Updated: 28 Sept 2002
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RTÉ's response (extracts)

Chapter Five:
Broadcasting Structures
{Ed: The Chapter first describes the statutory bases for the establishment of the RTE Authority, the Independent Radio and Television Commission, and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.}

5.5 (Part)  The Broadcasting Complaints Commission can only determine whether in its view there was a breach of the statutory obligations placed on broadcasters.  Its adjudications are published but the Commission has no power of a disciplinary nature.

Are these structures adequate and the most effective and efficient for today's needs and to cater for broadcasting into the next century?

5.4 The Broadcasting Authority Acts and the Radio and Television Act, 1988 require that balance and impartiality be observed by RTÉ and the independent broadcasting contractors in their programming without expression of their own views on any subject (other than broadcasting policy in the case of the RTÉ Authority).  If it is impossible to achieve in a single programme, balance may be achieved in two or more related broadcasts provided they are transmitted within a reasonable period.

5.5  It is essential to the principles of democracy and freedom of speech that broadcasting should be reflective of the whole spectrum of public opinion, that the issues of the day and the actions of Government be subjected to rigorous examination.  The Government of the day is usually cautious in expressing concern or criticism of programmes because this is almost always interpreted as political interference with the statutory independence of the broadcasters.  It is uncontrovertible that political interference, when it occurs, is unacceptable to the general public.

Nevertheless, there is an unease that broadcasting professionals who occupy a position of considerable power, may occasionally use that position to set personal agendas thereby promoting their own opinions and views in their broadcasting.  The question has to be asked whether the intent of the current legislation in relation to programming is being met or is being circumvented.  If the answer to this question is "yes" how should legislation address these concerns and at the same time avoid the risk of dull, safe and unchallenging programming?

5.6  There have also been instances where the suggestion has been made that programming personnel have in effect used the airwaves to carry on an intense crusade for or against a particular position or state of affairs with a view to mobilising public opinion without a proper regard for the opposing point of view.  No doubt the programme people concerned would argue that "impartiality" does not imply "an Olympyian neutrality or detachment from those basic moral and constituional beliefs on which the nation's life is founded" to quote the BBC.  In making the foregoing observations one must bar in mind the statement of the Federal Communications Commission on editorialising made as far back as 1949 to the effect that:

"....the standard of public interest is not so rigid that an honest mistake or error in judgement on the part of a licensee will be or should be condemned where his overall record demonstrates  reasonable effort to provide a balanced presentation of comment and opinion."

The critical role of broadcasting is vital but should not be confused with sectional or narrow campaigning on a special issue.  Programming has at once a descriptive function to which the concept of balance can apply but also it carries an investigative and revelatory function which, while more uncomfortably accommodating the concept of balance, is a necessary and vital central function for a national broadcasting service. Balance has to sit with a vigorous critical function.

5.7  Since it was established, the RTÉ Authority has acted

(i)  as the guardian of the public interest in relation to the existing national broadcasting services,

(ii)  as the formulator of policy in relation to broadcasting within parameters laid down in the legislation and

(iii)  as regulator of these services.

Have these roles now become secondary?  In the current broadcasting environment is there pressure on the Authority to be more concerned with its other statutory role to perform successfully as a commercial semi-State body and to protect the independence of the broadcasters themselves?

Does the Authority see itself with a responsibility to keep in close touch with their audience to ensure that RTÉ's programmes and other activities reflect the needs and intests of the public it is established to serve?  There has been a criticism from time to time that the Authority is primarily orientated towards its Dublin audience.  Is there a case for providing in any new legislative framework specific provision for regional representation on the Authority?  Alternatively, is there a case for the establishment by statute of Regional Advisory Committees to advise the Authority in this regard?

There may be a case for giving the Authority a clearer policy mandate and for the separation of the "guardian of the public interest" and "regulator" roles from the more day to day functions and responsibilities fo the Authority.   This possibility is discussed in paragraph 5.8 to 5.10 below.

{Ed: Sections 5.8 to 5.10 consider the creation of one "over-arching Authority", and are not reproduced here.}

{Ed: Section 5.11 considers the position of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission in the event of a "super Authority", and concludes that present arrangements might be left stand.}

5.12  An issue to be addressed is whether there is a need to give statutory disciplinary powers to the Commission.  While the Commission has found against the broadcasters only in a minority of cases investigated, there may be a public perception that in the absence of some disciplinary procedure the findings of the Commission may not be taken seriously by broadcasters.  In these circumstances there may therefore be a case for enabling the Commission, statutorily, to take disciplinary action against an offending broadcaster by way of fines or otherwise.  As RTÉ and the independent broadcasting contractors have editorial responsibility for programme content, any fines would be proper to be levied on the broadcaster rather than on the programme maker although this would not inhibit the broadcater from internal action in accordance with agreed disciplinary procedures.

5.13  At present the powers of the Commission are confined to alleged breaches of the requirements of objectivity and impartiality in news and current affairs programming, the requirement not to broadcast any matter that might be regarded as likely to promote or incite to crime or as tending to indermine the authority of the State, the requirement not to encroach unreasonably on the privacy of hte individual, the requirement to observe the terms of any order in force under Section 31 (1) of the Broadcasting Authority Acts and alleged breaches of codes relating to standards and practice in broadcast advertising.  It would appear that the remit of the Commission is adequate but any comments received on this issue would be taken into consideration.

5.14  Issues raised in this chapter for debate include:

(a)  Are existing broadcasting structures adequate?

(b)  Is there a case for an authority dedicated to broadcasting policy development and implementation, leaving broadcasters to broadcast within whatever policy constraints are laid down?

(c)  Should the transmission function become a commercial activity serving the needs of all broadcasters?

(d)  Is RTÉ too Dublin orientated?

(e) Are the statutory obligations for balance and objectivity being achieved?

(f)  Is the administrative environment within the national broadcasting services, in which programme makers operate, conducive to the infusion of a sense of dynamism and creativity?

(g)  Should the Broadcasting Complaints Commision have disciplinary powers and is its remit sufficiently broad?

End of Chapter Five.
End of extracts.