Time to level the media playing field
The European Broadcasting Union has announced a new campaign called 'Keep Media Good', which is designed to demonstrate the positive impact public service media has on societies. And so say all of us. This was the first time public service media organisations across Europe, including RTE and TG4 in Ireland, came together to champion public service media in the face of a proliferation of fake news, political imbalances, disputes over funding and the rise of online streaming giants. These combined trends, it was said, "distract" from the fact that public service broadcasting is one of society's most valuable assets.
Which was all well and good, but not entirely the full picture: if anything, the 'Keep Media Good' campaign immediately failed in its first duty to accurately inform people that it is not public service broadcasters alone who attempt to avoid fake news and political imbalances and that commercial media is, in fact, not inherently 'bad' but in most cases also performs a vital public service to inform, inspire, engage and innovate, and to protect and strengthen democracies.
The oversight is important in light of reports that the Oireachtas Committee on Communications is soon to begin deliberations on the issue of public service broadcasting as financed by the television licence fee, the vast proportion of which goes directly to RTE, which, unlike many public service broadcasters throughout Europe, also benefits hugely from advertising revenues in direct competition with commercial media. Let us also consider the wider landscape. Commercial media is also under attack from global digital giants such as Google and Facebook who command an ever-increasing slice of digital media advertising, thereby proving to be a direct threat to the continued viability of the commercial media model as we have come to know and understand it.
A new report to the Oireachtas Committee has suggested that the current TV licence fee of €160 should be raised to as much as €175, along with a further suggestion that its rate should be linked to inflation in the future. How convenient. But really, this proposal fails to take account of the broader landscape in which all media are now fighting for survival. Here is a novel suggestion equally worthy of consideration: would it not be better to abolish the licence fee altogether and the revenue replaced through conventional taxes on consumption and income? After all, the licence fee is nothing more than an annual tax on the ownership of a consumer durable, regardless of use, and makes as much economic sense as a tax on washing machines or cookers. Such a new funding model could then be applied according to an utterly changed media landscape, the commercial players in which equally value a strong, verifiable and trustworthy news service and impartial to boot, or at least as impartial as the RTE News public service maintains itself to be.
A functioning democracy needs serious radio and TV stations, and also broadsheet and indeed tabloid newspapers, the pitch upon which the political game is played, as it were. In its deliberations, the Oireachtas Committee on Communications should strive to ensure that the playing pitch is somewhat levelled. The alternative, as we saw in the US presidential election, can have a destabilising effect which could undermine rather than bolster democracy.