Monday 14 October 2019

John McGee: 'Irish radio industry gets closer to its day of public service recognition'

(stock image)
(stock image)

John McGee

You've got to take your hat off to the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI), the organisation that represents the independent commercial radio sector, including RTE's own radio stations.

For the past number of years IBI, under the very capable direction of Lisa Ni Choisdealbha and its chairman John Purcell, has banged its drum loud and clear and had left no stone unturned in its quest to convince legislators that public funding for the sector was needed if local and regional radio stations are to continue to churn out programming that fulfils much of the criteria associated with public service broadcasting.

Local and regional radio stations are an important part of the social fabric in many communities around Ireland and they can boast considerable listenership figures in the regions they serve.

It's hard to argue against IBI, particularly at a time when traditional media is under the cosh, media consumption habits are changing, advertising revenue continues to flow in the direction of the digital giants and, in other countries, the concept of public service broadcasting is under threat.

Look at the US, the largest media market in the world, for example. President Donald Trump, in his recent budget, proposed that all federal funding for public service broadcasters, which is channelled through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, be abolished altogether.

In a nutshell, that would mean 1,168 public service radio stations and 355 TV channels across the US would lose their funding, forcing some of them, particularly in rural areas, to switch off the microphones and turn off the lights as they leave the building for good.

Trump won't get his way, but it does illustrate the challenges public service broadcasting faces in some countries.

No such draconian steps would ever be contemplated in Ireland, however.

In fact, as IBI has ploughed its often-lonely public service furrow over the past few years, it has received cross-party support and sympathy within both the Dail and Seanad.

This time last year, for example, the Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment published its rather dull-sounding report on Pre-Legislative Scrutiny of the General Scheme of a Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2017 and Retransmission Fees which, among other things, recommended that local and regional radio stations could benefit from bursaries to help fund content.

While the amount of funding available would only make a small inroad, it was nonetheless interpreted as a sign of some progress.

More progress was made in the past few weeks, when a series of measures that will pave the way for the provision of support from the TV licence fee to public service content on local, regional and national radio stations, was passed by the Dail following a private members motion put forward by Fianna Fail's communications spokesman Timmy Dooley.

The motion essentially recognises the public service contribution that independent radio stations make, while it also proposes the establishment of a ring-fenced fund to underwrite some of the costs associated with all of this.

While it has taken IBI several years to get this far, it is far from home and dry. Some time over the next few weeks, the Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment will submit its final report to the Minister, Richard Bruton, and it remains be seen what direction the debate will take.

Since taking over the Communications portfolio from Denis Naughten, the Minister has been preoccupied by other matters such as climate change, energy and cyber-bullying. He has not yet given his views on how public service broadcasting - never mind the wider media industry - should be funded.

As a Dublin-based minister, there is a fear within the radio industry that he might not share the same concerns of his predecessor, or indeed those of other rural-based politicians.

When he was Minister, Naughten, for example, made it quite clear that he was open to the idea of local and regional radio stations receiving additional funding to cover some of the costs associated with their public service output.

He even went further by saying, back in 2016, that he was in favour of some sort of funding mechanisms to help the newspaper industry which, like its broadcasting counterparts, is also feeling the pinch.

But that was then, this is now and it seems likely that IBI's quest still has some distance to go.

There is also a danger that this quest could possibly be swallowed up in the debate when the Pandora's Box that contains thorny issues like RTE charging retransmission fees and the collection of the licence fee is opened up by Bruton. When this does eventually happen, expect sparks to fly.

While IBI is perfectly right to plough its own furrow, the question has to be asked whether or not we have missed a much wider opportunity to put the entire media industry on a much sounder financial footing?

Only last week, for example, Alan Cox, the CEO of Core, the largest marketing communications group in the country, said that the newspaper industry - which also has public service dimension to it - was going through a profound period of crisis and that the Government should commission an independent report to examine the state of the news media in Ireland.

Would it not be better to take on board all the concerns of the media industry - including those articulated by IBI and News Brands Ireland - and come up with some solutions to ensure that an important part of Irish life, and democracy in general, are safeguarded well into the future? Over to you, Minister Bruton.

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