Belfast Telegraph

Time to start debate on devolution of broadcasting

By Paul Connolly

There was an interesting media development at Stormont this week: a Private Member's Motion calling for the transfer of broadcasting powers to Northern Ireland.

Proposed by three Sinn Fein MLAs, the motion called for responsibility for broadcasting to be devolved to Stormont, specifically to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.

It also calls for the transfer of funding for the separate Irish language and Ulster Scots broadcast funds. DCAL happens to have a Sinn Fein minister, Caral Ni Chuilin, who spoke in support.

"British broadcasters have neglected their obligation to the north of Ireland, leaving it comparatively invisible in the networks," she said, adding that there is a "huge accountability-gap" locally, because Government responsibility lies at Westminster.

My normal instinct is to support the devolution to Stormont of as many sectors as is reasonably and economically possible.

We need to learn to trust our politicians, just as they need to learn how to govern effectively, efficiently and transparently.

My fervent hope is that, over time, a left-right division in the Assembly will develop, rather than a tribal one, just like in mature democracies around the world.

This will, of course, be a long time coming. You don't defuse centuries of bitterness and suspicion – and proud cultural traditions, too – overnight.

However, the old adage that the electorate gets the politicians it deserves rings ever true.

That doesn't mean that people, politicians, the media, or others in civic society, can and should be agents and advocates for a quicker pace of change.

And it does not fail to acknowledge that Northern Ireland has advanced greatly – even if it is perpetually in two-steps-forward, one-step-back mode.

The transfer of broadcasting regulatory powers to Northern Ireland could prove to be thorny issue – but it could also be a good test of an evolving maturity in our political system.

Control over television, in particular, is often seen as controversial, as the decision in 1998 to keep it a reserved power at Westminster suggests.

The TV regulatory regime is wide and complicated, with the Government's fingerprints all over Ofcom. Throw in public service obligations and a duty of impartiality in news/current affairs and life can be more complicated in television land.

Could local politicians resist the temptation to interfere if broadcasting was to be devolved? Is there sufficient robustness at committee level at Stormont, as there is at Westminster (think of outstanding committee chairs, like Andrew Tyrie and Margaret Hodge)?

Would hard-hitting TV investigations, critical of local political parties – for example, Spotlight's Iris Robinson edition, or the highly emotional probe into the Disappeared – survive a devolved regime?

Would editors err towards self-censorship, because of political, or funding, considerations? Could they withstand the undoubted political pressures during elections? There could, however, also be benefits. Politicians might want to question BBC dominance in local radio.

Ministers might conclude that the BBC's position as the world's largest state-funded internet operation distorts the local market and undermines the plurality of news. The BBC might even be forced to open its opaque books to proper taxpayer scrutiny.

Story-telling and the creative industries are one of Northern Ireland's emerging international strengths. It could be that local accountability and control over funding might help correct the dire lack of network programming produced here. Maybe.

The bottom line is that there is a strong case for better local accountability over television. But there are risks, too.

Rather than a choice between the status quo and tearing down the existing edifice, I'd suggest a phased, and reversible, process leading to the transfer of broadcasting powers. Let's at least get the debate going.

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