Plurality, reliability and good journalism the keys to vibrant media, conference hears

Distinction between entertainment and information ‘becoming too blurred’

A section of the attendance at the National Media Conference in partnership with The Irish Times at Trinity College, at the weekend. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

A section of the attendance at the National Media Conference in partnership with The Irish Times at Trinity College, at the weekend. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

Sat, Nov 16, 2013, 15:02

Ireland is better served than the UK by its media and journalists – and much better than the USA, academy award-winning film producer and now new media advocate David Puttnam has said.

Addressing the National Media Conference at Trinity College, Dublin on the question of whether Irish media accurately represented the Irish population, he warned that plurality was key to quality journalism in a democratic society.

Lord Puttnam said that the narrowing of sources of information was a factor which had to be resisted, claiming that that was what had happened in the US. People there could now go to a news source which reflected their own prejudice to have them reinforced.

Lord Putnam spoke to the conference on screen from his home in County Cork.

Addressing many journalism students, he added that the next generation had to be aware that they should not rely solely on one source of information, they must seek out a series of options. He also sounded a warning, quoting some British newspapers, that distinctions between entertainment and information publications were becoming too blurred.

While speakers referred to the many challenges faced by news organisations in general and newspapers in particular, Joe Duffy of RTÉ hailed what he called “a golden age for radio”.

He claimed that Ireland was highly “radio literate” with higher than average listening levels and significant levels of audience participation.

“Radio is a wonderful medium,” he said, praising its simplicity. “It is personal and immediate and engaging.”

He added: “It is community”.

He said that if Liveline had not existed in the immediate aftermath of the banking and financial crisis in 2008 “it would have been necessary to invent it” given the need for ordinary people to engage in public debate.

Patrick Hannon, a lecturer in radio at the Dublin Institute of Technology, illustrated the popularity of radio in Ireland and the rise of regional radio.

Clare Duignan, former managing director at RTÉ, contrasted radio with television and praised the former claiming radio “is entirely about content, rather than format” – a key strength.

Many speakers, among them Ger Gilroy of Newstalk; Sinead O’Carroll of thejournal.ie; and Catherine Reilly formerly of Metro Eireann, addressed the need to ensure the media in general were equally open to so-called minority voices, to women and to ethnic groups in Ireland.

Darren Cleary of FM104, Breifne Early of Dublin City FM and Cliona Foley from the Irish Independent addressed the question of fairness of broadcast and newspaper emphasis on certain sports.

They also questioned the coverage of women’s sport.

Bob Collins, chairman of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, challenged the idea that the media had to represent the population. He also confronted the idea that the media in general reflected the totality of the audience, claiming there was not a seemless engagement with the public and adding that young people in general were being patronised by the media portraying them as one-dimensional.

Media controllers had to look beyond the pressure to entertain audiences, he said, and not lose sight of the objective of informing people.

He cited what he saw as a class bias within newsrooms, claiming that the composition of reporters’ teams did not reflect society as a whole.

Kevin O’Sullivan, the editor of The Irish Times, in his address to open the conference, looked to the future and the development of digital platforms and the role of print media.

“Given where the world is right now, I contend quality journalism has never been so important” he said.

Referring to the Arab Spring, the euro crisis, a rising China, Africa at the crossroads, climate change and other phenomena, he said all these issues “require the accountability that comes with robust, courageous journalism”.

He stressed a need for journalists to place information and facts in context.

He said there is “an insatiable appetite for information, data, content, context and explanation” – all of which was summed up in the word “insight”.

Among the many challenges faced by print outlets was that posed by digital innovation.

“The new media business model is not yet clear,” he added. “Though some telling trends are emerging.”

“Content will always be the lifeblood of a multimedia Irish Times – though there will be unrelenting change in how that is generated and packaged.”