Ownership at the heart of debate about the Irish media
Only Fine Gael has not endorsed the idea of a Commission on the Future of the Media in Ireland
Where wealth and freedom reign, contentment fails,
And honour sinks where commerce long prevails.
The decision of the Goldsmith International Literary Festival to focus on that quote from “The Traveller” is of particular relevance to the current state of Irish journalism and, in particular, print journalism.
As commerce – the desire for market share and higher profits – prevails over editorial values, journalism suffers, with a consequent impact on democracy at local and national level.
The unrestrained power of the market combined with political cowardice and an abject failure of imagination in dealing with technological advances and changes in consumer demand have contributed to an undermining of Irish journalism. Add to that the overwhelming impact of Google and Facebook and you have a perfect storm.
At the heart of any debate on the Irish media must be the question of ownership and control.
If anyone is in any doubt as to the potential for interference in the day-to-day operations of a media organisation may I direct you to the sworn (and contested) affidavits of the Director of Corporate Enforcement in seeking the appointment of an investigator at Independent News & Media Plc.
For the NUJ this is not a new issue. Former NUJ president John Devine recalls meeting with the then minister for industry and commerce Justin Keating, a radical Marxist and himself a former journalist, to express our concern at the threat to media diversity posed by the acquisition of Independent Newspapers by Tony O’Reilly in 1973.
Keating, no shrinking violet, warned Devine that no politician, of whatever hue, would pick a fight with the owner of a newspaper. O’Reilly, he cautioned, was a wealthy and powerful man.
At last, in response to recent developments, politicians now appear to be taking the issue of media ownership seriously.
Of the main political parties only Fine Gael has not endorsed the idea of a Commission on the Future of the Media in Ireland and next week I will meet the Fianna Fáil leader to explore the idea, which he has supported in principle.
Cross-party agreement would ensure that the issue would not become a political football and, more significantly, help to overcome fear of a campaign by vested commercial interests against any political party who individually sought to address the issue of concentration of commercial control of the media.
The concept of media control is all too frequently assumed to be about direct editorial interference by owners and shareholders in editorial content.
That is a simplistic notion and ignores the reality that ownership shapes media content in a variety of ways:
Ownership is linked to financial control and determines the priority given to editorial budgets, it determines the business model and directly determines conditions of employment within the industry.
If the industry is dominated by controlling shareholders who increasingly view journalists as “content providers” and journalism as mere “data” to be shared in the most commercially advantageous manner possible, there is little space for public interest journalism.
The consequences of reduced editorial resources are less coverage of public bodies, courts, parliamentary committees, local authorities. Slashed editorial budgets and shared editorial content between sister titles means less diversity not just in opinions but in what is covered and how stories are covered.
The Commission must not be seen as merely dealing with ownership; it must look at training, at industry access, at the lack of diversity in most pale and male dominated editorial structures, at the legal constraints on journalists and examine potential intervention to ensure greater diversity and editorial independence across all platforms.
We also need a debate on our understanding of public service broadcasting and how we propose to defend public service values.
We need a public conversation about what we, as citizens of this Republic, expect from public service broadcasting.
If we believe that journalists have a right of access to information, that journalistic sources and the right to freedom of expression should be protected, we must also accept that rights and freedom bring great responsibility.
At a minimum the State could assist through taxation measures – the introduction of a zero VAT rate on newspapers – but we also need to discuss how we can promote a diverse media, how the media can reflect our multicultural society, how we can address the gender imbalance in our newsrooms, how minorities can find a voice on our screens, in our newsrooms, and on mainstream digital platforms.
We need to ask if responsibility should continue to rest with the current Department of Communications, Climate Change and Environment.
Media policy should fall within the ambit of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
In any review of media policy we need to examine how best the State can nourish all media, consistent with public policy and international best practice. There will always be a need for independent, verifiable information and for informed analysis.
Media organisations must respond to the challenge of emerging digital technologies but that response must be informed by a commitment to and investment in editorial excellence.
Recently at a Front Line Defenders awards ceremony in Dublin City Hall, as I listened to Denis O’Brien praise those who defend civil liberties abroad my eye was drawn to the statue of the Scottish-born Under-Secretary for Ireland Thomas Drummond, with its reminder: “Property has its duty as well as its rights.” Goldsmith would agree.
Séamus Dooley is Irish secretary of the National Union of Journalists.