State funding should be made available to support local and national newspapers — or democracy in Ireland could be seriously undermined, Fianna Fáil has said. The calls come as this week, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced a review of the sustainability of Britain’s printed press, which will look into funding models to ensure the continuation of high-quality journalism at national, regional, and local level.
Fianna Fáil is currently developing legislation which would see a portion of the Vat currently raised from newspapers, ringfenced and directed into the sector.
Timmy Dooley, the party’s communications spokesman has said the State must intervene to protect against the evil of fake news which he said could be used to swing an election in Ireland.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, he said: “The migration of advertising revenue to online platforms away from mainstream media has changed the landscape of journalism enormously. There are great concerns about what this means for journalism and democracy. That is why we feel the State must intervene.”
He said roughly €28m a year is raised from Vat on newspapers and while it is not possible to reduce the rate to zero at present, it does make sense to set up a fund to aid the industry.
He said the scheme could be administered by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland with some co-operation from the Press Council.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin confirmed his party was developing legislation which would provide state funding to newspapers.
He said: “In a world where democracy is under threat from fake news, exploitation of online media platforms by all sorts of forces and states, there is a need to keep an independent, mainstream, factual, objective-based media.
“We are coming up with legislation to create a system whereby the newsprint industry would be supported by taxpayers’ money, by the Government, because of the difficulties the newsprint industry is facing.”
However, the Cork South Central TD stressed the importance of Government remaining at “arm’s length” from newspapers and media.
In a speech in Manchester, the British prime minister warned that the disappearance of hundreds of titles was “dangerous for our democracy”. Ms May said “when trusted and credible news sources decline, we can become vulnerable to news which is untrustworthy”.
She said the free press was “one of the cornerstones of our public debate” which had experienced a “profound impact” from technological change. “Good quality journalism provides us with the information and analysis we need to inform our viewpoints and conduct a genuine discussion. It is a huge force for good. But in recent years, especially in local journalism, we’ve seen falling circulations, a hollowing-out of local newsrooms, and fears for the future sustainability of high-quality journalism.”
Responding to the Fianna Fáil bill, Communications Minister Denis Naughten said he is in favour of public money extending to support national as well as local regional newspapers. He believes quality journalism should be supported and how best to do this needs to be examined and debated.
The minister has statutory responsibility for broadcast media, however through the operation of the media mergers regime he is well aware of the difficulties being faced by the traditional print media as a result of falling advertising revenues and a decline in circulation, his spokeswoman told the Irish Examiner.