Out of Commission

This article first appeared in Village magazine, November/December 2022 edition

What does the future of media look like in Ireland? If the reaction to a report of the same name is any guide then the omens are not promising.

Catherine Martin, the tourism, culture, arts, Gaeltacht, sport and media minister, received the report of the Commission on the Future of Media, the product of two year’s work by a team headed by Prof Brian MacCraith, in October last year.

However the report, long awaited by industry professionals, was not published until July 2022, just before the Dáil went into recess for the summer, minimising public debate on its findings.

The report is also to an extent overtaken by events. The government has spent some time working on plans for a new media commission – now announced as Coimisiún na Meán – which will take over the roles of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) in dealing with standards, oversight and complaints, in addition to some funding issues, but which will have a wider role. The media commission will have responsibility not just for broadcasting, but also in areas like podcasting and online video content.

But it is unlikely that Ireland has just invented a regulator of online content from teenagers generating viral content on TikTok to streaming and podcasting shock-jocks like Joe Rogan. More likely, most of the new agency’s time will still be spent on broadcasters, dealing with listener complaints and balance requirements during elections and referendum campaigns, but with the ability to occasionally fund some online content through a reimagined Sound+Vision Fund or similar initiatives.

In the wake of the report’s delayed publication in July, the government press machine spun into action, announcing new supports for local, regional and national media, whether in broadcast, print or online form, setting industry standards which would have to be met to qualify for official funding, including environmental sustainability, and “a number of other actions to help ensure greater equality, diversity, inclusion and sustainability in the media sector.”

However any sense of urgency was not helped by the announcement that the minister was setting up a “technical group” to advise on what to do next.

To some, it felt as if the commission report was dead on arrival. Of the several areas in her diversified portfolio, Catherine Martin seems most interested in arts and culture, and indeed has devoted considerable time and effort to launching a pilot income support scheme for artists.

Journalism is never popular with politicians either, even if the two professions are trapped in a co-dependent relationship, though in this case it may just be collateral damage as the result of ministerial attention focusing on other areas of responsibility.

So what can news media look forward to as a result of the MacCraith report?

In truth, a large part of the commission’s work was devoted to figuring out what to do with RTÉ. It is no secret that the national broadcaster is in deep financial trouble. Satellite and streaming services are eating their audiences, as is social media and other distractions. With lower audiences there are fewer advertiser euros, even before energy and Covid-related related shocks hit advertising spending.

RTÉ was in a precarious situation 10 years ago when Ruairi Quinn considered reforming the licence fee system, replacing it with what was described as a screen tax regardless of whether a household owned a TV set. The official reasoning was that many people were consuming RTE content on the Player using phones and tablets. In reality, high evasion rates had more to do with the proposal.

Effectively this would have been a new household charge, on top of the then new property tax. Unfortunately, another new household tax, the water charge, proved to be a focus for popular protest against austerity measures, so the idea was quietly dropped. Ministers unable to sell investment in water infrastructure (and a public suspicious that the charges were a prelude to privatisation) simply didn’t have the stomach to fight for a new tax to pay Ryan Tubridy’s salary.

The Future of Media Commission, aware that the household or screen tax was probably a non-runner, instead suggested the government get rid of the licence fee system and replace it with a guaranteed system of funding for RTÉ from the central Exchequer.

In effect RTÉ would become like every other government agency, with a budget decided by the department of finance and approved by the cabinet. This could address the funding crisis for the station without getting bogged down in in anger from doorsteps over how much Joe Duffy took home

As previously stated, the commission report contains many other recommendations on areas such as funding for diversity and sustainability, support for independent production, and even funding for online content.

However all of this is dependent on the funding to pay for it. The government made a big deal in the wake of the report publication of briefing journalists that they would accept “in principle” 49 of the 50 recommendations in the report.

Unfortunately for those media organisations looking forward to a new dispensation, the one recommendation the government did not accept was the reform of RTÉ funding.

Instead, the minister announced a technical group, which apparently will again consider the thorny issue of household charges or screen taxes.

RTÉ will have to struggle on from financial crisis. And without those funding reforms so it seems will many other media outlets, since the BAI – and presumably, the Coimisiún na Meán – is funded by a share of the licence fee.