Seanad Éireann - Volume 191 - 04 November, 2008

Broadcasting Standards: Statements.

  Deputy Eamon Ryan: I welcome the opportunity to engage with Senators in a debate on the important issue of broadcasting standards. I am sure it is influenced by the public debate that has been ignited in recent weeks with regard to certain radio broadcasting events on the neighbouring island and in our own television broadcasting environment. It is right and proper for us as politicians to review broadcasting standards. In a sense, however, it is dangerous for politicians to veer into talking about comedy, which in itself is a serious business. It is difficult to refer to it because, by its nature, comedy should be at the expense of politicians so we should take it lightly and enjoy the mockery or wit that might be applied to us. However, we have an interest in the quality of [955]broadcasting in our country. We also have an interest in supporting structures and standards that make comedy easier and that, while it might throw light and humour into our lives, does not cause harm or offence. It is a difficult area because when one starts to lay down codes for what may be moral issues and defining exactly what is harmful, one is into difficult waters.

Some of the great moral and religious leaders would have breached all the codes as they smashed up a temple full of money changers. I am sure that would have gone against a code or two, so we have to be careful. I am very much taken by Patrick Kavanagh’s view of God and the devil. He said that when he met God the Father in the street, the adjectives by which he described Him are:

amusing, experimental, irresponsible about frivolous things. He was not a man who would be appointed to a board, nor impress a bishop or a gathering of art lovers.

As a Cavan man, Senator O’Reilly will enjoy Kavanagh’s description of meeting the devil, using the adjectives:

solemn, boring, conservative. He was a man the world would appoint to a board. He would be on the list of invitees for a bishop’s garden party.

When we delve into some of the issues concerning truth and humour, we should always take Kavanagh’s descriptions to heart.

Comedy is particularly different because, by its nature, it has to take risks and stretch the boundaries of people’s credulity and understanding. I am taken by a quote from Woody Allen who knows something about comedy. In “Crimes and Misdemeanours”, he states: “If it bends it’s comedy and if it breaks it’s tragedy.” That may be an interesting quote with which to start our debate. It is difficult for us to define or set rules or codes as to what is or is not proper comedy. I imagine that it is incredibly difficult for broadcasters to make such decisions on a day-to-day basis, but that is their task. Rather than the first test being made on the basis of some legislative, legal or political code, it should probably be one of simple awareness — is that comedy funny or is it embarrassing? That may be a simple test of whether comedy is working.

I suppose broadcasters can only get to that stage when they have a sense of their own self-awareness and can reflect in a proper manner on what they are doing. It is not done on the basis of a code or what the establishment or anyone else thinks, but a simple human test, asking whether the material is cringe-making or adding to humour and our understanding of life. That is a difficult matter to legislate for or to proscribe, but it is real. It is threatened in a range of instances in broadcasting by other instincts, which can get in the way of such simple self-awareness. It can be distorted by commercialism where the instinct to make a profit through increased advertising might include using shock tactics to get an audience.

In the end, however, one might not hold that audience if, based on human instinct, the dividing line is crossed between material that is amusing or that makes one cringe. I imagine, however, that broadcasters must use self-awareness to separate themselves from that commercial instinct and the real quality of what they are doing. They must separate themselves from a current culture — what Andy Warhol called “everyone’s 15 minutes of fame” — and the desire to get on television or radio. In modern circumstances, that culture could be used by a broadcaster, with such a widespread availability of technology, to use people on television. While it might fulfil a short-term interest in being on radio or television, in the end it is cringe-making in the way it uses its subject for programming.

Sometimes there can be mock outrage in our broadcasting system because it is easier to sell on a short-term basis, but it does not meet the self-awareness test that I believe any good [956]editorial team must apply in making programmes. The real questions must be asked by editorial production teams, rather than by the up-front creative talent, including presenters. It is they who provide the check against the natural fluctuations in quality of a performer or artist. It is ultimately up to the broadcasting companies themselves to provide a further editorial check on the talent of a broadcaster. I do not mean they should act as a censor before the event because broadcasters must be given the freedom to attack the establishment rather than attacking some other establishment that has had its day. It is appropriate for us to allow those broadcasters act independently in the management of self-censorship on the basis of honest self-awareness rather than a board of any broadcasting authority trying to apply censorship in advance of an editorial decision being made.

Structures are being strengthened. The Broadcasting Authority Bill is a Seanad Bill which will establish a new broadcasting authority. This new authority is the appropriate vehicle for the after-the-fact checks on broadcasting standards which we may wish to apply to broadcasting. The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland was established in September 2001. In January 2005 it introduced a code governing advertising aimed at children. In March 2005 it introduced access codes which regulate access for people with disabilities such as audio or other sensory disabilities. The advertising code was introduced in April 2007. Crucially, the programme standards code was also introduced in April 2007 and it applies to all broadcasters in the State, both public and independent. This code deals with a range of issues regarding the treatment of children, whether due care has been exercised in the production of programmes and what are commonly referred to as taste and decency issues which in the future will be referred to as harm and offence issues. This code will arbitrate on whether a programme has been harmful or offensive to its audience and this audience perspective will be taken into account. It deals with violence and a number of other issues which would fit appropriately under the programming standards codes. These codes will be brought within the remit of the new broadcasting authority of Ireland. We will be seeking new codes to apply to standards of impartiality in news and current affairs, such as regulation of party political broadcasting. Those standards and codes exist although they cannot ultimately provide the real day-to-day test and measure which any commissioning editor must apply as to whether a programme is truly adding to or detracting from our store of human wit and wisdom. Structures are currently in place for recourse in the case of complaint about a broadcast. The Broadcasting Complaints Commission acts within the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. The public has the right to make complaints about specific programming and seek redress. One of the advances set out in the Broadcasting Bill is the evolution of that system of complaint which will be managed by the compliance committee of the new authority. I am trying to introduce real flexibility into the system. Rather than a loss of broadcasting licence being a sanction against a breach of a code, we are looking for graded measures in conjunction with fines in order that the authority has an interim measure to apply rather than the revocation of a licence as a sanction against a breach of standards.

I refer to the introduction in the new legislation of a right of reply scheme whereby the public will have the right to write to broadcasters requesting a right of reply should they have been damaged by a particular comment. If this is not acceptable to the broadcaster, the compliance committee will adjudicate in that regard and make directions accordingly to the broadcaster.

I believe the structures already in place will be able to ensure the highest quality programming for the Irish audience. This system of programming standards must be flexible enough to allow a modern-day Paddy Kavanagh who offended many persons in his day around Baggot Street and wider, or to allow the comedian who is willing to say something that may outrage [957]some but presents a real truth which is badly needed to be told. At the same time a regulatory system is needed to provide some sanction if broadcasters continually or systematically lose the trust of their audience. In my view, no broadcaster benefits from being harmful and offensive to its audience. The crucial aspect is a certain sense of self-awareness in a broadcaster as to whether something is either genuinely witty or else cringing. The ultimate test must be based on a knowledge of the audience and that respect for the audience surely must be the fundamental basis upon which any quality broadcaster survives. If a broadcaster loses that sense of understanding and respect for the audience, it will in the end lose that audience and this would be the final sanction which rightly should apply to any broadcaster.

  Senator Joe O’Reilly: I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for his interesting thoughts on the issue, which were made ad lib as he is not relying on a script. It is interesting to hear his thoughts and philosophical positions and attitudes.

Discussion of broadcasting standards will obviously include an element of subjectivity and it is difficult to agree on objective standards. However, we must take into account the classic example of what the reasonable person might consider as acceptable broadcasting standards. It is fair to suggest that the reasonable person would seek avoidance of open incitement to hatred, violence, exploitative sexual material and graphic depictions of violence or sexual acts. Those would be inimical to the reasonable person and this is as close to objectivity as we can get in this context. It is important that when we reach that level of objectivity or we seek to arrive at standards that would be acceptable to the reasonable person, we do not engage in prudery, McCarthyism or such like. We must be sensible and try to be objective. I take what the Minister said in regard to broadcasters and entertainers having an internal set of standards and a sense of their audience. However, there still must be an attempt at objective criteria.

The broadcasters must give fair editorial treatment to subjects within the context of the freedom of the press. I refer to the relatively recent “Liveline” programme where our party leader, Deputy Enda Kenny, was wrongly pilloried for alleged queue jumping at an airport. A statement was sent to RTE from the Fine Gael press office, but RTE omitted to broadcast the entire statement and selectively broadcast the statement to the detriment of Deputy Kenny. The Broadcasting Complaints Commission admitted as much in its vindication of Deputy Kenny. This highlights the need for tighter editorial control and standards.

I refer to the recent “Late Late Show”. A Senator on the other side of the House for whom I have great respect, Senator Ó Murchú, raised this matter in the Seanad last week and I supported him. By any objective criteria, and applying the reasonable person test, the material brought forward by Mr. Tommy Tiernan on “The Late, Late Show” was inappropriate. I thought Gerry Ryan did a great job on that show and acquitted himself well. However, he should have objected or shown a slight level of disapproval, or at least put forward another perspective when Mr. Tiernan make jokes at the expense of Down’s syndrome people and Travellers, and about the crucifixion of Christ.

Jokes about people who have Down’s syndrome or about our Traveller community are not appropriate, even applying the Minister’s criteria. The comedian should have an internal checking system and a sense of an audience but in this case he did not use it. I consider the material he used to be salacious, objectionable and inappropriate if he had any sense of audience in that this was a family show. It was not a niche audience in a theatre where it might be acceptable — even that is a questionable proposition.

The question of standards arises, which is a difficult area. While policing this kind of thing, we must avoid prudery. However, as the host of the show, Gerry Ryan would have had a role in at least indicating there is another view which says we should respect these people. People [958]like Brendan Grace and a plethora of other comedians in this country are hugely successful nationally and internationally without doing that kind of thing.

A point made by the Minister, which I intended to make myself, was that the Bill — I was privileged to be involved in its passage through the Seanad — in a very good way addresses a number of issues with regard to broadcasting standards. In particular, it provides the right of reply. Traditionally, an apology went onto a back page and was a postscript months after the event, following an arduous process. There now will be an up-front right of reply for the offended party, which is important.

The new broadcasting authority of Ireland will be a one-stop shop for complaints about standards, rather than having disparate agencies dealing with complaints. This is to be welcomed. It will be mandatory for the authority to bring forward a code for advertising and programming, which is also welcome. Interestingly, sections 41 to 43, inclusive, suggest there must be objective and impartial standards in regard to current affairs and political events.

There is a question around religious advertising which was discussed in the Seanad. I ask the Minister to consider this issue on an ongoing basis, perhaps by means of a pilot. I consider the Minister a particularly open and intellectual individual who is capable of recognising that there may be a case for doing something different or new. For example, there may be merit in advertising events of religious groupings such as the Franciscans or the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, perhaps social and cultural events or those that involve charity or good works, or even a call for vocations by a group like the Franciscans or any other religious group. There is a case for considering the allowing of that kind of advertising and this should not be seen as offensive to objective good standards in advertising and to objective fair play.

The whole question of religious advertising merits revisiting. We should have an ongoing pilot examination of this and we should be open to change on these issues. Once we are not offensive to decency and proper standards, it is worthy of consideration. The show involving Tommy Tiernan was brought into focus by the issues surrounding Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross and that kind of activity.

When we consider political objectivity and fair play in politics, it is an arguable and commonly-held view among objective commentators, and a strong view in my political party, that “The Late, Late Show” broadcast on the eve of the last general election, which had a very tilted anti-Fine Gael-Labour Party and anti-alternative Government position, was inappropriate in the same sense that the Irish Independent articles on “payback time” in the 1997 context were an inappropriate abuse of a free press, although that was not a broadcasting issue. Again, while no one would for a moment suggest the issue of hepatitis was not a critical issue that merited objective treatment and examination, the “No Tears” programme was calculated, at a particularly late stage, close to the elections, to be damaging to the Fine Gael leader at that time, Deputy Noonan, and to the Fine Gael party. This kind of behaviour needs monitoring because any political party could become a victim at a given time.

We must seek reasonable standards. We must ensure that what we are doing will not distort a situation and give an unfair advantage to any one political party or to the Government. The Bill in its present form by and large offers good methodology, good fora and a good method of establishing broadcasting standards in programming and in advertising. This needs to be grasped and implemented. However, we must be careful that nothing comes across our airwaves that is either objectively detrimental to good standards in our society or salacious in the sense of being discriminatory or prejudicial to the way people, for example, disabled people or ethnic minorities, will be perceived.

[959]My last word — it should be the last word for us all — is that we must ensure a free press and a free broadcasting service and ensure there is no political interference or inappropriate interference by sectional and interest groups with regard to the objectivity and fair play of the broadcaster. At the same time, within the freedom of broadcasters to do their job, there must still be certain objective standards — the standards of the reasonable person — beyond which they cannot go. Our broadcasters cannot be immune to good practice, nor can we as politicians.

  Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Fáiltím roimh an Aire. Tá an-áthas orm go bhfuil an díospóireacht seo ag tarlú. Lorg mé é an tseachtain seo caite. Ba bhreá liom buíochas a ghabhail toisc go bhfuil sé ag tarlú chomh tapaidh sin. I requested this debate last week and I thank the Leader for the expeditious manner in which he responded. As Senator O’Reilly said, we spoke on this issue on the Order of Business. One of the difficulties of speaking on the Order of Business is that one has an eye on the Cathaoirleach all the time, wondering whether one can speak about some issue that is not on the Order of Business. Very often, important items get lost.

I welcome the Minister to the House. He has done a very fine job in endeavouring to instill balance in the debate and, in a nice, poetic way, he has challenged all our views. This is exactly as it should be. We are endeavouring to challenge the views of those people who have the power of broadcasting at their backs.

I recall listening to radio and watching television on my first visits to the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I found television exceptionally mundane in the States when Irish television was creative, exciting and challenging. We were proud of that because people visiting from abroad saw it as a reflection of an ancient civilisation, of intellectual property, and it was underpinned by a sense of humanity. At the same time, we were always conscious that the broadcasting medium was very strong in the hands of anyone because it entered every home. For that reason, there has to be a degree of monitoring and accountability. As the Minister rightly said, there is a legislative structure that has been much debated and one which most will agree creates a balance. It also calls into account responsibility.

RTE has done a fine job overall. I do not believe we would have local radio were it not for RTE. Local radio emerged when RTE sent its outside broadcasting unit around the country, training people in how to prepare radio programmes etc. I had the opportunity to use that facility in Cashel for a whole week. Subsequent to that local radio came on stream. Local radio can be particularly proud of the service it provides. It is held accountable in the same way as the national broadcasters. It reflects the community that it serves and is conscious of the values which the community holds deeply. It also provides an opportunity for people to engage with it almost instantaneously.

Paddy Kavanagh, the poet, has been mentioned. Anyone familiar with his life will realise he got short shrift for a long time from those who had the power to recognise the importance of his work. I am glad he is now back in fashion. He was very faithful to his own stony grey soil and the philosophy that came with it. Kavanagh’s poetry contained much philosophy. The Minister was correct in selecting him as an example of comedy that may have crossed the line. Brendan Behan could be selected as another. A list of artistic figures could be drawn up who may have crossed the line. However, they crossed it in a different way from what is being debated here.

The Minister used two words “cringing” and “embarrassing”. I recall watching “The Late Late Show” when a particular comedian, whose name I will not mention, poked fun at the crucifixion of Christ and the nails that were driven into His hands. It must be remembered the majority of people on this island subscribe to Christianity. They have very deeply held views and they were hurt when they heard those jokes. The same was the case with the recent jokes [960]about Down’s syndrome children. One does not have to have a Down’s syndrome child to cringe and be embarrassed at jokes about people so vulnerable and helpless. We must think of their families and how they feel.

The Irish in Britain were the butt of jokes for decades. These were not the Paddy Irishman, Paddy Scotsman and Paddy Englishman type of jokes but were malicious with a degree of national arrogance behind them because of the political background and the work situations. It was embarrassing for the Irish in Britain to attend concerts and shows where these jokes were told. It was nothing more than racism to typecast people in this manner. The Irish won in the end because the media came in behind them, which eventually forced legislators to outlaw that type of racism.

On “The Late Late Show” recently we did exactly the same to our immigrants who we have welcomed into our midst. I have heard many debates here on how important it is to ensure racism does not prosper in this country. In a letter in today’s Irish Independent, Alice Li states she is sick and tired of racism and the manner in which she is subjected to it in Ireland. At least she was prepared to speak out whereas many immigrants will not do so for the simple reason they feel afraid they will be ostracised for expressing themselves. To have such jokes on a popular programme such as “The Late Late Show” is not acceptable.

The same happened on that programme in regard to Travellers. We all know how vulnerable they are as a group and the efforts that are being made to integrate them into society. To make jokes about Travellers is unacceptable. This is not a matter for legislation or directives, it is a matter for common decency. These jokes are not just happening on programmes that are not regarded as comedy. The people who are making them should put themselves in the place of the recipients of that type of crude humour and see how they feel.

I am not sure if the name at the end of the letter in today’s Irish Independent is genuine, as the person may be afraid to speak out but the letter was certainly genuine. There are also those of us in public life who are afraid to speak out about the media and the broadcasting service because we think we could be made pay later. Anyone in the media who engages in such a practice is wrong because they are doing harm to their profession, their service and the loyalty of their viewers and listeners.

As mentioned by Senator Joe O’Reilly, under legislation religious advertising is not allowed, and I have raised that matter several times in the House. I do not understand that as it will not cause offence to anyone. In the main, it would be a vehicle for improving the quality of life because it is about justice and compassion. On the other hand, the airwaves are used every day to attack the Catholic Church. There could be a discussion on the weather, for example, and in some way the priests of the church will be dragged into it. A balance has to be created which must take cognisance of all the people who are paying for a public broadcasting service. If it were a private service, the same would apply. I hope the Minister will rethink the issue of religious advertising because it would not be offensive. An example of what we are talking about is the debate that took place over whether the Angelus at 6 p.m. should be removed. The defender of the Angelus was the Church of Ireland, not the Catholic Church. The point was made that there was nothing wrong with having a minute’s silence for reflection at a given time of the day. No offence was being given to our other churches. It proved the point that those who start such debates within the media either have an agenda or want to create a controversy.

I and other Senators know that by discussing this here we might add to the problem. There is a very thin line between controversy and success in the world of entertainment and the media. However, if one remains silent one is to some extent accepting what comes across. If a [961]public representative feels strongly about something he or she should stand up in the right forum and make known those views. I certainly hope that whatever might come out of a debate such as this and the comments we made on the Order of Business would not add to the controversy and thus contribute in some way to the profile or prominence of the people about whom we are speaking.

I started my contribution by saying that standards have been exceptionally high. We have a lot about which to be proud. At the same time, however, we must be always conscious of the needs and rights of other people.

  Senator Fiona O’Malley: Senator Norris has 12 minutes.

  Senator David Norris: I doubt I will need that. I would like to take up a couple of things said by my good friend Senator Ó Murchú. He is naturally sensitive about matters to do with the Roman Catholic Church. That is understandable, as he is a devout member. I am a devout member of the Church of Ireland, and sometimes I feel a bit bruised when I hear the kind of gloating that goes on when some ghastly politicians such as Anne Widdecombe or John Gummer, or even that toothy little creature Blair, who is now so completely discredited——

  Acting Chairman: I remind the Senator he should not refer to people who are not here to defend themselves.

  Senator Jim Walsh: Hear, hear.

  Acting Chairman: And in such unsavoury terms.

  Senator David Norris: Well, I doubt he could defend himself.

  Deputy Seán Power: It is unlikely he would be here.

  Senator David Norris: He is up to his ears in war crimes affairs, like his pal George Bush, whom we will see the end of tonight.

  Acting Chairman: I did not mean to cause the Senator to deviate.

  Senator David Norris: I am not deviant in any sense. I represent the plain people of Ireland.

We all have little sensitivities, but I do not think broadcasting can be tailored to them. However, I say “Hear, hear” to Senator Ó Murchú’s comments about the Angelus. I was one of those Church of Ireland people who objected strongly to being made a cat’s paw of by disaffected Catholics who wanted to use us as a ruse to get rid of the Angelus. I like things that are distinctive about this country and this culture. The Angelus is part of that and I respect it. If one is a believer one can stop and say a few prayers. If one is not, it is only a couple of minutes before the news. People can go to the lavatory or put on the kettle for cup of tea. It can be regarded simply as a practical sos, as we call it in the Oireachtas. I am certainly on message with Senator Ó Murchú.

The Senator also mentioned the impossible impact of this debate. I can reassure him it will have absolutely no impact.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: Hear, hear.

  Senator David Norris: This is what is known as a filler. Since we came back we have had statements on this and that and the other. Let us be frank about it. This is in the aftermath of the Russell Brand — I forget the other fellow’s name——

[962]  Senator Jerry Buttimer: Jonathan Ross.

  Senator David Norris: It was those two clowns who precipitated this debate. It was a good idea for a filler. Let us have a look at this incident. There was an offence, and it was gross. It was at the expense of that decent man Mr. Sachs, who played Manuel in “Fawlty Towers”. It was a gross personal insult to him and it was nasty and treacherous — even if it had been only a private telephone call — to telephone a person and say in vulgar language that one had enjoyed — or experienced, as I do not know whether he enjoyed it — sexual relations with his grand-daughter. What was the purpose of that except to hurt and to wound? It was an editorial decision to broadcast this. The presenters clowned around apparently on the basis that since this was an edited programme, the offensive material would be edited out before broadcast, but it was not. However, the initial human offence remains, but is limited.

Let us consider the structure within the BBC, because that is also a problem. Privatisation and competition — all these things that have frequently militated against the interest of the ordinary citizen — come into play again. Like our own RTE, the BBC has franchised out the making of programmes to independent companies.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: Hear, hear.

  Senator David Norris: The BBC was prepared to pay one of these performers £18 million on a three-year contract. That inevitably sparked some rivalry or jealousy, particularly in view of the fact that the BBC is slimming down its operations, including the BBC World Service, its foreign language operations and the range of its journalists. It is looking for a popular market — the reality TV market. There is a degradation of standards involved, and jealousy inspired by money. Naturally, journalists, who are paid a small amount of money and are vulnerable to what our American cousins call downsizing, may have an interest in putting a snag in front of those who are put in such an eminent position. Thus, there is an administrative broadcasting situation of which we would be well advised to take notice here.

Those were the facts at the moment the broadcast was made, to be met by almost total silence. I am not sure if anybody has actually mentioned this yet, but there were two complaints about the programme in the week or so following, and they had nothing whatever to do with the Andrew Sachs episode. They were about the use of a one-word profanity by Mr. Jonathan Ross. Enter that paragon of virtue and primness, the Daily Mail group. The newspaper contacted the agent of Mr. Sachs and then published a large article which acted as a catalyst for all the pent-up indignation of the British middle classes. It was an artificially created event in terms of the outrage involved — the kind of thing for which the Daily Mail group is hypocritically responsible all over the joint. We must bear that in mind. We must also remember that the BBC, for its own reasons, targets its audiences with particular kinds of material. A survey was carried out afterwards which investigated the reactions to the programme of people queueing up to go into one of the young people’s satirical programmes. They did not have a bother about it. The investigators then asked people going into a programme such as the “Antiques Roadshow” or “Songs of Praise” — the kind of thing I watch — and they were met by considerable indignation. Thus, we have the problem of the targeted audience. It was a very nasty thing to do on a human level. However, the fuss and furore was caused by the Daily Mail and was almost entirely hypocritical. I would not take too much out of it. It was a media-created event.

There are issues to do with language and attitudes. In The Irish Times health supplement today there is a very interesting article about the work of two American women scientists who investigated the impact on young teenagers of certain sexual elements in programmes such as “Sex and the City”, which I suppose is fairly mild, and others. They appear to have discovered a correlation between a rise in unwanted pregnancy and the highly sexualised context of some [963]of these programmes. I do not have expertise in this area and I only read an account of the research, but it would be interesting to consider whether there is actually such an effect. I am not against sexual activity but only against the difficulties it presents to young people. I do not want to place this in a negative context.

5 o’clock

It also might be worth considering the endorsement of violence on certain programmes, particularly on American television, and the devaluation of decent impulses. For example, let us consider sport. I used to watch wrestling from Manchester with Kent Walton when the sport was populated by people such as Mick McManus and Giant Haystacks. It was immense fun. Then the World Wrestling Federation went to the United States and the ethos behind it was smash and grab, as much fouling as possible, injure one’s opponent, deceitfully if possible, and win at all costs. I was worried about that ethos. It is the kind of ethos behind the war in Iraq, that might is right. A message is given to young people. I do not know how much effect that has, but I am sure it has some.

There is the question of language and blasphemy. It is right that certain time restrictions after which certain things can be broadcast. I listened to a book at bedtime slot on RTE recently where a novel — I cannot remember the name of it — was read about life in Cuba. It was a rich, wonderfully written, human document, was peppered with sexual ideas, profanities and obscenity, and was performed brilliantly by Mr. Frank Twomey from the Cork studio. I wrote to the Director General of RTE to congratulate him and say this was superb broadcasting, but not something young schoolchildren should listen to. I could understand the anxiety of parents if they heard it. It was appropriate to broadcast it, it showed sophistication and humanity, and displayed great acting and production values on the part of RTE radio. I am happy to endorse that kind of production.

There is the question of the ways in which the complexities of society are reflected. I am glad that on RTE radio recently there were a number of plays broadcast which dealt with the experience of the immigrant community. We can all learn from this. It was very helpful. Approximately 18 months ago, I was delighted to hear a very sensitive play dealing with the experiences of a young, working class, gay man in Dublin. These may be controversial matters, but it is good that they are aired.

This debate will not be listened to, nobody will pay a blind bit of attention to it, it is plainly a filler but we can reflect on the situation. It was prompted by Russell Brand and——

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: Jonathan Ross.

  Senator David Norris: They are talented people, but were foolish, clownish and nasty. Mr. Sachs is owed an apology, as is his granddaughter. What damage was done? Mr. Sachs must be treated with respect. His granddaughter acknowledged she slept with Mr. Brand, but it has done wonders for her career. Her band has been resurrected and she is being plagued by requests for appearances.

  Senator Dan Boyle: A comment was made on the usefulness of this debate. It is worth noting this Chamber has a history of debating issues of public offence and censorship. The most famous debate in this Chamber was on the publication of The Tailor and Ansty in 1942, which had some of best contributions ever made in a Seanad debate and is a depressing account of Ireland as it was then as most of the contributions reflected an Ireland that was yet to mature.

The Tailor and Ansty, although written by an Englishman who was more Irish than the Irish themselves, is now an established part of our literary canon. One would wonder how so much heat was caused by such an innocent publication. The most risqué thing in the book was an [964]account of Ansty refusing to have a bed that was bought in the local barracks because it contained a gunnery, which is a risky double entendre but is amusing in its own right.

I like to think we have moved well beyond that, but we have moved very slowly. The censorship Acts, which were reformed in the 1960s, had been used over the first 45 years of this country’s existence to ban hundreds upon hundreds of books and films. There was a furore in the 1970s about “The Spike”, which was not a very good television programme but it excited the nation at the time because there was a naked woman on Irish screens for the first time.

Whenever my grandmother heard the holy name being mentioned she blessed herself, which is the want of many people who are religiously inclined. It is a natural reflex. If she was watching programmes today, like those with Mr. Gordon Ramsey, she would probably suffer from repetitive strain injury. It is the nature of the world we now live in.

We must note there have been positive developments. The film censor has altered the name of his office to the Irish Film Classification Office, and this means we are not deciding what people should or should not see but advising them on the content. It is necessary to have such controls in television. We have the 9 o’clock watershed and sometimes have a rating system as to whether something is general viewing or otherwise. We live in a multimedia world where if there is potential for offence to be caused, people are warned in advance and have the option of not watching or switching off.

I would not like to see the State broadcaster forced to carry certain types of broadcasts and not others. There is a significant part of the Irish population that have a traditional outlook on life which they feel is not reflected in the programming of the State broadcaster. That is a more relevant debate. The issue it is not whether something is or is not broadcast, rather whether the balance achieved by our State broadcaster is reflective of Irish society as a whole. That is a more real debate we should have. I hope today’s discussion would indicate the beginning of such a debate. We have such an opportunity with the passage of the Broadcasting Bill 2008 that has already gone through this House, is being discussed in the other House and may return here for final amendments. It will shape broadcasting policy for a number of years.

We need to recognise that television, in particular, has become what radio used to be for those of my generation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is not a matter of watching the one channel that started at 5.30 p.m. and finished at 11 p.m.. Hundreds of channels are available to most consumers and they broadcast to most houses across the country. The options available are: fair warning of what the content of a programme should be, the ability of people to watch or not to watch television, and the ability of people to watch other television stations. If those safeguards are in place, the risk of public offence is greatly lessened.

That said, if we believe in a liberal society where the content for adults should be what they are willing to see and talk about, the real safeguards and controls are needed for children who are not of adult age and need to be protected in certain ways until they are able to make such decisions themselves. This is another element of the debate that should be progressed. There is no argument for basing broadcasting standards on the prejudice of anyone who is a mature adult.

They only thing that should exist in a liberal society is the protection we have for those unable to make adult decisions. If that is the level of our debate, we will reflect the society in which we live. If not, we need to take into account certain considerations to put Ireland and Irish broadcasting in a 21st century context.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: It is a pity Senator Boyle is in government and not sitting on this side of the House because I concur with much of what he said. I am glad we found common ground on that.

[965]With Senator Norris, and with respect to the Minister who has left the Chamber, I believe this debate is a filibuster by a Government that has little to boast about or bring forward to this House. It is unfortunate that we are debating it in that context. Nonetheless, the debate is timely. It comes at a time when we, as a society, are at a crossroads. We are a more pluralist, multi-ethnic society as against the old conservative, Catholic country in which we all grew up. We have a choice regarding our outlook. Do we become liberal or remain conservative? That is the choice we must make. The same applies to our broadcasting but, as many speakers said, balance in broadcasting is what we must strive for in a tolerant, modern country.

An example to be welcomed in that regard is the change in the Irish Film Censor’s office, which is now the Irish Film Classification Office. That is a change for the better and is to be welcomed because censorship does not have a role in Irish society. It is important that we have controls and accountability and regulation in terms of the Press Council of Ireland, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission or whatever, but as Senator Boyle said, we live in a multi-media world where people now have the ability to change channels and choose the programmes they want to watch.

The Broadcasting Bill we debated in this House was important legislation that covered many aspects of broadcasting. However, the one area where we are lax and over which we must introduce more control and regulation, although I am not sure how we should do that, is the Internet. The Internet does not appear to be covered in depth in the Bill, although I am open to clarification on that. As we can see with the reports on the American election today on YouTube or other such social networks, the Internet is shaping the way people receive information. I am concerned about the way the Internet has been used to transmit various images, video clips or whatever. Will we be playing catch-up in this area when we should be leading the charge? Web casting, pod casting and YouTube have become part of the lexicon of my generation, and indeed all generations, but we must examine that and determine how we can better control it.

Senator Ó Murchú referred to religious broadcasting. We must have respect for our religious tradition and as a member of the Catholic church, someone who goes to Mass and is a person of faith, it is nice to hear the Angelus at 6 o’clock in the evening. I say that as somebody who is a sinner. I am not a holy Joe, but it is important that we have religious broadcasting. The biggest mistake RTE made in radio was to move the Sunday morning religious programmes from FM to LW 252. I do not understand why we could not have Mass on Sunday morning on RTE Radio 1 on the main 90 FM signal.

I am someone who has respect for the religious traditions of all denominations and it is important that we continue that. Having worked in local radio and on a voluntary basis in Cork University Hospital radio, I am aware that for many people the transmission of Mass and the rosary is a major part of their day. It ill behoves us as politicians to condemn people who have that belief. As Senator Norris said, it is important that we respect each other and are tolerant of others’ views.

Tonight we will be able to view the results of the American election on different channels. Some of us will watch MSNBC, CNN or RTE in comparison to Fox News, which claims to be balanced and fair. Editorial content is important but competition drives what is happening on our broadcasting media. That is a concern. Viewers and listeners are important but I have a concern that franchising out some of the television programming leads to what I would call trashy television. I cringe when I see some of the people appearing on “The X Factor”, “America’s Next Top Model” or whatever. That does not necessarily make good television. It may be funny but it is degrading at times for the people involved. It is important that we have a review of those programmes and discuss them.

[966]I wonder if we have gone overboard in trying to be politically correct. If “Hall’s Pictorial Weekly” was broadcast today, the Members opposite would be lampooning Frank Hall and having a field day against him in the way he pilloried Richie Ryan. That satire is missing in television. It is important that we have a good laugh.

  Deputy Seán Power: He would not have the same material.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: He would have the same material or even worse. He could talk about taxing the elderly and taking away their medical cards.

  Senator Jim Walsh: It was very fertile ground when the Senator’s party was in power.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: If the Minister of State wishes, we could have a debate on that as well. It is important that we have a good laugh at ourselves at times. I appreciate that the item on the programme to which Senators Ó Murchú and O’Reilly referred, “The Late Late Show”, on which Tommy Tiernan appeared, was insensitive and wrong. Equally, what happened at the BBC was wrong, but we go overboard at times in our attempt to be politically correct. As someone who likes a good laugh every now and again, I believe it is important that we do that but in a way that is tolerant and sensitive to the views of all people.

I want to refer to the coverage of sport on television. We are fortunate in this country to have a very good sports broadcasting unit in RTE and TV3. It is important to pay tribute to people like Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, Ger Canning and Marty Morrissey, who are excellent commentators and who do not degrade players, but there are some analysts who do that.

One of my bugbears is the new level of political commentator, the expert on the ditch, who comes into a studio and gives his tuppence worth about everything from A to Z in politics. I have one person in mind but I will not name him because I do not want to give him credit. He is against everything Fine Gael stands for. Then there are the people who write columns in newspapers who are now shaping opinion. They have become the new professors of life. There are people writing columns in the Sunday Independent who believe they are God’s gift to humanity and who try to shape public opinion on everything from the food we should eat, the drink we should consume and the way we should vote. We must have fair editorial content.

Senator O’Reilly referred to Joe Duffy. “Liveline” is one of the best programmes on RTE because it allows people to phone in and give a viewpoint. Joe Duffy was blamed for the banking crisis, he was unfairly blamed for the liquidity problem and he will probably be blamed for the recession, but we need programmes like “Liveline”. Local radio has given people access to the airwaves and we should commend that.

  Senator Jim Walsh: Senator Buttimer has given me my cue because I react against political correctness, even though much of what I intend to say in dealing with this topic will sound like that. There is much hypocrisy attached to many of the sacred cows that have been developed by certain sections in society who see it as their job to shape everybody’s opinion. I am often surprised at the people who would be self-proclaimed liberals with liberal views but they are far from liberal when it comes to taking on contrary views. They are liberal while one agrees with them but when one does not, they lose that label of liberalism.

Broadcasting is an important issue and it is recognised as such. I listened to Senator Boyle espousing his liberal views on this area, but an “anything goes” philosophy is not what is required. The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission are in place. The former brought forward principles relating to broadcasting under the code of programme standards. This code deals with many issues and shows there is a need for [967]certain standards to be maintained. Under general community standards, the code states that programme material should not offend against commonly held standards considered acceptable in contemporary Irish society. The latter brings an element of subjectivity into the debate.

The code of programme standards also states that broadcasters should exercise due care by taking measures to ensure viewers and listeners will be protected from undue offence and harm. Everybody recognises the need to protect children. In that context, the code states that broadcasters share a responsibility with parents and guardians in protecting children, that is, those under the age of 18, from exposure to inappropriate and harmful material when scheduling programme material, etc. The code also outlines content rules to deal with issues such as violent programme material, coarse and offensive language and sexual conduct. It states that broadcasters in general must have due regard to the appropriateness of and-or the justification for the inclusion of violent content in programme material, with detailed rules pertaining to each category. We must recognise that broadcasting is influential in the context of shaping opinions and standards within society. It can be a tremendous force for good or bad and its influence depends on the quality of the broadcaster.

It was stated that the liberal approach to broadcasting must be confined by ensuring that standards are maintained. It was also stated that said approach is usually qualified in respect of times when children watch television. I contend, however, that not all standards are the same from the point of view of how sensible, intellectual or mature they might be. Psychoanalysis has unearthed ample evidence which illustrates that overexposure to violence, explicit sexual content — particularly of a deviant nature — and racism on television influences people in certain sectors of society. The genesis of certain serious crimes lies in exposure on the part of those who commit such crimes to influences such as those to which I refer.

I have not heard it stated for some time but when heavy metal music was extremely popular among young people, concerns were expressed that particular song lyrics influenced certain individuals to commit suicide. We must be wary with regard to the impact of the influences to which people are exposed. Such influences can have life-changing, severe and detrimental effects on individuals, on those around them and on society in general.

Senator O’Reilly made an extremely valid point, namely, that we live in a society where freedom of expression in the media is fundamental to the democratic process. I subscribe to that view. During our debates on the Defamation Bill, however, several Members stated that with freedom come certain obligations. Such obligations are not always observed and in many instances they are abrogated.

Senator Buttimer referred to “Hall’s Pictorial Weekly”, a programme which was extremely enjoyable for those of us who were in Opposition at the time but which also had some political influence on the 1977 general election. Everyone used to listen to “Scrap Saturday” each weekend. It was an extremely funny programme but probably did not have the same political impact as “Hall’s Pictorial Weekly”. While satire is perfectly acceptable and should be accepted, there should be some way to ensure it does not bring about a shift of the democratic process.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: Except when Fianna Fáil is in power.

  Senator Jim Walsh: The position must be monitored, regardless of who is in power. After all, democracy can be a fairly tender flower.

I will not say too much about “The Late Late Show” other than to remark upon the fact that when he appeared, Senator Harris succeeded in winning the debate. Last week on RTE radio and television programmes, the Minister for Education and Science tried to make a number of good points regarding his position on the budget. On two occasions, once on radio and later on television, the interviewers involved were more intent on getting their messages [968]across rather than listening to what the Minister had to say. Is such behaviour appropriate for those employed by a national broadcaster?

On the controversies that probably gave rise to this debate, there is an acid test as to whether television programme content is appropriate. Last weekend, I changed channels following the end of a certain programme and came across the “Podge and Rodge Show”, which was not particularly funny and on which Lee Sharpe, a former Manchester United footballer, was being interviewed. I rarely see the programme in question but I was shocked by the explicit nature of the content. I asked someone, whose views I consider more liberal than mine, about the programme and was informed that they did not find it funny either.

I do not intend to be prudish about this matter. However, where profanities, expletives or explicitly sexual comments are made on programmes, people should ask themselves whether such remarks would be acceptable if they were at a family gathering or in mixed company. There is a need to maintain standards. In my opinion, such standards have been lowered to a significant extent. The position is similar to that which obtains in respect of the print media, particularly in the context of competition from abroad. When such competition arises and when standards in other jurisdictions fall, those in this country tend to follow suit. In my view, the standards of our national broadcaster have fallen considerably.

The failure in this area does not lie just with the broadcasting media, it also rests with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. When it is instituted, I hope the broadcasting authority of Ireland will address this matter and ensure there will be adherence to some level of standards in the area of broadcasting. This will ensure the objectives contained in the codes laid down by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland — for which the broadcasting authority will in future be responsible — will finally be observed and valued.

  Senator Alex White: We must exercise great care in this debate. There is a long tradition of politicians in chambers such as this and elsewhere repeatedly having a go at broadcasters and broadcasting. We must be extremely careful regarding the way we proceed and not just for the reason outlined by Senator Ó Murchú, namely, that many politicians cannot afford to be critical of the media because the day might come when those in the media might turn the tables and have a go at them. I am more concerned about the issue of principle.

Despite what we might like to think, we politicians occupy a privileged position. What we say in the House is included in the Official Report, broadcast on television and published in the media, and people pay some attention to it. What we say can and often is broadcast, or at least we hope it will be. Our words are also published in the media and people pay attention to them. That is a privilege we ought not to abuse or take lightly. We should resist the temptation, and I am not saying anybody has not done so during this debate, to grab the opportunity to engage in partisan or sometimes even personalised attacks on broadcasters, especially in the political field.

I was struck by Senator Walsh’s comments about liberals. The word “liberal” has been repeated many millions of times in recent weeks in America — who is a liberal, who is more liberal, if Senator Obama is liberal and what does “liberal” mean anyway.

  Deputy Seán Power: What is a socialist?

  Senator Alex White: Absolutely. It is another of those words. It is often used by people who are not socialist but they have a good view about what they think socialism is or should be and they indulge themselves in that. To come back to the notion of liberal, Senator Walsh went on to speak about people who wish to shape public opinion on an issue. Often when that point is made, it is a case of somebody saying: “I do not like those people shaping opinions; I would [969]prefer opinions to be shaped by me or somebody who holds my viewpoint on an issue.” It is not an objection on principle but an objection to the person doing the opinion shaping.

This issue struck me quite often during the debate on a slightly different subject. It is an analogy worth drawing, although not many Members might agree with me. During the debate on political censorship and section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, as a broadcaster I was strongly opposed to the section for reasons which Senator Walsh might describe as liberal in the sense that I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of expression. I do not believe broadcasting should ever be permitted to be used for incitement, but we have legislation to prevent that. However, in terms of the exclusion of views or the expression of views on radio and television, it is necessary to exercise considerable care that we do not leave ourselves open to the accusation that we are simply trying to exclude views with which we disagree from being broadcast.

This debate is about standards but how do we set the standards? More importantly, who sets the standards? I certainly doubt there is a basis for anybody arguing that it should be the Members of this House who set the standards, or is that being suggested? How does one set the standards beyond which we expect broadcasters not to stray? That is where the debate is bubbling up at present with regard to the BBC and, indeed, an incident on RTE last week. I did not hear what the Minister said but I heard some of the responses to his remarks. It comes down to the question of where the line is drawn.

Where should one draw the line? Should the test be whether something that is said on a radio programme offends somebody or is likely to offend somebody? That cannot be the test. Very few things can be said that will not offend somebody. The Cathaoirleach will be familiar with that from debate in this House; there will always be somebody who potentially will be offended by something that is said. The remark might not be intended to offend but the unintended consequence of what is said, be it a political charge or the expression of an opinion, is that somebody somewhere will potentially be offended. What is the test? When one delves into this issue, it is enormously difficult, if not impossible, to decide where the line should be. It is difficult to be prescriptive about a test.

How does one ensure standards? I agree with Senator Walsh that there must be standards; there is no question about that. However, we must accept that we cannot be prescriptive about them. There is no manual. Previously, there were taste manuals for newspapers and broadcasters which one looked up to find out if something was or was not okay. One looked up the index to find out whether one could say something, to take it to an absurd level. We cannot do that either because it is absurd.

Ultimately, the only thing one can do, especially in public broadcasting, is ensure the people employed there can be trusted to make these decisions and judgments. These everyday judgments have to be made on the hoof in live broadcasting and when listening to or viewing material with a view to deciding whether it should be broadcast. It comes down to the quality of the people employed in broadcasting. They are people in whom the community should be able to repose a high degree of trust. It comes down to how one employs people, who one employs and their qualifications, how the culture within an organisation understands the question of standards and decency, and the history and record of that organisation in ensuring and upholding high standards and communicating that to people who come to work in the organisation. That is the only way one can ensure ultimately that certain standards are set and implemented.

I did not see the item on “The Late Late Show” which, from what I have read about it, was very fairly criticised. However, like everybody else I saw the clips shown in news programmes last week of the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross broadcast. This comes back to the issue of trust and standards. The biggest problem in broadcasting at present is that a star culture has developed within it. It is linked to the celebrity culture we have watched develop. It involves having broadcasters, who are sometimes paid many millions of pounds or euro per year, pur[970]portedly being managed by young, inexperienced producers and researchers who are paid a fraction of their salary. I am not suggesting this comes down to what people are paid but the dynamic of a relationship between Jonathan Ross or Russell Brand on the one hand and a 25 year old, rookie producer on the other, who is probably on a six, eight or 12-month contract without much sense of where he will be in a year or whether he will have a job, simply does not allow for a proper level of editorial management whereby the culture can be properly communicated to an individual producer and the producer can take on the presenter.

I worked in broadcasting in this country for ten years. It might surprise colleagues but there was always a strong culture of editorial management in RTE. It was never the culture in RTE that the big stars such as Gay Byrne or Pat Kenny were the people who made the decisions and the judgment calls regarding what went on programmes. When I was first employed by RTE, I vividly recall that one of the questions I and my colleagues were asked was how we saw ourselves dealing with the big stars of the day and whether we would be able tell Gay Byrne whether he could say something. It is difficult to imagine that young producers would be able to do that but they were trained to do it. They were trained to make those decisions, and the broadcasters understood this was the system in which they worked, regardless of what they were paid. However, in the past ten to 15 years that system has broken down. As a result, a culture has grown up based on the stars and the big names, and the broadcast organisations, most starkly the BBC in recent weeks, do not seem to have a way of coping with it any more. They are dealing with the problem after it has occurred.

This is the area on which we must focus. Instead of thinking we can have a prescriptive approach, we must trust broadcasters and rely on their good sense and good judgment. To do that, we must re-assert the importance of editorial line management in organisations, regardless of whether it is the BBC, RTE or private broadcasters. That is the only way to ensure decent standards are upheld. As Senator Ó Murchú said, it is not difficult to describe what we are discussing; it is common decency. The problem is that one person’s common decency is not necessarily always somebody else’s. How does one navigate this and find the right level? It comes back to a culture and history of making sound judgments within an organisation.

Senator Walsh said it is a failure of the Department. I do not agree with that because it should be a very small, if any, part of a Department’s role to set itself up as some cultural commissars and tell people in RTE what can or cannot be broadcast. That is not the role of Government or the Department.

The standards are put in place and the legislation underpins them. The Broadcasting Bill is good legislation, which I substantially supported in this House. It strikes the right balance and has an understanding of the importance of public broadcasting and grants a high level of independence to broadcasters so that they can make the relevant judgments and decisions without Ministers, Department officials, Deputies or Senators breathing down their necks and telling them what they think on matters. How are we, as Senators, any more qualified to determine what the standards should be? We are no more qualified nor, with respect, is the Minister or the Minister of State. The Minister of State has an important job to do and is well qualified to do it, but he is not a cultural or media commissar.

We should not be too pessimistic about this issue. An enormous amount can be learned from the standards that were originally put in place in organisations like the BBC and RTE. The problem is not that there is no history of this being done properly but that it must be brought into the modern age and adopted accordingly. People’s views on what constitutes comedy have certainly changed but from what I know of both of the recent controversial incidents at the BBC and RTE, neither broadcast could be remotely regarded as funny or comedic. The fundamental problem that the BBC had was that the material was pre-recorded, which is what makes the incident even more strange and unacceptable. It was possible to listen to the material before [971]it was broadcast, which indicates that there was a major breakdown in decision making, editorial management and editorial judgment.

This should not be a question of us setting ourselves up as commissars of taste, who lay down the law and decide what should be broadcast because we are users of the broadcast media. We want to be able to broadcast and communicate our views. We should not be allowed to be the people who determine the basis upon which different views or perspectives on life are aired.

This is an interesting debate but we should not get too carried away with our own sense of importance.

  Senator Martin Brady: I agree with some of the points made by Senator Alex White, particularly with regard to responsibility. In any business, whether it be broadcasting or anything else, if one’s name is over the door, one is responsible. Those in charge in television or radio stations should have the necessary qualifications and should be of the required calibre to make decisions that are correct and proper at a particular time.

Senators Ó Murchú and O’Reilly referred to religious broadcasting. A number of years ago, United Christian Broadcasting, UCB, was beaming into this country. It did a very good job and contributed to the peace process in Northern Ireland. The company sought a licence but was refused. I see nothing wrong with religious advertising or broadcasting of the Angelus. Many people still believe that religion stabilises society and I am one such person.

Many contributors referred to comedians and other entertainers appearing on television programmes and Senator Boyle made the point that adults should be able to make decisions on such programmes. However, we all know that in most homes now there is a television in every room. Children are often watching different programmes from the ones being watched by their parents. Some time ago a comedian appeared on “The Late Late Show” and gave an explicit account of how he had performed sexually the previous night, including referring to putting chocolate on bodies and so forth. Who wants to listen to that? I do not see anything funny about that.

RTE and TnaG do a good job, by and large, and the broadcasters we have are as good as one will get in any part of the world. However, while I do not wish to cast aspersions on all broadcasters, I have had complaints from business people regarding the behaviour of some, particularly those who work for the national station. Some such people have their own production companies and are selling television or radio programmes to the national broadcaster, which is not a good idea. However, I am not saying they are doing anything wrong.

In other situations, broadcasters do work outside their normal jobs, for example, opening shops or restaurants, for which they receive payment. It has been pointed out to me by people in similar businesses that this is unfair and uncompetitive because they cannot afford to pay so-called appearance fees to such people. Furthermore, the broadcasters often refer, at a later stage, to the beautiful restaurant or shop that they visited recently, thus providing such businesses with free publicity. This is something that should be examined if we are to apply standards across the broadcasting arena. There is potential here for a conflict of interest, although I stress I am not accusing anybody of same.

Occasionally on radio programmes presenters refer to text or telephone messages received, but they do not give names or an indication of identity of the sender or caller. In some instances, the contents of such messages could destroy people’s characters or businesses and do a lot of damage. This is something which must be examined because it is potentially very serious.

Reference was made to the sports department in RTE, which provides excellent sports coverage. Two of our greatest sports people work in that department, namely Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh and Jimmy Magee. The latter is a legend who has a great knowledge of all sports, includ[972]ing car racing, horse racing, boxing, polo, rowing and so forth. His knowledge of sport is unbelievable and it is probably safe to say he is one of the best commentators in the world.

Senator Ó Murchú said that sometimes politicians are afraid to speak about the media and those involved in broadcasting because we believe if we speak in a negative way about them, they will come down on us, will not give us coverage or will do us damage. I agree with that point because it has been said to me that one should watch what one says about RTE, Newstalk and so forth because they might not do one any favours in the future or might even dig up something on one. I have been told to be very careful in that regard.

On the issue of entertainers and comedians, to which I referred, it is outrageous that comedians insist on imitating people with disabilities, cripples and so forth. It is not acceptable and it is not funny, particularly for those with disabilities and their families. Senator Alex White made the point that what is offensive to one person might not be offensive to another, which is true. I am not particularly sensitive and neither is a number of Senators, but the comedy to which I refer goes a step further than sensitivity. It is degrading, demoralising and far more than simply offensive. It is akin to what was said in Hitler’s time, that anyone who has a disability should be shot, that they do not belong in this world.

  Senator Joe O’Toole: I am delighted to have the opportunity to say a few words on this matter. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Having listened to the debate it seems it is difficult to get the balance right. I do not pretend to know the answers concerning broadcasting standards. There are certain types of programmes on the air of which I do not approve, but which I could not possibly ban. For instance, I find it difficult to see rape portrayed on television. Such portrayals contain a level of violence which I find hard to tolerate and I would not watch such programming. However, that is not a standard which could be applied or used to prevent broadcasting such as programming.

The Minister, Deputy Ryan, used the word “appropriateness” in his speech, and this raises an important issue. Consider that there was a time when the Catholic church wanted jazz banned from the airwaves on the basis that it was the devil’s music. That was only some decades ago. One must work through a person’s point of view to find out how he or she forms a decision. A significant benchmark for jokes is that they should be humorous. It is appalling that people would make jokes about a person’s disability as it goes against the spirit of legislation, but perhaps I am just old-fashioned. It is like kicking a man when he is on the ground.

  Senator Marc MacSharry: Hear, hear.

  Senator Joe O’Toole: That is my view and there is no place for it in society. I suggest not so much that such programming should be banned, but that it should be singled out as something which the community does not accept and that we should not make jokes about the weakest members of society or some disability with which such people are born or must cope.

When it comes to the portrayal of sex and sexuality on the screen there seems to be different rules. Paedophilia is outlawed and it is a crime to broadcast it. However, pornography, which may not be quite as bad since it deals with adults, can involve exploiting, using and abusing men and women. However, we appear to have no difficulty in addressing such matters.

Several Senators spoke about the importance of satire and it is healthy to have it in society. Reference was made to such programmes in the past as “Ballymagash” or “Scrap Saturday” which provided entertainment. Satire is good and necessary and it is healthy for political life. Political figures should accept it goes with the job. However, accepting satire does not mean dropping all standards. For example, the way in which some people in the media, public life and phone-in shows have spoken about political figures has made me cringe over the years. I can provide many examples. I recall advertisements in recent years that referred to Deputy [973]Mary O’Rourke, for which Mr. Michael O’Leary was responsible, and which were distasteful, to say the least. On another occasion the images of the Minister, Deputy Mary Harney, the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, and the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform were presented as racist in newspapers. Such advertising is appalling. There were advertisements in which the Minister, Deputy Mary Harney, was accused, among other things, of being racist. She was publicly humiliated by what I believe was the incorrect portrayal of the treatment of her mother in hospital and jokes were made about her weight also. A line must be drawn somewhere along the way.

I dislike the use of the word “taste” which seems so precious and I do not use the word in that sense. Public figures should be robust and should take, encourage, welcome and not object to robust criticism. However, the way in which we allow for this is important. The same applies to access radio. I disagree fundamentally with the comments of many of the previous speakers about the merits of access radio, much of which is horrible. It involves ordinary people phoning in and saying whatever they wish. These comments go unchecked and unchallenged, without any requirement to back them up or name their source, which is not good for society. While I am in favour of access to radio, if a person puts forward a point of view, the person on the other side has a responsibility to challenge that and make it stand up, which does not happen at the moment. I do not listen much to phone-in shows anymore because the format allows people to run riot.

Malicious or libellous comments or those which represent an incitement to hatred or discrimination or to break the law are easy to deal with and we are aware of the position in such cases, but the case of blasphemy is not so simple. I would not normally make a case for the Catholic church but I believe, given the way in which western society has changed, it is more acceptable to blaspheme the Catholic church than Islamic beliefs. There is no balance in the matter. If people hold something precious it should be respected, whatever their religion. The Catholic church has taken a hiding and a pounding and if this were done to other churches it would be unacceptable, which is worth examining.

I am not privy to how decisions are made in RTE. I recently spoke to a survivor of the Miami Showband massacre. We have all heard the story and seen the investigations. I believe there was collusion involved and that the band was set up, but that is my view. That case rocked Ireland 33 years ago. In recent years there has been much discussion of the matter. People tried to reopen the discussion and a book was published. I spoke with some of the people involved in the case in recent times and they could not understand why they were refused access to “The Late Late Show”. My instinctive response to that was to take the view that “The Late Late Show” is a different type of programme with its own remit that has proved capable over the years of opening up discussion on many issues which other programmes did not discuss. It has pushed back the boundaries in many ways. However, these people explained to me that they found it impossible to accept the refusal.

Mr. Michael Stone killed people in Milltown graveyard many years ago. In more recent times he came to prominence again by trying to attack people in Stormont. He was an invited guest on “The Late Late Show”, which could not attain a balance on the matter and it is reasonable to ask the reason for that. I am certain there are reasons for such decisions. However, those people were confused and bewildered, because there was no coverage of something as close to the people as the massacre of the Miami Showband following the publication of a book on the matter, which is interesting. I am not making a judgment on whether the show was right or wrong, but we must examine the matter.

The question of how we treat opinion formers is important. It is also important to be aware of a person’s point of view and background. I do not object to people with biased views appearing on panels. It is in order as long as viewers or listeners understand such a person’s background or point of view. However, there are situations where people purport to be neutral [974]commentators, but come with a good deal of baggage on their shoulders. Will the Minister consider that it is a question of balance which society should require? It is not acceptable for a person to ring in to access radio and attack a person in public or private life without being challenged to back up assertions. We must make space for satire, public comment and political criticism. Any censorship must ensure that the media can educate, entertain, inform and, above all, be balanced.

  Deputy Seán Power: I thank Senators for their contributions to the debate relating to the standards in Irish broadcasting. It is interesting to hear different viewpoints and angles.

6 o’clock

The changing audiovisual media landscape makes this debate particularly pertinent at this juncture, not least because the Broadcasting Bill 2008 will be further debated in the House during the coming weeks. On examination, we find society has changed. What is acceptable today might not have been acceptable a few years ago. The use of language changes and what is appropriate in this House or on television may not be appropriate in other situations. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Parliament in Australia. Reading some of the debates there, I know that some of the language used would not be tolerated in this House.

This is all about creating standards and there is a certain expectation of this. I was elected to the Dáil in 1989 and in my first speech the Leas-Cheann Comhairle interrupted and said he believed that I was making my maiden speech in the House and that he wanted to wish me well. I said that he was right, that I was about to lose my virginity. When I read the record of the debate some time later, something completely different was written. I obviously used language that was not seen as acceptable, even though I thought I was making my point quite clearly.

Our expectation of what is appropriate on television is different from what it used to be. The programme that most Irish families watched some years ago was “The Riordans”. One of the highlights was the night that Benjy managed to kiss Maggie. Everybody was talking about it because it was the big issue. Kissing is very much part and parcel of television these days and it would only raise an eye when someone is kissing some woman that he should not be kissing.

Broadcasting services, particularly public service broadcasting, have always been recognised as having a central role in society that justifies the application of specific rules to these services. The broadcasting protocol to the Amsterdam treaty puts this succinctly when it states that public broadcasting is directly related to the democratic, social and cultural needs of society and to the need to preserve media pluralism. The recent audiovisual media services directive notes that audiovisual services are having a growing importance for democratic societies by ensuring freedom of information, diversity of opinion and media pluralism.

That policy in the broadcasting sector must safeguard certain public interests, including the protection of minors, consumer protection and cultural policy. I agree that there is a time and a place for everything and sometimes that time or place might not be on television. That is why we have the codes and rules that take a fair and balanced view of what is and is not acceptable. The codes and rules have been drawn up with considerable public input and they achieve balance and proportionality, ensuring that diversity is not curtailed and the right to information is not stifled and that media pluralism is respected. As Senator White said, we are not in the best position to make judgments on what those rules should be.

The protection of minors is very important. Section 19 of the Broadcasting Act 2001 gave the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland responsibility to develop a broadcasting advertising code and it specifically dealt with children’s advertising.

[975]Mention was made of the importance of freedom of expression, but it is all about trying to strike a balance. In recent times, coverage on the television has been all doom and gloom, so comedy is well received. Comedy often pokes fun, exposes hypocrisy and confronts cultural taboos. This freedom of expression in the media is fundamental and we should not be hasty or reactionary in our response to issues that arise now and then and that can be satisfactorily resolved through the independent regulatory process that has been established for this purpose. The process is best carried out independently, impartially and in the cold light of day, as is done by the mechanism that we have put in place and that will be continued under the Broadcasting Bill 2008.

That is not to say that performers, presenters, editors and producers do not have to exercise good judgment, sensitivity, responsibility and perhaps a good helping of common sense in deciding what should be aired and indeed, in many instances, what might better be consigned to the editing floor. The codes and rules developed by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland provide for comprehensive guidance in these matters.

The debate about what is acceptable in the broadcasting arena has concentrated on people who have caused offence on television recently. However, we should acknowledge the tremendous talent we have produced in the entertainment industry in Ireland, especially those who provide great laughs and fun without having to resort to smut. In years gone by, Maureen Potter was the best at doing that, and in recent years Brendan Grace has been able to strike a balance so that whether it is a grandmother or grandchild watching a programme, they can all enjoy the contributions made by those people. The independent regulatory structures, already in place for the administration of these codes and rules, have served us well in the past and continue to work effectively in this regard, and they will be strengthened in the Broadcasting Bill 2008 which is currently before the House.

I agree with the contention of Senator Ó Murchú that it is not all about regulations and broadcasting standards, but rather is as much about broadcasters maintaining their moral compass. Senator O’Reilly made the point that the Broadcasting Bill 2008 puts a balanced framework in place for the maintenance of broadcasting standards. I acknowledge the Senator’s contribution to the Bill’s passage through this House. Senator Boyle is correct when he states that public service broadcasters need to serve all audiences, which is the essence of good public service broadcasting.

Senator White’s contribution was very interesting, in light of his experience in broadcasting. He referred to the phrase about common decency, but common decency, like common sense, is unfortunately not as common as people think. I also thank Senator White for his support of the Bill and for his contribution. Senator Buttimer referred to the regulation of the Internet. This falls outside the scope of the Broadcasting Bill 2008. It is a very complex issue. How do we regulate the content contained in the computer server located outside the European Union? The key issue is expectation. People have very high expectations of broadcasters, but they do not have the same level of expectation of the content of websites. Our effort is to ensure that broadcasters do not breach the trust of their audience. I thank all Members for their contributions. They were constructive in what they had to say.

The new broadcasting authority of Ireland proposed under the Broadcasting Bill 2008 will consist of the authority itself and two independent statutory boards, which are the contracts award committee and the compliance committee. The compliance committee will have the separate role of ensuring that all broadcasters, be they public or private, comply with their licence conditions and with the standards set out in the broadcasting codes and rules. The Bill retains the structure of the existing broadcasting codes which were developed by the BCI. These are the children’s advertising code, the access code, the programme standards code and the advertising code. The Bill also allows for the BAI to create additional broadcasting codes, particularly on objectivity and impartiality in news and current affairs, and on privacy.

[976]I thank Senators for contributing to the debate on this important issue. Many of the comments expressed were very interesting and have certainly given us food for thought as we proceed with the Broadcasting Bill. We will continue to examine this issue in the context of the Broadcasting Bill. If Members have further ideas, they will have ample opportunity to express them at a later stage. I thank all Members for their contributions.

  An Cathaoirleach: When is it proposed to sit again?

  Senator Marc MacSharry: At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.