Sunday 16 December 2018

John McGee: We need new body to look after all of media industry

'The directive will introduce a range of rules covering advertising, sponsorship and product placement in children's programming while also capping the amount of advertising broadcasters can include in their schedule.' Stock image
'The directive will introduce a range of rules covering advertising, sponsorship and product placement in children's programming while also capping the amount of advertising broadcasters can include in their schedule.' Stock image

John McGee

In three months' time, the Irish broadcasting industry will mark the 30th anniversary of the Radio and Television Act 1988. It was signed into the statute books in October of that year by that most divisive of political figures Ray Burke, then the Minister for Communications.

While the sound of champagne corks popping might not be heard in radio studios around the country, it was a landmark piece of legislation that essentially opened up the radio market to new entrants, dealt a deadly blow to the pirate radio stations and, more importantly, provided commercial competition to RTE which had effectively hogged the airwaves since 1926 when its predecessor - 2RN - was first established.

Although it was nearly a year later when RTÉ's first main challenger - Century Radio - started to broadcast, 1988 will go down in broadcasting history as the beginning of a new era for the Irish media industry.

But the 1988 Act also provided for the establishment of the Independent Radio & Television Commission (IRTC), which was set up to regulate the emerging broadcasting landscape and issue licences to new entrants around the country. Following various tweaks to the legislation down through the years, including the Broadcasting Acts of 2001, 2007 and 2009, the IRTC morphed into the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI) and then the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) in 2009.

Along the way, the organisation was saddled with additional roles which were never part of its original remit. Some of these included taking over certain roles previously undertaken by the RTE Authority, the management of the Sound & Vision fund, policing broadcast complaints and certain advertising codes, licensing TV stations and supporting the development of the broadcasting sector through research and training. Then in 2014, the Competition & Consumer Protection Act gave it a role to play in media mergers, including all M&A activity outside its historical broadcasting remit.

Now it seems likely that it will play a pivotal role in policing the EU's Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AMVS), which is expected to be enacted some time in 2020.

Among other things, the revised European legislation - which will apply to all EU broadcasters as well as video-on-demand and video-sharing platforms such as Netflix, YouTube and Facebook - aims to ensure that as much as 30pc of all content available to consumers is European in origin. On top of this, the directive in its current form provides enhanced protection of children from content that incites violence, hatred and terrorism.

In addition, the directive will introduce a range of rules covering advertising, sponsorship and product placement in children's programming while also capping the amount of advertising broadcasters can include in their schedule. All in all, it's expected to present significant challenges for broadcasters, VOD platforms and in particular companies such as Facebook and YouTube. And, more worryingly, it's going to be a nightmare to police.

While the Government has yet to decide which organisation will be responsible for policing the directive, most fingers are being pointed at the BAI.

In fairness to the BAI - and its previous incarnations - it has done a good job to date. But given the additional tasks that have been foisted upon it and the constantly changing, cut-throat and complex nature of the evolving media landscape, could the BAI form the nucleus of a bigger and better-resourced organisation that has responsibility for the entire media industry and the many issues it faces?

It's not a daft question if you think about it.

While the bulk of its work is still very much focused on the traditional broadcasting sector, the very fact that it has already amassed considerable insights and experience in other media-related areas makes it well suited to undertake such a role if ever the Government decided to take the media industry seriously.

But do we need a State organisation to oversee and nurture the wider media industry while providing the necessary regulatory muscle that is now required in the modern media landscape? Yes, we do and for lots of different reasons. And yes, we also need a minister with sole responsibility for the media, much like they have in the UK.

Apart from the fact that practically every county in Ireland has a local radio station and a newspaper which supports local communities and creates jobs, the media landscape is changing rapidly. Notwithstanding the huge commercial threats posed by the likes of Facebook and Google, the Irish media industry could have a bright future that has the potential to create jobs and add considerable economic and social value to Irish society if there was one national and co-ordinated approach to mapping out its future. But, as we know, we don't have that at the moment despite numerous calls from various quarters in the past.

Part of the solution, I believe, is already staring us in the face.

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