Rusbridger’s commission exit will make no difference to future of Irish media

Government action, not debates about filter bubbles, is what the sector needs now

British journalist and former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. Photograph:   Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images

British journalist and former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. Photograph: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images

 

And then there were nine. Alan Rusbridger has resigned from the Government’s Future of Media Commission to spend more time with his piano, leaving just nine members to decide the fate of Irish media. Well, sort of.

Reading about former Guardian editor (and keen pianist) Rusbridger’s exit from the commission, you would be forgiven for conjuring up the image of an all-powerful tribunal – a cross between the Roman senate and a panel of talent show judges, weighing up which media outlets are deserving of public money and which should be buzzed off.

But objections to Rusbridger’s presence on the commission imbued it with a certain influence that really shouldn’t be assumed.

‘Especially unfair’

He announced his resignation on Sunday, saying he didn’t want his involvement to be “a distraction from its work”. This followed criticism of him for publishing articles by former media columnist Roy Greenslade, notably one from 2014 that was “especially unfair” to Máiría Cahill after she had come forward to say she had been raped by a member of the IRA.

In apologising to Cahill, Rusbridger said he knew at the time that Greenslade was a Sinn Féin supporter, but not that, as has emerged recently, he supported the IRA’s campaign.

It is possible to agree that this was a blot on his editorial record and still think he should have remained on the commission. Indeed, some might say a proper penalty for Rusbridger’s failure not to publish Greenslade might have been life membership of such a commission.

Of course, I am projecting there and he was probably enjoying the privilege. Before his exit, Rusbridger chaired what he concluded was a “sparkling” session in the commission’s fortnightly “thematic dialogues”, during which three international researchers and academics expanded on the swirl of online misinformation and the consequences of opaque filter bubbles (algorithm-encouraged echo chambers) for democracy.

He became most animated at the end of the 40-minute Zoom session: “If we had had more time, I’d have loved to talk more about filter bubbles and whether they exist or not. All my colleagues in Oxford say there is no such thing as filter bubbles,” he said, to the amusement of a former Guardian colleague, Prof Emily Bell. “But we haven’t got time to get into that.”

Quite.

Virtual format

I was asked to participate in one of the earlier “dialogues”, but declined on the basis I would be reporting on them. As it transpired, it has been a challenge to extract news headlines from the three sessions so far, and not only because the first was beset with technical issues. One of the difficulties is that the people submitting questions to panellists are not identified. Another is that the virtual format makes it easy for nominated spokespeople from Facebook, Google and elsewhere to either bat away pointed inquiries or hone their art of not saying very much at all.

It is hardly their fault, but speakers from media organisations and representative groups who absolutely do have something to say are not making new – and therefore newsworthy – arguments. Even TG4, which recently made intriguing revisions to its views on public media funding, previously had the opportunity to outline its stance at an Oireachtas media committee in December.

Perhaps what we need now is an inquiry into why the Government appointed this commission three years after the Oireachtas communications committee published a 321-page report stacked with public media funding recommendations that were swiftly ignored?

Then again, perhaps it is time for policymakers to move beyond the staging of symposiums on the mechanics of online filter bubbles, even ones that are cut short after 40 minutes.

What is the Future of Media Commission’s brief exactly? Its terms of reference concern public service, sustainable support for the creative sector, editorial independence, the role of RTÉ and how all this should be regulated. This is already broad, but watching its sessions, there is a sense of aspiring to solve all problems at once.

In its statement standing by Rusbridger, the commission said the Greenslade affair had “exposed important issues of media standards and transparency” – issues that would “continue to form part of the commission’s ongoing work”.

Media standards, okay. Isn’t that a whole other commission? How quickly this one seems to have morphed in some imaginations into the UK’s Leveson inquiry, just without the celebrities or the original string of criminal offences. If it must have a UK precedent, it should be the 2019 Cairncross Review, which zeroed in on the effect of online consumption and digital advertising markets on the news media.

Advertising plummet

On this note, there can be few better illustrations of what has happened to the Irish media over the past 20 years than the one provided to the commission by marketing agency Core. In 2000, advertisers’ spend with media in the Republic was about €630 million, 96 per cent of which went to indigenous media (which Core defines as media shaped with an Irish audience in mind). By 2020, the total market spend was about €875 million, but with indigenous media’s share falling to 49 per cent.

Over two decades, an estimated €176 million has just gone. Doesn’t this merit a Government response? If the answer is yes and we want to prevent the State becoming a news and culture desert, the next step must be to outline what that response should be.

More promisingly, the commission’s next thematic dialogue, scheduled for Friday, will dispense with Jessie J’s advice to the contrary and make it all about the money, money, money. Contributors range from RTÉ director of strategy Rory Coveney to Blindboy.

As for the commission itself, it is chaired by former DCU president Prof Brian MacCraith, who also serves as chairman of the High-Level Taskforce on Covid-19 Vaccination – a double duty of immense proportions.

It was meant to be 11-strong, but one proposed member turned out not to be available. Initially, it attracted ire for being light on journalists, though the more glaring absence is that of advertising sector expertise. If there is a flaw, however, it doesn’t lie in the make-up of the commission, but in the extent of what it is being asked to do. Rusbridger’s departure won’t make a meaningful difference in this regard.

In the summer, the commission will make recommendations and the Government will thank it for its work and that is all that anybody can say for sure.

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