Broadcasting Act, 2001

(Emphasis added)                                                                               5 May 2001

Making their own decisions
".. for the most part people are mautre viewers and listeneers who are capable of making their own decisions."  (Minister Síle de Valera, Seanad, 20 February, 2001)


In a recently published extract (Sunday Tribune, 15 April) from Professor Joe Lee's new book, "The Shifting Balance of Power", he expresses concern about the ability of the public to evaluate their sources of information, especially television.

In the course of the passage of the recent Broadcasting Bill through the Seanad, the Minister, Deputy Sile de Valera, declared that, "for the most part people are mature viewers and listeners who are capable of making their own decisions".  I take it what she means by that, is that viewers and listeners can see through distortion and lack of balance.

Well, fair play to them.  It's more than I could say for myself, particularly when it is skilfully done, and I would not charge RTE with lack of skill.

Then what about information that is simply withheld from the audience?  Do her "mature viewers and listeners" have some bush telegraph that I don't know about to tell them the missing information?

There is a problem here.

On the one hand, 80% of its audience (according to RTE) believes RTE to be "balanced and fair".

On the other hand, the Government Green Paper on Broadcasting, 1995, (page 163 in particular), the objective studies of the Family and Media Association, several decisions of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, and the decision of the Supreme Court last year when RTE was found guilty of "interference with the Referendum process", all tell a different story.

It is surely a matter of concern that the Minister responsible does not see the dangers for democracy in this contradiction.


5 May 2001

Progress of the Bill

The Broadcasting Bill,1999, was signed into law by the President on 14 March 2001.

1. The Bill had been passed by Dáil Éireann on 14 December 2000, and by Seanad Éireann on 22 February 2001.  It returned to the Dáil on 6 March for one amendment, and was (probably) finally passed on that day.

What follows is an account of the Bill's first day in the Seanad on 20 February, when an amendment calling for sanctions for breaches of the Act was, along with other amendments, tabled.  The debate was adjourned after 6 hours to Thursday 22 February, when the Bill was passed, with only one (Government) amendment.

2. Seventy six amendments had been tabled.  Anger was expressed by several opposition senators at the evident policy of the Minister, Deputy Síle de Valera, of not accepting any amendments, regardless of submissions.  Not one amendment was in fact accepted.

Such was the frustration that votes were called on four occasions, even though the results were predictable in comfortable wins for the government.  The votes were on the subjects of cross ownership, advertising directed at children, and subtitling for the hard of hearing.

In contrast to the treatment by the Minister, there was effusive praise from several Senators for RTE, and it was clear from the references to the increase in licence fee sought by RTE, that RTE was pushing an open door.

3.  One of the grounds for the rejection by the Minister of controls on advertising directed at children was that, under the Bill,  codes were now required to be established, on which, under the "Children's Stategy", children would have a right to be consulted, and their views would be "given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity." "I am happy," she added, to be in a position to support the new strategy at such an early stage in its life."  She also said the Swedish ban had "not been entirely successful."

4. Senators Mary Henry, Pascal Mooney, Labhrás Ó'Murchú, and Brendan Ryan spoke to an amendment calling for sanctions where the law relating to objectivity was breached by RTE.  The existing law was unique in not specifying sanctions for breaches.

This amendment was rejected by the Minister on the claimed grounds that:

1. The proposal would be a "retrograde step".  "I do not have any great enthusiasm for placing restrictions ... on journalists".  "I do not believe it is in the public interest to have broadcasters constantly looking over their shoulders..."

2.  The onus on RTE would be greater than that on other broadcasters.

3.  "...people are mature viewers and listeners who are capable of making their own decisions."

4. The position of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission was being strengthened (even though it was clear that the reverse was the case).

5.  "...a matter for the broadcasters, the Authority and the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland to act in respect of breaches..."

Most of these points had already been countered in documents supplied to the Minister.


The Minister's own remarks, in dismissing the call for sanctions, are themselves retrograde.  They seem to suggest that s.18 of the Act is itself an irritation and an impediment.

The public is entitled to the highest standards of professionalism and of  accountability from the public service broadcaster.  Or else, it must forfeit the title, and the public funding that goes with it.

These remarks give a clear signal to RTE that the Minister is not unduly worried about impartiality and objectivity, and that they may indulge in breaches with even greater impunity than heretofore.  In the light of the current abortion debate,  and the official support of the NUJ for abortion, (plus other serious issues coming on-stream), this is a serious matter.  What is now being endorsed by the Minister is less, not more, accountability.

It also makes a mockery of the elaborate plans contained in the Bill for codes of conduct for taste and decency, portrayal of violence and sexual conduct, advertising, etc, all of which are intended to be a significant occupation of the BCC and the Broadcasting Commission.   These codes will also be devoid of any sanctions for breaches.

So what is the purpose of adding these new codes, which will be every bit as ineffective as the existing s.18 code, relating to impartiality and objectivity?  Is the purpose diversionary,  while they get on with promoting their own brand of social change?)

5.  On Thursday, 22 February, a further 2.1/2 hours was spent in discussion, again without any amendment being accepted.

6.  Notwithstanding the importance of the subject and the time spent on it, the debate did not feature in any comment whatever in the relevant RTÉ's Oireachtas Report.

(Comment: Dáil and Seanad proceedings are hot-wired to RTE at Montrose.  Big Brother is watching.)

RTE's explanation for the omission of any mention of the Seanad debate, was "Editorial decision on the day", having regard to operational, staffing or story considerations.


6 March 2001

    Broadcasting Bill, 1999

    Outline of main provisions

  • A new entity ("Digico") to be set up to build and operate the Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) infrastructure.
  • RTE's existing TV and radio transmission function to be separated from RTE and incorporated into Digico.
  • The IRTC to become the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI).  BCI to draw up codes and rules for taste and decency and advertising.
  • Broadcasting Complaints Commission to remain in being. To be financed by BCI, thus making it effectively controlled by the BCI, instead of Department of Arts, Heritage, as at present.(The original plan was to close down the BCC and transfer its functions to the BCI)
  • Public Service Remit to be defined. Licence fee to be applied only to relevant programmes.
  • TG4 to be established as an independent statutory entity.



    Summarised from report of John Brett in FMA's Media Report for Autumn 1999)

6 March 2001

Broadcasting Bill, 1999

As initiated

Selected extracts

(Sections 15 to 24 inclusive: limited editing where indicated)

Note added 5 March 2001:
The following is not now up to date.
Changes to the Bill as initated have been made.  However, no changes have been made in areas relating to the effectiveness of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, as had been advocated in "Power without responsibility"