Wednesday 18 September 2019

Ciara Kelly: 'Licence fee change is necessary in the digital age'

HARD NEWS: Programming that is expensive to make, or has a minority appeal, will only ever be made by a publicly funded media
HARD NEWS: Programming that is expensive to make, or has a minority appeal, will only ever be made by a publicly funded media
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

My children don't watch terrestrial television. They stream things. Download things. Use Netflix and other unknowable bits of the internet to watch programmes, films and clips that they're interested in. They consume media using Spotify, YouTube and things that they rightly say are too complicated to bother to explain to me - which probably means not that very complicated at all.

They see news when it comes in on digital timelines. Which means they see what has gone viral, the hottest clickbait or the top few headline items, only. My guess is they rarely see the kind of in-depth analysis I'd like them to. They rarely see the equivalent of Newsnight or read an op-ed by an informed political analyst. Their media intake is largely free - apart from me paying for a couple of household, subscription accounts. And the news they see is exclusively free from what I can gather.

And perhaps you might think that is a good thing. Getting something for free is surely better than having to pay for it? Getting something for free allows more of us to see what we otherwise perhaps might have missed out on because of cost? A democratisation of information in a way.

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Except we're not comparing like with like. The free news you get from second-rate news sources or social media is not objective, fact-checked news that allows you to fully inform yourself. The news you get for free is often biased. Driven by an agenda you may know nothing about. In fact, the news you get for free may not be news at all. It may be literally faked.

And if you're being fed falsehoods dressed up as news - you're actually being sold something. Be that advertising that's tagged alongside it. Or more concerning, you're being sold an agenda.

Fake news exists because information is power. If you are in charge of the distribution or the content of information going out to people - you can manipulate them. This has already happened. The 2016 US presidential election was manipulated by Russia. Trump was the beneficiary. The Brexit referendum saw thousands of Russian bots go live two days before the vote was cast, pushing a leave agenda. Brexit happened. We've seen the massive harvesting of people's personal Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica for the purpose of micro targeting voters. We saw in our own abortion referendum here, digital ads had to be shut down for fear our democratic process would be subverted. This is hugely concerning.

As I write this from Ethiopia, both Facebook and Instagram are currently blocked here by the government in an attempt to stop the spreading of political information among users. The digital world has entirely disrupted the established means of distributing news to people - for both good and bad. And digital media has become an increasingly powerful force in geopolitics.

Which brings me round to the plan for the TV licence to be replaced by a 'device independent broadcasting charge' and why it's vitally important.

Whatever about normal TV programmes having a public service remit - and I think there's absolutely an argument for arts, drama, sports and cultural programmes that would not be commercially viable being supported by State funding - having an independent, objective, unbiased and un-buyable news service that people can access is a fundamental pillar of democracy.

If you do not know - because your news is being filtered - what is going on, how can you form an objective opinion on it? And if you can't form an objective opinion then you're ripe for being led by the nose by those who would seek power over you. It really is that simple.

I wrote last week about the RTE Investigates programme exposing bad practice in a Dublin creche. That kind of expose would not be possible without some form of licence fee.

Investigative journalism is expensive. Commercial media by its nature cannot sustain programming that isn't widely popular.

Those of us who exist in the commercial world live and die by our ratings. The JNLR radio ratings were out this week and thankfully my radio show is holding its own. If it wasn't, I wouldn't be the presenter for long.

Programming that is expensive to make, or has a minority appeal, will only ever be made by a publicly funded media.

Don't praise the importance of RTE Investigates and say you're against some form of licence fee. Don't take for granted having an objective, unbiased news service when so many people around the world have nothing but lies and propaganda on their television - and journalists who speak out against it are violently silenced.

Paying a small stipend to ensure that we do not become disempowered in terms of information is money well spent.

Do we deserve value for money in terms of our national broadcaster? Absolutely. Could it be more efficient and focussed in delivering its remit? Very possibly. There are cogent arguments that could be made against having a model funded by advertising and a licence fee.

There is also a case to be made against the State broadcaster funding a pop music radio station that serves not an 'unmet need' but instead actually competes on an unequal footing with commercially viable pop radio stations that don't have the advantage of State funding. But those are questions related to reform of the national broadcaster - not questions of its value and importance.

People often ask how Trump and Brexit happened. I don't think there's any one simple answer to that. But digital media's lack of fact-based news or objective analysis likely played some part.

We're going through a transition phase in terms of understanding exactly how digital media is disrupting the old model of media. But increasingly we will see people move away from television as a delivery system for entertainment and news. It's already happening. If TV isn't how we engage with media or news, then we need to find a way of funding public service standards across our digital media. Because if we don't, we'll live to regret it - politically. A broadcasting charge is necessary to fund good journalism which empowers the electorate. It's a price well worth paying.


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