Definition of ‘offensive’ in broadcasting may need to be changed

Rabbitte says broadcasting landscape has changed dramatically since new legislation enacted

  Ms Panti Bliss (Rory O’Neill)    whose use of the word “homophobe” on RTÉ has led to a a debate over a  provision in legislation relating to offence being given during a broadcast. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Ms Panti Bliss (Rory O’Neill) whose use of the word “homophobe” on RTÉ has led to a a debate over a provision in legislation relating to offence being given during a broadcast. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times


Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte has said the current test that Irish TV stations must rely on not to broadcast a matter that gives offence may be too rigid.

Mr Rabbitte said this morning the test, which is set out under 2009 broadcasting legislation “seems to be a very rigorous test and one that can be objectively difficult to ascertain”.

The provision in the legislation to matters that cause offence has been highlighted by the recent controversy over Rory O’Neill’s (Ms Panti) use of the word “homophobe” on RTÉ.

Referring to the definition, Mr Rabbitte said: “What I have suggested is [the definition] be changed to “undue offence” or, as is the case with the press ombudsman, the term is “grave offence”.

“It would provide broadcasters with a bit more flexibility in relation to meeting a challenging hurdle in a debate on issues that are controversial,” he said.

BAI chief executive Michael O’Keeffe also disclosed that it had received some 300 letters in response to RTÉ’s issuance of an apology over the homophobe remarks. He said 28 of those were complaints which were being examined.

Mr Rabbitte was speaking at the launch of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s three-year strategy statement in Dublin this morning.

BAI chairman Bob Collins said the strategy did not represent a radical departure for the authority but would build on the work done in the first four years of its existence.

He and Mr O’Keeffe outlined seven goals the BAI has set for itself until 2016 including ensuring diversity and plurality; facilitating learning; promoting responsible broadcasting and strengthening governance.

“We want to look at our role as being as positive as possible,” Mr Collins told the audience. “We want to look at regulation not as a set of prohibitions or restrictions but to look at regulatory frameworks to support independent [PRODUCERS]and effective journalism, to ensure that audiences have a spread of broadcast sources, and [strike a balance between] publicly funded and effective commercial broadcasting, to see the value of community broadcasting in enriching the lives and potentials of communities.”

Both Mr Collins and Mr Rabbitte alluded to the enormous changes that have taken place in Irish broadcasting over the past five years, with Mr Rabbitte saying that the Act, hardly five years old, may be out of date in some respects. He indicated that new legislation may be required.

One of the issues that has emerged in recent months has surrounded the imminent arrival of UTV as a player in the State broadcasting. The Section of the Act under which it has received its licence does not require it to pay a broadcasting levy as the existing terrestrial broadcaster do, but a much smaller fee.

Mr Rabbitte said the arrival of UTV was an example of something that was not envisaged at the time of the Act becoming law.

Michael Wilson of UTV, who was at the conference, pointed out that the levy allowed broadcasters access to spectrum and top spots on the electronic programme guide (EPG, essentially the first stations to be accessed when a viewer uses a remote control).

He also indicated UTV wished to enter dialogue “in relation to fair representation” but said that if a levy were payable in future it would have to be in return for access to spectrum and EPG.

Mr Rabbitte also warned against any notion that the replacement of the TV licence fee with a wider broadcasting charge would solve all the problems in the industry.

He said that broadcasting has just emerged from a “hurricane” where advertising revenues “fell off a cliff”.

He said non Irish-TV stations and a glut of opt-out channels were taking advertising revenue from indigenous channels. While he said that revenue would certainly increase with the new charge, big challenges will still remain.

“Even if there was a significant improvement in commercial advertising revenue only a fraction is going to stay with indigenous broadcasters and with newspapers,” he said.