Dail sparks fly over Oireachtas coverage on TV
Barrett calls on minister to put pressure on RTE to broadcast on free-to-air network
The chairman of Dail Eireann, Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett, has called on Communications Minister Alex White to order RTE to carry the Oireachtas TV channel on its Saorview platform, which it has so far failed to do.
Because of a disagreement over the cost of providing the service, Oireachtas TV is not yet available on the RTE/Saorview platform, which Mr Barrett is most concerned about.
The Sunday Independent has obtained a copy of a letter, sent by Mr Barrett to Mr White, who is under attack from his own party colleague, Senator John Whelan for allegedly "having a soft spot" for the State broadcaster.
The letter was sent by Mr Barrett on behalf of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, which he heads up as Ceann Comhairle. The commission is deeply unhappy at the lack of willingness by RTE to carry Oireachtas TV.
In his letter, Mr Barrett said the 2009 Broadcasting Act permits Mr White as minister to determine the rate, but that Mr White had not yet done so.
Mr Barrett wrote: "I would formally like to request that you exercise your authority and proceed to granting the Oireachtas Channel its reserved capacity on the Saorview network, so that it is made available to free- to-air customers."
Mr Barrett said the Houses of the Oireachtas had had ongoing discussions with RTE/Saorview over the past three to four years to try and reach agreement on a periodic payment that would fairly reflect the actual costs of providing the capacity.
"However, no such agreement has arisen," he wrote.
"Moreover, the three privately owned television platforms operating in Ireland - UPC, Sky Ireland and Eircom - have all willingly supported the establishment of the channel.
"Unfortunately, it is the publicly owned and funded digital network that has not done so, despite it being obliged to do so under the 2009 Act," Mr Barrett added.
Senator Whelan, who is also a member of the Oireachtas Commission, added his voice to the chorus of calls for Mr White to act.
He said: "It is absurd that the state broadcaster, with a public-service broadcasting remit, is refusing to broadcast the parliamentary channel, which has been developed and produced at great expense.
"The minister, who seems to have a soft sport for RTE, should now intervene to break the impasse and use his powers under the Act and direct RTE to provide a free-to-air platform on Saorview. Otherwise, RTE are most certainly abusing their monopoly hold over Saorview."
Rejecting Mr Whelan's criticisms, Mr White said there was a strong doubt as to whether he has powers to intervene and he said he and his advisors were getting legal advice on the matter.
He continued: "There is a legal question as to the relationship between my power under the Act and that of Comreg to regulate the tariffs.
"I have been asked to address the issue and intervene. I hope we will be able to resolve the matter quickly.
"We are taking legal advice as to whether the powers I have under the Act override the provisions that now arise in respect to a European directive. Once we have that advice, we will be able to respond to the Senator and to the Ceann Comhairle."
In a statement to the Sunday Independent, RTE said: "RTE would like to see Oireachtas TV on the Saorview free-to-air platform. It would add to the overall channel offering and allow free-to-air TV access for households to the proceedings of Parliament. The Oireachtas have requested that RTÉ carry 'Oireachtas TV' on Saorview at no cost."
A spokeswoman added that RTÉ had made it clear to the Oireachtas that it cannot provide free carriage to any broadcaster on Saorview.
The platform is operated by RTE in accordance with the provisions of the Broadcasting Act, 2009 and the specific regulatory requirements of ComReg. She added that RTÉ must be compliant with regulatory law.
"Unlike pay-TV operators, Saorview cannot discriminate in terms of carriage arrangements between the various channels on the platform.
"In common with other channels, carriage of 'Oireachtas TV' on Saorview would be on the basis of the non-discriminatory cost-orientated regulated tariff.
"RTE is not permitted to offer a subsidised or discretionary tariff, irrespective of channel content," the spokeswoman added.