Coimisiún na Meán: Rule of Three

This article first appeared in Village magazine, July/August 2023 edition

Three months after taking over the functions of the now defunct Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, three commissioners laid out their wares at a press briefing on the future of Irish media regulation on the eve of midsummer’s day.

The commissioners make up the Media Commission, more commonly styled as Coimisiún na Meán, presumably to avoid confusion with the similarly named Future of Media Commission, which reported in 2021. (In a previous era, a department unit would have come up with a name that meant something media related. Maybe an elegant moniker that resolved into an apt acronym like OGMA, the name of the old pre-Christian Gaelic god of persuasion, and legendary inventor of the Irish alphabet.)Coimisiún na Meán logo

The Future of Media Commission report, published by the minister a year later in July 2022, and now styled FOMC in official jargon, provides a road map for the commissioners in their work.

The FOMC report may also occupy a special place in institutional Irish history, as strangely and perhaps uniquely, the full commission never met in person, instead conducting their own work online, thanks to the restrictions imposed by Covid lockdowns which coincided with their work.

Despite the dubious omens of its conception during a pandemic, Coimisiún na Meán does not lack in ambition.

An Coimisiún has been given the extraordinary – some might say impossible – task of regulating not just terrestrial Irish television and radio like its predecessor, but also video-on-demand services (Netflix, Amazon, Apple and the rest), and, thanks to Online Safety commissioner Niamh Hodnett, regulation of most major social media players.

And although they were not mentioned in the briefing, it is difficult to see how the regulator could oversee video services, but not on -demand audio from major podcast distributors such as Spotify.

Broadcasting commissioner Celene Craig and media development commissioner Rónán Ó Domhnaill complete the triad. Along with executive chairperson Jeremy Godfrey, they outlined their plans for the future at the press briefing in mid-June.

The reach of the commission is limited to companies with a corporate presence in Ireland, but the result of Irish tax laws and decades of IDA foreign direct investment efforts mean that number includes most of the significant Silicon Valley players. In effect, much of the customer-facing side of the internet may end up regulated by a small team of less than 200 people in Dublin.

Digital regulations coming from Brussels mean An Coimisiún may have an even wider impact, working with or on behalf of the EU Commission to regulate internet giants.

Currently, An Coimisiún has about 50 staff to carry out this herculean task, though it aims to increase this to 160 by February 2024, at which point they will be fully up and running and begin enforcement of the EU’s digital Services Act in addition to the powers already available under the .Broadcasting Act 2009 and the Online Safety and Media Regulation Act 2022

“I don’t think that [160 staff] will be enough, but it will be enough to start,” executive chair Jeremy Godfrey said.

Ironically, the recent rounds by the Silicon Valley companies, mainly at the behest of venture capital backers in order to drive share prices, may make the Coimisiún’s task easier, at least in hiring for technical roles to monitor and analyse social media and streaming technology sectors. The layoffs could mean there is a ready supply of programmers, technicians and sysadmins who would no doubt be happy to go from being poachers to gamekeepers.

Much of the work of Coimisiún na Mean will be funded through a system of levies on the companies it regulates. An Coimisiún will also have the power to levy significant penalties on companies.

Unlike the Press Council of Ireland, which is not a statutory body and is by design largely toothless, relying on moral persuasion and shaming to enforce its code of conduct, the new commissioners will have several weapons in their arsenal, whether or not they choose to use them.

A Press Ombudsman-mandated apology may cause a few red faces at an editorial meeting, but it doesn’t really affect the bottom line. It may even be weaponised elsewhere in the same media outlets as nanny-state over reach and woke liberal pearl-clutching. The BAI exercised a similar control, with broadcasters required to transmit the findings of complaints upheld by the Authority. The online safety commissioner’s powers are a gamechanger in that respect, with the ability to impose a fine of up to ten percent of turnover or €20 million though. That bites.

Meanwhile, An Coimisiún has a full agenda for the next few years, with reviews of existing commercial licences and a potential new national independent station, proposals for a new youth oriented Irish language radio station (Raidió na nÓg?), “democracy funds” to support courts reporting and local journalism efforts, and a review of funding for public service broadcasting. All of this is in addition to new challenges such as the emergence of “artificial intelligence” large language models and their impact on the online space.