Saturday 21 October 2017

John McGee: State must do more to protect media industry

Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke
Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke

John McGee

Depending on which way you look at it, it's been a good year for the Irish radio industry. Although advertising revenues are still around 40pc down on 2006 and continue to remain under considerable pressure, the industry has been thrown two different lifelines by both the Government and the opposition party, Fianna Fail.

In May, Communications Minister Denis Naughten announced that he had secured Cabinet approval to reduce the levy payable by independent radio stations to the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BAI) by as much as 50pc in some cases.

In addition, he announced that amendments to the legislation would allow for the establishment of a bursary scheme for journalists working in local or community radio. Taken together, both measures will relieve some of the financial burdens that radio stations around the country have to contend with on a daily basis.

As if this wasn't enough, Fianna Fail's communications spokesman Timmy Dooley introduced the Independent Broadcasting Bill in late July. If implemented, it will put the radio sector on an even stronger financial footing.

Not surprisingly, both measures have been welcomed throughout the commercial radio sector with open arms and a huge sigh of relief. While the financial benefits are obvious, they also acknowledge the fact that local radio does have play an important public service role in communities throughout Ireland.

To its credit, the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI), the organisation which represents radio stations (including RTÉ), has been banging this drum for a long time.

Around 3.1 million people - or approximately 82pc of the adult population - tune in to a radio station every day. In many rural communities, IBI has argued, radio is an important link for many people to the outside world.

What is particularly interesting in all of this is that both Naughten and Dooley have acknowledged that the media landscape in Ireland has changed considerably over the last number of years and the radio industry in particular is facing some stiff financial challenges.

Speaking about the bill at its launch, Dooley noted that "there has been a significant shift in advertising spending towards social media platforms, and traditional media organisations are increasingly starved of revenue. This makes it near impossible to continue to provide the level of news and current affairs to the standards expected".

He also went on to add that "for democracy to properly function, it is essential that our citizens can access honest, unbiased news coverage of the events that matter to them".

Both are, of course, perfectly correct in their assertions but have they missed a much bigger and more important opportunity to address the many other financial and structural issues that are threatening the wider media industry?

The Irish media industry is facing its own unique existential challenge at the moment. Over the next few years, it will go through a period of profound structural change the likes of which it has never experienced before.

Some of the more immediate challenges have to do with Brexit but longer-term they involve the future solvency of the industry, the need for consolidation, changes to competition regulations, how the public service dimension of the industry is funded and, yes, the ubiquitous financial and social threats posed by social media channels.

Without some form of intervention, media companies will close, jobs will be lost and our citizens will be forced to get their news from data-driven social media platforms.

While trying to fix one bit of the industry might seem like a good idea, it also seems increasingly likely that some form of intervention by Government will be needed.

Perhaps a good starting point for the Government, together with the various stakeholders in the industry, would be to develop a blueprint for what they would like the industry to look like in 10 or 20 years' time.

Other sectors within the Irish economy have their own long-term strategies in place. Why not the media industry?

Given that the media industry reaches into every county in Ireland through either a local radio station or a local newspaper, its importance is often overlooked and taken for granted.

How could State intervention work? In other European economies, governments have, for example, supported the press industry through a range of direct and indirect initiatives.

These have taken the form of zero Vat on sales in some countries like the UK - it's 9pc in Ireland - as well as supports linked to innovation, restructuring, training and technology.

It won't be easy reaching a consensus and it may open a Pandora's Box for the Government, but if we value our industry enough and truly understand the important role it plays in a functioning democracy, we owe it to future generations to take action now.

Sunday Indo Business

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