Professor Brian McCraith is a busy man. The former DCU President is leading the Government’s high-level taskforce to oversee the roll out of Covid-19 vaccines across the country. When he’s done with that, he’s got to take on a role that’s almost as challenging: figure out how to put the Irish media sector on a sustainable footing.
Not only is McCraith the vaccine czar, he’s also the chair of the Future of Media Commission which was established last year and which has just finished its first phase — getting feedback from the public.
The commission has been asked to assess the state of public service media and make recommendations on the future of the media in Ireland. It’s a future that’s unclear.
Why? Well, there are changing consumer habits and media companies now play second fiddle to big technology in relation to access to information. There’s the decline in circulation and traditional ad revenues and how the Facebook and Google duopoly are sucking up all the growth in online advertising. There’s the rise in subscription-based streaming platforms that now push great content into many households. There’s the rise of fake news, filter bubbles, and the undermining of democratic debate that comes from online political advertising. The big question is how any indigenous media organisation can survive in a relatively tiny market like Ireland.
That’s where the commission comes in. Its first step was asking the public and other stakeholders to give their views on future of the media.
The deadline for submissions was last Friday. Now the commission needs to sort through the views of the great unwashed and get down to business.
But the commission faces a few big challenges.
The first is to overcome criticism of its make-up. Because it’s all around us, the media is one of areas where everyone has an opinion, but few people know how it actually works. Journalism is a messy, complex business. And the ever changing commercial developments and the capital investment required to keep a media company afloat in the modern age require specialisation and focus. So there’s always a fear of ultracrepidarians creeping into a commission like this.
The National Union of Journalists and Newsbrands Ireland both expressed disappointment with the commission members. In fairness, the government did try to address these concerns by adding Siobhan Holliman, deputy editor of The Tuam Herald to the commission’s line-up. Still, the commission isn’t replete with experienced commercial media operators — even though it does boast some impressive members.
A bigger challenge the commission must face is how it negotiates the differences between public service media and commercial media.
The terms of service are cannily drafted in this regard. They refer to public service aims, which could be fulfilled by RTÉ, TG4, Communicorp, Thejournal.ie or Independent News and Media. This shows a lot of foresight. Both public service broadcasters and commercial media outlets can create news as a public good. And both face similar challenges: rapid technological change, the cost of employing journalists and the unique challenge of Ireland’s terrible defamation legislation.
However, commercial entities have a lot more freedom to manoeuvre than public sector broadcasters. When it comes to RTÉ and company things get a bit more complicated, and not just because of the cost savings and massive staff cuts that top brass in Montrose have presided over in the last few years. The commission should look at ensuring RTÉ doesn’t overlap with commercial providers. Public service broadcasters need to serve the public. Specifically, they need to balance important programming and coverage that commercial entities won’t touch with commercially-lucrative programming. In general, RTÉ does a very good job in this area, but there are considerable overlaps with other news providers in the online sphere, which should be clarified.
The commission could also address how public service broadcasters remunerate top stars by taking a leaf from the Netherlands book. Legislation enacted there in 2015 ensures that public and semi-public sector senior officials can’t earn more than a minister, that redundancy payments are capped, and that bonuses, profit sharing and other forms of variable remuneration were axed.
Crucially, in an increasingly online age, the commission should make clear recommendations to ensure RTÉ has the capacity to deliver a robust online player — whether that means the internal capacity to develop its own, or the freedom to partner with a third party that specialises in this complex area.
And this brings us onto a third challenge: How the hell does the commission make actionable recommendations to the political classes in a pandemic-ravaged environment. With a health crisis, soaring budget deficits, Brexit and a creaking legislative agenda, it would be easy for the commission’s report to be shoved in a drawer for the next government. But this would be a mistake. In the last week, we’ve seen the importance of a strong media at home and abroad. We’ve seen the US capitol stormed by protesters who’s point of view is fomented online and exacerbated by overly partisan media outlets. We’ve seen another lockdown which needs to be clearly explained to the public and debated robustly.
The same goes for the roll-out of vaccines, where the plan needs to be clearly explained, and any misinformation compellingly countered. Professor McCraith, is in the eye of both these storms.
No pressure, then.