We must be prepared to fund a free, fair press

Public, private, and community media organisations must work together to secure the funding needed to continue their close scrutiny of public life, writes Dr Roddy Flynn

We must be prepared to fund a free, fair press

A day-long symposium organised by the Institute for Future Journalism and Media (FuJo) at Dublin City University last week made the case that it is time for Ireland to consider significantly enhanced levels of public funding for all Irish media — public, private and community — if they are to perform their basic functions in underpinning democracy in Ireland.

The event, Public Funding of Private Media, heard Prof Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster remind the audience of media practitioners, regulators, and academics of the four key functions performed by journalism:

  • the provision of relevant, accurate information about society and polity;
  • creating a space for collective, rational debate;
  • acting as a watchdog and scrutineer of political and corporate entities;
  • acting as “tribunes of the people” to amplify public voices on matters of contemporary import.

Providing these functions is not cost-free. Since the 18th century, commercial media has relied on a combination of circulation and advertising to generate revenue.

Advertising became increasingly significant with the rise of truly mass circulation newspapers in the last years of the 19th century and the emergence of broadcast media in the 20th century.

Although public funding in the form of broadcast licence fee revenues has augmented advertising revenue to some degree, public funding has always been eclipsed by the scale of commercial revenues. In effect, for more than a century, media audiences have enjoyed an advertising-for-media-content quid pro quo.

As one journalist at the symposium noted: “we sell newspapers to audiences, then sell those audiences to advertisers.” This model is under tremendous pressure. Between 2008 and 2016, weekly sales of Sunday papers has fallen from 1.2m to just over 600,000 while daily sales fell from 650,000 to 420,000.

In audience terms, while the decline in print has been more than compensated for online (ensuring, one could argue, even greater audiences for ‘traditional’ news publishers) the problem remains as to how to monetise that audience. Radio and television have also broadly maintained their audiences over the same period. Irrespective of that, broadcast and print media have suffered significant falls in advertising revenues with a resultant serious challenge to the future of journalism.

Much of the ad spend that formerly went to print and broadcast media has now migrated to the internet via its ever-growing range of programmatic, search and social advertising solutions, the magnitude of which was illustrated just this week when Google were fined a staggering €2.4bn by the EU for abusing its market dominance by manipulating its search engine results to favour its own comparison shopping service.

In Ireland, online advertising revenues now exceed all other forms of media advertising, but there has not been a parallel increase in subscriptions to the online versions of legacy media. The Reuters Digital News Report revealed that only 10% of Irish news consumers pay for online news.

With declining advertising revenue and poor uptake of subscriptions, how can private news media companies continue to perform the basic functions of journalism? The FuJo symposium heard from journalists who already experience this problem. Many regions of the country are not covered by national media, court reporting is increasingly curtailed, and some local and regional press have been forced to close or amalgamate, undermining media pluralism and its ability to invest in investigative long-form journalism.

As convenor of the symposium, I opened the day by referring to the Irish element of the 2016 Worlds of Journalism study which found that although 90% of Irish journalists report longer working hours since 2012, the same percentage feel their time to research individual stories has decreased. In this context, the symposium asked whether it is time to significantly enhance public investment into the public service information provision of private companies.

Jorgen Ramskov, an executive at the Danish national broadcaster’s Radio 24/7, explained the unique status of his privately-owned but fully publicly-funded radio station.

Strikingly, Radio 24/7’s establishment in 2011 was driven not by special pleading on the part of the private sector, but by a recognition on the part of the then Danish government of the need to introduce competition within the sphere of public service broadcasting.

The symposium heard arguments from Lisa Ní Choisdealbha of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, and Johnny O’Hanlon from the Regional Newspapers’ Association of Ireland to the effect that, insofar as elements of their output constitute public service content, they are worthy of public funding.

Since 2003, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has been administering the Sound and Vision scheme, which redistributes 7% of the broadcast licence fee to public service independent production. The scheme exemplifies the idea that public service is not the exclusive preserve of RTÉ or TG4.

However, although the symposium was broadly supportive of the idea that public funding of media production should be extended to all private and community media, it did not support further recourse to existing licence fee revenues as a means of doing so.

Not only would this further weaken RTÉ’s public service capacity, it would foment artificial tensions between RTÉ and purely commercial media outlets who would find themselves competing not just for advertising revenues but public funds too.

Thus the symposium recommended creating additional supports for private and community broadcast production, and to introduce new supports for the public service activities of print and online media.

The supports proposed were not all novel. In addition to the Radio 24/7 model, they included:

  • a 0% VAT rate for newspapers
  • raising the licence fee closer to the EU average (from €160 to €220)
  • replacing that fee with a Household Broadcasting Charge (as already happens in Finland and Germany)
  • a licence fee on all internet-capable devices (as is the case in Denmark)
  • charitable status for journalism
  • public funding of reporter pools for court reporting
  • levies on internet service providers and social media giants, much of whose traffic is driven by users accessing legacy media content.

None of the above is complicated. However, there appears to be a lack of political appetite to take seriously what is happening to Irish media and the indirect implications this has for the legitimacy of the State.

There is a need for constituency-building to generate support for such measures. When private media claim they cannot afford to sustain previously core functions, it may look like special pleading (and sometimes it may be). However, there is an opportunity for Irish media academics as well as public, private, and community media organisations to make common cause to prevent a situation whereby we find ourselves living in a polity where the actions of the State (and other actors) lack legitimacy because they have not been subjected to public scrutiny and debate via the media.

Dr Roddy Flynn is chair of Film and Television Studies at DCU and a research at the Institute for Future Journalism and Media. Irish Media: A Critical History, which he co-authored with Prof John Horgan, will be published by Four Courts Press this Autumn.

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