| 15.8°C Dublin

Jody Corcoran: Media must protect what it creates

'When your hand is in the mouth of a dog you tend to say 'good dog'," Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte told a meeting of newspaper executives at a reception in Dublin last week.

His remark was the most accessible yet to explain why the Government's attention has been drawn from a number of crucial issues clamouring for space on the agenda, such as the future of the newspaper industry in Ireland.

In this instance, the dog that bites is the EU/ECB/IMF.

From Rabbitte's account, it is clear that the demands of the troika on the most pressing issue of all -- what we call the economic crisis -- have dominated the agenda to the exclusion of almost everything else.

That may explain, for example, why the Government's information booklet and website on the children's referendum was presented in a "not fair, equal or impartial manner", a damning finding that ministers frequently throw at newspapers on far more flimsy evidence.

The dog that bites may also explain why the Government's eye seems to be off the ball on any number of issues, the scandal of bankers' pensions another such recent example.

Interestingly, it was not until several newspapers, not least the Sunday Indepen-dent, highlighted the issue that the Government was provoked into some form of ill-defined action, the outcome of which remains uncertain.

Ministers also seek to minimise the relevance of disclosures by newspapers, not least the Irish Times, in relation to their own pension entitlements, which would cost a massive €56m should they all retire at the next election.

They would not be human if they did not, at some level, resent the manner in which newspapers investigate, expose, report, criticise and inform on the workings of Government.

And as we know, ministers are nothing if not human.

It was refreshing, therefore, to hear Pat Rabbitte again declare his view, at the reception, that there was no need for new privacy laws here on the basis of what has emerged in the UK. In that regard, he is at odds with his Cabinet colleagues, Alan Shatter and Leo Varadkar, who hold opposing views.

It was equally refreshing to hear that Rabbitte has not conceded to Fine Gael the media mergers bill, which is another issue crucial, beyond mere lip service, to the lofty ideal of freedom of speech.

He maintained that the media merger provisions would be stripped from the proposed new Competition Bill and passed to his department, probably by early next year, which would then be steered into legislation.

Rabbitte said: "Across Europe, concentration in the ownership of newspapers and other news organisations has the potential to seriously harm the ability of media to report in an independent manner, both through editorial modulation and, critically, by undermining the reputation of individual organisations.

"It is clear that the practice of concentrating media ownership in the hands of a small number of wealthy individuals is not in the interest of the public, regardless of how benign those cheerleaders for individual moguls might portray them. Nor is it a new phenomenon. This is a difficult area for politicians to engage in -- nothing is so likely to raise the ire of journalists as the possibility of a change of ownership that might affect their future employment.

"These issues aside, the fact remains that concentration of ownership and control is a valid concern, and one Governments must be prepared to engage with as and when it arises. And I count ourselves in that number -- like most Member States, we have an existing system for the evaluation of media mergers and acquisitions, but one that is past due an overhaul."

However, if ministers fail to lift their heads now and then from the strictures of the troika to address other pressing issues, they can have no complaint if newspapers question whether they are really just serving time before their comfortable pensions start to roll in.

A submission last week by the National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) to Minister of State, Sean Sherlock, states that there is a "genuine sense of fear" that newspapers here will be "sold out" to appease the rich and powerful technology firms, such as Google.

It is not as if the newspaper industry is looking for an undue favour on this issue.

The industry directly employs 4,500 people; sustains several thousand more part-time and spin-off jobs; generates €830m annually for the economy, including more than €110m in VAT; pays more than €300m in wages; buys more than €272m in goods and services annually and sells more than five million newspapers a week from more than 4,000 retail outlets around Ireland.

As the NNI submission also said, the value of newspapers to society goes beyond jobs and money.

Newspapers here have played an integral role in life for more than 200 years: investigating, exposing, reporting, criticising and informing. They are part of our democracy. They are also here for the long haul, committed to the country, part of our national recovery.

The context is the Copyright Review which is currently taking place against the backdrop of the rapid evolution in media and changes triggered by the digital age.

As the NNI submission states, it suits the agendas of certain sectors and organisations to portray themselves as 'true innovators'; forward-thinking and progressive and representing the future.

By contrast, copyright holders, and newspaper publishers in particular, are often portrayed as old-fashioned, luddite and resistant to change.

Yet throughout the very rapid evolution of the digital age, Ireland's creative industries have shown -- and continue to show -- an appetite not only to embrace change, but to instigate it.

Since 2000, NNI members have invested more than €250m in technology, facilitating the transition from black-and-white, print-only newspapers to the multi-platform delivery of news via integrated newsrooms, purpose built to generate both print and digital content.

Nevertheless, in spite of their initiative and innovation, newspaper publishers and copyright holders in general have been negatively portrayed as a different group, distinct from 'real' innovators and entrepreneurs.

Worryingly, this perception has crept into the terms of reference of the Copyright Review itself, which appears to be based on the idea that copyright might represent a "barrier to innovation", which, as the NNI submission points out, is patently untrue.

The submission states: "Any perception that copyright law is a barrier to innovation is ill-founded. Copyright is about valuing and protecting innovation. The creators of copyright work are therefore, by definition, creators and innovators."

In the case of newspapers and newspaper content, the blatant disregard for copyright is draining large amounts of potential and actual revenue from the industry.

In 2010, a single search engine operating in Ireland offered around 150,000 newspaper articles at a cost to the publishers equivalent to around €46.5m. In 2011, the same search engine offered more than 350,000 articles at a cost equivalent to more than €110m.

Producing content requires significant investment that is simply not sustainable when content published online is consistently and systematically "pilfered" by others for their own commercial benefit, without any compensation for those who have put time, effort and money into its creation.

Ireland is not the only country that feels technology firms are overstepping the mark in relation to copyright.

In Germany, a Bill is currently progressing through parliament that will enable publishers to collect a fee from Google (and other search engines/news aggregators) when they display excerpts from news articles along with links to newspaper and magazine websites.

In France, the President has imposed a deadline on Google of the end of this year to come up with a way to start paying royalties for displaying news publishers' material, even short excerpts.

The same is happening in Italy, where the main trade association of news publishers has said it will lobby for similar legislation as in Germany and France, while media owners in Austria and Switzerland are also studying the issue.

The NNI has attempted to engage with Google to find common ground and solutions that "will enable us to come to a mutually acceptable existence". To date these attempts have proved unsuccessful.

It it not just Google piracy that the challenge is being taken to, but also, in many countries, the manner in which public service broadcasters, such as RTE, have an unfair advantage.

Newspapers and other private sector media players now compete head-on with RTE, particularly for online activities, where RTE and other media players have established websites and compete aggressively for advertising.

NNI maintains that RTE's ability to exploit commercial opportunities has to be seen in the context of its privileged position as a publicly funded broadcaster.

If a newspaper launches a website, it has "to make it pay"; it has to generate sufficient revenue from the website -- through subscriptions and advertising -- to make the site viable. However, its ability to do so is "severely prejudiced" by the fact that RTE does not have to turn a profit on its website. Indeed, it can avail of publicly funded content, whereas a newspaper publisher has to pay for content out of its own resources.

The NNI believes that a level playing field for all can be assured only by denying RTE the chance to carry advertising on its website.

In a question and answer session last week, Pat Rabbitte defended the dual funding mandate of RTE.

But the NNI says that even if an outright ban cannot be accepted, RTE's freedom to exploit commercial opportunities in pursuance of its public service objectives is constrained under existing competition rules, including, in the case of the EU, State aid rules. The newspaper industry says RTE should not be permitted to exploit commercial opportunities where this unfairly impacts on its private sector competitors.

It was simply not appropriate for RTE to persist with its current "land-grabbing" strategy and seek to exploit commercial opportunities by whatever means possible; nor was it appropriate for RTE to run a website in a manner that could not be sustained by any private operator.

For example, the RTE public service remit should not extend to real estate, job postings and dating websites.

Sunday Independent