Saturday 18 November 2017

Dearbhail McDonald: It's time for a proper debate on the future of media in Ireland

'If, say, the Irish Times or the Irish Examiner - one of my favourite Irish newspapers owing to its distinctive voice and social outlook - were in mortal danger, would we sacrifice those vital jobs and voices to maintain a false plurality?' (Stock photo)
'If, say, the Irish Times or the Irish Examiner - one of my favourite Irish newspapers owing to its distinctive voice and social outlook - were in mortal danger, would we sacrifice those vital jobs and voices to maintain a false plurality?' (Stock photo)
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

A public commission into the future of the media? Yes, please.

And while we're at it, let's make the terms of reference broad enough to encompass critical questions, such as: what exactly, in this digital/mobile age, is a "media organisation"?

Let's look at ownership; distribution; competition law; mergers; consolidation; ad spends; State subsidies for at-risk titles and editorial standards for all.

Let's look at plurality and the public interest.

Let's look, in an era of platform neutrality, at whether the regulatory distinction between the traditional print and broadcast sectors is tenable.

Let's look at State broadcaster RTE, the dominant player in the Irish media market, whose dual-funding model - comprising the licence fee as well as commercial advertising - is the envy of its competitors.

Let's look at businessman Denis O'Brien, the largest single shareholder of INM (the publisher of this newspaper and other national and regional titles) and owner of Communicorp, which enjoys between 16pc to 20pc of the Irish radio market.

The approval by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission of INM's acquisition of the Celtic Media Group of local newspapers is still subject to approval by Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, who must decide if the deal has implications for media plurality.

Let's look at the latest, seismic changes to the Irish media market which - staggeringly, in my view - were not acknowledged in the recent report commissioned by Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan on the concentration of media ownership in Ireland.

These include the acquisition of UTV Ireland by Virgin Media, the owner of TV3 that is itself owned by US billionaire and Formula One media mogul John Malone. The deal was approved last week.

Last June Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp, which publishes the Sunday Times Ireland edition and its new daily online Irish edition of The Times, bought six Irish radio stations, including FM104 and Q102.

These developments could have potentially profound effects on the changing nature of Irish media.

And while we're on the subject of accumulation of power by media organisations, can this commission seriously stress-test claims by tech and social media companies such as Facebook - whose socio-political influence and reach has surpassed that of any pen or microphone - that they are not in the media business?

Facebook provides news to 44pc of Americans (we can't be too far off that) and has been accused of swinging the US presidential election for Donald Trump, and has been forced to mount a defence that it is not "Fakebook".

This is owing to the fact that, according to a BuzzFeed report, fake news stories such as the Pope endorsing Trump and Bill Clinton raping a 13-year-old girl - neither of which were true - outperformed real ones on Facebook in the critical weeks before the US election.

Indeed, the most influential media billionaire in Ireland is arguably Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg.

A commission on the future of the media might reflect on that fact and it might reflect on fundamental questions about access to the internet, the ever-changing consumption of news, and the great paradox of social media and the internet revolution.

Namely that, far from democratising information, the tech geeks' magic algorithms have placed us in dangerous filter bubbles, where our personal prejudices are channelled into one narrow field of vision, instead of challenging consensus.

John Kay, the British economist and Financial Times columnist, whom I interviewed in Dublin recently, captures this well when he speaks of how social media has removed filters and has amplified our confirmation biases.

We live in a post-truth era where the meteoric rise of "truthiness" has allowed conviction to trump both reason and facts.

Let's also look to the future in a week where Snap Inc, the parent of Snapchat, has recently filed for a $25bn initial public offering (IPO).

There are around one million Snapchat users in Ireland, almost all under the age of 30, who receive their news and views almost exclusively through social media channels such as Snapchat. This is the next generation of parents, workers and leaders, consuming news in 10 seconds or less and from many unfiltered, non-fact-checked sources.

Just think about the implications of that for democracy.

As for the power of 'the media' - by which we automatically think of as the mainstream or traditional media - I wonder. Because 57 out of 60 American newspaper editorial boards, including the iconic New York Times, endorsed Hillary Clinton - and look where that got them.

What is "the media" anyway?

The question of what constitutes a media organisation was brought home to me last week when I interviewed Wikileaks journalist Sarah Harrison as part of the inaugural Dublin InfoSec conference at the RDS.

Harrison, the public face of the whistleblowing "media organisation", is a former girlfriend of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for the past four years, avoiding extradition to Sweden, where he stands accused of rape.

Harrison was, as one might expect, unrepentant about Wikileaks' mission and modus operandi, including 2010's "cablegate" when 250,000 classified emails and documents between US embassies were mass-dumped by Assange.

Wikileaks, which in its early years played a valuable role in checking power and shining a light on wrongdoing - I was an early fan - had established strong working relationships with some of the world's leading news media, including the New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais.

However, the much-feted "unique collaborations" were cut short when Assange - an information messiah or cyber-terrorist, depending on your point of view - made a unilateral decision to publish everything online.

The move was deplored by his five media partners. And in recent years, Wikileaks' mass data dumps have been increasingly derided by many as reckless and posing a potential risk to the lives of those identified in its dramatic deposits.

Even Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, has rebuked Wikileaks, describing its hostility to even modest curation as "a mistake".

What staggered me most about Harrison, who is on record as saying that Wikileaks guarantees its anonymous sources "maximum impact", was her insistence that the provenance of its sources were not relevant, even if it were (as suspected during the recent US election) a rogue state or actor.

That's not journalism, in my view. That's anarchy.

In a week where NSA director Michael Rogers said that Wikileaks' release of internal emails from the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign constituted a "conscious effort by a nation-state to achieve a specific effect", Harrison was also ambivalent on the conduct of hackers and what limits, if any, should be imposed on publication.

All the time insisting that Wikileaks is "a media organisation".

So, I would welcome a full, public debate on the future of media in Ireland.

I worry deeply about the sustainability of news media in a small country where there is significant concentration of ownership and distribution and where the future of colleagues' jobs - and voices - is precarious.

Indeed, the greatest risk to media plurality in Ireland is financial viability.

More, not less, consolidation seems to be on the cards if we are to prevent the loss of journalism jobs. Collaboration and shared services may be the only way to survive.

If, say, the Irish Times or the Irish Examiner - one of my favourite Irish newspapers owing to its distinctive voice and social outlook - were in mortal danger, would we sacrifice those vital jobs and voices to maintain a false plurality?

Should we, in the public interest, consider state subsidies for at-risk media?

Should telecoms companies such as Eir or tech giants such as Google and Facebook be forced to pay an An Post-style universal service obligation?

Should they have to pay a mandatory levy to ensure that citizens have access to the internet, to prevent citizens being excluded from the digital revolution and to stop the widening of a chasm between the online haves and have-nots?

We are standing in the foothills of an information revolution, whose possibilities and consequences are unfolding at breakneck speed and are radically altering the structure of society and democracy as we know it.

Maybe pausing for thought and debating the vital role of media is not such a bad idea after all.

Dearbhail McDonald is INM Group Business Editor and studied the future of media in the digital age in America as part of the Eisenhower Fellowships - see

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