The Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2014, sponsored by Independent TD Stephen Donnelly in the wake of the Pantigate controversy, was debated in the Dail this morning.
The amendment proposes removing the word ‘offence’ from the ‘duties of broadcasters section’ of the Broadcasting Act 2009.
Dismissing the bill Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte said:
“The Deputy proposes this amendment in the full knowledge that a full refurbishment of the 2009 Act is under way. Put simply, the totality of this Bill is the excision of the two words “or offence”. What would happen if colleagues in the House generally started to trawl through statutes based on something they heard over their corn flakes on “What it says in the papers”, resolving to excise two words they do not like and call that proposal a Bill, and defending this legislative ingenuity on the basis of whatever argument is popular at the time?”
“I am considering an amendment that would require broadcasters to avoid causing undue offence. That seems to be more objective and more in tune with the realities of public debate and the Constitution.”
Prompting the following:
Donnelly: “The Minister is known to enjoy words. Perhaps he believes that the more words he uses, the wiser he seems. Perhaps he also believes that legislation is only worthy of his consideration and that of Parliament if it contains lots of words. I accept that his views may not be listened to at Cabinet. The Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011 was debated day after day in the Dáil, whereas legislation containing more words – for example, successive Finance and Social Welfare Bills – have been guillotined and the House denied the opportunity to debate them. The Cabinet may not agree that the more words it contains, the more worthy is a Bill of debate in the Parliament.”
Rabbitte: “This is a ludicrous argument.”
Donnelly: For all of his words, the Minister almost completely avoided commenting on the content of the Bill.
Rabbitte: What content?
Donnelly: “He referred to defamation and European law. He avoided the content of the Bill, which is extremely surprising in view of the fact that it is so specific and contains so few words.
The Minister may believe the Bill to be beneath him as a result of the fact that it contains so few words. However, the broadcasters do not believe this to be the case. It is for them that the Bills seeks to cater.
One such broadcaster is on record as stating – in the context of the inclusion of the word ‘offence” in the Broadcasting Act – that many of the interest and lobby groups on all sides in various debates now know it is worth complaining to RTE and threatening to go to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland about offence caused. One such broadcaster is on record as stating – in the context of the inclusion of the word “offence” in the Broadcasting Act – that many of the interest and lobby groups on all sides in various debates now know it is worth complaining to RTE and threatening to go to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland about offence caused.”
The intention is simply to influence future coverage. Complaints often relate to matters of public debate, including euthanasia, abortion, social welfare, Travellers, gay marriage and surrogacy. I worry that these complaints have a chilling effect.
Editors and producers sometimes avoid items precisely because they are afraid of potential complaints about offence caused. There is a great deal of work in answering these complaints and even a fear that a number of complaints implies to management that one has done something wrong. Producers and researchers who already work under tough and tight conditions will self-edit in the upcoming debates on same-sex marriage to choose items and guests who will not be risky, as it is not worth the fight or hassle. It is not just an issue in the culture wars; it is more widespread.
Each extreme in a debate is trying to exclude the other side and control how RTE covers stories. The risk is that in giving in to this we will lose fresh, unheard and unique voices. Instead, we will hear again and again from the same tired, tried and tested contributors who have been briefed, rehearsed and sanitised. The Minister may believe the few words in the Bill to be beneath parliamentary debate, but they are the words of broadcasters. The word “offence” is stifling freedom of speech and causing a chilling effect across the country.”
Rabbitte: “The Deputy should not be ridiculous.
Donnelly:“It does not matter if the Minister believes the claim to be ridiculous. I have direct testimony from broadcasters that this is happening. This morning the House has been presented with evidence directly from broadcasters of how damaging it is for freedom of information in Ireland that they cannot broadcast material at which some may reasonably take offence.”
Rabbitte:” That is ridiculous.
Donnelly: “I take it from the Minister’s bombast that he will order Government Deputies to vote against the Bill on Tuesday. In so doing, he will make it perfectly clear where he, the Labour Party and the Government stand on seizing an opportunity in the House to improve freedom of speech.
Thanks Steve Dempsey