Part-time IRTC is out of place in such a time of change


The new membership of the Independent Radio and Television Commission (IRTC) appointed by the Minister with responsibility for broadcasting, Ms de Valera, took office last weekend for a five-year period.

Up to now, the IRTC was the regulatory broadcast body responsible for the nonRTE broadcast sector. This included Today FM, TV3 and the extensive commercial regional and local radio network.

The IRTC has its statutory basis in the provisions of Mr Ray Burke's legislation of 1988, the Radio and Television Act, and its first chairman, Mr Justice Henchy, described its functions as being "lightly touched". The outgoing membership of the IRTC, headed by Mr Niall Stokes, certainly took that minimalist approach when providing for the establishment of TV3 and in the revamping of Radio Ireland into Today FM.

The authors of that approach were the politicians - that is what they wanted and that is what they got.

On the face of it, the new membership of the IRTC looks sufficient. It seems to contain enough experience of broadcasting with the likes of Caimin Jones, formerly of RTE Cork and Clare FM, Maire Ni Thuathail, of Eo Teilifis Teo, an independent television production company based in Spiddal, Co Galway, Colum Kenny, of Dublin City University, where he teaches communications and from where he writes on broadcasting, and John O'Brennan, a community radio activist.

The IRTC is also joined by the chair of the Information Society Commission, and the deputy secretary of the ICTU. However, I am surprised by the appointment of Mr Conor Maguire SC, as chairman. Mr Maguire brings no great broadcasting distinction to the post but perhaps his legal expertise may compensate for that. In essence, the chair of the IRTC is the driving force of the commission's work.

With the establishment of TV3, the original task of the IRTC was completed. It now faces a new scenario created by the arrival of digital broadcasting.

When one looks at the task facing the IRTC, I wonder whether a part-time and essentially lay commission is the option best suited to the Minister's intentions.

Ms de Valera gave an insight into her policy options when she announced the Government's views about digital television in July. Basically, the Government adopted the RTE proposal that digital broadcasting should be carried on digital terrestrial television (DTT).

Accordingly, she announced the allocation of three new digital channels to RTE and one new channel each to TnaG and TV3, leaving 21 unallocated new digital channels from the six digital multiplexes to be established.

This is where the IRTC also comes into play - in the allocation of the new digital channels and in regulating their content. In addition to its other regulatory functions on existing non-RTE services, the new task facing the IRTC places it in a pivotal role in commercial broadcasting policy.

Indeed, the future role of the IRTC is the axis on which the Minister's new broadcasting legislation revolves and Ms de Valera's new Bill, to be introduced this autumn, will be the last chance which the legislature and Irish audiences will have of contributing to a debate about the future of Irish broadcasting.

Ms de Valera's legislation, now in draft form with the Attorney General and the Parliamentary Draftsmen's Office, will set the tone for Irish broadcasting for the first decade of the next century.

With new technologies, including the uncontrollable Internet, it may be truly the last occasion in which the Oireachtas and public opinion can have any influence on broadcasting developments.

Perhaps the Minister was not ambitious enough in her nominations to the IRTC bearing in mind the task facing it.

As I understand it, the IRTC in its new legislative clothing will undertake the following:

It will assume responsibility for the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

It will ensure compliance with the EU directive, Television Without Frontiers. This is the directive which almost allowed Bob Geldof to establish a cable-only TV service in the State and almost certainly will next time around.

It will regulate uplink satellite services from the State.

It will regulate content on the new DTT channels and on cable and MMDS, thereby drawing a distinction between content regulation and the technical regulatory role of the Office of Telecommunication Regulator (ODTR).

Most significantly, it will award franchises to new broadcasters seeking channels on the six DTT multiplexes.

The Minister sees the role of the IRTC as encouraging new broadcasters and content-providers to experiment and provide a variety of television services and to consider regional, local and affiliate services given the technology of DTT.

Ms de Valera, when in opposition, was quite opposed to Mr Michael D Higgins's idea of a "super authority". In office, she has travelled some way to establishing such a powerful body.

True, the Minister has left the RTE Authority alone (for the moment). Indeed, she will at some date separate TnaG from the RTE remit. This raises pertinent questions about how broadcasting is going to be financed in the future. The financing of TnaG is one of the more thorny issues to be faced.

The performance of TV3 in terms of income, whatever about programming, must be one of the indicators for future investment in the broadcasting infrastructure. When all the hype is over, the TV3 story is going to set the way for the future and for me the future is not what it used to be.

THE Minister has made frequent references to the European Commission's directive, Television Without Frontiers, and to the role of the IRTC in its implementation within the jurisdiction.

The title of the directive might suggest some kind of philosophical tract on broadcasting - it is anything but. It creates a free and common market for broadcasting, as in any other market for services and goods. It is essentially antagonistic to public service broadcasting.

The European Commission is also antagonistic to the licence fee mechanism or, indeed, to any form of state funding for broadcasting.

In these circumstances, the role which a part-time regulatory body might play in the ordering of Irish broadcasting is not going to be effective enough to guarantee quality, culture or a caring environment.

With other things on their minds, Irish politicians have taken their eyes off the ball concerning broadcasting. In this situation, cash-rich conglomerates - like the owners of large multi-nationals - might step in to provide new broadcast services.

The bottom line would seem to be that RTE is under-financed; TV3 is underwhelming in its programming; and that TnaG does not have enough money to establish itself with its audience.

A part-time IRTC seems out of place in the order of things.

Muiris Mac Conghail, a former controller of programmes at RTE, teaches in the School of Media at the Dublin Institute of Technology.