The question at the heart of the Future of Media Commission report is around how the media sector in Ireland can remain viable and independent in the face of unprecedented technological change and financial challenges.
The report runs to more than 250 pages and is, in its own words, “one of the most comprehensive examinations of the media system ever undertaken in the State”. Here are its main findings:
The future and the challenges ahead
The report found that the media as a whole is facing long-term economic challenges.
These include a “decisive shift in advertising revenues away from media towards the technology firms that dominate the digital advertising market, compounded, in the case of print media, by declining circulation revenues, and, in the case of public-service media, by the increasing unsustainability of TV licence fees as a source of public funding”.
Survival would depend on the organisation’s capacity to innovate, particularly digitally.
It found that “the most pervasive of these concerns was declining advertising income, which has affected all parts of the traditional media including television, radio and press at national and local level”.
In general, it found that Irish media is “broadly valued and trusted by the public”.
The main recommendations here focus on the need to rebalance the relationship between media and so-called big tech. There has been a push in the EU to force big tech companies to pay for news which comes from other outlets, echoing a similar move in Australia and strengthening the hand of publishers against Google and Facebook. The commission says it believes there is “strong potential for direct negotiations between media and big tech” in the context of the EU copyright directive, to achieve that rebalancing. But if these negotiations don’t bear fruit, the commission says it believes the Government should be prepared to move swiftly to pursue additional measures, such as those seen in Australia, where lawmakers have consistently pushed big tech to pay for reproduced news copy.
Funding the wider media sector
A new media fund will be set up which will give outlets access to an enhanced sound and vision scheme, a local democracy reporting scheme, support for digital transformation and news and court reporting schemes. This could be worth as much as €30 million per year. Later in the report, it is made clear that the intervention “must not be about simply propping up business models that are no longer working”.
The commission looked at potential tax-related changes that could be made to help media outlets. It recommended a reduced or zero-VAT rate for newspapers and digital publications, contingent on agreement at EU level in relation to amendments to the EU VAT directive. Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the Government will be giving the proposal further consideration. It also recommended tax exemptions for investment in not-for-profit media entities.
The thorny issue of the licence fee and a potential new ‘media tax’
The commission recommended the abolition of the licence fee from 2024 to be replaced by exchequer funding or more specifically an “explicit taxation approach”. This could see either a stand-alone media tax or an integrated tax that is classified as a core expenditure item which is funded out of general taxation. Both were deemed equally effective. Ministers, however, have rejected this and say the licence fee will not be abolished. They say instead that the fee will be overhauled and that compliance will be ramped up. This is interesting given the commission says this of reform of the fee and evasion tactics: “A campaign to reduce evasion rates to 5 per cent would likely entail the need for thousands of additional summons and court cases each year — adding significantly to collection and enforcement costs, and to the administrative burden on the Courts Service — with no guarantee of success. Indeed, it gives rise to the spectre of increased public opposition to the TV licence.” In their recommendations they discounted this as an option. They also discounted a media charge on all households and businesses, because of “practical realities”. Despite this, Minister for Media Catherine Martin said a new technical group will look at whether households that consume content without a TV could face charges.
Misinformation and disinformation
The commission looked at this issue in detail and recommended the development of a National Counter-Disinformation Strategy to enhance trust and protect the safety of Irish users of global content platforms.
Societal value and The Irish Times
The commission undertook its work in one of the most tumultuous times in recent history with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. As “malign actors sought to sow division through false narratives, the value of trustworthy information and news has rarely been more apparent”. The report found that a powerful example of the public-service value of media during the Covid-19 pandemic was The Irish Times Lives Lost series, which told the real-life stories of those who had died. “As the series grew to more than 100 obituaries, the project raised the public’s awareness about the rich life stories behind the men and women who lay behind the official death notification statistics,” the report says.
The report found that newspapers have adapted to the demand for instant and mobile access and, in addition to online editions, are “also producing podcasts targeted to various audience interests”. The report referenced The Irish Times podcasts Inside Business and Inside Politics, among others.
Another finding is that public trust in radio remains very high. The Future of Media Commission’s survey of the general public, conducted in May 2021, found that more than 70 per cent of respondents trust radio to provide accurate, factual and true information or news.
The challenge in attracting younger media consumers
The commission’s research found consistent evidence that younger people are more disconnected from traditional media and more engaged with online and social media. For example, in response to the question “to what extent do you believe [traditional media] represents people like you?”, 64 per cent responded that RTÉ One and RTÉ2 represented “people like me” to some extent or considerable extent, with 36 per cent indicating that those channels did not represent “people like me”. In contrast, about 55 per cent of teenagers and younger adults indicated that RTÉ One and RTÉ2 do not represent “people like me”.
The Irish language
RTÉ should give greater priority to the Irish language in its general programming and on all platforms, the report says. Responsibility for all Irish language content should be assigned to a senior executive and TG4 should have independent editorial control over its news service.
There is also a need for “greater diversity of representation, including for groups that are currently underrepresented or even invisible in programming, commissioning and production of news and current affairs, arts and culture, sport, Irish language and entertainment”. Public-service media should have a statutory obligation, by 2024, to gather and publish diversity data.