a day. We also listen to a lot of radio, with eight out of ten adults listening on average to almost four hours per day. It is not all bad news. Even so, our broadcasters must adapt and remain agile enough to respond to the changing environment. As legislators, we need to consider carefully what we want our future media environment to look like and how it is to be funded.
Irish audiences need and value strong, independent public service media. In return for public funding, there are various standards that we expect, including high-quality broadcasting and editorial independence. As politicians, we expect a fair hearing on the issues which matter to us.More than ever, we need trusted sources of information, with balanced evidence-based comment and opinion. Despite the challenges they face, we expect our broadcasters to provide high-quality programming that reflects our common experience and provides an Irish perspective on events and current affairs.
RTE plays a central role in raising public awareness and in helping to provide our society with a sense of culture and identity. It is a major provider of jobs and training, and a source of skills and expertise for the wider sector and of programme commissions for the independent production sector. The success of the 2016 commemorative programme and, more recently, Cruinniú na Cásca over the Easter period show how successfully RTE can engage with the public beyond its traditional role.
Having celebrated its 20th birthday last year, TG4 continues to provide significant support for the development of the Irish language independent production sector, Irish sport and cultural bodies and the Gaeltacht-based local economy. It supports the 20-year strategy for the Irish language and the promotion and development of the Irish language with children and young people and provides a worldwide Irish language service through the TG4 player and online services.
Crucially, of course, this all requires funding. The serious challenges I have outlined, alongside significant falls in public funding, have caused RTE's revenue to drop by over €100 million since 2008. TG4 has also suffered cuts in its public funding levels in recent years and is facing a major challenge to maintain or increase its audience numbers and commercial revenue. Given the real and urgent pressures faced by our broadcasters, my priority has been to bring forward amendments to the existing regime. I want to be realistic and believe that amendments to the existing television licence regime provide the best chance of stabilising funding in the short term.
I believe that the licence fee remains for now the most appropriate way of funding these services. Obviously, there are issues with this model. Evasion is high, at 13.75%, and the existing licence does not take account of the new ways audiences are choosing to access public service media. There is also a lack of public support for any alternative funding model. I made a judgment at an early stage that the Oireachtas would not pass legislation introducing a household broadcasting charge in any form. I also thought a licence fee increase unlikely. Since then, I have secured an additional €6 million allocation for licence fee funding in the budget. This begins to reverse the cuts in public funding that the public service broadcasters were subject to over the past few years.
I recently submitted legislative proposals which would allow for the appointment of a television licence agent by public tender. Experience in the UK has shown that this can significantly reduce evasion. It is my intention that the post office network should remain central to the sale of television licences. An Post has made it clear to my Department that it finds the current television licence arrangements a burden and, in that context, would be keen to be able to tender for the new television licence agency role on a more commercial footing. These proposals will be considered further by the joint Oireachtas committee as part of its pre-legislative process.
Of course, commercial and community broadcasters are facing many of the same challenges. The independent radio sector and community radio stations have been raising important questions about how we define public service broadcasting and about how, in its widest sense, it might be supported in the longer term. As a rural TD, I have a good grasp of the important public service contribution of both commercial and community radio stations around the country. They play a vital role in providing local news and in maintaining the fabric of rural society. However, the changing marketplace, alongside levy payments and the cost of news and current affairs obligations, places the longer-term viability of some of these services at risk. In recent years, the Sound and Vision scheme has provided a degree of support. To assist further, I am proposing that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland may be allocated public funding from the television licence receipts towards meeting its operating expenses. The BAI would be given greater scope to grant exemptions, deferrals or reductions in the levy for individual broadcasters or classes of broadcaster. I have also proposed the creation of a new funding scheme that would allow the granting of bursaries to journalists in local or community radio stations. This would he administered by the BAI much like the current Sound and Vision scheme.The financial situation for Irish media organisations is now extremely serious and we need to make choices. At a time when they need to transition and adapt to the new realities, our public service broadcasters are struggling to meet their objectives under the Broadcasting Act. The BAI’s funding reviews make this clear. Failure to act and provide a secure and reliable funding stream will only bring a further decline in the relevance, audiences and viability of our broadcasters. We need to provide a meaningful commitment to our public broadcasters. They need adequate funding if they are to be able to compete, to commission Irish programming and to help build a successful independent production sector. For these reasons, I have decided to try to amend the existing TV licence regime to improve the level of funding available as quickly as possible. Longer term, it is doubtful that the current system will be able to provide adequate funding to sustain viable public service media. Therefore, through my engagement with the joint committee and in the Seanad today, I hope to prompt a discussion about where we want our public service media to be in five to ten years' time and how it will be funded.
Irish audiences need to be at the heart of our thinking. Some Members of this House will be familiar with the Creative Ireland programme which holds that culture and creativity are the greatest assets of any society. It is our duty to do everything we can to unleash the full creative potential of our people. The same programme notes the significant opportunity for Ireland to be an international leader in media production. We need to ensure that the resources are there to allow that to happen. I look forward to hearing Senator's views.
I welcome the Minister and his officials to the House. The Minister's portfolio is very broad and broadcasting is only one aspect of it. The Minister must also deal with climate change and other significant issues. That said, broadcasting is a hot potato at the moment. RTE is selling land and hopes to realise €80 to €90 million, which should help. I note that issues have been raised with regard to directing that money elsewhere but in fairness, the money should be directed at broadcasting, if not solely at RTE. I note the Minister's support for local radio and I am sure he will agree that we are very well served with Shannonside Radio, Midwest Radio and Galway Bay FM in our area-----
Yes, of course. They are providing a very good service but there is no recognition for their current affairs and news programmes, which are very expensive to produce. Those stations are surviving on things like the death notices, which are one of their biggest sources of revenue. They are competing with RTE for advertising revenue.
I note that in 2015 RTE got €178 million from the television licence and €155 million from advertising, bringing its income to €333 million, which is a lot of money. There is a large number of staff in RTE. It has a public service obligation and it pays for several orchestras as well as for TG4 and several radio stations. RTE is an outstanding public broadcaster. Last Sunday I watched its latest drama which was home produced, in conjunction with the BBC. It is proving very popular and is attracting a large audience. "The Late Late Show" also attracts a fantastic audience because it is live, current and lively. RTE also has some tremendous broadcasters. I know that they are expensive and people complain regularly about the cost of paying certain broadcasters. The broadcasters in receipt of the highest salaries complain about the salaries of Senators and Deputies regularly, although their own salaries are more than generous. I note agreement has been reached on further cuts to the budget in RTE as the broadcaster is in pretty dire straits at the moment.
The Minister has rejected the idea of collecting money from people with mobile devices and I think he is right because it would be practically uncollectible. People can have mobile devices in their cars or elsewhere and tracing them would be very difficult. I would be concerned if the Minister were to transfer responsibility for the collection of the television licence fee from An Post. When I was in the then Department of Post and Telegraphs many years ago, we always fought for that. I do not see why An Post is so enthusiastic about tendering for this particular provision and I would ask the Minister to elaborate on that. Why is An Post so enthusiastic about a tendering system when it is now in charge of the collection? The percentage is going down every year. We have to come up with ways of counteracting this. I note that a campaign is running at the moment relating to the television licence, which references Terry's hot tubs. While it is a rather funny advertisement, it is not very clear. I would urge the Minister to consider an amnesty for a number of months. People who do not currently have a licence could be given a certain amount of time to get one, regardless of how long they have had their television and be assured that they will not be pursued through the courts. I make that suggestion to the Minister, respectfully. There was an tax amnesty at one stage in the past which was very successful.
Anyway, it proved not to be as successful as we thought because some of those who availed of the amnesty were still hiding away their money.
Everyone who has a television has electricity in his or her home and the Minister is also responsible for the electricity supply. The two run in parallel. The Minister might be told that he cannot, under data protection rules, provide the information. I know that the ESB does not have all the connections now because of privatisation and other issues. It would has its own lists but the combined list is there. If everybody could give that extra support for the licence it would ensure the continuation of high quality broadcasting, which is very expensive. The service provided by RTE 1 and RTE 2 is very good, although I would have no objection to RTE 2 being privatised. It is surplus to requirements. Apart from its sports coverage, it does not provide much. I would also appeal to Irish companies to advertise on Irish television and radio. I regularly see advertisements for supermarkets on Sky television but Sky is not generating any income here, as far as I know. It had a team in Ireland at one point but I do not think that is the case anymore.
As far as current affairs are concerned, RTE has made some terrible mistakes. I am thinking in particular of the Fr. Reynolds case, which was a gigantic error. RTE must be very careful when it comes to current affairs broadcasting and must ensure it gets its facts right. I would not be impressed by the entrapment tactics used with regard to public representatives. A form of inducement was given to entrap people but that is not the job of RTE. If there is corruption in the system, then An Garda Síochána should deal with it. That is not the responsibility of RTE. That being said, I would like to commend RTE for its work on the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, which was extremely good. Since RTE covered the visit of President John F. Kennedy to Ireland in 1963, its outside broadcasting production has been exemplary. Next year the Pope is coming to Ireland and RTE will have another opportunity to show how good it is at covering such events.
The Minister has responsibility for RTE. I know his heart is in the right place and that he is trying to work with the organisation to ensure its survival. I was one of the first people to publicly oppose section 31 of the Broadcasting Act many years ago. I got into political trouble over that at the time.
I could never understand how a system could disbar people, of whatever view, from being broadcast. They were getting more publicity by virtue of not being broadcast while not having to justify their actions at that time.
I welcome the opportunity to comment on the important matter of the future of broadcasting and how we will fund it into the future. Senator Terry Leyden is correct that the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, has a very wide brief that includes communications which we are discussing, post offices and climate change. It includes everything, except water, but I believe that is on the way to being included.
How we are going to fund the national broadcaster and broadcasting into the future is an important issue and there are options we must consider. There is controversy about how to deal with the licence fee. Technology is changing by the day in many ways. Many of the houses I visit do not have a television. It is not because people are hippies of some type or do not believe in having a television but how they live their lives. Everything is done on an iPad or the phone. We must engage with it and how technology has changed rapidly. One of the key initiatives in which the Minister is involved is the roll-out of broadband. When that happens, the number of electronic tablets used in Ireland will increase dramatically. There will be a huge change in how our society communicates with the outside world in the area of entertainment. It is happening at a rapid rate.
A new level of funding or a new funding model is required to deal with these issues. We might be changing how we will collect the television licence fee, but five or ten years hence will there be a need for such a collection service and will the television licence be a part of Irish society at all? Will we have moved on to electronic means of communication through the hand-held devices we use at present? That is probably what will happen and how we deal with it will be the most important issue. I have a six year old and a seven year old at home and it is iPads for everything. They do not even have to watch the television any more because it is all on their iPads. That is how the next generation is being reared. How we deal with this and how RTE can be funded will be key considerations.
As an entity, RTE has a very good public affairs element and is good in the regions. However, how to sustain it into the future will be a major problem. Unfortunately, the current funding model is broken. RTE is selling land to pay for programming and pay off some of its debt. When one must go to the level of selling property, the model is broken. The big challenge will be how we can fund it in the future. Other Senators may have mentioned pay rises and the salaries some of the major presenters receive. Ireland has a population of 4.5 million people. If they want competition, they can go to the United Kingdom, but there is no internal competition for that amount of money to be spent on presenters. There should be a dramatic cap on pay. Given the size of the population, the amount of money they are receiving is not logical. Major reform and change are required in dealing with that important issue. There is a sense that although this is not London, RTE is paying London prices. Why is that happening? That will be an important element of how RTE reforms itself in order that the general public and politicians can have confidence in what it will do into the future. We need it to be sustainable and an appropriate broadcaster, but we must also deal with its current inappropriate financial position.
Another issue the Minister mentioned was the future direction of local radio services. That is an important part of where the broadcasting industry is going. The important services and stations are the heart and soul of many communities. The Government and the Department must ensure they do what they can to support them. If we cannot keep them going, we will lose part of our culture. Previously, we had radio stations that were unregulated, but these small stations are regulated and provide local news that is closely followed. It is an important part of the service they provide. Local sports news is also an important part of it. Considering what both RTE and local broadcasters provide, the issue is about getting the balance right to ensure we keep all of them going. That will be a big challenge in the next few years.
Broadcasting has always been a changing dynamic but now more than ever. The change we have seen in the past few years will accelerate in the next few years and our policies must move with it. If we do not move with it, the services will become out of date, just as the technology has become out of date.
I wish the Minister well with his brief. He has a great understanding of it but urgent measures are required to ensure we can have a sustainable national broadcaster and local media outlets which are under great pressure and need the Government's help.
Tá céad fáilte roimh an Aire. Fáiltím go mór roimh an díospóireacht thar a bheith tábhachtach seo. Ba cheart dom a rá ag an tús go raibh ceangal agam le RTE agus le TG4 sna blianta a caitheadh agus mé ag obair dóibh i rólanna éagsúla. I should declare a former interest in respect of both RTE and TG4 as I worked for both organisations at times during the years. I was working in soap opera, but sometimes there is more soap opera on the Seanad stage-----
This is an important debate. It is important to discuss the role of public service broadcasters. Fáiltím roimh an méid atá ráite ag an Aire, go háirithe faoin ról atá ag na meáin Gaeilge ó thaobh an tseirbhís phoiblí agus an méid atá á dhéanamh acu. Labhróidh mé fúthu ar dtús.
It is worrying to hear that there will be up to 250 redundancies in RTE because the crux for public service broadcasting is finding the talent and quality of the people required to deliver it. The discussion on public service broadcasting covers a range of areas. There are television and digital services, but there are also ancillary services such as choirs and orchestras, the diverse programming on Lyric FM and Raidió na Gaeltachta, children's programming, Longwave 252 and so forth. These different services are crucial and would not be provided by a commercial provider because it would not be economical to do so. However, that is not to say they are not extremely valuable to the country and who we are as a nation.
I welcome the rationality the Minister has brought to the debate on the communications fee that was mooted. He has re-thought the matter, which is important. We intend to make submissions to the committee in that regard. I note that concerns are being raised by the National Union of Journalists, NUJ, about the quality of journalism in a post-redundancies RTE if 250 jobs are lost and, depending on where people will be lost, how it will affect the staff who remain and the quality of the services they can provide.
Ba mhaith liom an deis seo a ghlacadh an chraoltóireacht trí mheán na Gaeilge a lua. B'fhéidir nach luaitear é go minic. Sílim go bhfuil moladh thar na bearta ag dul go dtí TG4, ach go háirithe, agus freisin go dtí na soláthraithe atá ag déanamh cláir san earnáil neamhspleách. Tá scoth na gcláracha á sholáthar. The recent Celtic Media Festival awards show, once again, how high the quality of programming is, not just in Irish programming in English but also in the Irish language media programmes that have been produced. A number of awards were given recently at the festival on the Isle of Man. "Is Éolaí Mé" produced by Meangadh Fíbín Teo won an award at the event, as did "Eoin Mac Néill: Fear Dearmadta 1916". That is not uncommon. The programmes regularly win awards. The broadcasters in Raidió na Gaeltachta also regularly compete with other public service broadcasters, as well as broadcasters across the islands and come out on top. Ba mhaith liom ceann de na ceisteanna móra maidir le TG4 a ardú. Tá gá ann airgeadú ilbhliantúil a chur faoin gcraolachán poiblí sin. Ní féidir le haon eagras pleanáil stuama a dhéanamh gan chinnteacht faoin gcistíocht a bheidh ar fáil dóibh.Multi-annual funding for TG4 is certainly an issue. It is very difficult to plan with year on year funding, and we need to look at that.
Tá éacht laethúil á dhéanamh ag TG4 ar son na Gaeilge agus ar son an chraolacháin poiblí ach níl aon chinnteacht ann d'aon chineál aige maidir leis an maoiniú a gheobhaidh sé ón Aire ó bhliain go bliain. Tá go leor cainte déanta faoi seo ach teastaíonn gníomh go práinneach. I hope the Minister will act on that rather than just talk about it.
Tuigim go bhfuil na craoltóirí poiblí ag dréachtú plean straitéiseach ilbhliantúil faoi láthair chomh maith. Is maith iad na pleananna agus is ceart iad a bhreithniú go cúramach nuair a chuirfear ar fáil iad. Ní fiú tada an saothar seo ar fad muna bhfuil an tAire agus an Rialtas sásta maoiniú dóthánach ilbhliantúil a sholáthar lena chur i bhfeidhm.
On the five year strategies the different broadcasters are preparing, those of us who speak the Irish language know all about 20 year strategies. However, issues arise to do with funding and the resources being provided. I welcome the fact that these strategies are being prepared, but we need to see the Government putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to resources being made available.
Tá gá freisin le straitéis Rialtais don chraolachán poiblí agus don earnáil chruthaitheach i coitinne. Beidh sé suimiúil a fheiceáil céard a fhásfaidh as an síol atá curtha le Creative Ireland, ach ní fiú tráithnín é muna gcuireann an Rialtas cistíocht ar fáil lena fhás ar bhealach comhordaithe. Tá cumas ar leith ag an earnáil craolacháin in Éirinn ról lárnach a imirt i bhforbairt eacnamaíoch na tíre, sna réigiúin agus sa Ghaeltacht ach go háirithe. Chonaic muid 25 bliain ó shin an ról lárnach ceannródaíoch a d'imir Údarás na Gaeltachta san obair ullmhúcháin agus oiliúna do bhunú Theilifís na Gaeilge. An measann an tAire go bhféadfaí sin a dhéanamh inniu? Ní dóigh liom é mar gheall ar an easpa airgid ó thaobh Údarás na Gaeltachta.
It was visionary that TG4 was set up-----
-----in the Connemara Gaeltacht. Great credit goes to Máire Geoghegan-Quinn and Michael D. Higgins in that regard. However, Údarás na Gaeltachta had a crucial role to play because even before TG4 was set up, it set up training courses to make sure there were people available to work in the services when they came around; I attended one of those courses years ago. I do not know whether we could do that now because of the huge cutbacks in the likes of Údarás na Gaeltachta, but if we are to keep up with all the movements in the digital media, we will need to make sure people are trained in those areas.
Tá ardstiúrthóir nua ar TG4, Alan Esslement, fear den scoth. Failtím roimh an cheapachán sin. Creidim nach fada go mbeidh ceannaire nua á cheapadh ar RTE Raidió na Gaeltachta. Guím chuile rath orthu agus tá siúl agam go bhfaighfidh siad an tacaíocht is gá.
When does the Minister expect that a new head of Raidio na Gaeltachta will be appointed? Edel Ní Chuireáin did very good work over the years. I wish her well in her new role in Doirí Beaga, but we would like to make sure that a new appointee is put in place in Raidio na Gaeltachta as soon as possible.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an polasaí Gaeilge atá foilsithe ag RTE féin ó thaobh na meán Gaeilge freisin. Ar ndóigh, déanann sé normalú ar an Ghaeilge sa tseirbhís ar fad.
Many people might have picked up on the fact that they are hearing more presenters and so on using a few words of Irish here and there throughout RTE's services. That has not happened by accident. It is part of a positive strategy as regards the Irish language in RTE, which I welcome.
Feicim chomh maith go bhfuil forbairtí déanta ó thaobh digiteacha - go bhfuil comhordaitheoir ceaptha ó thaobh cursaí digiteacha, go bhfuil níos mó á dhéanamh ó thaobh na meáin shóisialta agus go bhfuil go leor cláir i nGaeilge le feiceáil ar RTE Jr., rud atá go maith.
It is important that in any new model RTE undertakes we would see a specific percentage of programmes being commissioned through the Irish language to ensure that we see programming as Gaeilge across all the different services.
Could the Minister tell us more about the other broadcasters that are broadcasting into Ireland from outside the State? Is there any way she can see that we might be able to levy them to pay something towards the cost of public service broadcasting in this State?
As our spokesperson for the diaspora, I have to mention Longwave 252, which is raised with me on a regular basis when I travel abroad, particularly to Britain. The continuation of that service for the older Irish, particularly those in England, Scotland and Wales, is hugely important. I must say also that RTE's digital services are a huge resource for our Irish diaspora across the globe, and they welcome those.
I have one question. Tá ról lárnach ag an Aire ó thaobh comhlíonadh an straitéis 20 bliain. The Minister mentioned the 20 year strategy for the Irish language. How many times has he and the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, met to discuss the 20 year strategy, and his Department's role in that? It is a crucial role and I would like to see it developed.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Naughten. Thousands of people are visually impaired, blind, deaf and hard of hearing, and they are part of the public to be served. The Minister stated that he believes Irish audiences need and value strong, independent public service media. I absolutely agree with him. However, taking into account the Government's intention to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the public duty, people with hearing or visual impairment are also members of the public to be equally served. It is not just the person who is blind or deaf. It is also their families. Sometimes I watch "Gogglebox" and the enjoyment families get from watching television together is fascinating.
The targets set by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland for both Irish sign language and audio description for the respective cohorts in the Irish television service are embarrassingly small. This year, RTE One and RTE 2 have a target of 2.25% for Irish sign language while RTEjr has a target of 1.25%. That will increase next year by 0.25%, but it is still extremely modest. Percentage wise, audio description targets for RTE One and RTE 2 are the same as those for Irish sign language, but RTEjr has a higher target of 4% this year, and it will be 5% next year. The same increases are projected for audio description broadcasts. There appears to be no requirement for TV3, be3 or 3e to provide either Irish sign language or audio description services for deaf and visually impaired communities.
I have three questions for the Minister. First, can he advise the House as to the reason the targets for Irish sign language and audio description broadcasts are so low? Second, can he advise as to whether the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has any plans to require the TV3 suite of channels to commence audio description broadcasts? I understand that some of the soaps it broadcasts already have that facility when broadcast in the United Kingdom.
Third, I ask that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland would direct television broadcasters to instruct continuity announcers and teams to advise people when a programme has an audio description facility built into it. It would take five or six seconds to do, but it would be a practical way to assist people.
I look forward to the Minister's Department making substantial progress on these issues in the next year. I hope he would have an eye to the budget regarding that matter.
The Minister is very welcome to the Chamber. I am a huge believer in and defender of public service broadcasting, and in general I am supportive of what RTE does in that regard. I would be critical of it in my remarks purely because I have such high expectations for the standard of broadcasting RTE gives to this country.
I agree with what Senator Dolan said about diversity because I want to speak to diversity in terms of RTE's programming. I believe RTE needs to take the gender equality issue more seriously.We must address the issue of all-male panels. It is sometimes very difficult to have a handle on how best to promote diversity among presenters of various shows, as the BBC has done. Panel presenters, who are the face of Ireland and RTE, are still predominantly white. This has to be addressed. While it may be challenging to address in terms of various ethnic backgrounds, it is not as challenging to address the gender issue. It is still really unacceptable that a number of panels, be it in political programming or sports programming, are so dominated by men. No matter what a programme is about, having six, seven or even more men discussing it just has to end. I have often been on panels and mentioned that it was an all-male discussion. The researchers often say they did their best. It is not good enough any more to say one did one's best. The practice of having all-male discussions has to be terminated.
The issues of gender equality and having role models in our national broadcaster must be addressed such that young Irish children from diverse backgrounds, be they Irish-Polish, Irish-Nigerian or Irish Traveller, can say, "That person reflects who I am." The national broadcaster should proactively seek presenters who are the face of this country and regularly give opportunities to express viewpoints.
A creeping issue concerning some of our political programming, particularly our flagship programming, is our giving of platforms to people whom I would describe as little more than cartoon racists. I do not understand why flagship political programmes in RTE feel the need, in order to have entertainment value and ignite a row, to give a platform to dangerous people with dangerous viewpoints and no political mandate at all. Sometimes they are shipped in from abroad. These are people whose nastiness and vitriol are likely to have a very damaging effect on Irish society, yet they are given a platform for the purpose of ratings. I do not expect much from other broadcasters but I do expect a lot more from RTE. If "Claire Byrne Live" or the "The Late Late Show" are to give a platform to a cartoon racist, a comic-book racist, we have to call it out. It is not good enough. It may be good for ratings but it is not good for society. The Minister needs to be very clear on that.
I welcome the Minister to the House. He has a very wide-ranging and challenging brief. I wish him the very best in that.
I have no great problem with the sale of land at Montrose but we need a whole-of-government approach to housing and housing in the capital city. One major developer's proposal, Project Montrose, is to put 500 apartments on the site. In many ways, this is within the scope of the development plan. Again, I have no great problem with it but I suggest to the Minister that he take a quick look at Poolbeg west or the old Irish Glass Bottle site, where the receivers have agreed to a proportion of social and affordable housing, including for rental, of up to 25%. I ask the Minister for a whole-of-government approach to the shortage of housing in the city and to consider a condition of sale stipulating that up to 30% of housing in the sale be social and affordable, including for rental. Everybody knows Donnybrook is one of the very wealthy areas but it also has Home Villas and Beech Hill, which were local authority housing. I very much urge the Minister to act on this.
I am a great admirer of RTE and that is why I try to hold it to account in this House. The director general got off to a very bad start when she was before the committee and failed to mention the closure of children's television. She did not even inform the group of unions within RTE, although it had been agreed with RTE. One can get over a bad start. One must hold RTE to account in this House without fear. Some Members raised the point with me today that they are a little fearful about holding RTE to account.
One must hold RTE to account in regard to its editorial coverage of the news. In early April, RTE covered semi-State companies and their bonuses. I ask the Minister to examine the freedom of information questions I put to RTE about its performance-related employment. In the vast majority of the questions I asked, there was a ruling against me. I have appealed. RTE has covered other semi-State companies on the same issue in a very derogatory way so I actually gave it a taste of its own medicine, to a degree. Unfortunately, I did not get the answers.
Let me address a recent occurrence concerning social media. RTE has a legal obligation regarding fairness. RTE issued social media guidelines in 2013. This probably followed on from what happened to Senator Norris during the presidential election campaign. The guidelines were reissued and updated in 2015. I find it extremely unacceptable and disappointing that the head of news would actually tweet on the future leader of Fine Gael. It is of no account to me or Senator Norris but it certainly relates to whoever will be the next Taoiseach. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the director general or chairman of the RTE board has not given some comfort in regard to the standards. I can understand that what occurred was a mistake and that the information was taken down quickly. We have to be confident, however, because RTE has a very important place in our society. It is the dominant news agency in this country. When the head of news tweets in such a manner – I admit it was taken down quickly – the Minister must put questions to the chairman of the RTE board and the director general. They must make it very clear that they will cover political discussion in society in a fair and impartial way, as RTE is legally obliged to do. I would be very interested in hearing the Minister's response on this issue, which has arisen only in recent days.
I welcome the Minister to the House. It is vital that we have a national broadcasting service. I want to speak today strongly in favour of RTE even though, as Senator Humphreys half indicated, I am partly responsible for the mess it is in. I have just received very substantial damages on foot of a libel action I took against RTE in the aftermath of the presidential election. It is extremely important that we have a national broadcaster. I am old enough to remember when RTE was Raidió Éireann and broadcasting from the GPO.
We have tremendous programmes, including RTE news, "Nationwide", "Prime Time" and "The Late Late Show". There are wonderful broadcasters, who have included Anne Doyle and Gay Byrne, Aengus Mac Grianna and Eileen Dunne. I send my best wishes to Gay Byrne on his recent health problems.
Let me refer to RTE's different stations. TG4 is the best station in this country. It has the most remarkable documentaries and the best films. It is really marvellous. Consider also the way RTE keeps the orchestra going. Lyric FM is a superb station.
In political terms, there tends to be nowadays an arrogant, invasive series of hosts of political programmes who project themselves as the stars of those programmes. They trample all over Ministers and they do not give a damn about absolutely anybody.
It was a great mistake for RTE to outsource children's programming. I understand that has been reversed and I am very glad if it has.
The Minister said An Post made it clear it finds the current TV licence regime a burden. Do the post offices get a rake-off for selling TV licences?
It could be increased. There should be a universal radio and television licence. Every citizen should pay. I do not give a damn if they listen to the radio or watch television through a filling in their tooth, as they are all listening or watching. It does not matter a damn to me how they do so. Somebody mentioned electronic radio. It is all electronic and has been since the introduction of the wireless in 1922.
I am very glad that RTE kept its Longwave 252 service. It is absolutely essential. I receive so many communications from elderly people living in England saying it is their connection with the homeland. It must, therefore, be kept. We also ought to keep the Angelus as it is still a Christian country. I would have liked the old Christian Angelus. As a member of the Church of Ireland, I strongly object to Protestants being used as a an excuse for getting rid of it, as most of us like it. It is part of our Christian heritage.
Selling land is grand, but it is a once-off trick. It can only be done once and is not a solution to the problem. Nobody should get away with suggesting it is. I speak strongly in favour of RTE which deserves every penny it gets. Of course, I also support local radio which I point out was vital in saving Seanad Éireann. During the debate I went on every single provincial local radio station and received thousands of emails from people saying they thanked God that they had heard me, that they did not know what was going on and that they were going to vote against its abolition. They said they had heard me on Shannonside FM, Clare FM or Louth Meath FM and then understood the situation and that they were going to vote to save the Seanad.
The question of broadcasting is so important.
Let me make one final point. Standards of broadcasting are just extraordinary. Sometimes when I am twiddling the dial I hear language the likes of which one would not hear in a brothel. The views people feel free to come out with on the airwaves are shocking. I am not in favour of censorship, but I have to say I sometimes lie in bed and laugh at the things people say. It is, however, pretty disgusting. For that reason, I thank God for RTE. It keeps standards up and let us keep the Angelus. Why not Christianise it a little more? The bland secular thing from the Limerick School of Art and Design or the somebody else school of design is hogwash. It is and should remain Christian and I will strongly support it.
In the last Dáil I was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications. Therefore, I have an interest in this subject. Public service broadcasting is hugely important and it is hugely important that it be balanced and fair. At times there is a blurring of the line between what I would call entertainment and politics. For the most part, current affairs and news coverage is fair and balanced, but sometimes broadcasters on entertainment programmes steer into the area of politics. In the main current affairs programme interviewers know what they are talking about, but entertainment programme broadcasters who are usually the higher paid do not have a clue what they are talking about when it comes to politics. I know that complaints about "The Ray D'Arcy Show" have been upheld on numerous occasions. I very much enjoy Oliver Callan as a comedian and think politicians take to him as we do not mind being mimicked, although I would not be among the echelons subject to it.
In recent times I have seen the same comedian on programmes discussing serious political issues. I do not know whether he is a comedian, an analyst, a pundit or whatever else, but he cannot be all of them. I have seen this problem not just on RTE but also on other national stations and it is an important matter to raise.
It is welcome that the local radio broadcasting levy is being done away with, eased or whatever the case may be. It was a major issue in recent years because local radio stations were involved in public service broadcasting. The big issue is there has never been an exact definition of public service broadcasting. As other Senators said, RTE did a fantastic job in covering the 1916 Rising commemorations, in particular. It commemorated the centenary in a very dignified way into which people, no matter what side of the divide they were on, could buy. That was very laudable. As has been said here, local radio stations play a huge part in public service broadcasting, for which, in fact, they had to pay a broadcasting levy. I am glad that it has been alleviated or removed altogether in certain cases.
Of course, there are challenges with the licensing model. I am glad that the Minister has stated An Post should still be central to any new model because. It is another part of his brief, of which I know he is very conscious, and it was a concern of mine. As regards not having a broadcasting charge, I wonder if there are other ways by which it could be done. Obviously, another charge might not go down well, but at the end of the day if people are buying tablets or whatever else, there should be some way of charging them. I do not think they would object if it was done in the right way. There is no reason a charge could not be implemented because life is changing so much, when one considers the introduction of digital media and so on. The charge, whatever it is, needs to this into account.
I welcome the Minister and endorse what has been said about the value of public service broadcasting. I disagree with virtually nothing that has been said, although a few of the comments have been colourful. One of the major functions of public service broadcasting is to act as a counterbalance to the counter-factual news spread on social media. In keeping up standards of public education through the media, public service broadcasting has an invaluable role to play. In its description of the right to free speech the Constitution acknowledges that the media in Ireland have an invaluable role to play in educating public opinion. It is in that role that public service broadcasting cannot be allowed to be driven from the battlefield by its competitors. I am talking about Sky News and other bodies which are doing a tremendous job in attracting advertising revenue away from RTE. I do not know how many Members of this House have noticed that when one is listening to the radio, as I do at weekends in particular, a significant number of advertising slots are given to RTE to state what it has broadcast or proposes to broadcast or to State organisations to ask people to present for this or that medical check. By the look of things, the number of private sector advertisements on RTE has reduced substantially. The advertising slots are being padded with informational, charitable and cultural material to make it look as if there is still advertising being carried on stations. I strongly believe that RTE should drop its obsession with social media. It does not matter whether Mary from Rathmines, Joe from Donnybrook or whoever else it may be thinks that the last item was brilliant or unbrilliant. All of that is hugely manipulated. There is a well known routine. If the Minister goes out to RTE and bears his soul to the nation, he has people ready to phone, text or tweet immediately and say he is fantastic and it was brilliant to have him on the programme. The amount of manipulation of RTE through social media is huge. Who really cares what one person thought of the last item on a programme? If RTE has confidence in its editorial standards, it should not be constantly looking over its shoulder at the social media commentary. We know in politics how utterly unrepresentative and valueless most social media commentary on politics is, how utterly perverse a great deal of it is and how shallow nearly all of it is. The notion that RTE should have all its presenters saying, "Please tell me how I am getting on in this programme, please give me feedback", is wrong. They should have a little more confidence in their own views. The same applies to the print media. If a newspaper prints an article by Senator Ó Clochartaigh on some issue, why is it right that some eejit like me can write in something offensive about him immediately under his article and the newspaper puts that up on its website?
The Minister is grappling with the issue of the licence fee. He has run a few little balloons on iPads and other devices, and people here are concerned about An Post. The way to fund RTE is by requiring every home in the country to pay a licence fee or a sum, and the way to collect it is through the local property tax. An amount of €70 or €80 could be taken from every dwelling in this country, regardless of whether there is a television, an iPad, a broadband connection or whatever. If every dwelling paid a flat proportion of its local property tax to RTE, the cost of collecting it would be minimal, the evasion would be zilch and the capacity of RTE to know from where its budget was coming, and the public service broadcasting system generally to know from where public money was coming, would be crystal clear. We would know what 10% of the residential property tax, RPT, or whatever it is, would be in any given year.
Let us be clear about it, it is futile hoping that the current licensing system will ever become comprehensive. It is foolish to spend hours and hours agonising over whether people will be honest, dishonest, evade or whatever. It is unfair, as I pointed out to the Minister on a number of occasions, that somebody who has a house in Coolock and a caravan in Gorey is expected to pay twice the licence fee of €160. To find that money out of post-tax income requires up to €600 for people who are paying tax at the 40% rate, which includes many average industrial earners at this stage. That is unfair. Therefore, let us have a different system. Let us simply provide that a portion of the local property tax goes to a public service broadcasting fund, full stop. Then there would be no problem with people needing to run around the country, having detectors and people knocking on people's doors. The issue would be simply dealt with. The system could be extended and applied differently to hotels, guesthouses and pubs. Places of public entertainment could be charged a differential rate or whatever the Minister would want to do there. If he would want to charge a mega pub in Dublin a licence rate, which is substantially different, he could simply do that through the taxation system. However, all of this is a waste of the Minister's time, effort and his goodwill with the public because the balloon he ran on tablets, iPads and on all the other devices was a bit of a lead balloon, but I wish him well is everything he is doing.
Reference was made to the need for impartiality in television broadcasting. The point was made that fascists and racists were put out there to provoke people. If that is what is really happening, it should not be happening. Public discussion must be interesting. We cannot have everybody having the same bland views on every issue and all of us saying more or less the same thing about all issues. I agree with Senator Norris in one respect, namely, that some presenters argue with their interviewees in politics, they do not interview them. They believe it is their duty to score points off them bang, bang, bang, as if it is a boxing bout and waiting to score maximum points before the bell rings.
One of the greatest beneficiaries of the political system and the charity of politicians, collectively, is Vincent Browne on his evening programme. I know of no man who has received such support from a great number of people-----
-----who go out there and get mangled on his television programme so that his ratings can look good. It is a case of car crash dummies for politicians. I do not know why they do it but they do. It has always struck me that this is the only case where the politicians are extremely kind to the public service broadcast. If any of them had any sign of rationality, no politicians would appear on that programme-----
RTE is a national asset and I would like to see an RTE that we could all be proud it. With some exceptions, I do not engage with it as much as I could or should. As it stands, I often believe that RTE is broadcasting a single vision of Ireland. I tend to engage with TG4's programming. Although with some exceptions, RTE's programmes, such as Raidió na Gaeltachta's "An Taobh Tuathail" with Cian Ó Cíobháin and Lyric FM's "The Blue of the Night " are extremely powerful.
Any cultural policy must recognise and value the growing diversity of the island and, as mentioned by Senator Ó Ríordáin, we must enable all of our citizens to see themselves on screen. Gender equality, which he mentioned, is a good example. When I watch sports coverage on RTE, is RTE telling me that there is not one woman in Ireland who could contend with any guest or speaker on the panel of a sports programme? I do not believe so. In that context and in terms of seeing our stories on screen, citizen-led media, formally supported by Sound and Vision, is of the utmost importance. Citizen-led media and storytelling works to empower our communities. RTE should have a role in that, as Dublin Community Television, DCTV, has done good work on that front. I would also like RTE to have a minimum spend on feature films and feature documentaries, with a dedicated production unit budgeted per annum.
The conversation we are now having in the House also highlights the need for a department of culture as well. RTE has a considerable budget which is much greater than any other arts organisation or agency. It seems extraordinary that the Minister with responsibility for the arts would have such a limited involvement in RTE, despite the Minister's passion for the issue. All moving-image stakeholders, RTE, TG4, UTV, the BBC, Bord Scannán na hÉireann, Northern Ireland Screen, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, community media, the IDA, and Enterprise Ireland, should be brought together to commit to a collective strategy or something similar in terms of collaboration for the benefit of the Irish audience and of having a strong moving-image sector.Such an initiative could be led by the Department and could explore industry collaboration; the role of the public service broadcasters, as we are discussing today; the restoration of Irish Film Board funding and the IFB's transition to Screen Ireland; all-Ireland relationships; and citizen-led media.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh mentioned the 250 redundancies in RTE. Without painters and dancers, performers and musicians, writers and storytellers, there is no film industry, no TV, no radio, nothing on stage or the walls of our galleries and nothing in print. There is no culture without people. Ordinary staff in RTE have embraced considerable change in their terms and conditions, unlike many in the ranks of RTE who take home bloated wages.
Culture is also connected to space, or place. I read an interesting article arguing for the relocation of Channel 4 to the north of Britain, away from London. I am thinking out loud, but would the breaking down of the Dublin media not be something worth exploring and an initiative for our public broadcaster to lead?
I thank the Senators for their contributions. I will try to deal with as many of the issues raised as possible.
I was smiling to myself when the father of the House, Senator Norris, was speaking earlier about broadcasting from the GPO. This comes back to a point Senator Warfield made about reconsidering the location of RTE, and I remember Deputy Eamon Ryan raised this issue with me in the Dáil just after I had been appointed Minister. We must remember that the original dial marker on radios for Irish broadcasting read "Athlone". The transmitter in Athlone is still intact, and we would be quite happy to have RTE relocated to Athlone.
Only I do not know what would happen to Ciarán Mullooly's job if RTE were relocated to Athlone. We need to be conscious of that.
Senator Norris also spoke about the universal licence, which Senator McDowell spoke about in the context of the property tax. I had to smile when Senator McDowell made that point. On the one hand, he wants TV broadcasting to be funded through a general property tax across every property across the country yet, on the other, he does not want the TV licence to be applied universally across the country on every property. The example given was a person who has a house in Coolock and a caravan in the country. I do not know what the position is if one has a house in Dublin and another on the banks of Kilglass Lough, but we can have that debate on another occasion.
I wish to touch on a few other things. Senator Norris raised the important issue of the use of Longwave 252 to keep in touch with people abroad. This comes back to the issue of local radio stations. On the weekend Clann na nGael played Kilmore, and when club games take place right across the country, we have listeners as far as Timbuktu now because of the Irish radio player and the use of new technology. It is not just that the Irish in the UK can access what RTE broadcasts in Ireland; now, right across the globe, people in Argentina can find out what is happening in the intermediate club championship in Galway or any other part of the country. This is what technology allows us to do.
Senator John O'Mahony spoke earlier about not being mimicked by Oliver Callan. I know Senator O'Mahony is involved again with the Leitrim team. Perhaps if he were to pull off the coup he pulled off in 1994 he might get a little coverage from Oliver Callan.
A number of other issues were raised. Senator Terry Leyden and a few others spoke about the sale of the RTE lands. The funds coming out of the sale of the RTE lands are for capital investment in the organisation, upgrading the organisation to deal with the challenges of the digital era.
An amnesty on taking out a TV licence is effectively already in place. When people buy TV licences, they are not asked if they previously had one, and no record of that is kept, so I encourage people to purchase their TV licences. Why is An Post seeking that the collection of TV licence fees be put out to tender? It is doing so because the current regime does not suit the current An Post organisation and configuration. It is quite willing to tender for the licence fee collection. There have been, I think, seven or eight expressions of interest to date.
Senator Lombard is correct that there is a need for a new funding model to be put in place. I have accepted that. About one in eight homes has declared not to have a TV. The Senator is right in that we are rolling out broadband at a rate of one house every minute of every working day, and we will continue this for the next 84 weeks. I hope that momentum will be continued beyond that. The majority of those properties are getting 1,000 Mbps, which allows people to watch up to 200 high-definition Netflix channels at the one time without a reduction in the quality of service being provided. This does change the whole dynamic. There is the issue that people say they do not have a television but they use public service content, whether it be the RTE player or the TV3 player, and use technology that way. That is the challenge we have, and how we address it in the longer term is something we need to deal with.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh talked about TG4 and the number of awards it has won. It is an exceptional channel. Like Senator Warfield, of all the channels I watch, I watch more TG4 than any other channel purely because of the sport and the documentaries it shows as I have a personal interest in many of those. The kind of programming it provides is something an Irish audience appreciates. It would be lovely to be in the position of being able to approve multi-annual funding for the channel, but I must get the funding to allow that to happen.
The new head of Raidió na Gaeltachta is a matter for the board of RTE and does not come under my remit. Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised the point about transmission from abroad. This is one of the issues being examined by the committee. That dynamic is changing now particularly with Brexit because it is not just a matter of broadcasting from abroad; broadcasters will now potentially be broadcasting from outside of the European Union. This is part of a wider debate my colleagues are discussing at European level.
Senator Dolan raised the issue of the visually impaired and hearing-impaired. As an aside to that, one of the decisions I have made as Minister is to waive the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland levy for community radio stations. We have a unique system of community radio stations here. I do not think there is such a system anywhere else on the globe. In fact, we have a far greater radio listenership than anywhere else on the globe. This is a unique Irish trait. Quite a lot of these community radio stations engage with people from marginalised sectors, including the disability sector, and many people from these sectors get opportunities to broadcast that they would never get only for the community radio sector.
The issue of targets and so on is covered under section 43 of the Broadcasting Act, and there are statutory access rules set by the Broadcasting Authority Ireland which set down the obligations on broadcasters. Section 43(6) of the Broadcasting Act provides for a biannual review of these access rules. This is where the input needs to be. I actively encourage the groups that have an interest to make submissions in this regard. I know they have done so in the past. Senator Dolan raises a valid question in asking why, if the capacity is there regarding content coming in from abroad, it cannot be utilised. Virgin has made significant investment in the TV3 studios, and this capacity, which may not have been there in the past, may now be available to that company. The Senator makes a valid point about the announcement of visual description and we will relay that back to the BAI.
Senator Ó Ríordáin raised the issue of all-male panels discussing political issues and so on. Much of the time this is because the political parties do not put forward female spokespersons. They are usually asked to do so.I would be concerned about the comments made regarding racism. Senator Humphreys raised the issue of the 30% condition on the sale but that is a matter for the planning process. As the Senator knows with regard to the Poolbeg site, it was the planning process that determined-----
I am sorry to interrupt, but it was not dealt with through the planning process. The 25% was agreed outside of the planning process. Given the fact that the Minister is the main shareholder, I believe that we could look at-----
That is a matter for the board and I am not going to interfere in that.
Senator McDowell raised the issue of a counterbalance to social media and he is correct in what he says. There is a big problem with regard to fake news across the globe, as well as here. In fact, before a certain global leader raised this issue during an election campaign last year, I raised it here in this city. How do we address this problem? The best way to address it is to ensure that we have responsible broadcasters and news outlets to whom people can turn when they see a story on social media and on whom they can rely to determine if the story is legitimate, correct and accurate. One of the ways I am trying to support that is through supporting the training of young journalists. That is why we are establishing the bursary for young journalists through the broadcasting sector. I would like to see that extended beyond the broadcasting sector but, unfortunately, that is the limit of my remit at the moment. That will help to ensure that the strong quality of journalism in this country over many years will be continued into the future and that good traditions will be passed on to the next generation of journalists.
I am trying to open up the debate, in the context of new technology, on how we fund public service broadcasting into the future. This debate commenced at the joint committee and I am looking forward to the output from that committee, which will then be considered by myself, my Department and the Government.