Legislating For Broadcasting

 

The Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Ms de Valera, appears determined to make a bad situation worse by the manner in which she is providing for a digital terrestrial transmission system, along with Internet and other interactive services, under the Broadcasting Bill. Last month, the Minister caused something of a sensation by circulating a document to her Cabinet colleagues in which she suggested that RTE would be excluded from retaining an interest in its own transmission system when it was sold through public auction. Up to then, she had proposed that RTE would control up to 40 per cent of the new commercial entity, entitled Digico, in return for its transmission system. Even more startling was the suggestion that this crucial change in Government policy would be dealt with by amendments at the Committee Stage of the Broadcasting Bill, which is at present before the Dail.

If the Minister is determined to engage in a fundamental policy shift, the least the public should expect is a clear statement of her intentions, and the reasons for the change. Up to now, she has stated only that difficulties arose as a consequence of the advice received on the establishment of Digico from a financial consortium led by AIB Corporate Finance. It is understood the financial consortium valued the transmission network at £30m/£40m, rather than the £60m/£70m envisaged by the semi-State company and that RTE resisted what it regarded as a bargain-basement sale of a prime asset.

At an IRTC broadcasting conference during the week, Ms de Valera said it would be "premature" to enter into debate about the content of newspaper reports concerning the various issues. But she again hinted at their accuracy by remarking that current legislation was rooted in a concept of broadcasting that regarded transmission as an essential element of the broadcaster's operations. And she spoke about devising suitable amendments quickly so that the Broadcasting Bill could proceed through the Oireachtas with the maximum speed.

It is not good enough. Public debate is essential to democracy. And when the control of the State's airwaves is involved, it takes on added significance. The Minister has a responsibility for ensuring use of the airwaves contributes to the public good. That may, or may not, require that RTE should retain an interest in the transmission system. But what is certain is that the issues should be fully ventilated in public before legislation is brought before the Dail. Otherwise, those who are prepared to suspect backstairs commercial dealings will be provided with damaging ammunition.

The method designed to facilitate a change in policy is also unacceptable. The Broadcasting Bill was introduced to the Oireachtas last year and was debated extensively before receiving a Second Stage reading on the clear understanding that up to 40 per cent of Digico would be owned by RTE. Now the Minister appears determined to force a complete sale, with RTE's shareholding being reduced from 40 per cent to zero. Such a fundamental shift should not be dealt with by a series of amendments. If the Minister is determined to pursue this new course of action she should withdraw the legislation before the Dail and introduce an entirely new Bill. That way, the issues can be fully debated and reasons for the change in policy placed before the public.