There are two truths which not only governments, but societies as a whole, must recognise and respond to if political culture and accountability is to be strengthened by an appropriately funded independent print media system.
In the past decade newspapers, which are not only traditionally private enterprises but have also voluntarily assumed vital, substantial and serious public service roles, have lost half their income from customers and advertisers.
The first truth is that the spread of disinformation, and the piracy of authentic and costly content by largely unregulated online media, continue to gallop ahead of governmental and even international regulatory power.
The second is that many of the ameliorating policies advocated by the Future of Media Commission, while worthwhile, are complex, and uncertain both in relation to commencement and to detail. The fire engines may arrive, but only to witness a vista of scorched earth.
So we need to construct and agree workable solutions which will protect what are sometimes patronisingly called “legacy” media . What can we do before the “legacy” has been all spent, wasted, or stolen?
This is where central government – and the contribution to policy by all parties, in and out of government – is vital. If the short-term problem (although calling it “short term” is a bit ironic, considering that it has been growing now for at least a decade) cannot be ameliorated, there will be no need for a long-term solution. This is of course because the long-term “problem”, along with huge swathes of our commercial news media, which fulfil an invaluable public as well as private purpose, will have disappeared.
There is, therefore, a demonstrable need for urgent support for these media, including particularly newspapers, whose printed circulations are not only more accessible than many other sources of public information but are a vital component of public and private decision-making, social policy and historical research.
Newspapers have traditionally – and rightly – rejected any form of direct government financial support that is indirectly or psychologically conditional on support for, or reluctance to criticise, government policies. In the fairly remote past, government policies on public advertising were not infrequently used as indirect subsidies to certain media distinguished by their support for a particular political tendency. More recently, public advertising has, not unreasonably, been directed in terms of its effectiveness in communicating publicly essential information.
But more is needed, and urgently, if we are not to see many newspapers – still a vital component of our information ecology – wither and die on the vine.
The policy area most amenable to short-term policy changes, pending the detailed policy initiatives recommended by the Commission, is that of Vat. This is therefore the policy area which is almost certainly the best way of protecting an industry which is under severe and increasing threat from unregulated and international competition, much of it under-regulated and carnivorous.
The abolition of Vat on newspapers would save the industry about €18m a year. A small enough figure in the light of recent government pandemic-related expenses, but disproportionately significant in terms of the public informational needs, the political health of our society, and the role of an independent press in supporting and developing these vital assets.
And the task of deciding how much of this government should forego, and how the resulting savings should be distributed would benefit from fair-minded and civilised, but urgent, discussions involving not only government and publishers but other significant interests involved.
I have spent six decades in journalism, one way or another, and regard every minute of that time with great affection, with a huge sense of the dedication of all journalists, and those working for the newspapers in particular, to the common good, and to those who produced and managed them.
Like all forms of human communication, journalism is not and never will be never perfect. But will we end up saying that we never knew how much we needed it – warts and all – until after it was gone?
John Horgan is emeritus Professor of Journalism at Dublin City University (DCU) and was Ireland’s first Press Ombudsman