The report of the Future of Media Commission, published this week after languishing a year on the Minister’s desk, is a welcome, comprehensive survey of the troubled media landscape. Central to it is a review of the sustainability of traditional and new media economic models at a time when broadcasters, the audiovisual, and the print and online news sectors are experiencing existential challenges. The commission provides a useful overview of how others internationally are facing up to funding challenges and of the current plethora of media Bills now on their way through the Oireachtas.
The digital revolution, compounded by the Covid crisis, has ushered in massive change in audience practices, while traditional and new advertising revenues are being hoovered up by the tech giants. New business models are being forced on the whole sector. These, the commission warns, have yet to show they are capable of sustaining traditional media outlets, let alone providing a viable basis for their public service content.
The report cites polling to show strong levels of public trust and an acceptance that, in providing public service content, the media are an indispensable pillar of democratic society. The commission recommends “that the intrinsic value of public service content be recognised as a merit good that delivers valued benefits to society and democracy, and as such represents critical public infrastructure”. But, it warns, “it is not obvious that the operation of market forces alone will ensure the existence of the pluralistic and diverse system of media provision”. It notes “the evolving policy perspective at EU level, which calls for increased intervention by States and the Commission to ensure the sustainability of media”.
The commission’s recommended solutions include a range of public subsidies, from the reconfiguration of the ineffective TV licence fee into a direct state grant of the order of €220 million a year, to converting the Broadcasting Fund into an enlarged €30 million “Media Fund” to assist independent production, a zero-rating of VAT on newspapers, and a number of subsidies for local court and council reporting, community engagement, media access and digital transformation. Almost as an afterthought, the report notes as worthy of “assessment” attempts to use the EU Copyright Directive to make the digital giants pay licences for their use of newspaper content.
The report’s proposals are an important, belated acknowledgment of the State’s responsibility to help to address these challenges. The Government’s rejection of the proposal on the licence fee and its establishment of another committee to work on the issue is disappointing and likely to delay once again an attempt to grasp this vital nettle. And without a proactive response to the commission’s broader recommendations, the outlook for traditional media remains precarious.