Vincent Browne and TV3 have a problem. The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI) will only let TV3's big new sponsorship deal with Bank of Scotland (Ireland) stand if Browne focuses on entertainment and lifestyle issues.
Last week, TV3 was trumpeting how its flagship show, renamed Tonight With Vincent Browne, would "build upon his reputation for tackling the country's toughest questions head on", and debate "both the main issues of the day and the more reflective dilemmas of modern Ireland".
But sponsorship of television current affairs flies in the face of EU law. It also breaks Irish regulations banning the sponsorship of news and current affairs on television. So, the BCI contacted TV3. It told me that, "TV3 has given commitments to change the focus of the programme in this slot from news and current affairs to entertainment/lifestyle."
That does not sound like Vincent Browne. The BCI says, "the fact that this new programme will be presented by an individual closely associated with news and current affairs programming, in the same slot as an existing current affairs programme presented by this person, presents particular challenges for the successful implementation of the proposal."
So the BCI will allow the new programme to go ahead only on a trial basis. And things gets worse for TV3, because the same sponsorship deal also includes a new programme for the corporate sector called Business Matters. This is to be presented by former TD Ivan Yates and will feature the main commercial and financial news.
An EU directive on television states that, "News and current affairs programmes may not be sponsored." That EU directive is also enshrined clearly in rules of the BCI that insist: "News, current affairs and religious programmes shall not be sponsored on television." Why? Because such sponsorship undermines their credibility and status.
The EU rules are in line with traditional broadcasting practice in Ireland and elsewhere. They are designed to stop corporate interests having, or being thought to have, undue influence over the agenda and content of television current affairs.
RTE has escaped official censure in recent years with a series of sponsorship deals for The Late Late Show. Yet its latest sponsor is the Quinn Group, which has extensive interests in cement, glass, health insurance, plastics and real estate, while Sean Quinn personally has been deeply involved in Anglo-Irish Bank.
Ironically for TV3, The Late Late Show was previously sponsored by Halifax, which is the retail arm of Bank of Scotland (Ireland). RTE describes The Late Late as a "lively and topical chat show". It has always covered current affairs, from debates on divorce and contraception to magical moments such as Pee Flynn talking about his three houses and heated debates by commentators Dunphy, Harris and Waters before the last general election.
A definition of current affairs published by the BCI leaves little room for doubt that RTE's Late, Late and Vincent Browne's existing show on TV3 fit that bill. The BCI's Research Officer has defined current affairs programmes as those dealing with issues of referenda, elections, religious issues, political, economic or industrial controversies.
But the BCI muddied the waters on sponsorship of current affairs when, in 2007, it changed existing practice to allow radio programmes dealing with current affairs to be sponsored. This now makes for some uneasy listening. The relaxation of sponsorship rules, sought by some local radio stations in particular, was part of the light-touch approach to social regulation generally that spread across Europe from the late 1990s. The consequences of such an ideologically relaxed attitude are now more relevant than ever, especially in banking but also in broadcasting, where the line between commerce and content has been blurred.
The current banner across the Latest News webpage of the Quinn Group, where its Late Late sponsorship is announced, shows a press clipping of a Press Council decision in favour of Quinn and against the Sunday Tribune. Such tensions between corporations and current affairs media are unlikely to disappear. According to the Sunday Business Post, for which Browne also writes, the TV3 deal for Browne and Yates is said to be worth €750,000 to TV3. The report appeared above an ad for Bank of Scotland (Ireland). The BCI is demanding weekly lists of items covered in Tonight With Vincent Browne, which starts broadcasting next month. The BCI told me if it was of the view that the new show is "largely a news/current affairs programme", it reserved the right to withdraw its approval for sponsorship.
That word "largely" provides no comfort, as neither EC law nor BCI rules allow for sponsorship of television current affairs, notwithstanding The Late Late Show. TV3 may have to fund extra new shows to meet its contractual commitments to current affairs if Browne goes light.
The BCI also made another change in 2007 that allowed presenters of current affairs programmes to engage in commercial promotions. RTE and TG4 queried the intended change but it went ahead anyway. That change makes it harder for RTE itself to restrain some of its prominent presenters from taking commercial gigs set up for them privately by their personal agents. The public has no way of knowing if such gigs for big corporate clients either consciously or unconsciously influence the agendas, guests and questions on various radio and TV programmes.
In the United States, since they abandoned the "fairness doctrine" in broadcasting, the public sphere has become dominated by personalised rants on channels such as Fox. Commentators have taken to categorising Barack Obama as Nazi-like. Critics say the destruction of standards in public discourse presents a greater threat to freedom of speech as a meaningful concept.
Irish media have played a strong role in exposing behaviour that helped to create our current national crisis. Citizens benefit from media codes that maintain high standards. The new deal between TV3 and Bank of Scotland (Ireland) raises questions about the wisdom of the BCI in changing sponsorship rules, and about its appetite for enforcing the rules that remain.