Moya Doherty: We need to talk about the Irish mediascape

RTÉ wants to be at the centre of a collaborative network of media companies

The media space in which RTÉ and public service broadcasting exists is a competitive place.

The web has become an ever-present type of conversation which challenges, and indeed threatens, the existence of all forms of traditional media, national and international.

Web content is created by the very audiences which consume it and, in this environment, ever-growing numbers of media companies have to try to attract ever-narrowing interest groups with new ideas, formats, and interactive platforms.

Ironically, despite the competition for audience, it is this very threat which also creates a kind of forced unity amongst media companies since they all share the same threats to their future, and it is in this concern around a shared threat that there may be cause for optimism.

Rapidity of change

In this environment, public sector broadcasting can sometimes appear to be protected, removed through the licence fee from the full force of the radical changes in consumer behaviour.

This is simply not the case.

One of the major challenges for the RTÉ Executive, the RTÉ Board, and for me, as chairwoman, is to find a way to negotiate these shifts in media behaviour to ensure sustained advertising revenue, while also remembering that RTÉ also has responsibility for framing the agenda through which people in Ireland (and in the diaspora) will develop their understanding of what it means to be Irish, and of what form Irish identity should take in the 21st century.

This imperative brings an added complication to an already complex mediascape.

The future of public service broadcasting has, I believe, a number of key aspects.

Firstly, it is imperative that the shifts in media industry operations are faced and negotiated.

The root of this problem is that, given the rapidity of change, it feels impossible to get a fix on what the future might look like for the media industries.

We can predict, however, that the future media is likely to involve greater use of “flow”; vast streams of information intermingling across multiple platforms.

Change will be the norm

There will also be greater use and development of screen as a means of accessing this flow; the increasing use and application of data systems; the rethinking of what employment might mean in a 21st-century economy dominated by artificial intelligence; the dominance of interaction and tracking in our everyday consumption of information, wherever that information is gleaned from.

Most importantly, there has to be an acceptance that change will become the norm.

Secondly, public service broadcasting will have to operate as one element of a collaborative network of companies sharing ideas, resources, and production facilities to create the best content for the widest audience – national and international.

I believe strongly that RTÉ should be at the centre of this collaborative process, driving growth in what has come to be termed the creative and cultural industries, industries which it has been proven now play a key role in the national economy.

The financial models which underpin these new collaborative networks will also have to be rethought.

Funding mechanism

Society will, ultimately, get the public media it is prepared to pay for, and it would, of course, be extremely reckless of the RTÉ Board to sanction any actions which might ultimately lead to large budget deficits.

But the Government, too, has its role to play in ensuring that, financially and culturally, we get the public service broadcasting we deserve.

The creation of “new” funding could be done in a number of ways: a fund for public service content; digital innovation grants; the creation of a progressive funding mechanism to replace the licence fee.

These possibilities need to discussed by all interested parties in an open and transparent manner to ensure that no element of the industry feels disadvantaged or disenfranchised.

The public service sector, in general, has understandably been slow to recognise that the web is not simply television that works.

It is not merely thousands of extra channels which would, of course, cost thousands in extra funding to operate.

Public service media needs to accept, and embrace, the fact that public service content in the 21st century has a multiplicity of forms and some of these forms may be entirely new to the sector, as will the operational and funding models necessary to sustain and develop them.

But, crucially, these new forms will still have a key role in defining the national identity.

There is no doubting the fact that the online world, in all its forms, has completely altered the ways in which we communicate, do business, learn, and articulate our democracies.

We have now entered what geographers call a period of tectonic shift, one where the structural plates have moved so profoundly that it is no longer possible for old structures to continue without radical rethinking, and certainly where the attempt to force the new technologies into the old systems merely exacerbates an already critical situation.

Necessary debate

This is especially important for a body charged with creating public service content where the impact, the ability to inform the public discourse, is always paramount.

So, if we are to debate the future of media let us recognise the scale of the necessary debate.

Having said this, I am not pessimistic about the possibilities for change – if there is a willingness to negotiate these fundamental shifts in an open and inclusive manner.

There is a need for a thorough national (and international) debate about these issues but let us not have it behind the closed doors of a public commission which may well be inhabited by the very players on whom change may have the biggest impact.

But the prize is too important not to be fought for.

As the great media commentator Stuart Hall memorably pointed out, public service broadcasting has a central role to play in the re-imagining of the nation and in developing – for all – a sense of cultural citizenship.

RTÉ should, and will, be at the heart of that re-imagining.