Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht
Future of Public Service Broadcasting and Impact of Covid-19 on the Media Sector: Discussion
I thank members and guests for attending our session on media. Our round-table discussion is with RTÉ, the National Union of Journalists, NUJ, and the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, IBI, to discuss the future of public service broadcasting and the impact of Covid-19 on the media sector.
I request that members sit only in the seats permitted and in front of available microphones to ensure they are heard. This is important as not doing so causes serious problems for the broadcasting, editorial and sound staff. I remind members to please maintain social distance at all times during and following our meeting. Members are requested to use the wipes and hand sanitiser provided to clean the shared seats and desks to supplement the regular sanitisation in the breaks between meetings. There is always the temptation to stay talking to our guests after our meeting but there are other committee meetings happening after ours. I therefore encourage members to retire to the lobby if they wish to have a discussion with guests afterwards, which they are more than welcome to do. Rather than hanging around in here however, I ask that we vacate the room and leave it free for the sanitisation that needs to happen.
I welcome to the meeting Mr. Adrian Lynch, director of audience, channels and marketing at RTÉ; Mr. Séamus Dooley, Irish secretary of the National Union of Journalists; and Mr. John Purcell, CEO of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland. Mr. Lynch, Mr. Dooley and Mr. Purcell are here to discuss the future of Irish broadcasting and the impact of Covid-19 on the sector. I am sure our guests have already noted that their opening statements should not be longer than three minutes each and these will be followed by questions from members of the committee. As our guests are probably aware, the committee may publish their opening statements on its website following the meeting. We will begin with Mr. Lynch followed by Mr. Dooley and then Mr. Purcell.
I remind witnesses of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House, or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I would like the witnesses to note that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentation they make in the committee. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they might say at the meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse this privilege and it is my duty as Chairman to ensure this privilege is not abused. Therefore, if witnesses' statements are potentially defamatory in relation to identifying a person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that witnesses comply with such direction. I have no doubt that will not happen but it is important to point that out.
I invite Mr. Lynch to make his opening statement and remind him that it should not be longer than three minutes, if possible.
Mr. Adrian Lynch:
I thank the Chairman and the committee for the invitation to attend today. I am pleased to meet with it to discuss the critical issues facing public media in Ireland. Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the media sector generally, not least on public media. At the start of this pandemic, our focus was simply on staying on air or remaining in print. We have gone far beyond this initial ambition to deliver for the people of Ireland, day-in, day-out. Despite the logistical, financial and human challenges of the early stages of the pandemic, Ireland’s media, both local and national, has played a critical and leading role in keeping people informed, engaged, and safe. Naturally, I want to highlight the very particular contribution made by RTÉ during this time. Along with public service media all over Europe, RTÉ has informed and empowered the public in Ireland. In the most recent Behaviour and Attitudes research, 90% of audiences indicated that they turned to RTÉ for Covid-19 coverage, while a further 76% said that they would trust RTÉ above all else. This is confidence and trust has been earned over many years and in many ways. Whether it be in moments of celebration or in times of crisis, it is RTÉ’s privilege and unique responsibility to be the place to which people turn and which brings the nation together.
Once again RTÉ demonstrated its clear public purpose during this crisis. As an essential service, bringing the nation together, RTÉ maintained full schedules across all services, augmenting where appropriate with additional live broadcasts and brand-new programmes. Certain productions had to be suspended or stepped down due to public health restrictions. However, new and exciting programming such as "Home School Hub", "Ireland on Call" and "RTÉ Investigates: Inside Ireland's Covid Battle" were commissioned in their place, often within exceptionally tight deadlines. This level of resilience and this level of output under such challenging circumstances was not easy. Thanks to the flexibility of staff as well as our partners in the independent radio and television sector, the service to the people of Ireland was not only upheld but excelled.
Alongside comprehensive and in-depth news coverage, RTÉ has been a source of companionship, diversion and connection for millions. People have leaned on our new daily religious services and on a wealth of pop-up cultural events supported by RTÉ. People have turned to Irish stories in all their forms, from documentaries, to drama and comedy, to investigative journalism. The nation has joined together in helping us bring light to darker days, with events such as "RTÉ Shine a Light" and "RTÉ Does Comic Relief". New Irish drama like the hugely acclaimed "Normal People" got the nation talking and connecting more than ever. With connection comes community: we have rallied around Irish businesses, Irish artists, producers, front-line workers and the vulnerable. RTÉ and the people of Ireland have together raised more than €12 million this year for charity.
For family and friends who could not travel back to Ireland, RTÉ has played a unique and important role.
These achievements came against the backdrop of extreme financial uncertainty. RTÉ is funded through a combination of public funding and commercial income. An immediate result of Covid-19 was a sharp drop in licence fee income and a decline in advertising revenue. Commercial income in quarter 4 has stabilised to some degree, as has income from the television licence, but the outlook for 2021 is uncertain. Certain types of expenditure, such as commitments to major sporting events, have only been deferred and this adds to the financial pressures of the year ahead. The toll of Brexit on the national economy and commercial performance in 2021 is unknowable. The combination of a broken television licence system and a precarious commercial environment exposes undeniable vulnerabilities for the national public service media.
The newly formed Future of Media Commission began its formal programme of work last week, with the intention that it complete its deliberations and formal assessment within the next nine months. We welcome the commitment in the programme for Government to chart a pathway for public service broadcasting and independent media into the future. This pathway is much-needed. Covid-19 has underscored the importance of public service media to the functioning of a country, of a democracy, to the nurturing of cultural vitality, unity and community. We would urge all members of the committee to engage with the work of the commission and to consider its recommendations with urgency, clarity and shared purpose.
I thank Mr. Lynch. I will not hold him to account for going over time as his presentation was very insightful. I ask witnesses to note the clock and ask them to stick as rigidly as possible to the time allocated. I now invite Mr. Dooley to make his presentation.
Mr. Séamus Dooley:
I thank the committee for recognising the importance of consultation with the National Union of Journalists, NUJ, at an early stage in developing its programme of work. On 20 March last, we called for a forum on the crisis then facing the media industry across all sectors and platforms. While initiatives were taken in respect of tourism, hospitality and the arts, no immediate, substantial measures were taken to assist the media, apart from the welcome initiative in respect of independent commercial radio. While employment in the print, broadcasting and digital sector is not comparable to tourism, the implications for democracy of a diminished media sector should be of concern to this committee. Listening to the contribution of the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, last week, I regret to say there was precious little clarity on how it is proposed to, for example, address the financial situation in RTÉ. We are gravely concerned for the future of public service broadcasting in Ireland. There was no real recognition of the tsunami which is engulfing the newspaper sector, in particular the regional press. The focus on independent production within broadcasting ignores the existence of freelance workers, writers, photographers and videographers in other sectors.
We welcome that the Future of Media Commission has commenced its work but without immediate action there will be no future for many media workers in Ireland. This is a point I know will be echoed by Mr. John Purcell. It is worth noting that on 26 September 2014, the NUJ called for the establishment of a Government commission on the future of the media in a submission to a Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, seminar - Ensuring Plurality in the Digital Age. This is not a new idea. The union's recovery plan forms the basis for our approach to the current crisis and I have circulated, for ease of reference, a copy with this statement. Among the short-term measures proposed by the NUJ are: a windfall tax of 6% on the tech giants, using the UK digital services tax model, towards funding a news recovery plan; assistance for freelance media workers who have sustained income losses but are outside the scope of wage subsidy schemes; no public money to firms making compulsory redundancies, cutting pay, giving executive bonuses or blocking trade union organisation; companies receiving public funds to be prohibited for five years from engaging in mergers and acquisition activity or leveraged buyouts that result in job losses or pay reductions; strategic investment in Government advertising and the establishment of an innovative fund to promote public service journalism at local and national level, developing the model used in the Simon Cumbers media fund established by Irish Aid; free vouchers for online or print subscriptions for all 18 and 19 year olds; and tax credits for households with subscriptions for over 70 year olds, in line with the free TV licence scheme.
I am happy to answer any questions the committee may have on the impact of the pandemic on the media industry, but I thought it useful at this stage to set out a strategic approach to the crisis and to appeal for a more imaginative approach to that crisis.
Mr. John Purcell:
I thank the committee for the invitation to attend this meeting for a discussion on the future of public service broadcasting. Radio listenership across our stations and RTÉ in Ireland is a unique media success story. Each day, a massive 3.9 million people listen to local, regional, city and national stations. Some 68.6% of prime time radio listening by these people is spent listening to the member stations of Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, IBI.
During Covid, prior to Covid and regardless of what happens post-Covid, our stations hope to provide an important public broadcasting service, inclusive of news, sports, discussion and a forum for debate, information and programme content that is relevant to the people who listen to us and reflects their lives. Ours is a sector that has suffered huge disruption and decreases in revenue, threatening our services long before Covid. We welcome the establishment of the Future of Media Commission and we look forward to working with Professor MacCraith and his colleagues. However, we believe the entire process after the commission produces it report, from hearings to implementation of legislation, will, by its nature, be very protracted. It is obvious that changes as a result of the deliberations will not be implemented until at least the second half of 2022 or, perhaps, into 2023. We cannot wait that long. We are preoccupied with surviving the current crisis. We, and the entire media sector, need action now to enable the survival of our services and the services of other media through the protracted Covid crisis, which has intensified the already severe threats we face.
Our sector is grateful for the special measures brought in to help us weather the initial Covid trauma. This consisted of a fund of €2.5 million distributed to stations that committed to specific public service programmes up to a period lasting to the end of the summer. The broadcasting levy was also suspended for the first six months of this year. Government investment in advertising on our stations was also hugely welcome. We all thought, somewhat optimistically I think with hindsight, that a close to normal situation would have returned by the commercially crucial fourth quarter of the year. Instead, we are spending November, the most commercially important month for all stations, in level 5 lockdown and the support measures lapsed months ago. The broadcasting levy has been reintroduced since last July and the money allocated for Covid programming is now spent. The €2 million in the July stimulus package for sound and vision, which was mentioned by the Minister at this committee last week, does not apply to our stations. We urgently need another fund to support public service output. We also urgently need to have the broadcasting levy waived until such time as the necessary legislation to abolish it, which we have been promised as far back as 2016, can be implemented.
We are delighted to have the opportunity to meet the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, this coming Monday. We look forward to that meeting. We welcome the Minister's acknowledgement at this committee of the importance of the services we provide. We were heartened by her pledge to work with us to ensure that we survive this current crisis and continue our important work. I cannot emphasise enough the current situation for media operators, be they radio, television or newspapers, is very urgent. Time is of the essence and actions speaks louder than words.
We have heard very stark presentations from our three witnesses. I do not believe there is anybody in this room who would disagree with anything they have said. I now invite Senator Warfield to put his questions.
With respect to all of the witness, my time may be taken up with questions to Mr. Lynch. I want first to ask about RTÉ's plans around streaming and the RTÉ player, which is mentioned in some of the documents send to the committee. I use the RTÉ player on Apple TV. I am familiar with its intricacies, particularly in terms of live television.
How can RTÉ better compete with streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and the array of niche over the top, OTT, services that exist in the market? I am aware of the importance of findability in this conversation. Does RTÉ have any recommendations in respect of improving the findability of public service broadcasters such as TG4 and RTÉ on Apple TV, Samsung smart televisions and so on?
Mr. Adrian Lynch:
It is interesting that the Senator mentioned those who stream content. I am director of audience channels and marketing for RTÉ. We continually carry out a significant amount of research on those who stream content and we can see the level of streaming currently going on from Disney+, Netflix and so on. These are global companies. For example, Netflix has 7,000 people working for it, 6,500 of whom just work on streaming technology. In order for us to compete, the first thing is that we need to be the key destination for original Irish content. The second thing is getting the technology right. We have done a significant amount of work this year on improving the user experience. In terms of the RTÉ player, the growth we have seen this year is approximately 74% in terms of streams that are consumed. It comes back to the financial challenges referred to in all three opening statements. When it comes to investment in technology, particularly in a country the size of Ireland with associated issues in terms of scalability and everything like that - it is different for Netflix - one needs a significant capital spend. If there are structural issues around financing, that can impede the ability to develop products that people will expect as basic hygiene.
On the issue of prominence, we are in the process of working with TG4 on a paper around prominence. Prominence is key in discoverability. Those present who have teenagers or younger children know they are consuming video in a totally different way. There are many various gateways such as pay television, be it Sky, Virgin Media and so on. It is really important for public service broadcasting to have anchor positions, be it within the electronic programme guide, EPG or, indeed, as we move towards Internet protocol, IP, in terms of an app. We do not want other companies disaggregating our content. We want our content to be findable.
In terms of the consumption of RTÉ news and current affairs content during the pandemic, the 9 o'clock news regularly has 900,000 viewers, but there has been massive consumption on the RTÉ player as well. Those in the 15-34 age cohort have shown significant consumption of and engagement with public media, which we think is really important.
Mr. Lynch mentioned the growth in online viewing figures. How long does he anticipate RTÉ will continue scheduling the traditional transmission of television programmes? Is RTÉ prepared for the associated fall-off in revenue when that ceases? I doubt that the RTÉ player makes much money. TG4 recently launched a really good player on the Apple TV app. I downloaded it this week. There are no advertisements there either. There is a natural fall-off in revenue. How long does Mr. Lynch anticipate that RTÉ will continue scheduling television programmes? I am conscious that it is in a very disruptive space.
Mr. Adrian Lynch:
I think that, notwithstanding all these changes, we will still be scheduling television programmes in eight years' time or ten years' time. There will still be EPGs and linear consumption of television. What we will see is more and more growth through single destination points such as the RTÉ player. Obviously, that throws up a challenge from a commercial view, as the Deputy pointed out, because we must try to offset any declines in linear with what we can gain from the online player's commercial revenue. That said, in this market, premium Irish video on demand, VOD, has a very high value, partly because it specifically brings in many 15 to 34 year olds. We are a public service broadcaster and look at all our decisions through that lens, but if it is looked at just through a funding and commercial lens, it will be seen that apps and so on offer significant opportunities to secure commercial revenue.
We would all do well to consider the mixed funding model in the context of the dramatically falling revenue. There is a risk of losing editorial control in light of the need for commercial revenue. The committee will probably need to have a bigger conversation about the two-stream funding model in the future.
I welcome the witnesses. I thank the members of the journalistic fraternity whom all three represent, especially when it is considered that, as Mr. Lynch pointed out, there is still a public hunger for proper news content as opposed to the guff that is put on social media without any fact checking or recourse to libel laws. The witnesses represent NUJ members who actually care about proper news content. In that context, I was glad to see that online subscriptions to major Irish newspapers increased during Covid. People still want to be able to access good quality news.
At this time last year, Ms Dee Forbes outlined the major financial challenges facing RTÉ. I ask Mr. Lynch to address quickly how that plan is progressing in terms of the €60 million cost cutting, the 200 jobs that were anticipated to be gone this year, and the sale of land at the RTÉ campus in Donnybrook. In the context of rebalancing, there is no point cutting RTÉ to the bone and then not having a State broadcaster that can compete and people bemoaning that it is not as good as some other offerings. RTÉ radio has shown itself to be a world leader and it has been recognised as such. On that point, where are we at in terms of RTÉ's liaison with the Government on the broadcasting charge and in terms of the income that RTÉ is bringing in on the online platforms? Mr. Lynch outlined the increase in streaming, but how much is coming in on the online charges? I ask Mr. Lynch to address those issues in a minute or so in order that I can move to the other delegates.
Mr. Adrian Lynch:
I am splitting out the questions. There is the actual financial number and we are going to achieve that this year. That will be done through very good cost management and changes within the schedule. We have also had some deferral of big sporting events, for example, into 2021. That number will be delivered on. We will deliver our target number over the coming years out to 2023.
On the 200 redundancies, as members are aware and as the Minister has discussed, several of the redundancies will come from the National Symphony Orchestra, NSO. I think 73 of its members are leaving RTÉ. On top of that, in January we will open a voluntary exit package and will be seeking 60 to 70 exits at that point. Why are we looking for a slightly reduced number of exits? Part of it is because we have been delivering such significant output and we have significantly changed the way we are working. With so much remote working, we really see that we need to keep these essential services on air. We need to make sure we are able to bolster that and deliver it-----
I will jump in because I wish to ask Mr. Dooley and Mr. Purcell a question that is linked to RTÉ. On the protection of regional media in particular, be it print or radio, newsrooms have been cut drastically since I worked in one more than 20 years ago. That has impacted on coverage of local courts, sports and council meetings. One idea I discussed with John Whittingdale, the former UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, when I met him at a conference two years ago was the introduction of a local democracy reporting service that uses a portion of the State licence fee to fund local journalists to produce content which is then syndicated. I think there are approximately 150 local democracy reporters. Is that something that the NUJ and IBI could work on with RTÉ to achieve local democracy on the ground?
Mr. Séamus Dooley:
The local democracy scheme is an interesting one. It has potential, provided that it is not used as a means of displacing jobs or journalism. I would not like to see it in areas such as Tipperary where a newcomer to the market has been pulling titles apart, but there are swathes of the country, urban and rural, that could benefit from it.
Local papers are in rural and urban areas where there is a need for diversity and coverage. Any form of an imaginative scheme that would help, assist and fund the sector is a good idea. That is why we talk about an innovation fund. A scheme could also assist staff and freelancers. There has been a tradition of being sceptical of State intervention or funding of the media but the sound and vision scheme works quite well. There is no reason, if the scheme was properly structured, that it could not be used.
Mr. John Purcell:
The fund that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, introduced at the start of Covid provides a model whereby stations had to apply for funding, outlined the programming that they would provide during Covid and received money to do that. The alternative to receiving that money and applying it to those programmes was that jobs would have been lost so the type of devastation to newsrooms and talk programmes mentioned would have happened during Covid.
Mr. Adrian Lynch:
It is about €50 million. When one adds 140,000 homes without televisions and 250,000 people who do not pay the licence fee, it is €50 million so we would have a very different conversation in this room. As the lead in terms of public service media, we want to support local journalism and radio. That is absolutely essential for democracy in this country. It is fair to say, having witnessed the American election, a strong public service media is like a giant sinkhole for polarisation as it actually brings things together. As it is absolutely vital, we would be very supportive.
I apologise for being a bit late. I do not have much time and I say that with no disrespect to any of the witnesses. I thank RTÉ. Every time I go to the RTÉ studios I am well received and looked after, which I appreciate. I have issues with the licence but I will not go into that today.
I really want to cut to our guests and discuss local media in Tipperary. I wish to refer to the savaging and gobbling up of titles, some of which have existed since the last century. Also, I wish to talk about the treatment of long-standing excellent journalists who gave huge service. They gave a quality service and are respected in the area but they were thrown to the wolves. These companies have availed of pandemic unemployment payments and other subsidy schemes arising from the Covid pandemic while running the titles with a skeleton staff. These titles have given valuable service to communities and communities are linked to them. The Chair has titles in her own county and every county has them. These titles are a household item and one would not have the weekly news if one did not have them. I pay tribute to the wonderful journalists who have been cast aside and trampled on. We have an awful and outrageous situation in Tipperary. It is shocking that there is no accountability or justice for these long-serving titles, the staff, their families and the communities that they served.
I also thank the local radio stations and local media. I particularly thank the radio stations for maintaining their link with family homes from morning until night, and from the cradle to the grave through death notices and other notices. Radio stations have come into their own in this time.
I have issues with the dissemination of funds. I believe that not enough funds go to independent radio stations and local titles. I would like to hear answers to my queries, please.
Mr. Séamus Dooley:
The Deputy has explained the media situation but first I must declare an interest because I started in The Midland Tribunein Birr, County Offaly. That paper has been taken over the same company that took over two titles in Tipperary, as well as newspapers in Limerick, Kildare and Offaly. That is a consequence of the political failure to deal with the concentration of ownership. That is a reality. The other political failure is the failure to grant the right to trade union recognition and collective representation because the company that has taken over those titles and merged a number of titles, through merger by default, through common pages and all the rest of it. That has happened because there has been no right to trade union representation. There are consequences for media diversity. One needs plurality. One needs a number of titles in the same region to ensure that courts and news are covered. One needs that kind of vibrant reporting because one needs to read differences of opinion and differences in focus. Regional papers in this country are in a particularly precarious position.
Recently, the Government announced its nationwide resilience campaign. What is significant in the criteria for that national media advertising campaign is that one sector is missing, namely, newspapers. If we want to talk about Government support, then one must recognise that regional newspapers need it. They do not seek handouts. They need it because, like the local radio stations, they remain relevant. The people who read the Meath Chronicleor The Tullamore Tribuneare the people who are in rural areas that rely on print media and local radio. It is not a case of one or the other, as they are both hugely important.
Mr. John Purcell:
I thank Deputy Mattie McGrath for his kind words. On the funding that he talked about, the levy was waived for local stations for the first six months and the cost of that was €1 million. The sound and vision fund cost €2.5 million, which lasted about six months, and the wage subsidy scheme was in operation as well. To put those funds into perspective, a typical local radio station that is experiencing a 20% drop in its revenue at present would see a decrease of between €350,000 and €500,000 on a per annum basis. Without the wage subsidy scheme, with the levy continuing and without the continuation of a type of sound and vision fund, it will not be possible to continue to provide the kind of services about which the Deputy has spoken so well. That is why we cannot wait until the Future of Media Commission reports next year and so on.
The sector needs immediate support, which is an issue that we discussed here last week. I can see the lacuna and know it from a business perspective. These are serious times and we need to pony up.
Mr. Dooley is right about the lack of political leadership. It is a shame. This happened in the meat and supermarket industries so we have been left with massive conglomerates and no local connectivity. All of that is a sad loss to the heritage, the life and the very living of the countryside.
I commend the media, broadcasting and journalism sector on getting us through the Covid-19 crisis. It is quite clear that many people in Ireland relied on public service broadcasting and on journalists to provide information over the past few months, particularly the likes of RTÉ and its education programming when schools were out. That was really great.
Senator Warfield touched on the subject of online platforms and stuff so possibly I do not need to go into it again. I noted that he said that 2.5 million people watched "Normal People" on the RTÉ player service. I would say that a similar number complained that they could not get the RTÉ player to work, albeit perhaps not 2.5 million. A negative reputation is a serious problem. If the player has a reputation of not working, one will not be able to drive the traffic to it. That must be recognised because the player has really great content. It will be difficult to get people to use the service if all they hear is how impossible it is to use the player. That reputation is obviously a problem for RTÉ.
I will talk about the rights of freelance workers for a moment. It is great to have someone from the National Union of Journalists present. Perhaps someone can offer a commentary on the need for State support to be given to freelance journalists. We have the sound and vision fund that is administered by the BAI. Unfortunately, the scheme is confined to broadcast journalism so a whole series of journalists have been left out.
From a Labour Party perspective and workers' rights perspective, I am concerned about workers' rights in the sector. I am firm in my belief that if the State is to give special assistance, then there should be corresponding assurances about employment rights, wages and payment. In particular, there is the recognition of the rights of workers to be represented by trade unions. The commercial radio sector is generally low paid and union recognition sometimes has been fraught. Some stations do recognise union recognition but it is something of a problem across the sector. Today, I heard there have been pay cuts at a number of radio stations. How will we balance State aid and supports with workers' rights, if they are the ones having pay cuts and losing out? I know I have left only a tiny amount of time for the witnesses to answer.
Mr. Séamus Dooley:
I agree with the Senator that many of those cuts have been imposed without negotiation, which is inappropriate. There are norms that the State expects. If the State is assisting any sector, and I say that as a member of the executive of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, then there has to be a correlating respect for the norms.
In terms of freelancers, we must recognise that a significant number of journalists in this country are freelance and there should be some kind of innovation fund.
The Simon Cumbers fund that I mentioned is an interesting example of the kind of supports that could exist. There is no reason at all that there should not be a State innovation to fund that.
One of the issues that has frequently arisen has been bogus self-employment. We addressed that in RTÉ largely by means of the Eversheds Sutherland review, which is still on the way. I am very glad we did because there was a swathe of workers who were then protected and were enabled to apply for the State support schemes. Many other freelancers were excluded and the only way that they could look for aid was to go for jobseeker's allowance. If they qualified for that, then they could not work at all. That does not make sense. We do need another approach. I echo what Mr. Purcell said, that we do not need that in two years' time. People are leaving the profession and we are losing good journalists because they cannot afford to be journalists.
Mr. John Purcell:
I will follow up on the point about the sound and vision scheme. It is noteworthy that news, current affairs and regular programming that would be provided by many freelancers is specifically excluded from the scheme. The sound and vision scheme is largely used for dramas and documentaries and it is also noteworthy that the vast majority of it goes to television, which does not cover our people.
Mr. Séamus Dooley:
First, I would be very slow to extend them now because of the timeframe needed, but I would have liked to see the commission operating in a number of phases. There are areas that need to be addressed such as access to the industry, addressing the gender imbalance within the industry, and training and that needs to happen fairly quickly.
We must open up access to the profession to make it more diverse. If the committee is looking for work, it should look at the terms of reference of the commission and look at areas such as those I outlined, which will not be addressed in the timeframe by the commission. It is important that we have a funded, representative and diverse media. They are some of the areas that I would like to see addressed.
We can examine that as a committee. Looking through Mr. Dooley's proposals, he outlined what I would consider very interesting ideas. Has he met with the Minister to discuss them or does he intend to meet with the Minister?
Mr. Séamus Dooley:
We are meeting the Minister next week. Unusually, the plan was launched in both the UK and Ireland and the UK Government has been much more active than the Irish Government. In fact, it established a weekly call with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport during the pandemic. We are behind the curve on this but we are meeting the Minister next week. One of the cornerstones of what we are suggesting is the windfall tax on tech giants because they have been free passengers on the bus, as it were, and all of us are united in terms of providing the big tech giants with a service that they exploit without giving anything to the media in return, to those who generate it. Many of the proposals we are talking about could be funded by that means.
I thank Mr. Dooley. My next question is for Mr. Purcell. He mentioned that the Future of Media Commission is way too lengthy for independent broadcasters to benefit in the here and now when help is needed. Does he have any other suggestions? Would he suggest a Covid media task force to address current issues?
Mr. John Purcell:
Yes, something like that would be appropriate. As I understand it, the commission was initially meant to report this year, but due to Covid that was postponed to next year. The job is only half done when the commission reports. The committee will then need to debate the issues, legislation will need to be drafted and discussed, and then it must go through the process. We are talking about two or three years down the line. We have had experience in the past of reports being done to point a way forward and then, for example, an election comes.
We think there is a need for an interim body, such as an emergency task force, to look at practical solutions that can be put in place to support radio, RTÉ and newspapers until such time as the broader picture can be sketched out.
Mr. Purcell also made reference to the broadcasting levy and the special funding. I had difficulty trying to get clarity on the €2.5 million from last year. Mr. Purcell said it was provided to radio stations earlier in the year. Was that it? Has there been nothing since?
Mr. John Purcell:
The sum of €2.5 million was provided under the sound and vision 4 scheme, which provided for Covid-related programming. The application took place in March and April and the funding supported programming in our station, for example, until the end of July. Last week, the Minister mentioned a sum of €2 million, which was announced as part of the stimulus package for sound & vision, but that round of funding specifically excludes stations like ours from applying for it. There was detail on it in a response to a parliamentary question, which was answered by the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin. I can supply the response to Deputy Munster.
Mr. Adrian Lynch:
We availed of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS. In March, April and May, right through to the end of August, both our commercial revenue and licence fee reduced significantly, by more than 30%. We had a significant problem, which was on top of the fact that we had already come into the year in a financially exasperated situation. By managing costs and with a return of commercial income because of our audience performance and the fact that society opened up again so people could pay the licence fee, that has stabilised.
Looking forward to the coming years, obviously things are very dynamic, but we know there is a gap. I will not be able to put an exact number on it today, but the factors in the mix include commercial performance. We do not know what it will look like in 2021 in terms of the impact of unemployment and Covid on the economy. We do not know if the licence fee will renormalise. The situation is dynamic. Plus, next year we have the Olympics, if they go ahead, in August and September, which is a significant cost. We also have the Euros. They are events that were supposed to have taken place this year.
A timeframe was mentioned regarding discussion of the licence fee in the Future of Media Commission. Does he suspect that will be dealt with midway through the process? Will it be reported on separately or will all the reporting happen at the end of process, which could be 2022?
I am delighted that the witnesses are here to address the committee. I will start with Mr. Purcell. I do not have any questions. I just want to lend my support and to reiterate the importance of local radio stations. In Cork, we are really lucky to have C103, 96FM and RedFM. Taking a show like "Cork Today" as an example, which is broadcast on C103, the service and information it has provided in the pandemic has demonstrated its importance more than anything else. Prior to that we had the likes of Storm Ophelia where we were all pretty much locked behind closed doors as well or the beast from the east weather event.
The support and information that station gave to the public, as well as the comfort that it was, was significant. I echo the witnesses' calls. They have made a couple of simple requests regarding the reintroduction of the waiver of the levy and the expansion of the sound and vision scheme, something that I would certainly support and urge the Minister to listen to the witnesses about.
On the issue of regional newspapers, which I might address to Mr. Dooley since he mentioned it in his address, again they provide a really important service. In regions such as west Cork, some local newspapers are read by some people from back to front and front to back again. They depend on the distribution of those newspapers in the local shop and that option is not there under lockdown. One can imagine that the revenue for these newspapers is falling. The advertising revenue is falling because businesses are struggling or relying on supports. One challenge that I am sure they are facing, because the normal place to distribute the paper would be in the shop where people would pick it up and buy it, is that they are trying to move to providing online services. It is very difficult, however, for these regional papers to compete with the other online offerings. Are there any ideas or creative ways to address that?
I will follow up on my question to Mr. Lynch. I am disappointed that Ms Dee Forbes is not here. She is a fellow west Cork person, from Drimoleague where my father is from. I hope she gets better soon. I commend RTÉ on the service that it has provided in general, and especially over the past months during the pandemic. I assume the figures for bulletins providing public health updates are through the roof. I would compare a public service broadcaster such as RTÉ to public transport. We need to invest in it. It does not necessarily always have to be about profit-making and huge revenue. Obviously revenue has to be maintained, but the State has to protect the public service broadcaster, while keeping the balance of independence.
Mr. Lynch mentioned in his statement that the licence fee process is broken. Will he elaborate on what alternatives there might be? The BBC is talking about changing its model and moving to something closer to the Swedish model. It is obviously having significant issues competing with the huge streaming services such as Netflix and is trying to find ways around it. I understand that even the BBC is having difficulty and it is a huge corporation. What do we do to combat that? Most speakers have mentioned "Normal People" and its success. Is that what we need to do? We have creativity, skill and talent. Do we need to invest in our own productions that we can export and earn income from? We can do just as well as the BBC on natural history, for example. Should we do more of that?
We have about a minute left. The first question is about the regional papers possibly going online and the second-----
Mr. Séamus Dooley:
I presume that at some stage, the committee will hear from the newspaper owners. I dare not to speak for them. I think their campaign for a reduction in VAT to a zero rate is worth considering. I have mentioned that the Government currently has a Keep Well in Your Community campaign which excludes the placing of advertisements in print media. That is inexplicable. There is no point in talking about how wonderful they are if the Government does not actually resource them.
On the Deputy's final point, since I also represent broadcasters, I would advise the committee against one thing. Do not to look to the Boris Johnson Government in terms of its approach to the BBC. It is embarking on a strategy which will destroy public broadcasting in Britain.
Mr. Adrian Lynch:
I will refer to the point on intellectual property, IP. IP is the basis of the entire broadcasting industry, certainly from a revenue point of view in terms of a return. It is essential. Coming back to the licence fee, if we manage to fix it, it means that we can invest in other broadcasters and in the independent sector, which is a key partner for us. We know we have the talent here from the story-telling point of view to tell our story to the world. It is trying to recognise also that when that is done, such as something like "Normal People", there is a reason that thousands of people are now trying to get into Trinity College. People will want to come and visit here. It has a cultural impact. We need to see beyond the small numbers. We really value culture here and we have a fantastic culture. That is a great story that we can tell the world. That is key and I concur with the Deputy's point.
In terms of the collection part, that will be for the commission to determine. There are many examples across Europe. When the Deputy was talking earlier, he was almost describing public service media as a utility to democracy. I know that some other countries have found a different way to bill it.
I thank the witnesses for joining us and for outlining to us the significant challenges that they face in continuing to provide and develop the wonderful content that they produce. I have a couple of observations and questions for Mr. Lynch. He quite rightly told us earlier that one of the key elements of public service broadcasting is to nurture our cultural vitality. If any country can stand proud with in terms of its cultural vitality and cultural output, it is Ireland.
I was previously Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora. If one looks at the success of Joe Biden reciting the Heaney piece on the news recently, which is up to 10.5 million views at this point, there is a ready, willing and perhaps voracious audience for the kind of content that Ireland is renowned for. When one looks at streaming services and on-demand television, what kind of work is happening within RTÉ right now to connect with the more than 70 million Irish worldwide? Maybe there is not any, but should there be? It is a ready and willing audience to enjoy that cultural richness that we have to offer. I know there are issues relating to IP and so on. TG4 seems to have overcome them to a certain extent. Is there a way of communicating better with our 70 million people worldwide and leveraging that to increase income? I agree with Mr. Lynch that we have an extraordinary story to tell to the world and we have that incredible Irish community around the world who are more than willing not alone to be recipients of that story but to pass that story on to others as well. That video from a couple of nights ago is just one example of that.
I thank Mr. Dooley for his contribution also. Early on in the establishment of the Future of Media Commission, I identified a lacuna in the membership of the board in terms of representation from journalists themselves - working journalists and journalists on the front line - and I am delighted to see that Siobhan Holliman has now been appointed to the commission. Her insights from working in local radio, local journalism and local print media will be very valuable in determining how the Future of Media Commission explores the challenges faced by that sector and works collectively to address them in the future.
I could not agree more with Mr. Purcell. If one looks at the recent joint national listenership research, JNLR, figures, listenership for local radio is growing exponentially. What his organisation's members have done, reflecting my own experience with Galway Bay FM, has been incredibly important in building powerful social solidarity during the pandemic. From the moment Galway Bay FM starts to broadcast at 6.30 a.m., there is a sense of togetherness, community and looking out for those who perhaps live alone across our communities, particularly in rural Galway, who know that they are being listened to and their fears are being addressed. It happens day in, day out. It is a normal part of the endeavours of that station. That is my only experience but I am sure it is replicated across the whole of local radio. We need to make sure that that can continue, not just to survive but to thrive in the future and to continue to have the opportunity to continue building that social solidarity and to showcase the wonderful richness of our local culture. Sometimes they do not have that opportunity to get national exposure and local radio has a crucial role to play there.
I wholeheartedly support Mr. Purcell's ongoing calls for the lifting of the broadcasting levy and for some additional funding supports to be provided so that when we get to the end of this, and we will get to the end of this, broadcasters are as well positioned as they were at the beginning of this to continue to provide that service to local communities. I wish Mr. Purcell every success with the meeting with the Minister on Monday.
Mr. Adrian Lynch:
On our digital products, in the week of 19 October, between RTÉ.ieand RTÉ News, we had 77 million page loads, which is significant.
Twenty per cent of that is coming from outside Ireland, so it has been a key portal in terms of connection in a world where people cannot travel, access their own culture, connect with family and so on. At a very human level it was allowing people who were abroad to connect with what was happening in our country.
On the question of culture and exporting that, in 2018 we streamed the Wexford Opera Festival on RTÉ.ie. Through those learnings and when Covid-19 arrived we were able to apply that to many of our arts partnerships. We are currently doing Culture Night. We did Solar Boneswith the Rough Magic Theatre Company. We are doing the International Book Festival, the Dublin Theatre Festival and the Wexford Opera Festival. We are doing 12 Friday nights with the National Symphony Orchestra. It is interesting to note that, typically, its audience on a Friday night would have been 600 people. That is now being watched by 3,000 people. We are also repeating it on linear in terms of RTÉ 1 on Sunday mornings where another 15,000 people are coming in. Streaming plus our story offers a massive opportunity for the country and it is a great way of connecting with our diaspora and bringing Irish people together.
Mr. John Purcell:
I thank Deputy Cannon for his remarks. In terms of stations such as mine, KCLR, which covers Carlow-Kilkenny, during a similar period our online offerings would have garnered approximately 2 million page views, just for Carlow-Kilkenny, with local content but also people from overseas.
Following Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan's kind remarks, and those of Deputy Cannon, about our output it is appropriate that I acknowledge the work of the staff in radio stations. I represent independent radio stations but also RTÉ. Over the period of the pandemic broadcasters have confronted all sorts of obstacles in keeping the show on the road and it is only right that when I am here today I acknowledge that.
I welcome the witnesses. In the past few months, the people of Ireland have really appreciated the media. As a politician, I am almost afraid to open the newspapers in the morning or to listen to a radio station in terms of all the bad news but in recent months the information the citizens got on a daily basis from the national television and radio stations, the national newspapers but particularly the local newspaper and radio stations was excellent. I come from County Louth. We have a radio station called LMFM and money could not buy the service it provides on a daily basis, especially to older people. It has done a fantastic jobs in the past number of months.
I always say, "Stay local". By that I mean stay in Ireland. I would call myself a channel hopper. If I picked up the remote my wife and the children would go mad because I keep switching stations but, in fairness, I have got to know the Irish stations in the past nine months and whether it is news, sports, drama or documentaries they have done a fantastic job and really put their shoulder to the wheel. I am a sportsperson and I believe they have done a great job in terms of the coverage of sport in the national and local media. It is something I took for granted but I will no longer take it for granted.
This is an opportunity for everybody, especially in terms of publicising. Local stations and local newspapers are struggling but, please God, if we all put our shoulders to the wheel and stay local we can provide an opportunity in terms of some great programmes. I was a fan of "Normal People". The 12 episodes were fantastic. They way it was put out, two episodes a night, made it even better but I would get annoyed when I read the credits at the end of each episode, which said that "Normal People" was an Irish drama, which is great, produced by Element Pictures for BBC 3. That really annoyed me. It was a story about Ireland and I would have loved to see the whole production done in Ireland. The same applies to "Mrs. Brown's Boys". The credits state that it is a BBC 1 presentation. That gets to me. Why were two of the most popular programmes getting all the credits from the UK? I do not give credit often but I am giving credit to Mr. Purcell, Mr. Lynch and Mr. Dooley because what they have done in the past nine months is fantastic. The Irish people should look after our own. Can the witnesses give me one reason as to why we do not keep everything local?
Mr. Adrian Lynch:
I will start with that one. The Deputy has made a very good point. It comes back to funding, to an extent. In Element Pictures we got an international, independent production company which is working at the highest level. Much of drama is co-produced so a number of parties put money into it. They developed that particular project with BBC and, again, it is because our finances have been so suppressed in the past five to six years that the level of drama we have been doing has been way off what we want to be doing. We are changing that now but it means leveraging every euro we have from a licence fee point of view and putting that together with a partner abroad to tell an Irish story. There is the funding mechanics part, and the Deputy will find that most drama is co-produced. There are a number of parties involved including distributors, co-producers and other broadcasters. The most important part is that we are in a situation financially where we can nurture talent in Ireland and then bring that story to the world. As the public service broadcaster, we should be at the engine of that. There is a price on that because it needs to be funded but the reward is significant for all the reasons the Deputy outlined. We all want to have pride in our own culture. It is a very small country but if we look at the diversity of cultural output it is so strong so there is a massive opportunity for us as a country.
Mr. Séamus Dooley:
I acknowledge the point the Deputy makes about the role of LMFM and all the others across the country, and also the local newspapers, but I want to make something very clear. Unless there is a stimulus package for the industry he will be looking at those through rose-tinted glass in less than three years and will say, "Wasn't the Argus News, the Independentand the Meath Chroniclewonderful?". Praise alone will not butter parsnips and that is something we have to make clear to the members. There is a crisis in the industry. Some of it is due to some media organisations not reacting earlier in regard to investment in digital. There are reasons for that but, to be clear, sentiment alone will not rescue the media. I appreciate the compliments but normal people in the Deputy's constituency need local radio and local newspapers.
Mr. John Purcell:
I support what Mr. Dooley and Mr. Lynch said. It comes back to budget and how we can keep the show on the road. It is not just Covid-19. We have been talking about the decline of local radio, our business model, television and local newspapers for years but this has brought it to an acute phase and nothing can be taken for granted for the future. As Mr. Dooley said, I do not want to be in a position where people say, "Remember when we used to have a two-hour talk programme on our local station in the mornings but they could no longer afford to keep it going". They are done with scant resources, with two or three people at the most. It comes down to the resources. We are obliged by law to provide 20% news and current affairs. We are governed by legislation. We are regulated, monitored and so on yet the other online giants, as Deputy Shane Cassells said earlier, create a toxic environment and do not face half the restrictions. We need action urgently.
I thank the three contributors. I echo many of the comments made. At a local level, the contributions of South East Radio, the People group of newspapers and the Gorey Guardian, in my area, have been excellent. At this time in particular, it shows the value of trusted news sources, to which I will come back.
I also compliment RTÉ. Deputy Cannon mentioned the lovely montage by Jackie Fox, which got plenty of deserved coverage, and the piece with Joe Biden reading the Heaney poem. I would welcome RTÉ's continued support of the arts. Mr. Lynch mentioned the Wexford Opera Festival but I refer to the All-Ireland Drama Festival. There is a clear commitment to communities in that regard.
The point Mr. Purcell made about regulation and so on was interesting. If I wanted to take out a political advertisement, and we have been talking here about regulation of online political advertising, I cannot do it on RTÉ or on local radio. It is regulated to the nth degree yet there is no problem with me or anybody else taking out many advertisements on Facebook or actors from outside the State pumping in with regard to that.
The outdated electoral commission legislation, which I am aware we will be dealing with, needs to be addressed. I might not be able to afford to take out advertisements on RTÉ but I would certainly look at doing that on South East Radio.
I ask the three witnesses to respond to this point. We are operating in a very different media environment. Mr. Dooley will accept that it is no longer a battle between two local newspapers and, similarly, for RTÉ. We need to look to what is happening internationally. We might give out at times about our media here but they are trusted news sources and are balanced. We do not get the type of polarisation we have seen in the United States. I am looking at what is happening in media and some of the challenges in this regard. In terms of trusted media sources here, particularly in the print industry but in other areas also, increasingly the content is behind paywalls; we have to pay for it. If one wants to get The New York Timesin the US it is behind a paywall, yet Breitbart and many others are all freely available. It is about how we ensure that we can continue to get people to pay for trusted content. I am conscious of Mr. Dooley's point on the windfall tax and so on. He would be aware of what happened in France, Spain and Australia when efforts were made to deal with that. I believe the social media giants needs to be tackled at a global level.
My second point is on digital literacy and the role the media have to play in helping people to interpret what are trusted news sources. It should not just be about Twitter saying that something is not good. There is a role for the media in that. There is also a role for it in terms of explaining what we do as politicians but also about the value of trusted news and how it is checked. The problem, and Senator Cassells referred to it earlier, is that when we download content on our phones there is no checking or examination of that.
My next point, and the three witnesses might respond to it, is how we can ensure that we have trusted media sources. We need to tell those Irish stories like "Normal People" and local news stories but the environment we are operating in now is very different.
Mr. Séamus Dooley:
My message from this committee would be to hope that despair and history rhyme and that it actually gets the message on this. There is a need for an investment in editorial resources and we need that from the industry. Without investment in editorial resources media will not survive. People will not buy newspapers because they are good for democracy.
On digital literacy, I believe that media have a responsibility but the education system has a responsibility also. It is something that should be taught from a very early stage at second level.
Mr. John Purcell:
We would be well up for participating with partners in promoting digital literacy and so on but that particular task should rest with the people who are disseminating the digital inaccuracy and perhaps the people who are making the millions and billions from the misinformation and the fake news and scraping people's data. They should be called to account for that. We pride ourselves on the trust in which radio, television and newspapers are held but there is a crisis in the media, which has been largely brought about by the disruption caused previously by the digital players where information can be scraped, abused and so on but which has now been accelerated by the pandemic. To answer the Senator's question, that particular question should rest not too far from here in some of the large companies.
Mr. Adrian Lynch:
We are very hopeful now. We have been running a campaign called Truth Matters because integrity matters. That was aimed at all audiences but with a real emphasis on the 15 to 34 age group. I was talking to our director of news yesterday and he said that the pandemic is not only a pandemic in terms of the virus but it is also a pandemic of disinformation. People get their information from many different sources. One thing the pandemic has shown is that credible sources of information have a massive value for society and culture.
I was watching the meeting on the monitor in my office so apologies for being late. I welcome Mr. Purcell, Mr. Dooley and Mr. Lynch. The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of independent stations, national and regional newspapers and RTÉ and the unrivalled information service they provide to their listeners and the general public. My first question is about RTÉ and to add to what Senator Cassells said about the financial restructuring plan. It is due to conclude at the end of 2020 and includes a 15% pay reduction for the highest earning presenters, with a view to saving more than €60 million in three years. What is the plan with regard to senior management? Have they been excluded from this restructuring plan in respect of a pay freeze for them? What does the restructuring plan define as senior management?
Mr. Séamus Dooley:
What we do know is that currently the technology giants are paying nothing. They rely for a great deal of the information they have on their website on the very people I represent and who are represented here. There has been support for this call from the NUJ and from a number of countries. The technology giants are flexing their muscle and in this country in particular there is a certain degree of fear as to how they might react but, to put it bluntly, we have to have the courage of our convictions. We have to say there is a limit to what the State will be able to provide. These people have very deep pockets but just as the labourer is worthy of the hire, so are the publishers and the broadcasters. We at least need an engagement with these people and we need to ask them what they are prepared to pay. They will provide all sorts of philanthropic schemes and offer various schemes on their terms. All that does is make them look good. What we are looking for is a more structured and formal process of engagement.
Regarding the independent stations, we had a good engagement with the Minister last week when she presented here on the priorities within her portfolio. It is crucially important that the independent radio stations are backed. In my constituency of Mayo, Mid-West Radio has performed in an enormously positive way in the past period. The value of having a station which provides not just Government information but local information also to thousands of people is very worthwhile. I look forward to the discussions on Monday and I will be supporting whatever provisions the Minister can put in place in terms of a rescue package. The staff are working around the clock to disseminate information and it is very important that we support them.
I thank the three witnesses for being with us today and for taking the time to come in. I may be mistaken but all our broadcasters are represented here through the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, IBI, and RTÉ but am I correct in saying that Virgin Media Television is not part of the IBI? It is important to state for the record that as part of our work as a committee consultation with the other TV station would be important. I thank the three witnesses who have joined us.
I am not sure if Mr. Purcell saw the proceedings last week but-----
-----I do not want to repeat what I said. I covered that ground in terms of my appreciation of local radio and the outstanding work it has done. I concur with previous speakers with regard to the package of supports I believe are absolutely necessary-----
-----for the stations he represents for all the reasons that have been laid out.
I will not go over that old ground again, but the stations need assistance and Mr. Purcell, and all the people he represents, are doing a fantastic job.
I also concur with Mr. Dooley. We need to follow up on the Government public health advertising and messaging. That appears to be an extraordinary omission on the part of the State for a sector that is crucial and has so much penetration.
The timing here is very important. This week, in particular, I have been dismayed by the large amount of misinformation online and the massive amount of fake news. If there is one thing the outgoing President of the United States left us with, it is the term "fake news". However, there is so much of it in the public domain, it is shocking. Democracy requires investment to protect reliable, verified sources and the people represented by the witnesses do that. It is incumbent on all of us to work to that end.
Mr. Lynch is very welcome. There has been much talk about "Normal People", but the return of "The Den" has been a great tonic for the country. To see Zig and Zag, Dustin and Ray D'Arcy together on television is fantastic and gives a lift to many. There was one child watching it with tears in his eyes last Sunday night after Kerry was knocked out of the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship by Cork. It certainly made him feel better. That was just me. My two children were watching it as well in our house. It is fascinating to hear that many of the people who are watching it are now in their 50s and 60s. They were parents of young children when "The Den" was first broadcast on television, which is an interesting observation. That is a good departure and is very positive at this time for people.
However, I am mindful of the great content that exists in the archive. I realise that "The Den" is a fresh attempt and is very successful, which is not always the case when people try to revive a programme. This has been a success from the start, as far as I can see. Take the example of "Bachelors Walk" from 2002. The second series is on at present and people love it. "Pure Mule" was shown during the first lockdown, along with other programmes such as "Love/Hate". There is a rich archive in RTÉ and further delving into it would be much appreciated by the public, as well, of course, as investment in new content. That is something that could be done. RTÉ has a very good archive online but bringing it more mainstream is important, particularly for a demographic that is not online very much.
It is critical that we invest again in the national broadcaster. I have some concerns about the overall remit of the national broadcaster, where the private sector has filled what was originally set out as being the only show in town. I am thinking of the remit of RTÉ's 2FM and the competition that exists now. I wonder if there is room for rationalisation in that regard. However, there is still a huge space there and RTÉ deserves further funding.
The committee will continue to work in the interests of public service broadcasting and verifiable and reliable news, because that is one of the key threats to the State at present. It is happening throughout the world, but it is very evident in Ireland and especially in the last couple of weeks. It is incredibly worrying. I thank the witnesses for the work they are doing. The committee will continue our work.
I apologise for being late. I was speaking in the Seanad. I welcome the witnesses. I will reiterate a few things I mentioned last week, particularly with regard to local radio and local newspapers. I have proposed that our work programme examine the future of local radio. An increased value has been placed on it because of the pandemic. Only last week there was a huge water outage in half of County Longford and people heard about it on the local radio station. Otherwise, they would not have known. That is just a small matter, but I support any investment that goes to maintaining local radio. Shannonside is my local radio station and it is an invaluable asset. I was grilled many times on the political programmes, but it was fair criticism. I compliment it on the work it has done over this period.
As regards local newspapers, I have a retail business at home and I have seen the decline in sales of the newspapers. I would welcome support for them. I compliment one of the reporters in my local newspaper, Liam Cosgrove, who today won the Local Ireland/National Lottery media award for the newspaper story of the year.
I have some questions for Mr. Lynch of RTÉ. I note that he said there are 121 managers. It appears to be a high number for an organisation.
Mr. Adrian Lynch:
I do not have a recommendation today on how it should it be collected. We know it needs to be fixed. I was saying earlier that there are approximately 140,000 no-TV households and approximately 250,000 in avoidance. It is quite a big number. Given all the representations from the witnesses today, we know that if we fix that there is probably €50 million or thereabouts involved. That would help us do many of the things we want to do. There appears to be a strong consensus in this room on the value of public media, so this is something we have to do. I said earlier that there are other models around Europe for how the licence fee is collected. We are not seeking a licence fee increase, just effective collection.
I have a final few questions. First, I thank the three witnesses for their presentations. I will begin with you, Mr. Dooley. You made your point loud and clear to the committee that talk is cheap and that investment is required. Nobody in this room does not appreciate the organisations and journalists you represent. My local newspapers are The Anglo-Celt and Northern Standard, and I believe Michael Fisher is heavily involved with your organisation. Many houses are very much dependent on those media outlets for information, more so than on theIrish Independentor the national newspapers. The pandemic has given all of us a new appreciation of media and the traditional media outlets.
The American presidential election has put a new emphasis on, and given impetus to, what has been fake news. I appreciate the campaign RTÉ has been running on real journalism and how journalism matters. That message is coming through loud and clear. The public has become more aware of that and is more reliant on the reliable, credible sources of information.
Mr. Purcell, with regard to Northern Sound Radio and Shannonside, a vacuum was created as a result of the restrictions due to the pandemic, with people not being able to visit each other and being lonely in their homes. Northern Sound Radio and similar stations across the country certainly filled that vacuum. They created support and comfort. Undoubtedly, there is a newfound appreciation for the local radio stations. There was a generational gap, perhaps, in terms of the younger generation, and that generation has become more familiar with their local radio stations and their local newspapers.
I know that Northern Sound and The Anglo-Celthave brought their information online and that has helped to reach the younger generation. The pandemic has brought our appreciation of those media to the fore.
I have a specific question for Mr. Dooley about An Post and the delivery of newspapers. As some of my colleagues have alluded to, perhaps some ordinary newspaper outlets have been closed, or whatever, during the restrictions. Have we any figures that show the impact or otherwise of the restrictions on the delivery of newspapers by An Post?
Mr. Séamus Dooley:
I am not able to answer that question. I know that it has been a positive experience in some areas. NewsBrands and Local Ireland, the two representative bodies, could supply that information. Some companies have been quite imaginative. I know of one newspaper group that arranged to have its newspaper delivered through Meals on Wheels during the first wave of lockdown in order to ensure its readers got the paper. That was imaginative. I do not have any more information on that.
The newspapers that the Chairman has talked about were owned by the O'Hanlons and the Smiths. There is a great tradition of family ownership in regional newspapers which meant that there was what I would call public-interest journalism. We talk about public-interest, or public-service, broadcasting but there is such a thing as public-service journalism. Public-interest or public-service journalism that local newspapers and radio do is sometimes overlooked. Our language around that is important. Reports on local deaths and local arts festivals are as much of public interest as "Prime Time". We need to get that message out there. Not everything has to be stuffy. Not everything within the covers of a newspaper is public-interest journalism but democracy suffers when local authority meetings or courts are not covered.
Lest I sound too positive about newspaper owners, there is a history of many of the larger companies not investing in journalism and the quid pro quofor any kind of state aid has to be a real commitment to investing in journalism. There must be some process to include commitments to investment in journalism for any international or UK companies that decide to sweep up and buy Irish papers. Quite frankly, the laws around competition, the second phase of acquisition under the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, are simply not adequate. We are not getting it. The experience about which Deputy Mattie McGrath spoke earlier is proof of that.
I thank Mr. Dooley. I have a few specific questions for Mr. Lynch, if that is okay. What has been RTÉ's expenditure on the National Symphony Orchestra, NSO, for the past three years? How much has RTÉ saved, or does it expect to save, when the orchestra moves to the National Concert Hall?
I am curious about some of the figures that Mr. Lynch has presented. RTÉ obviously had a financial difficulty long before the pandemic, which has thrown up more uncertainty in that regard. The redundancy scheme of 2017 promised a reduction in head count of approximately 250 to 300 people, if I am correct.
Mr. Adrian Lynch:
As I said earlier, we came out and looked for 200 redundancies in 2019. The migration of the NSO will have an impact. We are now looking at an additional 60 or 70 redundancies through a voluntary programme. Why is that a lower number? Part of that is because in order to deliver all the services we currently have on air, particularly during the pandemic, we cannot afford to lose that many people or we will lose content. We know there is an audience demand for the content that we are producing across all our channels.
Mr. Adrian Lynch:
Absolutely. We clarified last November that we were not closing down Lyric FM. We are always looking for efficiencies in how we deliver services because we are in receipt of public money and with that in mind, there was a question as to whether we would move elements of the work outside Limerick. We are holding off on making any decision around that at the moment until the commission has come back with its findings. That is all on hold.
Mr. Dooley made a point about public-interest journalism and papers that used to be family owned. That dynamic has changed massively in the past 20 years. More than 20 years ago, one could go around and identify the families who owned most of the newspapers in Ireland and had done so for decades, going back to the start of the 1900s. Everyone was high on sugar during the good times and bought up newspapers because they saw them as vehicles to sell property supplements which turned out to be bigger than the regional newspapers themselves. That was when we ran into trouble. There was a slash and burn of newsrooms throughout this country, going back to 2007, 2008 and 2009. Have we been able to quantify how many regional journalists lost their jobs? I am guessing that has not been confirmed. I am still in contact with people around the country and those newsrooms have not been replenished.
I want to stress the quid pro quo issue. We had newspaper owners here last year. I met them, as did every Deputy and Senator. Mr. Lynch and Mr. Purcell have both made the point about the Government stepping up to the plate here and looking out for the interests of regional newspapers because we cannot allow local media to die because local democracy would die with it. Equally, I would make the point that if the Government steps up to the mark, there has to be an investment in newsrooms by radio station and newspaper owners.There cannot be a reduction in VAT that is only used to clear debt or that goes into the coffers of media companies that are no longer family owned but are owned by corporations, with no investment going to newsrooms. I am glad that Mr. Dooley made that point because I would also make it. If the Ministers intervene in that space, there has to be a commitment to newsrooms.
We have heard today from those who represent the workers in local media. The ownership of media is another element to this debate. Deputy Griffin touched on that point as it relates to a major player in the broadcasting space. The commercial agenda of owners has equally to be discussed in this room.
At the end of the day, they are businesses. Let us call a spade a spade. These people here today are to represent the journalists. People who own the entities are trying to make money and the best of luck to them because if they do not make money, they do not survive. We must then look at investment in the newsrooms. For decades, there was very good investment and there was a passion for making sure newsrooms were properly resourced. Nobody will buy the local paper if it is full of fluff and does not have the substantial element people want from it but the editors cannot do that unless they are resourced by their owners. I am sure the same applies to newsrooms in local radio as well - where they can send a reporter to an event after hours or sports event at the weekend. The owners of these radio stations and newspapers need to be a part of this discussion. At the end of this, I do not want to pat these people on the head and say, "Thanks very much for your time, goodbye". I want us to report back as a committee and ask in what substantial way will there be a significant change. These people cannot wait until next September. In what substantial way, can we help the funding of newsrooms? What will this country get back? Where is the significant gain for the ordinary person buying that product or tuning in at the end of the day? That is the real issue. If we do not address that here, it will have been a waste of a conversation.
Mr. John Purcell:
To make it clear, I represent the owners of the radio stations. I am part-owner of the radio station where I work. We are not looking for handouts. The sound and vision scheme and the scheme for Covid constitute a model of how it can be done. We submit a list of programme proposals and say that this is the programming we will provide so we will be able to cover council meetings, etc., this is the time it will take and this is the budget we allocating to it. We submit that budget, that budget is approved and we then submit a cost report at the end so it is verified. If public money is to be given to support public interest journalism on independent radio, we accept there needs to be transparency and this has been there through the sound and vision special Covid scheme and sound and vision scheme in general so we do not have an issue with that.
There is a lot of appreciation of the role of the media across all its spheres. How do we continue? I am meeting the Minister next Monday. I do not want to come back in a year and a half and say things are the same. As Mr. Dooley noted, there is an urgency to this and we need to make sure this is not just a flash in the pan where we come in here, say where we are at and just go off and disappear. This needs to be the start of a process. We look forward to engaging with the Minister. We are thankful for the opportunity here today but I think this needs to be part of a process. I hope this answers the Senator's question.
Mr. Séamus Dooley:
On that question, I would not even attempt a figure relating to the titles spoken about by the Senator. There is a reality. One of the major failures is that successive Ministers have not used the power under the amended competition Act under which there is a two-tier approach. First, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission asks whether a business case is required. One then goes to the Minister, who checks a list that includes editorial standards, resources and amendments. We saw this during the previous committee in the context of the attempted acquisition of Celtic Media Group by Independent News and Media. What was interesting is that the Minister of the day did use that power, it came to the previous committee, the committee interrogated it and that deal eventually did not happen. In the case of Iconic Newspapers acquiring The Tullamore Tribuneand The Midland Tribune, the Minister of the day did not exercise that right so the committee did not have the power to ask what Iconic Newspapers planned to do with the future of two long-standing newspapers in Offaly and whether there was going to be synergy between counties Laois and Offaly with counties Kildare, Tipperary and Limerick then thrown in. That discussion did not take place. The situation now is that a person can walk into Roscrea and buy two competing titles with the same story, the same headline and the same byline. How can you do that and expect the sector to thrive? The reality is that media diversity matters. Tipperary and Offaly, and I say so as an Offaly man, are two different continents with different local authority areas and different sporting interests. I used the example of The Tullamore Tribune and The Midland Tribune because it is the one I know best. The Senator spoke about Longford. The reality is that a member of the House of Lords came in and was allowed to buy up The Longford Newsand The Roscommon Champion, of which I was editor. They are both gone. The same individual acquired a newspaper in Athlone. It is now gone. Part of that is because nobody was listening. I said that we called for a commission many years ago. Regarding ownership, one of the reasons for this is because politicians are very reluctant to take on people who buy ink by the gallon. That has traditionally been the response. Politicians are nervous of newspaper owners. That has always been an issue. It was a lack of political will and we are now paying the price. It is not too late. We can look at funding models and look for assistance but if we do not do it soon, it will be too late and we will all regret it.
I have a vested interest. I am unashamedly here because I represent journalists but I also know as a former regional newspaper editor that the local newspaper and local radio station are the heartbeat of the community. I also represent workers in RTÉ and it is great to come to a meeting of this committee and not have a whingeing session because RTÉ is a very easy target. God knows, I criticise Mr. Lynch and his colleagues frequently in negotiations but on this, we are on the one page. If we were ever to reform the licence fee, now is the time to do it because there is a public understanding that nothing comes from nothing. If we have a future pandemic and we do not fund public service broadcasting properly, we should not assume that the same service will be there because it cannot be. RTÉ has delivered a quality service despite the funding model. I do not believe this can continue. There is a real issue here about the public service remit. In the same way as is the case with local radio stations, it is only so long that one can stretch an elastic band. It does eventually break.
With that, we will bring our deliberations to a conclusion. I wish to mention Sinéad Hussey, who is not a new correspondent but is new to the north east. There was a time when we did not have anybody. That has made a significant difference to the Border region. She does drill down. Sinéad Crowley's coverage of the arts has been outstanding. This area has, of course, suffered hugely during the pandemic. I ask Mr. Lynch and Mr. Dooley to pass on our own thanks to them.
In respect of Mr. Purcell's reference to a process arising from today, could we agree to monitor and agree to re-engage following the meeting next week about issues relating to the IBI? That would be advantageous for everybody.
Absolutely. At our previous meeting, we decided to devote another day to media. There will be ample opportunity for us to continue this and, as Deputy Griffin said, not simply have a one-off meeting but do something with it so it is the beginning of a process.