Who Pays the Broadcasting Bill?

The progress of the Broadcasting Bill, 2006 through the Houses of the Oireachtas (the houses of the Irish Parliament) is interesting for all sorts of reasons. It has – appropriately – been a guinea pig for several eGovernment initiatives, including an electronic consultation which drew more than 500 responses, and today’s hearings of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources relating to the Bill are being webcast.

Unsurprisingly, then, there is much media interest in today’s hearings. Miriam O’Donoghue’s piece in today’s Irish Times leads with the establishment of a Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (to encomapss the existing RTE Authority, Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, and the Broadcasting Complaints Comission) while RTE’s coverage today has – predictably – focussed on its potential impact on the license fee. But, given the advent of the internet, digital television, and the independent broadcasting sector, there is far more to the Bill than that.

The establishment of a comprehensive BAI is an excellent idea, and one which should have happened a long time ago. The RTE Authority in its current form is a creature of the Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960 (as amemded) and the BCI can trace its lineage to the Independent Radio and Television Commission established by the Radio and Television Act, 1988 before morphing into the BCI under the Broadcasting Act, 2001. The political need to proceed cautiously with the establishment of the independent broadcasting sector probably justified separate regulators for the state side and the independent sector, but there are now no such present political exigencies, and the logic of the establishment of a single regulator (the BAI) and the folding of the BCC into the proposed Compliance Committee of the BAI, cannot now be gainsaid. Moreover, the remedies available to complainants to the Compliance Committee will be expanded, in particular by the incusion of an extended right of reply. In this respect, I hope that the practice of the Ombudsman and Press Council, on the one hand, and the Compliance Committee of the BAI, on the other, will converge; certainly, the justification of protection of the rights and interests of viewers, listeners and readers is sufficiently similar in both cases for the regulatory trains to run on parallel tracks.

The Bill proposes to preserve the license fee, though the proliferation of means of broadcasting and receiving means that the committee will have its hands full coming up with an adequate definition of television requiring a license, whilst not unintentionally catching items (such as 3g mobiles – tangent: I want the iPhone Jobs announced yesterday) whose reception of broadcast is incidential. It also intends to retain and expand the concept of public service broadcasting to include, for example, the use of new web-based technologies. These two issues are interlinked: the public service mandate under which RTE (the main state broadcasting body) and TG4 (an Irish language station) operate and will operate is what justifies the license fee. It would be very difficult to justify one without the other.

In the end, we all pay the bill for broacasting, so we must hope that the Broadcasting Bill will get the balance right.