Broadcasters must face up to new challenges

Broadcasting and the press are essential elements in our social fabric, but what we now take for granted cannot be guaranteed indefinitely


Consider the following:
A television current affairs investigation about healthcare in a regional hospital whose stark and authoritative findings prompt an immediate, urgent and far-reaching public debate and substantive official response.

A newspaper report, on the concerns – and subsequent actions – of an important statutory oversight body, dominating the headlines and Oireachtas attention in the two weeks since its publication and richly elaborated in follow-up broadcast coverage.

The storms and floods of recent weeks that have done so much damage but where the national reach and the intimate local coverage and knowledge of Ireland’s broadcasters have combined to give the public an extraordinary level of service, of information, of awareness.

A radio interview where straightforward answers to straightforward questions can yield information that hitherto appeared to remain elusive.

Consider also, for completeness, a television programme where an interview in an otherwise entertainment context becomes the subject of a legal settlement and, in turn, of intense public debate.

Consider now how much poorer our public life and our democracy would be without strong, relevant, reliable domestic media outlets. Broadcasting and the press are essential elements in our contemporary social fabric. But what we now take very much for granted cannot be guaranteed indefinitely.

Broadcasting legislation has, for half a century, asserted and reflected the central role that broadcasting plays, and is intended to play, in our modern democracy. All broadcasting in Ireland is socially regulated because all broadcasting serves a public purpose. The way in which a community expresses itself, comes to know itself, has access to information that matters to it and reaches out to the wider world are the essence of what broadcasting is about.

But we live in times of intense change and great challenge. Were there never an economic downturn, these would be challenging times for broadcasters.

There is a process of change of extraordinary depth and intensity that is challenging long-established patterns of media consumption, that will have decisive impacts on how information is disseminated and accessed and that may alter our very notion of what constitutes information.

Add to this the fact that the digital revolution has provided this country with an unprecedented level of externally- based competitive channels.

This has a number of consequences. Many of these channels are not just passively available; they are actively seeking to generate advertising revenue in this State. The “long tail” of foreign channels, which very few who read these words may ever have seen, takes up to a quarter of all television viewing in Ireland.

The new environment has created a significant shift in the balance between external and Irish-produced content available to Irish audiences.

External channels are regulated in their country of origin and have no obligations in Ireland – this point echoed in our domestic law, where UTV Ireland, welcome as a new source of choice that promises new Irish-produced material, will not have the same obligations as RTÉ, TG4, TV3 or commercial radio stations; will not be obliged to have any Irish-made programming; and will not have to pay the levy to fund the BAI. This is not a criticism of UTV but it is an anomaly in our law.

I am neither a prophet of doom nor a pessimist. Irish broadcasters have weathered the worst of the downturn and have sustained their services to the audience.

But as the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) publishes its new three-year strategy, the changing environment underlines the importance of Irish content on radio and television and the serious consequences if domestic broadcasting, and media in general, can be dwarfed by external content and risk becoming marginal in people’s lives.

Challenges there will be in abundance. For the BAI, they include being on guard against anything resembling a mechanistic approach, recognising the subtlety in the law and finding new and effective ways to promote and stimulate quality content and independent journalism.For government, policy makers and BAI, the strategic issues will include:

How to find the crucial balance between public and commercial funding for RTÉ and TG4.

How to define what the audience should expect in return and as justification for the public funding.

How to sustain indigenous commercial broadcasters in an acutely competitive environment and so sustain choice for audiences.

How to give local radio stations comparable access to commercial minuteage as enjoyed by television stations and how to encourage greater innovation and imagination in programming.

How to help communities to have their own voices, to develop their own self-expression.

How to find new ways to develop engagement and co-operation between publicly- funded and commercial broadcasters.

Perhaps the greatest challenge will continue to be to serve the needs of the Irish audience; to recognise and reflect the complexity of its composition; to capture the full richness of its voices and opinions; to accommodate the views that may be unpopular but are no less valid; to remember that many of our central truths were, not too long ago, considered marginal and suspect.

Courageous, forthright, vigorous, open, honest, respectful journalism and debate are vital in a healthy society, are not remotely threatened by any regulatory framework and respect the audience’s intelligence. At its best, broadcasting is an interactive collaboration between programme-maker and audience. The viewer or listener is not just a passive recipient but an interested party with a point of view. That is the task; that is the opportunity – however challenging the environment.

Bob Collins is chairman of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

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