Who wants to be Minister for Media? The job that most Irish media organisations would like to see advertised might not ever come into existence, though the draft programme for government published last week has yanked it one step closer to reality.
Under its provisions, the next coalition-by-default would “bring together all policy functions relating to broadcast media, print media and online media into a single media division within a government department”.
At the moment, there’s an annoying number of doors to knock, inboxes to bother. A news outlet valiantly requesting that the perennially to-be-reviewed defamation law is actually reviewed? That’s the Department of Justice. Lobbying for a VAT cut? You’re wasting your time anywhere but the Department of Finance.
So far, so standard. A weirder division relates to public funding for screen content, with the modest pots split between the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), which is overseen by the Department of Communications, and Screen Ireland, which comes under the aegis of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Applying for the Section 481 tax credit for film, television drama, animation and creative documentary is again the Department of Culture (plus the Revenue Commissioners).
But it is the Department of Communications that is effectively the Department for RTÉ and the Department for Radio, while last year it also tiptoed politely into the Big Tech sphere with the publication of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill, which the programme for government says the proposed coalition will enact.
The Department of Communications these days has the full title Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, with Communications coming first only in name. When there’s a planet to fix, the precise definition of “television” in television licence fee tends to lose out. Even the most fervent campaigners can see why the question of how to stabilise RTÉ’s disastrous finances, critical to Irish culture as it may be, finds it difficult to compete with climate change for ministerial headspace and diary time.
When the programme for government says a single media division will be established “within a government department”, the word “within” could mean anything from an unprecedented colonisation of the corner offices to “don’t mind us, we’ll find a patch of the basement with a couple of plug points”.
But the risk of other priorities swamping the survival of the Irish media might lessen just a touch were the division to be located at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, not where it is an afterthought to emissions targets and renewable energy.
Of course, with the Green Party wobbling on whether or not to go into government, it would be premature to order any stationery.
That the Irish media industry isn’t keen on the current multi-stop-shop isn’t breaking news. In 2012, back when it was still known as National Newspapers of Ireland, Newsbrands Ireland made the case on the basis that it didn’t know who it should be talking to about the awkward business of staying in business. The chairman of the organisation at the time, former Irish Farmers Journal editor Matt Dempsey, said the minister for media should be someone at Cabinet level “with real clout”.
Eight years later, Cabinet clout remains elusive, but it is still progress to see so many bullet points in the media section of the programme for government lurking under the wider, grander heading “reforming and reimagining our public life”. It was notable that, unlike the 2016 document, there even was a media section.
Screen Producers Ireland (SPI), the representative body for independent production companies chaired by former Green leader John Gormley, was among those to welcome the "very positive" proposals, which also include a signal that the government would "ensure the full implementation" of the European Union's audio-visual media services directive (a potential revenue-raiser) and the no-hostages-here promise to "recognise the important role of Irish public service broadcasting in Irish life and the ongoing restructuring efforts at RTÉ in the context of a changing media environment".
For SPI chief executive Elaine Geraghty, a single media division would mean opportunities for reform and growth weren't missed. Both SPI and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), meanwhile, liked the bit about retitling the previously mooted Public Service Broadcasting Commission as a Future of Media Commission, which will report on the industry's struggles in a "platform agnostic fashion" within nine months.
NUJ Irish secretary Séamus Dooley welcomed the “positive tone”, even if there was a “lack of urgency” in dealing with the financial crisis at RTÉ.
The BAI was also a fan, with chief executive Michael O’Keeffe telling a webinar that the document contained “interesting stuff” that would benefit Irish media if implemented over the next 12 months. Here the chairs really do seem set for rearranging: the programme for government says that once the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill becomes law, the BAI will get its wished-for regeneration into the Media and Online Safety Commission.
Other bullet points were less impressive: the desire to enact the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill before the end of 2020, for example, seems dulled by the fact the amendment’s measures to support local radio were first proclaimed three years ago.
Still, programmes for government are always more aspirational than inspirational. And it probably doesn’t mean anything that the authors of this one snuck their thoughts on media and advertising – including the surprise declaration to end advertising self-regulation – on to page 137 of a 139-page document in which the last two pages were blank.