Independent Broadcasting

david-mcmunn.jpg Irish broadcasting regulation is undergoing a significant change, what with the Department of Communications review of the Television Without Frontiers Directive as part of the EU Commission‘s proposals for a new Audio Visual Media Services Directive and the Department’s Digital Terrestrial Television trial and its attendant Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill, 2006 (see press releases: BCI; Department). A central plank of all of these changes is the Broadcasting Bill, 2006, and the audience at the Dublin Legal Workshop last week were treated to a discussion of its strengths and weaknesses by David McMunn (pictured above left) Director of Government, Regulatory and Legal Affairs for TV3.

Establishing a commercial broadcast sector in competition with RTE in Ireland must have seemed a slow process. It began with the the Radio and Television Act, 1988 which allowed for the emergence of local commercial radio and independent national commercial television and radio stations. The current thriving independent broadcasting sector is the result, though the road was hardly without its bumps.

The early part of David’s presentation set out this background, but the main focus was on the Broadcasting Bill, 2006. Many of the influences upon it come from the EU, which he characterised as simultaenously committed both to the liberalisation of state-controlled broadcast monopolies and to public service broadcasting (compare the Council of Europe‘s similar PSB commitment) and which he said required that state funding to a public service broadcaster must be proportional to the public service remit. In March 2005, the EU Commission requested Germany, Holland and Ireland to clarify the role and financing of public service broadcasters (and compare its later similar views in respect of the Belgian state broadcaster VRT) and the 2006 Bill is intended in part to meet the Commission’s concerns.

For McMunn, the Bill falls broadly into 5 parts: covering (i) the BAI; (ii) tv licensing; (iii) broadcasting contracts; (iv) public service broadcasting; and (v) funding. Although he welcomed the Bill, he felt that it had significant weakenesses; in particular, no regulatory impact assesment has been carried out (despite a Government White Paper in 2004). He queried the constituitonality of the quasi-judicial powers of the BAI, and in particular of the power of its proposed Complaints Committee to levy fines of up to €250,000. He raised the spectre that the Bill would require a television licence for mobile phones, though he did acknowledge that RTE didn’t push this point before the Oireachtas committee. He was very critical of the fact that, whilst Parts VIII to X of the Bill deal with various aspects of Public Service Broadcasting, there is no definition of the concept of in the Bill. He pointed out, for example, that the BBC Charter is a 200-pages defining its public service remit, but RTE has nothing like this.

It was another valuable and entertaining workshop. McMunn identified many problems with the current proposed broadcasting reforms. He indentified those in paritcular which impact upon TV3; there are others. I think the basic point is that these reforms are necessary, but more are also required. And if and when they come, Ireland’s independent broadcasting sector will be ready.