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Minister for media faces baptism of fire in a smouldering industry

John McGee


Responsibilities in Catherine Martin’s broad remit include the media industry

Responsibilities in Catherine Martin’s broad remit include the media industry

Responsibilities in Catherine Martin’s broad remit include the media industry

I would give anything to be a fly on the wall in the offices of the newly formed Department for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht.

In scenes that I would imagine to be akin to the famous BBC TV series Yes Minister, I can envisage civil servants frantically scurrying about the place trying to duck and dive as they are being assigned their new roles in what is likely to be one of the toughest and most challenging government departments to work for.

"So, who wants to work in the media section?" asks one of the top mandarins as his/her colleagues rush to the toilet or bow their heads silently below their PC screens for fear of being singled out. "Please let it be sport or culture, anything but media," mutters one executive officer, as she crosses her fingers tightly until they turn red.

Meanwhile, what words of wisdom will the secretary general of the department have to impart to the new boss, Catherine Martin? Not only does she have the bewildering and unenviable task of dealing with the economic fallout from the forsaken tourism industry, the luvvies from the arts and culture sector, the country's cash-starved sporting organisations as well as some constantly feisty Gaelgeoirs, she also has to contend with  a media industry that is facing an existential crisis without a clear and coherent strategy.

Other than the fact that she hails from good Monaghan stock and her brother, Vincent P Martin, a Green Party councillor attended my old alma mater, St Macartan's College outside Monaghan town, I know very little about the new Minister other than that she is highly regarded within the Green Party. Nor am I aware of anything from her past that suggests that she has a keen interest in or any in-depth knowledge of the many issues facing the Irish media industry.  But having a minister with responsibility for media is a good start. It's also long overdue. 

And with no national media strategy - other than a vague nod to the importance of the media sector in the Programme for Government - I doubt that few, if any, civil servants will have clocked up the expertise or knowledge when it comes to dealing with the wider media industry and the challenges it faces.

Historically, the wider media industry and all its constituent elements has been a no-go area for governments down through the years. Many politicians, and indeed civil servants, would have treated the fourth estate with equal measures of disdain and indifference. Occasionally, the odd maverick would come forward with some sensible suggestions - sometimes in the form of a private members bill which, ultimately, ended up gathering dust in the bowels of Leinster House.

The fact that there has been an absence of any one unifying voice that represents the wider media industry at national level hasn't helped.  Unlike other industries where there is a trade organisation representing the interests of that particular sector, the fragmented nature of the media industry has made it difficult to achieve any coherent consensus. 

Without any joined-up thinking, the media sector in Ireland hasn't done itself any favours. Instead, the different trade and member organisations have all paddled their own individual canoes. Some have met with mixed success, others have been as useful as a defibrillator in a morgue. 

In recent years, much of the debate involving media has revolved around the thorny issue of public service broadcasting and, in particular, RTÉ, its dual-funding and its financial stability.

But numerous reports, bills and recommendations over the last 10 years have failed to go anywhere. Next up is a report which will be published by the Commission on the Future of Irish Public Service Broadcasting, which was set up by Richard Bruton just before he left office. Chaired by DCU's Professor Brian MacCraith, the good news is that it will be published on Groundhog Day, some time towards the end of 2020. If precedent is anything to go by, however, the establishment of the Commission may since have been overtaken by recent events.

But the media landscape is much bigger than RTÉ and the public service broadcasting ecosystem, whatever that might look like in the future. Right now the Irish media industry is staring into a financial abyss, the likes of which it has never witnessed before. With an estimated €315m in advertising revenues likely to be lost to the industry as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, this will have a huge impact on the estimated 25,000 jobs that ultimately depend on advertising for their survival. As the various pandemic employment supports are phased out over the coming weeks, it's almost certain that jobs will be lost and many companies will struggle to survive.

Like the rest of her portfolio, the new minister is going to find that the challenges she faces in the media industry are going to be substantial.

Sunday Indo Business