The questions these changes raise are among the most important facing us all.
Information has never been more readily accessible, more easily used, misused or pirated. Individuals with an active digital life were never as visible or as vulnerable and as time passes and as technologies evolve, this will be exacerbated. Privacy is quickly becoming a quaint, nostalgic notion, especially in regard to children. The psychological consequences of this are not yet fully appreciated, much less understood.
These changes are so profound that this seems a point in our development when it may be more difficult than ever before to fully grasp how these developments will change societies’ structures, how we work and learn and how we share information — or misinformation.
Old monopolies are being broken, entire sectors are bypassed. The speed of change has generated a competitive momentum that has moved goal posts long thought immovable. It has set a new pace that has shaken the standards, the once unquestionable trustworthiness of institutions with a cherished tradition of humanity, decency and integrity.
The last few weeks have been very difficult for the BBC, long regarded as a benchmark public service broadcaster. The sordid Jimmy Savile scandal, and its ever-widening circle, has forced immense change in procedures, personnel and leadership. These may be a culmination of a process begun a decade ago when the Hutton Inquiry investigated the death of David Kelly by suicide after he had been identified as the source of a BBC story on the existence, or not, of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The imminent Leveson report — it will be published on Thursday — also hangs over the traditional British media.
RTÉ has had its share of difficulties too. The terrible Fr Kevin Reynolds affair and more recently the Seán Gallagher tweet episode during last year’s presidential election have challenged the organisation and the place of public sector broadcasting in our public affairs. The ongoing furore with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) is just one consequence of that failure to manage evolving communications procedures.
The differences on copyright laws and the protection they are supposed to offer between newspaper publishers and online businesses are another issue in the new media turf wars.
Despite all of these difficulties we would be very foolish to do anything that would undermine the idea of public service broadcasting, or at the very least of public service information provision whether it is broadcast or not.
Over the last 10 days Ireland has seen particularly intense media activity around the Savita Halappanavar tragedy. Imagine for one moment if an organisation as off kilter as, say, Fox News or one of the other political advocacy entities pretending to be balanced, was a primary broadcaster in Ireland. Imagine if we had to depend on a Fox News, how the tragedy would be reported, how it would be manipulated or misused.
No matter how delivery platforms change, a commitment to the truth remains an essential plank in any media organisation and public service broadcasters have an admirable record in this area. That is why they should be protected.