Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 16 December 2020
Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht
Challenges facing Public Broadcasting and the broader Media Sector as a result of Covid-19: Discussion
I request that members sit only in the permitted seats and in front of the available microphones to ensure they are heard. This is important, as failing to do so can cause serious problems in broadcasting and for editorial and sound staff. I remind members to maintain social distance at all times during and following the meeting. Members are requested to use the wipes and hand sanitiser provided to clean the seats and desks shared to supplement the regular sanitisation in the breaks between meetings.
I welcome our guests, Mr. Alan Esslemont, director general of TG4, and Mr. Paul Farrell, managing director of Virgin Media Ireland. We are also joined remotely via Microsoft Teams by Ms Áine Ní Chaoindealbháin, director of operations in Virgin Media Television, and Ms Anna-Maria Barry, head of public relations in Virgin Media Ireland.
The format of the meeting is such that I will invite witnesses to make opening statements, which will be followed by questions from the members of the committee. The committee may publish the opening statements on the website following the meeting. The rota for speaking has been circulated to members. I remind them that each grouping has ten minutes for questions and answers.
I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I ask the witnesses to note they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their presentations they make to the committee here today. This means they have absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they may say at the meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse this privilege and it is my duty as Chairman to ensure that 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 any such direction. So far so good; we have not had to give anybody that kind of instruction or direction and I am sure today will be no different.
I invite Mr. Esslemont to make his presentation.
Mr. Alan Esslemont:
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach. Labhróidh mé i mBéarla ach ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil i dtosach le cléireach an choiste a labhair liom agus a rinne comhfhreagras i nGaeilge liom. Tá an-mholadh tuillte ag an gcoiste mar gheall air sin.
I hope members understand my English. This year of Covid has been a year of yearning, disorientation and grief. However, it has also been a year of outstanding deeds of humanity and public service. In our own audiovisual industry, I pay tribute to TG4’s in-house staff and to all the independent producers who partner with us. However, I do not believe that public service broadcasting is delivered solely by the publicly owned broadcasters. Ireland’s commercially owned media, Virgin Media, national radio, and especially local and community radio have indeed provided an excellent public service during this Covid crisis.
TG4 believes that a diversity and plurality of voices, views and sources should be available in the indigenous Irish media. The diagram in my submission suggests how this might be achieved through a mix of the public broadcasters, TG4 and RTÉ; and the public contestable funds, that is, BAI's sound and vision scheme and Screen Ireland’s various schemes. These public contestable funds could ensure the presence of public service media on commercially owned broadcast platforms, including radio.
The Irish audiovisual structure remains much the same as before the Broadcasting Act 2009, largely based in Dublin and with the monolithic presence of a single broadcaster-producer. The independent production sector in Ireland is currently in a difficult situation and the sector is highly centralised around Dublin.
As we emerge from Covid, TG4 is proposing a reimagined balance in the public funding of the sector. TG4 believes RTÉ should have the public funding required to meet its obligations but that an equivalent amount of public funding should be shared between TG4, Screen Ireland and the BAI sound and vision scheme. The effect of this would be to promote diversity and plurality in the sector, promote balance in the public audiovisual ecosystem and improve parity in its regional layout. TG4 is of the opinion that the issue of balance of scale and reform of the monolithic audiovisual infrastructure is the biggest challenge facing the public media ecosystem in Ireland.
The biggest challenge facing TG4 in the coming years will be achieving first-class national scale to allow it to play a role of significant prominence in Ireland’s media ecosystem and to create meaningful resonance in Irish society. TG4 partners widely with associations in the fields of tourism, culture, arts, sport and the Irish language. The organisation can contribute hugely to the public purposes which form the work of this committee. I look forward to collaborating with the committee over the coming years to achieve some of these objectives.
Mr. Paul Farrell:
I thank members for the invitation. Virgin Media Television is Ireland’s leading independent national public service broadcaster, operating under section 70 of the Broadcasting Act 2009. Our revenues and funding are sourced commercially on a competitive market basis. We are a major investor in creativity and choice in Ireland, playing an essential part in the plurality of Irish media and keeping the nation informed with trusted news content and current affairs programmes, as well as drama, entertainment and sport.
Since the start of the current crisis, we have seen our news viewership increase by more than 50%. Research by the Department of Health in November found that 44% of the population now go to Virgin Media for their trusted news content. We operate an efficient broadcasting platform and we live within our budgets. During the current crisis, our priority has been to ensure continuity and, simultaneously, to radically increase our programming and output. We have spent an extra and unanticipated €600,000 this year directly related to Covid-19, including increased live broadcasting capacity and technology for remote working. We are also supporting our communities and businesses with more than €1 million in funding to support our #BackingBusiness and #BackingLocal initiatives, through which we have promoted over 200 Irish small and medium enterprises, SMEs, across our broadcast, digital and social platforms.
Public service broadcasting is an essential pillar for Irish society, media plurality and democracy. It is essential now and for the future that the State’s funding of public service broadcasting is both transparent and accountable and that it is channelled and used in a manner that is economically viable, upholds wider plurality throughout the indigenous media sector and ensures a free and fair marketplace. A move towards contestable funds with clear transparency and accountability, greater collaboration across the entire media ecosystem and a clear strategy on distribution platforms to support all indigenous media would be welcome in policy terms.
We welcome and are supportive of the Future of Media Commission, but we believe the timeframe for its work is too protracted to address the challenges of the sector. Covid-19 has accelerated the move to digital media consumption across the board. Audiences are deciding when, where and how they wish to consume and find their content.
On behalf of Virgin Media Television, I assure the committee that we will continue to serve the people of Ireland to the maximum of our capability. I thank members.
I thank Mr. Farrell. I am sure the witnesses are familiar with the format of these meetings. Members from the various groupings take a few minutes to make comments, pose questions and try to get answers.
I welcome both the witnesses. My comments touch on a specific point which both of them touched on in their statements. Mr. Esslemont spoke of not wanting to replace or take away RTÉ's funding. He said RTÉ should have the "public funding required to meet its obligations" but that an equivalent amount of public funding should be shared between TG4 and other broadcasters. I note also Mr. Farrell's interesting choice of words when he spoke about "collaboration across the entire media ecosystem and a clear strategy on distribution platforms".
Taking those comments from Mr. Farrell, in particular, are we looking at duplicating the role of the State broadcaster? I ask that question because the State broadcaster has specific obligations and there are major costs involved in some of the productions it must carry out. I would like Mr. Farrell to flesh out what terms such as "media ecosystem" mean in pounds, shillings and pence. What is the request from Virgin Media in that respect? Where does it see its role with regard to some of the activities that RTÉ currently carries out? Is Virgin Media looking to duplicate or take away certain aspects of what RTÉ is doing and let Virgin Media do them?
From a financial perspective, is there room in the Irish market for two competing television stations, given the limited commercial revenue in play? Mr. Farrell also pointed out the threat not only to television but also to radio stations and newspapers posed by Google and similar platforms where people can get better bang for their buck. Is there room for an independent television station and is Virgin Media trying to duplicate certain aspects of what RTÉ is doing?
If TG4 is asking for an equivalent amount of public funding to be provided, is Mr. Esslemont seeking to have the television licence fee doubled to allow that to happen? How would that funding be raised?
Mr. Paul Farrell:
Regarding the ecosystem of which I spoke, if we look only at broadcasting on television, we will miss the opportunity and the risk in respect of public service broadcasting. On the specific question of funding, the key point for me, and I think Mr. Esslemont also referred to this, is that there needs to be transparency and accountability concerning what that funding is used for. That is missing now. The Future of Media Commission has obviously taken on the task of redefining what public service broadcasting is, but if we look at RTÉ's annual accounts, as we do, it is hard to figure out where the public money went and where the commercial money went. That distorts the market. For this reason, a clear line is needed, first and foremost, regarding what the €200 million from the licence fee is used for, if it is used for the right things and if it distorts the market for all other media. I say that because we all compete for the same advertisers, and much of that advertising money is moving to the companies mentioned by Senator Cassells, such as Google and Facebook.
There needs to be a clear understanding in respect of the money which is for public service broadcasting, what public service broadcasting is and how we can get the best value for that. I do not think we get any of that information under the present monolithic model, which Mr. Esslemont mentioned, that distorts the market. Production companies and talent, such as writers and producers and all the people in Screen Ireland who facilitate this ecosystem, are beholden to the decisions made by RTÉ regarding how it uses that money. That is wrong and it is the fundamental flaw we need to address in the short term.
Outside of that aspect, to touch on the point made by the Senator regarding collaboration, we have seen, particularly during this period of Covid-19, the demand for local quality media and trusted content. The challenge we all have, and this is where I would go on the distribution side, is to make it easier for people to find it. I say that because people are not now automatically going to the electronic programme guide, EPG, on the television to see what is on at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. People expect to find that information on their terms, whether that is on an app, a player, YouTube or elsewhere. The challenge for us, especially as quality local media, is to find ways to come together and present that good quality content, which is well funded commercially, to the national audience. The current monolithic model makes it impossible for local and other media to survive.
Mr. Paul Farrell:
Yes, absolutely. Our biggest gripe is that every year we run to a budget, deliver our numbers, support and invest in our business and keep up with technology, but we are competing with another entity which is able to get a €10 million top-up for not operating within its budget. That is making it difficult for us. We run a profitable and viable business, and we will continue to do so.
Mr. Alan Esslemont:
Regarding the budget, diversity and plurality are needed to have public service broadcasting. As I mentioned and Mr. Farrell also recognised, the structures in place are monolithic, and monolithic structures bring monolithic behaviours. Mr. Farrell referred to some of those aspects. The strongest marker of diversity Ireland has brought to the world is its language and the transmission of that language from generation to generation for thousands of years. It is clear to me that that intergenerational transmission is in danger and that children brought up in Irish-speaking homes learn very quickly that their language matters less. Unless we have TG4 and status for the language at the same level as is given to the Welsh language, we will see that intergenerational transmission imperilled. The biggest danger in the next ten years will be that Ireland will lose its diversity in this area through intergenerational transmission. There are many aspects to be looked at in respect of funding, but the licence fee definitely needs reform. We do not receive the licence fee, as we are already State funded. There are already levies in this market and they are being applied throughout Europe on the top suppliers. A cocktail of funding could be looked at. The funding model needs to be looked at as well as the ecosystem and the existing structures.
I will ask just two questions. The committee will consider the transposition of the audiovisual and media services directive early in the new year. Mr. Esslemont mentioned the levies in that regard. What approach should we take, especially to the content levy and how that would operate?
Mr. Esslemont and Mr. Farrell also mentioned the importance of trusted news sources, and I congratulate Virgin Media and TG4 on their work during this period of Covid-19. The roll-out of the vaccine for Covid-19 is going to be important. What will be the commitment of Virgin Media and TG4 to supporting public health efforts in rolling out the vaccine, especially as regards their news output?
Mr. Paul Farrell:
As I outlined, the evidence of that is in our increased investment in news. We have forgone our normal scheduling, which has created considerable chaos internally, as can be imagined, as we try to juggle our scheduling while we wait to find out when press conferences and various announcements will take place. We will continue to do that because our role in that regard has been rewarded, as I also outlined, with the growth we have seen in viewership. We have seen similar growth in the use of our player for the same kind of content. As a commercial public service broadcaster, we believe news is one of the cornerstones of our role and the value we bring to the nation. We will continue to support it wholeheartedly all the way through this period, as required.
Mr. Alan Esslemont:
It is clear that the audiovisual and media services directive is seeking an independent regulator in this area. The members of this committee are legislators. Proportionate legislation should be brought forward in this regard and a strong regulator should be put in place to deal in a focused way with levies and the whole gamut of issues that arise in this area. It is important that this fits into the European model.
Mr. Paul Farrell:
On that point, I would not underestimate the resistance which will be encountered from our friends in Google and Facebook. I saw Nick Clegg speak recently at an IBEC session at which he said that Facebook would pull out of Australia rather than pay levies. I have also worked in newspapers and they have suffered most at the hands of the online search engines and aggregators and social media platforms by having their content moved without any recompense. The levies will be challenging in that context, and I do not underestimate that, but levies are the way forward.
We are not afraid to face up to that issue but it would be useful for media organisations to set out how they see this operating. I refer in particular to how we can support the production of Irish content in a digital environment, which will be crucial.
I thank the witnesses for coming in and sharing their ambition and wisdom with us as to how we can design a landscape for the public consumption of media in the future. I refer to Mr. Farrell's comment regarding people increasingly deciding where, when and how to view output, not only from television stations but also from the broader broadcast and print media. How we fund the production of high-quality content needs to reflect that diversity of choice. In an environment and a world where people are seeking out high-quality, trustworthy content, from news and cultural creative perspectives, I would like to hear how the witnesses would see that undertaking being funded in the future.
Mr. Esslemont spoke about transparency in how the licence fee is allocated, for example. Do we perhaps need to create a central fund from which content producers in the areas of news and creative content can draw sufficient funds, with sufficient standards and scrutiny in place to ensure those moneys are used wisely? We must move away from the monolithic model the witnesses spoke of because there is a need to reflect the diversity of viewership and listenership. Regarding the location and regionality of our future output, we must become ever more focused in generating output specific to the regions. I am interested in hearing the perspectives of Mr. Esslemont and Mr. Farrell on how we could do that.
Well done to Mr. Esslemont and TG4 on what it has done for our diaspora around the world. I have lost count of the number of times I have engaged, both in my previous role as the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and my current role, with people around the world who regularly access TG4 content because of its quality and uniquely Irish nature. It is something of which they are proud. I have also spoken with many Irish language speakers around the world who use TG4's material to teach Irish to others, not only Irish people but those in our "affinity diaspora", as we are now describing it, who have a fascination with Ireland and its culture, language and people. How does Mr. Esslemont see that relationship with the diaspora developing in the future?
We have also seen the success of the Atlantic economic corridor in driving new tourism activity into communities and regions which may not have had significant tourism activity before. Alongside that, has TG4 thought of the development of what I will call an Atlantic creative corridor? This would involve TG4 taking the opportunity to create high-quality cultural output along that same corridor, from Donegal to Waterford, reflecting the unique nature of that landscape and its people and culture, which, as Mr. Esslemont said, has been passed on for centuries through the generations. Is there something which we can align with that corridor?
In that context, increasing numbers of people have started working from home in the last six months. Interesting groups, such as Grow Remote, are encouraging people to look at remote working options, so we will see a consolidation in the future of thriving and culturally vibrant communities along the west coast. Could TG4 have some role in bringing all that together and creating the kind of output which people want to consume locally, regionally and internationally?
I thank the witnesses joining us today, virtually and in reality, for their contributions. It struck me that with TG4 celebrating 25 years in existence next Hallowe'en and TV3, Virgin Media Ireland's predecessor, having started out in 1998, the two stations have almost 50 years of broadcasting experience between them. That is hard to believe. Both stations have made a significant contribution to Irish life in recent decades and I hope there is a long future ahead of them as well.
Like everything in 2020, that is being jeopardised by Covid-19, but we all have to work together to try to ensure that we preserve as much of Irish life as we can and drive on into the future. Briefly, regarding the survival and flourishing of the Irish language, will Mr. Esslemont comment on how he thinks TG4 has impacted on fluency levels and the use of the Irish language in everyday life since the station's inception in 1996?
How drastically has the Covid-19 crisis impacted on Virgin Media's revenue stream from the advertising world in 2020? On the outlook for 2021 and 2022, how long will it be before Virgin Media gets back to normality and pre-Covid levels of revenue?
I apologise for being late. I was at another committee. I believe the licence fee should go into a central fund, as mentioned by Deputy Cannon, from where it could then be divvied out to all media organisations to ensure they can all survive. I would like to hear the witnesses' views on that. A project to establish a community television service is being funded by my local authority in Longford to promote local organisations. Do the witnesses see such initiatives forming any part of their endeavours? Is there any way they could support such undertakings?
Mr. Alan Esslemont:
I will respond on the regional issue. The problem with the regions is exactly the same as with TG4 itself, namely, a lack of scale. Nice little bits of endeavours are going on here and there, but they lack the required scale to have impact, just as TG4 does. In the context of a review of the national development plan, and possibly of the national spatial strategy, this is the right time to examine the whole audiovisual sector in respect of it becoming a big pillar in European regional strategies. Clustering can be seen outside Dublin but it needs a strategic move forward. That is one of the big steps that need to be taken. We can do a lot with the resources we have, but TG4 and the whole industry outside Dublin lack scale.
Mr. Alan Esslemont:
Yes, the actual size of it. If TG4 were bigger, Screen Ireland had a regional strategy and the State had a strategy for the audiovisual sector in the regions, that would work together very well.
On the diaspora, since its inception in 1996, which Deputy Griffin mentioned, TG4 has been blessed to have the rights to broadcast to the world. At least 20% of the traffic on our player comes from outside Ireland. When we have money to put into special campaigns, we can undertake endeavours such as our April campaign on Irish music in America, when our numbers went through the roof. We should look at TG4 as an asset, albeit one that is completely underutilised for want of scale.
Mr. Paul Farrell:
I will answer the first two questions, after which my colleague, Ms Ní Chaoindealbháin, will address the issues of local television and the international opportunity in technology and how those issues might play out. On funding and building and the point Mr. Esslemont made in that regard, my feeling is that not much more funding is required, if we are honest. What is needed is better management of the existing funding and how it is approved and delivered efficiently. That brings us back to the issue of transparency and accountability. As Mr. Esslemont said, if we add together the existing funding pillars in respect of Screen Ireland, the BAI's sound and vision scheme and the licence fee, with other money coming from the levy, a healthy model could be created which would allow local newspapers and radio stations to work together with television stations to create content that would resonate not only in Ireland but globally. Ms Ní Chaoindealbháin will address that matter in more detail.
On advertising, Virgin Media was about 30% down on normal revenue at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in mid-June. That meant we were going to lose a great deal of money given the nature of our business, which is fully dependent on the advertising market. However, it seems there has been a significant recovery in October and November, and December has been better again. November and December were the first two months in which the decline in revenue stopped and we had some growth year-on-year. We will still lose money this year but the decline will be approximately 20% compared with what we were seeing in September when it was estimated it would be between 25% and 35%. That is a positive change. We are expecting something of a bounce next year because of the estimated savings of around €12 billion in the market and the general momentum that will result from the confidence generated by the vaccine, whenever that is realised. Next year will be a little distorted, therefore, because we will get some degree of a bounce.
The reality for all media is that there is structural decline. Facebook and Google now account for 50% of the advertising market, and 80% of the digital market. There is a structural decline in traditional media, therefore, which means that advertising revenue will not grow. Once we come out of next year's bounce, we will start to see an annual decline of 1% or 2% as that money moves to digital. That is a challenge. In that context, we have spoken about a collaboration partnership and a move to digital and shared platforms. We have seen that in the form of BritBox in the UK, so there is no reason Irish content cannot find a way to come together in a similar way. As Mr. Esslemont said, we all spend a great deal of money supporting platforms, which is probably not the best use of that money. If we all came together, perhaps it would be easier for people to find the information they seek on a standard platform and the money saved could go into content and the existing ecosystem.
Ms Ãine NÃ ChaoindealbhÃ¡in:
I will pick up on our local commitment. In respect of our news and daytime schedule, we have two bureaux, one in Limerick and one in Cork. We have also invested heavily in technology for all our camera crews so that we can report live from any location in the country. A significant development, which will have been observed in the context of Covid-19 and our #BackingBusiness initiative, is that we have committed to supporting local businesses around the country. We have moved our entire studio output for one day to our studio in Limerick to highlight what was happening there, and we have also been to Cork and Kilkenny. That is what we are doing with our studio-based content to support local output.
In addition, we are quite strategic in our commissioning. We have commissioned big dramas, such as "Blood" and "The Deceived", for example, which are Irish stories that have also sold internationally in the UK and the US. It has been the same with the formats we have created and are also selling internationally. It is an important factor for us to have collaboration nationally and globally.
I do not know how it is possible to have three speakers in ten minutes for questions and answers, but we will do our best.
I start with TG4, and the vision Mr. Esslemont touched on for changing the funding model for broadcasting. Could he expand on that and give us some further information? On the Future of Media Commission, is Mr. Esslemont hopeful that the licence fee will be addressed in that context? What does he hope to see emerge from that initiative?
Will Mr. Farrell explain what he meant when he said it was essential that broadcasting policy and legislation be modernised in light of rapidly changing technological developments and the reality that most public service broadcasting is provided by licensed commercial companies? I would also like him to comment on what he would like to see coming from the Future of Media Commission concerning the licence fee.
Mr. Alan Esslemont:
The licence fee has been reformed throughout Europe and some interesting models have been put in place, especially in Scandinavian countries. It will be a question for the legislators as to how that would be done, but there are many choices. It is possible to come up with a mechanism that is progressive as opposed to the regressive licence fee structure we have now. It will also be possible to have a model which is individualised or household-based. The household charge used to assume there was one television in a household. The emphasis has now shifted to individual preference in media consumption. That is why the Nordic countries have opted for individualisation of the licence fee structure.
The other side of the licence fee issue is that any money which comes into TG4 goes out into the independent sector. We have been pushing it to internationalise.
In the context of a modern economy, people working in the audiovisual sector and the creative economy open many doors for the rest of the economy. It brings in lateral thinking and story creation, and it goes well beyond broadcasting and into games, etc. If we do not have a domestic economy for the audiovisual sector, we will not have an international market for it. Public money invested in public broadcasting has a huge dividend internationally. With Britain out of the European audiovisual market, perhaps Ireland will have a great role in this area in future. I hope that answers the Deputy's question.
Mr. Paul Farrell:
I will respond on the public sector broadcasting issue and then ask Ms Ní Chaoindealbháin to comment on the licence fee. Regarding our submission and public service broadcasting, this issue comes back to the definition. We receive no funding for our output, although we produce eight hours of live content each day from our studios in Ballymount. Ms Ní Chaoindealbháin mentioned some of our output. I asked Celine McGillycuddy, executive producer on "Ireland AM" and several of our daytime shows, what we have covered in the last ten days. I have a list here of what she shared with me which is two pages long. It includes charities, artists, writers, sportspeople, directors and other creative people who have benefited from being on one of our shows.
Regarding feedback, one of our people visited Dogs Trust Ireland last week when the charity was struggling with the number of dogs it had at Christmas. Every dog had found a home by the end of the day. We do that every day. We do not get or seek credit for it because that is public service broadcasting. As Ms Ní Chaoindealbháin also noted, we were in County Sligo - I believe it was last Friday - promoting the planting of 50,000 trees on a farm. We need greater clarity on what public service broadcasting is and how it should be funded. I am not saying we are the only people doing what I described, because the local radio stations and newspapers also do it. The monolithic model of funding is preventing a fair understanding of the best value, return and distribution of that content. That is what I am passionate about and Mr. Esslemont also addressed that in his submission. I ask Ms Ní Chaoindealbháin to address the licence fee model and how we see that.
Ms Ãine NÃ ChaoindealbhÃ¡in:
We would like to see transparency on what the licence fee funding is used and that it is giving value for money to our audiences and viewers. There should also be a focus on the content created, that the public service requirement is being delivered and that investment is transparent.
I thank Mr. Farrell, Mr. Esslemont and Ms Ní Chaoindealbháin. The famous saying, "Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam", is very important. Diversity and plurality are important in the world we live in now. We know of the media moguls who are controlling half the world, if not elections.
On funding, representatives from RTÉ told the committee last week that the organisation had underspent by €20 million on the film and music sectors. There is some money that could be used in this area. What diversity and plurality can TG4 and Virgin Media bring to the media landscape?
Mr. Paul Farrell:
From a Virgin Media point of view, the question touches on the point I made about the platform. As Ms Ní Chaoindealbháin mentioned, we are heavily dependent on the independent sector to create our content. We broadcast our own content from our studio every day but we also have programmes such as "Gogglebox" and "Living With Lucy", as well as many specials. We had a partnership with the Sunday Worldrecently for a documentary on John Gilligan, which was a good example of newspapers and television coming together and co-funding a project. The programme generated an audience of about 300,000, which is pretty good for that type of content. That shows there are plenty of opportunities for producers, the creators and talent in this creative industry, to come together and create stuff that will, economically, have an audience and also drive greater awareness of key issues. Not everything can be commercially driven.
As a broadcaster with a platform, that is where we can offer the most value. The only question is how we can come together. Ms Ní Chaoindealbháin mentioned programmes such as "Blood" and "The Deceived", which involved local scriptwriters, production companies and other talent creating content, and have gone global, been recognised and won awards. That can happen at every level, once we bring everything together more tightly.There is a reliance on the various rounds of the sound and vision scheme, which are announced once or twice a year and are quite modest. The rest of the money sits there, as was mentioned, and may or may not be spent depending on who puts pressure on the organisation. If that issue was looked at more strategically, there would be more opportunities, particularly in respect of the Irish language, culture, music and writing, for these guys to get a fair crack of the whip.
Mr. Alan Esslemont:
Diversity is in the DNA of TG4; it is a súil eile. We inhabit a creative space that no other broadcaster in Ireland is able or willing to go into. Last night, we had a window on the arts during Covid-19 in a show from Roundstone called "Samhlú 2020". If the members of the committee have not seen it yet, I encourage them to watch it because it is a wonderful programme. It was a programme we could not normally do with our resources, but we managed to do it with the help of Creative Ireland, the Minister and the Department. Only TG4 would come up with that kind of a view. Again, this was an independent company from the west of Ireland showing the talent that exists.
We also broadcast in Northern Ireland and it is important that we become more prominent there. We have been seeking to get on Freeview channel 8 for a long time and we have been looking for recognition as a public service broadcaster in Northern Ireland. That is important. We are already working with broadcasters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have a children's programme called "Sol", for example, to be broadcast on the winter solstice, which is about how a young person deals with grief. It is important that we broadcast a programme like that in this year of Covid-19, one which has heart and soul, faces towards a young audience and looks at the subject of grief from the perspective of the return of the light.
I thank Mr. Farrell, Mr. Esslemont and Ms Ní Chaoindealbháin for coming in. My first question probably concerns TG4 and Virgin Media and is on the issue of prominence. It relates to TG4 as a stand-alone television channel and Virgin Media as an organisation which has a whole television package. My interest lies in ensuring that the broadcasters to which we give significant public funding are available to viewers across Ireland and that it does not take an age to get to TG4 on the schedules. Indeed, any television station licensed by the BAI should be available to Irish viewers on televisions, whether those are Apple, Samsung or other devices. I would like Mr. Farrell and Mr. Esslemont to address that issue of prominence and what needs to be done in that regard. Do we need legislation?
My other question concerns linear programming. I asked the representatives from RTÉ for how long we might be scheduling linear television broadcasting. Mr. Farrell mentioned the staples of Virgin Media, such as Ireland AM. How will those programmes sit with players in the absence of a future schedule?
My last question is on the dual funding model which RTÉ enjoys. Is it more valuable for the commercial broadcaster to have access to the sound and vision scheme for public service broadcasting, rather than removing the dual funding model, given what Mr. Farrell has said about the growth of advertising revenue for Google and Facebook? Removing the dual funding model which RTÉ enjoys might not be of any great benefit to TG4 or Virgin Media if the advertising goes to Google or Facebook instead.
Mr. Paul Farrell:
I might work backwards and let Ms Ní Chaoindealbháin talk about how long the linear schedules will exist and the EPG slot. The topic of dual funding comes back to the same argument for me, in that it will be difficult to understand how we will perform if we are not clear what our focus is and how we are being measured. On the issue of chasing advertising revenue, the big argument in that context is whether a programme such as "EastEnders", for example, is public service broadcasting or a commercially-driven initiative. That is a murky subject. Should such a programme be in one place or should it be separated?
Telling a business it has €200 million and what it has to do with that money within its remit allows it to do that more easily, effectively and within budget, as a service which can be measured, improved and developed, than to say there is €200 million here and another €200 million there and the business should go off and do whatever it wants. There is enough money to do it but it is not being done efficiently or clearly, and it is not being measured transparently. At a dual funding level, and this is not the fault of RTÉ, it is hard to run between the two measures when, as outlined previously, the advertising market is inherently cyclical and follows the economy more so than most business trackers. That is something to which we will always be beholden. I think better decisions would be made if the question posed was how it would be possible to get value for money from €200 million in respect of public service broadcasting. The rest of the ecosystem will benefit because it would then be possible to state that the rest of the funding will go into what we define as the other requirements of public service content.
Our written submission states that we should be referring to "public service content" and not "broadcasting" because it is being generated and created in many different ways.
On the scalability element, discovery is the big priority. Ms Ní Chaoindealbháin will discuss where electronic programme guides are going and scheduling in general, but discovery and the ability to find content should be the priority for all of us now. EPGs and linear programming work and will continue to work. The situation is similar to that of newspapers. Some 12 years ago, I remember many people in The Irish Timeswere saying that newspapers would be gone within five years. They are still there, ticking along, with circulation figures lower some days than others, but still surviving. EPGs will continue to exist as well. Outside of that, however, in the world of Netflix and Apple TV, there must be some prioritisation in discovery and how it will be possible for people to find and access content. The audiovisual media services directive is going to look at this issue, I think, or needs to look at it, as does the Future of Media Commission.
Ms Ãine NÃ ChaoindealbhÃ¡in:
On the EPG, we will definitely continue to schedule for linear programming. There is a myth that television viewership is dropping, but we have seen the importance of live and local Irish content during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our ratings have been up this year. The commercial market does not reflect this, particularly when we had the tough time in quarters 2 and 3. The EPG is therefore important across all platforms and for all broadcasters in Ireland, including Virgin Media Television, VMTV, and Virgin Media Ireland, VMIE, more generally. It is important for all broadcasters in Ireland to have the EPG listing and that it is recognised and easy to access.
We must look at the demographic of our audience and the shift that has happened due to Covid-19. There has been a shift and an increase in the number of people looking for box sets and looking at other providers, such as Amazon and Netflix. We must adapt to that and we will do so. It will involve what we commission and how we commission, so that we keep our audience with us. It is essential for our growth, but it will not be to the detriment of linear channels.
Mr. Alan Esslemont:
I agree that life is linear, but the future of media will be blended. If we are talking about watching the all-Ireland final, for example, that will be on linear programming because people are not going to wait for three days and then consider picking it off a shelf. There are whole areas, genres and audiences, especially drama and young audiences, where non-linear is where it is at. For this reason, the future will be blended.
To echo what Mr. Farrell said, it is important that Irish content be prominent for Irish viewers. Anything funded by Ireland should be up there and easy to see. There should be an Ireland player, where any content, from TG4, RTÉ, other broadcasters or any of the radio stations, can be accessed. That should also be available on linear. We have Saorview now, but the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, found this year that is run for the good of RTÉ, and not for the good of public service broadcasting in Ireland. We need a linear and non-linear shared solution, where audiences can easily find Irish content.
I am delighted to welcome the witnesses. I am interested in there being a level playing field, and there is anything but that now. The bias towards RTÉ should have been gone years ago, but it has not and it is still hanging on. I thank the witnesses from both channels. In respect to TG4, cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad? Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam. The station does great work and it is appreciated. I would like to hear about the station's approach to broadcasting in sna Sé Contae. Mr. Farrell might also explain the European models he spoke of earlier, where there is a fairer distribution of funding, because a level playing field is needed. It is ridiculous and scandalous what is going on and the way other sectors are being treated, while RTÉ is the pet boy.
That organisation has certainly done the State some service. As a rural Teachta, however, I am not one bit happy with it for its coverage of rural events. We had an important event during the Covid-19 pandemic some time ago, which was organised by a wonderful publican in Tipperary, T.J. McInerney. RTÉ was due to send people down to cover it, but it pulled out of doing that the night before. The witness's organisation did come down, however, and did an excellent presentation on the event, with hard but fair questions asked. This is what is happening. Rural Ireland is being abandoned. We used to have service and a great correspondent in the south east, Damien Tiernan, but the studio and everything is gone now. It is like most things; everything has been put into Dublin and Montrose. I salute and thank TG4 and Virgin Media for their work, the obair thuirsiúil; it is greatly appreciated agus rinne sé an obair thuirsiúil i gcónaí. Those are the kinds of questions I am interested in, especially the European distribution models and, in respect of TG4, its turas go dtí sna Sé Contae.
Mr. Alan Esslemont:
Only one broadcaster is mentioned in the Good Friday Agreement, and that is TG4. We have been available in the North since the early 2000s on Freeview and that is paid for by the British Government. We are not prominent, however. I think we are number 50 on the list. We provide the same service for Irish as BBC Alba does for Scots Gaelic and S4C does for the Welsh language. We feel we should be recognised as a public service broadcaster in the UK. In Northern Ireland, that would give us the right to be on the Freeview 8 channel and to be more prominent than we are now. That is a big issue which is holding us back with audiences in the North.
There are, however, many good things in the North. We work with the Irish Language Broadcast Fund, and the children's programme I mentioned is being done with funding from it. There is also a contestable fund for young people's programming in the UK. We are therefore recognised at a certain level in the UK, but the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in the North needs to put TG4 on the list of public service broadcasters. It has not done that for us yet, but it has done it for many stations, including the local television station in Belfast. That is the one single step which would strongly move us forward in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Paul Farrell:
Regarding the model of funding, this touches on what we have said all along. Every year the conversation tends to be about the licence fee, how much is being paid or avoided, but recent responses to parliamentary questions in the House show that the avoidance fee has come down by 3% each year, while the collection fee this year is on target to be the same as it was last year. Much of the noise is focused in the wrong area, namely, how much of the licence fee is not coming in, rather than how revenue from the fee is being spent. That narrative needs to change quickly.
We come back then to the point Mr. Esslemont and I have made throughout regarding how this funding is defined and allocated. Screen Ireland and the BAI's sound and vision scheme do a good job in making good decisions. Those decisions are supported by the independent producers, the local companies on the ground which are coming up with the ideas, and we are very much partners in that process. The problem with the current model is that we have between 1,800 and 1,900 people who are supported to make all those decisions, and that means those people on the ground in Tipperary, Galway or Mayo do not have as big a say in or influence on what content is being created. A radical overhaul is needed of how those decisions are made and in respect of that community and ecosystem.
Touching on some previous questions, and with reference to technology, which Ms Ní Chaoindealbháin will comment on in greater detail, we have seen in our Cork and Limerick bureaux that technology, and other aspects, facilitate a more dynamic relationship with the guys on the ground in respect of the production of content straight into a broadcaster, and not the clunky model supported by the existing licence model. I ask Ms Ní Chaoindealbháin to speak about Limerick and Cork and what she has seen in respect of how local producers can be better supported.
Ms Ãine NÃ ChaoindealbhÃ¡in:
We have definitely seen that the technology we have invested in has made us more agile than we were previously. Every camera operator in VMTV now has the capability to go anywhere in the country, whether in the context of news production or general stories. There is a strong focus on news but if we look at "Ireland AM" and "The Six O'Clock Show", those shows are about people and what is happening in their locality. We regularly travel the country for those shows to highlight what is happening around the country. We are committed to continue doing that. Like the #BackingBusiness initiative, it is also important for us to be able to go around the country to promote businesses.
This issue also connects with our sustainability. Mr. Farrell referred to us having been in Sligo for the launch of the planting of 50,000 trees we are undertaking as part of our sustainability drive for Virgin Media. We are getting out to people and into the country, and that is essential to the daytime schedule as well because we derive our editorial content from the local stories. It all goes hand in hand.
I thank Deputy McGrath. We are coming near the end of this session, but I have a few observations and questions before we conclude. I compliment Mr. Farrell and his team at Virgin Media. My only experience has been as a guest on "The Tonight Show". I must say I miss Ivan Yates. He was always a big presence in the studio.
I have always been treated with courtesy and my experience has always been a good one. I ask that Virgin Media keep doing what it is doing. I agree with many of the comments made by the members. Virgin Media is good at getting out on the ground, even to a small town like Bailieborough in County Cavan one evening at the start of the pandemic. It means a great deal to people in more rural parts of the country that it is not just Dublin-centric or urban-centric. Many people live in the rural parts of our island and the coverage by Virgin Media is greatly appreciated. I compliment Mr. Farrell and his staff. I have great admiration for what they do.
Turning to Mr. Esslemont and TG4, we have seen a significant rise in the number of Gaelscoileanna across the country, especially at primary level. We have one in County Cavan and four in County Monaghan. Coláiste Oiriall secondary school is also in Monaghan. TG4 is obviously hugely important in ensuring that young people feel their language and culture have relevance. Will Mr. Esslemont give us an insight into the creation of content to nurture an appreciation of the language among young people? I watch some of TG4's output, even though I am not a fluent Irish speaker. I would love to be, though. I have a little one who is only four years old, and I have put on TG4 in the mornings since she was very small. She does not go to a Gaelscoil, but being aware of the language and hearing it spoken are important. I can only imagine the importance of TG4 for those children who have that wonderful opportunity to go to a Gaelscoil. Will Mr. Esslemont tell us about the work TG4 does in nurturing the language among young people? Is there a case for having a national radio station to promote the Irish language to young people in popular culture terms?
Mr. Alan Esslemont:
I came to this country in 1984, and the image of the Irish language then was that it was over and done with and dead. That has now totally changed, and image-wise that change is very much down to TG4. It has driven a national side to this endeavour. My daughter teaches in Dublin and she has told me there are about 30 nationalities in her primary school. It is a new Ireland speaking Irish and that is wonderful.
The biggest problem in front of us, however, is for those who speak Irish naturally to value the language enough for them to feel their language is worth as much as the English language in Ireland. That is a huge step and there is a great deal of work which we must do. We are doing well with those learning the language, and we have done well with the image this year. We managed to bring forward our strategy on education and we are now broadcasting "Cúla4 ar Scoil", which has been a great success. There are more than 200,000 people who speak Irish at home. To grow rather than lose that pot will require us to create high-quality content for young people and that includes drama and light entertainment in Irish. We struggle with our current budget, which is limited in that regard, and we have only managed to do the kinds of things I have mentioned when we have gone to the BAI and other sources and secured extra funding.
Unless the scale of TG4 is changed in the next ten years, we will be looking at Irish as a language which exists, has a status of some kind and is used as a kind of network language by some people. If we lose the community language, however, that will be Ireland's biggest ever marker of diversity gone by the wayside. In the context of Ireland's ecosystem, the Irish language is up with its natural heritage resources and needs to be preserved.
That brings this discussion to a natural conclusion. I thank those who joined us remotely. I also thank Mr. Farrell and Mr. Esslemont for their presentations. We have all received the message loud and clear regarding funding, transparency and everything else. We have a great deal to consider and take away from the meeting.
I welcome Mr. Vincent Crowley and Mr. Frank Mulrennan and thank them for joining us. We are delighted to have them. Today's discussion is with representatives from NewsBrands Ireland and Local Ireland on the challenges facing national and regional newspapers as a result of Covid-19. Mr. Mulrennan, an executive member of Local Ireland, joins us in committee room 3 and Mr. Johnny O'Hanlon, the director of Local Ireland, will join us remotely. Mr. Crowley is the chairman of NewsBrands Ireland. We will also be joined by Ms Ann-Marie Lehane, CEO of NewsBrands Ireland; Mr. Liam Kavanagh, managing director of The Irish Times; and Mr. Colm O'Reilly, CEO of the Business Post.
The format of this meeting is that witnesses will be invited to make an opening statement, which will be followed by questions from the members of the committee. Witnesses are probably aware that the committee may publish the opening statements on its website following the meeting.
Members are reminded 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.
Witnesses attending in the committee room are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentations they make to the committee. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse this privilege and it is my duty as Chair to ensure this privilege is not abused. Therefore, if witnesses' statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.
I invite Mr. Crowley to make his opening statement, after which we will hear from Mr. Mulrennan.
Mr. Vincent Crowley:
I am joined by Mr. Liam Kavanagh, the managing director of The Irish Times, Colm O’Reilly, CEO of the Business Post; and Ann-Marie Lenihan, CEO of NewsBrands Ireland. We appreciate this opportunity to meet and brief the committee about the challenges facing the news publishing industry since the onset of Covid-19.
As chair of NewsBrands Ireland and having served over 30 years in the news publishing industry here and in Australia, I am acutely aware of the challenges facing Irish news publishers. Paradoxically, the reach of our publishers’ journalism has never been so great, but publishers are struggling to stay afloat owing to the pandemic and a perfect storm of other issues.
The economic model which once sustained newspapers is broken. Newspaper sales have declined by almost 50% in the past ten years. Revenues from print advertising for national titles have dropped by over 75% from a high of €367 million in 2007 to €87 million in 2019. The forecast for 2020 is around €60 million, a further decline of over 30% compared with last year. The decline in print advertising has not been replaced by digital advertising, which is being hoovered up by giant digital corporations such as Google and Facebook, which secured €425 million of advertising revenues from this market in 2019, compared with €26 million in digital revenues for national news publishers. The dominance of the tech platforms is being addressed by governments, together with their competition authorities, in other countries, including the UK, Australia and France. Unlike the UK and elsewhere, newspaper sales and digital subscriptions are taxed here, and publishers face draconian libel laws which are out of kilter with almost every other jurisdiction. Ireland is an outlier compared with other countries, where governments actively support their news publishing sectors in the form of direct and indirect subsidies.
We appreciate the recent short-term supports through the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and Covid-19 related advertising. It is vital that the advertising support continues in the short to medium term. However, if this committee believes that public interest journalism is something worth fighting for, it can support the industry in the longer term in the following ways. We need to reduce VAT to 5% on newspapers and digital news products and ultimately reduce VAT to 0% as is the case in Britain and other EU countries; tackle the dominance of tech platforms in the digital advertising market; complete the long-overdue review of the Defamation Act 2009; and reform Ireland’s draconian defamation laws that support legal costs so punitive they genuinely have the potential to put publishers out of business.
In the shorter term, subsidies should be considered for the distribution and posting of newspapers. These are not big asks and supports such as these are modelled on those in many other European countries. The news publishing industry needs support now to ensure it can continue to perform its critical role in providing fact-checked, reliable information to citizens, particularly at a time when such information is critically important. I thank members for their time. Mr. Kavanagh, Mr. O'Reilly and I are happy to answer members' questions.
Mr. Frank Mulrennan:
I am grateful for the invitation to address the committee. I am representing Local Ireland and I am accompanied online by Mr. Johnny O'Hanlon, executive director with Local Ireland. We represent 46 weekly paid-for local newspapers of record with a membership spread across Ireland. Our titles are read by 1.5 million readers weekly across the various platforms and we generate 90% of the published local news coverage in the country. We employ over 1,000 reporters, correspondents and columnists and are, in effect, the largest local news agency outside of Dublin and Cork cities.
Each week, our titles publish vital, trusted public interest information ranging from what is happening in these Houses to information on local authorities, local courts, local education and training boards and policing authorities, not to mention sports, community events and life in regional Ireland as it happens. Our readers have trusted us through the decades but there is a serious threat to the financial future of our titles, caused most immediately by the pandemic but in reality, our industry has been so badly impacted by the last recession and the dominance of Facebook and Google as we work to build a sustainable digital model to counter the migration from print media.
In terms of the pandemic, an audit of member titles for the period from April to November 2020 reveals that our circulation, advertising and event income revenues have seen a staggering decline of €6.38 million or almost 22%. While the combination of the PUP and the wage supplementary schemes were most welcome, as was increased government advertising spend, these measures pale against the ongoing income loss.
Our request at this time is for parity with the subsidisation given to the local broadcasting sector last June in the form of a similarly structured once-off grant of €2.5 million to be distributed to the newspaper publishing sector. Without this level of support, our ability to sustain the current high level of employment and coverage will be severely impeded. We strongly welcome the great news about the vaccine but we face several more months of difficult trading ahead and this once-off grant would be significant in preserving a local news industry which is intrinsic to the culture of our country.
I am conscious of the tight time constraints. Along with my colleague, Mr. Johnny O’Hanlon, who is online, I would welcome continuing this discussion when it suits.
I welcome the witnesses. Almost four years ago, it was announced that the Church of the Annunciation in the parish of Finglas west, which holds 3,500 people, would be demolished because only a fraction of the capacity was going to mass and as the repair bill for the church was too prohibitive, it was better to knock it down. At the time, "Today with Seán O'Rourke" sent Paddy O'Gorman to ask parishioners in Finglas west their thoughts about this. One man who was asked what he thought said he thought it was ridiculous. When Paddy O'Gorman asked him if he ever went to mass he said he did not. Another man who was asked what he thought said he was disgusted because it was a very famous landmark and that he told people how to get places using it. When he was asked whether he ever went to mass he said he did not. The witnesses will get the gist of my fear, which is that ten years from now we will be speaking about the death of local or national newspapers as a relevant news source and when people are asked whether they ever bought them they will say they did not. This is the starting point. I hear what the witnesses are saying about the tax treatment of digital platforms but it is a starting point. I am passionate about this particular topic. Mr. Mulrennan gave me my first job in local media 20 years ago when he was chief executive of the Drogheda Independent Group. Back then we had bustling newsrooms and production on site. Those days are long gone.
Mr. Mulrennan set out the case for State funding for local newspapers similar to what has happened in local radio. In my area we have the Meath Chronicle and Cavan and Westmeath Herald, of which he is chief executive, and the local radio station LMFM. Mr. Mulrennan seeks funding of €2.6 million, equal to what was introduced last July for commercial radio, including local radio. Is there a basis for such Exchequer funding for local newspapers in other countries and, if so, at what level?
Mr. Crowley commented on tackling the dominance of advertising online. I say to him, and to the remote witnesses representing The Irish Times and the Business Post, that this is obviously where the game is with regard to having a free market and people going where they want to advertise their products. Notwithstanding my passion for print media, I do not think we will achieve the survival of one particular industry by overtly penalising another which is relevant in the here and now. I am interested in teasing out further the point on support for the industry and whether this would be through a reduction in VAT, on which the industry has lobbied us previously in the audiovisual room. It would be a retrograde step to move into a scenario of penalising one area just to try to support another that is having huge problems not only with regard to advertising revenue but also with decreasing sales. I ask the representatives of The Irish Times and the Business Post about their online subscriptions. It was reported they increased during Covid. I also ask Mr. Mulrennan whether this can be tackled through local media.
Mr. John Whittingdale, whom I have met, is the minister of state with responsibility for media and data in the UK. He is also passionate about print media. Only two weeks ago, he said that he would take a lot of convincing before he would provide further financial support for the industry either directly or through tax relief and that a plateau of support had been reached. He introduced the local democracy reporter scheme, whereby a portion of the BBC licence fee is used to pool moneys to provide reporters on the ground at council meetings and in courtrooms. I know local newspapers are struggling to provide this content. In some areas, we are not getting the newspapers we used to get in the past. This is something I will push for and I am interested to know whether the witnesses would support such a scheme in Ireland.
To follow on from Senator Cassells, this is about sketching out the media landscape in Ireland and where the witnesses see it going. If State funding is not made available over the next decade, how many national print titles and local print titles will continue to exist? As most of the print titles shift online, they operate behind a paywall and different media outlets have operated in different ways. What is the extent to which the witnesses believe this business model will be sustainable and people will be able to continue to pay for their news behind a paywall?
The second challenge of which I am always conscious in this era is that we have been very lucky with the media here. Trusted news sources have been particularly good during this difficult period. While trusted news sources move behind a paywall, we can get all sorts of nonsense for free. How will we continue to convince people that paying for news makes sense?
Mr. Vincent Crowley:
A number of questions have been asked. With regard to Senator Cassells's point on people not going to mass, people still need to consume news and still desire to consume it so perhaps the cases are a little bit different. If people do not go to mass, perhaps they substitute it in other respects but there is a continuing requirement for news. There is an important need to continue to provide it. Our challenge is that it is costly to provide this trusted news.
Senator Byrne's point is valid. There is an increasing number of paywalls because they are an effort to recoup some of the costs of journalists checking and fact checking and paying libel suits. There is a real cost that we have to try to recoup. We are recouping it less and less from physical newspaper sales. It is not like mass in that sense, in that people are still looking to get news content but they are getting it in other ways, as Senator Byrne alluded to, through paywalls or Google and Facebook, which use our news and do not pay for it and then get significant advertising revenues on the back of it. There is an imbalance there. It is not about neutering Google and Facebook. Let them off to do what they do but to use the old cliché of levelling the playing field, they monetise significantly the benefit they get from free access to our content, with €425 million revenue in 2019 on the back of this content. I am not saying it is just our content as there are other things. It is about levelling the playing field. It is not a case of stopping or hindering them from doing what they are doing but having them pay their fair share for accessing content we have generated and paid for through our journalists.
Perhaps Mr. Kavanagh or Mr. O'Reilly would like to add their views on how they see this in their newsrooms.
Mr. Liam Kavanagh:
The Irish Times is the proud owner of The Irish Times, theIrish Examinerand four regional titles and we also have a share in two radio stations. We have a broad media mix. On the point made on the dependence on advertising revenue and the future model for news publishers, we are particularly tuned into the paid for content model of home delivery and annual paid for subscriptions. The Irish Times has been on this journey for the past four or five years. During the pandemic we have been particularly successful in attracting new subscribers. Our total subscriber base this year increased by 40% and much of this was during the pandemic. We have an interesting contrast with the Irish Examinerwhich does not have a paywall model. We are investing to try to bring one to the market early in the new year. It is significantly more of a challenge than for The Irish Times because of the lack of this. On the point Mr. Crowley made, we need time and space to be able to make this investment and enable a title such as theIrish Examiner to catch up over a period of time.
I want to make a point about mass-goers.
News publishers generally - it is definitely the case for all of our titles - have seen a massive increase in their audience over the course of the pandemic. The relevance of our titles as news publishers in the market at the moment has probably never been higher. They have played a very significant and strong role during the pandemic in producing news and information across the board. I do not subscribe to the mass-goer proposition. I do think we have a very strong and loyal audience. As news publishers, we are doing a very significant job in bringing necessary, relevant information to the general public.
Mr. Colm O'Reilly:
I am speaking on behalf of The Sunday Business Post. I fully agree with the points both Mr. Kavanagh and Mr. Crowley have made. I will give the perspective of a small publisher. We are the last Irish-owned, Irish-controlled newspaper on a Sunday in this country, which is quite something.
I will take the financial side of this question. I agree with Mr. Kavanagh and Mr. Crowley that the analogy of the mass-goer is probably the wrong way to look at this. The reality is that people are consuming more news now than they ever have, but they are consuming it in a completely different way, which is through smartphones and free applications. That has impacted on circulation revenues and advertising revenues, which are the traditional revenue models that newspapers have survived on. The Sunday Business Post has a very hard paywall, at a premium price. The move to paywalls is a necessity, driven by the fact that our traditional model has changed and will probably never return. I agree with Mr. Kavanagh that there is an audience. We saw exactly the same thing during Covid, which was a return to fact-checked, high-quality, trusted public service journalism. It is hugely important that we maintain that, but at the end of the day we are private companies and we have to be able to survive by earning money. The model for how we are able to do that is determined by how we are able to make revenue and digital subscriptions are important to that.
Mr. Frank Mulrennan:
In answer to his question, we have huge regard for local radio. I refer, for example, to LMFM, which broadcasts in the area from which Deputy Munster and Senator Cassells operate, MidWest Radio, which broadcasts in Deputy Dillon's area, and South East Radio. Local radio has served this country very well. We saw Mr. John Purcell here before the committee a month ago. We are at the cutting edge of the private sector in local newspapers. We have not benefited from any of the State funding which came through the sound and vision fund for local radio. Budgets are tight. As to where budgets come from, I suggest that now there is a Minister for the media and a Department has been set up, local newspapers be provided with access to funding from the licence fee, the revenue that is coming into the Department. Without it, we are simply not going to be there for the long term.
We have a very defined business model to cater for the move from print to digital. For the month of September, local newspapers had more than 8 million unique visitors and 26 million page impressions. Our challenge is not traffic, which is tremendous, it is monetisation and the fact that Google and Facebook are effectively piggybacking on our content. Our challenge, due to the commercial reality of a 22% fall in income in the months from April to September, is to resource our newsrooms – the committee discussed that issue with Mr. Séamus Dooley a month ago – and also to fund a sustainable, digital strategy. We are grateful for what the State gave the taxpayer via the employment schemes. We no longer qualify for them, as to do so a company's revenue needs to be down by more than 30%. The real challenge is that we are facing such a quandary, in particular in the coming months. It will be quarter 1, into April, before the vaccine takes effect. We are looking for immediate funding. We welcome the Future of Media Commission, but that is more for the medium to long term.
Senator Byrne asked about local newspapers that are at risk of going out of business. Mr. Séamus Dooley instanced the loss of the Roscommon titles. He mentioned the Roscommon Championnewspaper. In terms of newspapers in his own area in County Wexford, four good titles have been lost. Those of us who are still in publishing are good at our job, but we do want a level playing field. Hence, the request for €2.5 million in funding.
I wish to make a very specific point in the event that the funding is not provided. I agree with the point made about the tech giants at a national level. What is the likely scenario for local newspapers in particular, but also the national print media landscape?
Mr. Frank Mulrennan:
In the Chairman's area, it is the editor of The Anglo-Celt, Linda O'Reilly, who will make a decision not to cover the reporting of court sittings or council meetings. That amounts to a loss of governance around local democracy. If a newspaper with five reporters loses one of them, it is down by between 20% and 25%. It is an inexorable move to a situation where we will not be able to give coverage.
I ask Mr. O'Hanlon to comment on what countries overseas are doing.
I welcome the witnesses, including those who are joining us remotely. I come from a rural constituency in the west. In County Mayo our local newspaper is a vital part of weekly life. We have some very established titles. Mr. O'Hanlon will be familiar withThe Connaught Telegraphand the work of Mr. Tom Kelly, The Western People, and Mr. James Laffey and Mr. Michael John Duffy in the Mayo News. These newspapers connect communities and give them a sense of belonging, as well as pride of place, especially when they are weekly publications. I should also mention the Mayo Advertiser and Mr. Declan Varley. He is doing a great job. Local newspapers are a great source of local employment, from sales and marketing executives to journalists and correspondents. Mr. Mulrennan referred to reports on local authorities, the courts and local sporting events.
I have two questions to pose in the limited time available, one of which is directed at Mr. Mulrennan. He talked about the impact of building a digital business model. In order to make The Connaught Telegraph, my local title, more sustainable, what examples does he have of newspapers going online or making the transition to a digital platform? Mr. Mulrennan touched briefly on an issue with Senator Byrne. Could he provide more information on the losses within the industry at present?
This question is for Mr. Crowley. How would a reduction in VAT support the print media sector? Could he provide further information on what has been done in other jurisdictions and the model he would favour?
I thank all the witnesses for joining us today. I could not agree more. At a time when people urgently need access to factual and trustworthy information, the output of the witnesses and their colleagues is critically important to the production of such information and its consumption by readers. This is probably the most challenging time for those for whom the production of that factual, trustworthy information matters.
The establishment of the Future of Media Commission is a significant milestone in determining how exactly we are to address the challenges the witnesses face. The recent appointment of Ms Siobhán Holliman is critical in bringing real-world experience, particularly of working in local print media. That the challenges faced on the front line can be reflected in the work commission represents a really important move.
I have two observations. In a former role, I visited a country a long way from here that I will not name because I do not want to embarrass anyone. Each morning, I received under the door of my hotel bedroom a copy of the equivalent of one of our national newspapers here. On day two, I began to notice the distinct lack of criticism of any government, politician or policy emanating from the government. I happened to ask our ambassador based in the country why the newspaper was just full of glorious and effusive praise of politicians. It was quite alien to me, as those present will have to admit. The ambassador said that if I had a newspaper that was almost wholly funded by the government and I needed to apply for a licence at the beginning of each year to continue printing, I would be producing output of exactly the same nature. I fully support the concept of this country establishing some sort of dedicated funding mechanism for all our media, both print media and the media of the gentleman who attended earlier. How do the representatives feel we can preserve that most crucial of things, journalistic integrity, and the production of factual, trustworthy information in a world where media are increasingly reliant on state funding to survive? How does one draw the line? Where is it drawn in the sand? How do we ensure that we can continue to have robustness and integrity in our journalistic output?
I have been looking at examples of newspapers that have gone digital in recent months. Consider what The Washington Posthas done, albeit with the support of Mr. Jeff Bezos, which is helpful. The Guardianis another wonderful example. We are seeing some incredibly good examples, including now in Ireland, of newspapers moving behind a paywall and successfully bringing their loyal print readership with them. Do the witnesses envisage an opportunity to avail of specific State funding to assist print media in making this transition successfully? Whatever about my generation, my son's generation is consuming everything it knows about this country and the world on a digital device. My son, who is 24, has never bought a newspaper and never will. How do we assist those people we rely on for information to migrate to digital and to do so successfully? Is there a mechanism elsewhere in the world that we could replicate here?
Mr. Vincent Crowley:
I will give a national newspaper perspective and maybe Mr. Mulrennan will contribute afterwards.
On the question on VAT, a reduction in VAT from 9% to 0% reduces the cover price for the consumer, be it a consumer of a digital subscription or a consumer of a physical print paper. The reduction makes it cheaper to buy the paper, which, in theory, increases sales or the number of subscriptions. Alternatively, if we did not pass on the full amount of the VAT reduction, the proceeds would accrue to the benefit of the newspaper publisher and enable it to invest in its newsroom or whatever. The extra money could either be passed on to the consumer to increase take-up or reinvested in the newspaper to do some of the things Deputy Cannon alluded to in terms of making us fit for purpose to service his 24-year-old son.We would be producing content that he would be willing to pay for. Since we have given content away for free for so many years, there has been great reluctance to educate people and tell them they cannot have the content for free because it costs money to generate it, check it, etc. There is a journey. In fairness to The Irish Timesand the Business Post, they are well down that road. The Independent News & Media group has recently gone down that road, but it is a road that we have to go down. It is a matter of making people willing to pay for something that they have got for free for the past ten or 15 years.
On the question of State funding and the impact on editorial teeth and editorial investigations, for example, one can see various examples around the world. While we are looking for support, we are not looking for support in the sense of the Government funding our journalists; we are looking for support that would mean that the current review of the Defamation Act, which has been ongoing for some time, would come through. We put forward some fairly clear-cut suggestions as to how the costs of defamation could be reduced for newspaper publishers. I am not referring to taking away people's right to preserve their good name but to the levels of awards and legal costs attaching to them. The costs here are a multiple of what they are in the United Kingdom and continental Europe. Addressing that alone would be of significant benefit. It is not really going to affect an editor's willingness to criticise the Deputy or anybody else. It is a levelling of the playing field without supporting journalists directly. There are measures of this kind that preserve independence which we accept are extremely important. None of us might like being called to account but it is important that we all be called to account.
Mr. Frank Mulrennan:
To address Deputy Cannon's point on the migration, I so happened to be looking at The Connaught Telegraphthe day before yesterday. It had 870,000 unique visitors for the month of October and 1.3 million page impressions. It is not a particularly big newspaper. It has four or five journalists but they are avidly focused on 24-7 journalism. Before the newspaper appears in the shops on a Tuesday morning, Mr. Tom Kelly and the staff are ready with copy. This is particularly the case with a very important event coming up this Saturday evening. We are now local news publishers; we are not local newspapers any more. We have to be. The Deputy mentioned The Washington Post, The Irish Timesand the Business Post. What local newspapers lack is scale. We are not going to have the scale to develop a remunerative paywall model, and that is where the State funding comes in. We are commercial organisations. We are very good at managing our costs. In fact, Celtic Media Group, but also other local newspapers, would not have come through 2020 without the support of its staff, so many whom have made salary sacrifices, but we do not have the scale to survive in an era of paywalls. That is where State funding comes in.
On the dangers of being funded by the Government and not holding it to task, I do not see this as a significant risk because I do not regard the funding as significant compared with overall turnover. Without being facetious, I contend that our first job is to stay in business, and that is why we are here today.
Mr. Johnny O'Hanlon:
On the point on the impartiality of news and Deputy Cannon's point, it is already the case in this country, and rightly so, that RTÉ is getting licence fee funding for national broadcasting. It has not been proven that there has been any conflict regarding its level of in-depth reportage over the years, particularly regarding government activities and the activities of politicians. I do not regard that as a major concern at all. We certainly hope that funding of the kind in question will come out of the recommendations from the Future of Media Commission and that it will come under the remit of the new Minister responsible for media.
If I could go back to an earlier point about our relevance as news providers in the country, our newspapers are not only newspapers, as Mr. Mulrennan has said, in the printed format, but household brands in every county. We are now multi-news providers. We are providing news in print, online and on mobile. We host many events of great significance locally, running from business to culture to sport. We are also community leaders. When communities are struggling or have issues, it is their local newspaper and local radio station that flags them. Key to all of this is the level of investment our members are making in reporters. We employ more than 1,000 reporters, correspondents and columnists who produce trusted news weekly. The most recent piece of Research and Analysis of Media, RAM, research was done this summer and it indicated that our trust level is at 71%. In terms of social media and the fake news cycle, it knocks everything for six.
We have trusted brands. Unless something is done soon, those trusted brands will start to fall off the perch and some day someone is going to wake up and ask how we let that happen. We have had a tsunami since 2008, with the economic crisis when we saw our advertising revenues fall by 60%. We have also had the advent of the mobile phone, Google, Facebook and, lately, the pandemic. Those are our key issues. For now, we need an emergency fund to trade us through the next six months until the economy gets back to some semblance of normality.
I will start with Mr. Mulrennan's call for funding supports for the sector. He is looking for supports similar to those given to other sectors, such as local broadcasters, in the form of a once-off grant of €2.6 million. Mr. Mulrennan mentioned that we also have a Minister with responsibility for media. Has Mr. Mulrennan's body met the Minister and made its request? If so, what was the response or what rationale was given for excluding local newspapers from the supports thus far? Mr. Mulrennan also referred to a decline in revenue of 22%, which is substantial. Will some local newspapers fail in 2021 if this sort of grant funding is not provided as a matter of urgency?
I have a couple of questions to Mr. Crowley on the dominance of technology companies in securing advertising revenue. Does he favour the approach taken in Britain? Would he see that as best practice? Does he also expect this matter to be addressed by the Future of Media Commission?
Mr. Crowley also highlighted the delay with the review of the 2019 defamation legislation. Are there any specific additional issues that Mr. Crowley would like to see raised in that review? I suggest, given the ongoing delay, that the committee write to the Minister for Justice seeking an explanation for the delay and a timeframe for the completion of the review.
I thank all the witnesses. I also thank Mr. Mulrennan and Mr. Crowley for appearing in person.
I come from a little town called Enniscorthy. We lost the Enniscorthy Echoa few years ago. It was famous and, I understand, the oldest local newspaper in the country at the time of its closure. It played a role in the 1916 Rising and all of that. It was very sad to see it go. The county still has the Enniscorthy Guardian, The New Ross Standardand the Wexford People. Deputies and county councillors are in regular contact with journalists and we know what is happening on the ground. Newspapers are under pressure and we understand that.
There is a social change under way, which we have to face. As the witnesses said, revenue stood at €367 million in 2007 and this has reduced by €280 million. Something is happening apart from Covid. How many of the member newspapers produce an e-paper and what are the challenges involved in moving online? Do journalists need to release news to social media quicker or instantly?
Mr. Vincent Crowley:
I will deal first with the last question on e-papers and the challenges of moving online. Most national news organisations now are what we would call digital first. The first instinct is to put the story up online immediately. Newspapers try to be first because if they are not first out of the blocks, somebody else will be out of the blocks and the story will be gone. There are certain exclusive stories that they may keep, for example, investigative-type stories. Maybe I should not mention this but the golfgate story, for example, went up online the evening before it was published in print. Obviously, it was a front-page story the following day. It is a digital first mentality and that is how the journalists now think. Journalists write across both the digital and print media and their mindset has changed. That has been a journey for them as well because the instinct of a journalist is to hold the story for the newspaper the following day but one cannot really do that any more. In a sense, one of the things we are looking for in the midst of all of this is a bit of breathing space to pivot from being a newspaper producer to a digital producer. All our member titles are on that journey but there is a bit of time involved in getting there. We would like a bit of support and a breathing space to help us get there.
Mr. Kavanagh or Mr. O'Reilly might like to talk about the UK model or models in other countries that might be instructive for here in relation to Google and Facebook.
Mr. Colm O'Reilly:
There are models that we can follow in Europe and across the world. On Deputy Cannon's point, I was fortunate to visit The Washington Postrecently.
The single biggest issue is scale. All the national newspaper publishers in Ireland - the Business Post, Independent News and Media, INM, and the Irish Times Trust - are all innovating constantly. We are constantly investing in technology. As Mr. Crowley rightly said, digital first is exactly how we have to think about things. However, the single biggest problem we have is that we are fighting global giants which have unlimited resources. That is the area where we are struggling. We are constantly trying to be first to the marketplace with things. We live in a small economy with a small number of people, yet we are up against unlimited resources. That is probably the single biggest challenge we face. Ultimately, the greatest benefits on a national basis would be achieved by reforming the Defamation Act and using the VAT system to make our businesses more sustainable.
Mr. Vincent Crowley:
We would really appreciate this committee writing to the Minister for Justice looking for the reason for the delay with the review of the Defamation Act. We have been pushing for a considerable time and submissions have been made. The review is in process but it seems to be quite slow. Any push from this committee would be extremely helpful.
Mr. Frank Mulrennan:
I have asked Mr. O'Hanlon to give Deputy Munster a precis on the good session we had with the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin.
The revenue decline has been acute. December has been good because there has been pent-up consumer demand since lockdown eased.
We are facing into a period, from January through to April, during which the vaccine will become more widespread in the community. While I hope it does not happen, there may also be another lockdown, which would immediately shut down much of our advertising. We are dependent on local advertising, whether it is in Enniscorthy, Drogheda or Navan. Some 91% of our advertising revenue comes from local shopkeepers, businesses and architects. The challenge for local newspapers in the short term is the need for funding, parallel with the funding that local radio deservedly got. We have longer term issues with trying to build a digital model against the ridiculous scale of Google and Facebook. That is where the tech tax comes in. I ask Mr. O'Hanlon to respond on our meeting with the Minister.
Mr. Johnny O'Hanlon:
Local Ireland and Newsbrands had a constructive meeting with the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin. She listened intently to much of what the committee has heard today. She made the point that the Future of Media Commission would examine all of those issues and that before she could make an informed decision, she would await the outcome of the commission's deliberations.
A question was asked earlier about the aid given in other countries. The countries that are providing direct aid with contributions towards journalism in various forms, whether it is a direct subsidy or wage employment subsidies, are Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Austria, Finland, Belgium, Denmark and France. There are significant tax subsidies in other countries, particularly to VAT, on both newspaper sales and digital sales. There are significant subsidies in Europe, Australia and some Asian countries too. We are not breaking the mould here. This has already happened for many years. We would be happy to supply the committee with the specifics of those subsidies.
Cuirim fáilte roimh na finnéithe. I sing the praises of the local and regional papers. They have been part and parcel of life for a century in some cases. We have the Clonmel Nationalistand Tipperary Star. I have issues with Iconic Newspapers, which I will not go into today. It is owned by Malcolm Denmark, who took over many things, and the way he treated the staff was disgraceful, horrible and obnoxious. Journalists who had given great service for decades were shamefully treated. We were delighted with the information about the breakdown of the market share of independent titles, with Celtic Media at 13%, independent titles at 19%, The Irish Timesat 15%, and INM at 23%. There are newspapers such as The Nenagh Guardian, The Clare Champion, The Connacht Tribune, the Tuam Herald, The Southern Star, The Munster Express, the Mayo Newsand, of course, The Northern Standardwhich I always read when I go to Monaghan to visit my in-laws.
The witnesses discussed not getting funding, yet they had a constructive meeting with the Minister, Deputy Martin. Why did the radio sector get funding and the newspapers did not? The witnesses gave the impression that newspapers in other countries got funding. Can the newspapers wait for the Future of Media Commission? I do not like it when I hear about these commissions. I know the witnesses are in a terribly difficult market. I have a family member who sells papers and it is all online. The witnesses have a major battle there.
I salute the journalists who provide coverage at council meetings, courts and local events. They are part and parcel of the community. Why have the newspapers not got funding? Did they apply at the same time as radio companies? Were they unable to do enough lobbying? What is the reason? They should have got funding. The local newspaper on the dresser or table is important. We all depended on it. I know things have moved on. We need to have that connectivity. A certain cohort of people are not online. I am 60 years of age. Many people over my age are not online. They need that connectivity.
Mr. Frank Mulrennan:
The reality is that local radio broadcasting has, for years, come under the auspices of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. There has been a cohort looking after that sector. It is a tough sector, including State broadcasting and commercial broadcasting. Publishing was not under the aegis of any Department until the new Department of Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht was created. We welcome having that Department and having the Future of Media Commission. We did not apply because we had nobody to apply to. There was not a Department cognisant of the needs of publishing, even though we have been lobbying and advocating for quite some time. Now, with Deputy Catherine Martin as Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht, we have somebody who has stated that she is conscious of the needs of our sector. We needed that.
I apologise for missing the opening statements. I was otherwise engaged. I have known for quite a while that the witnesses were coming to this committee to address us and I felt it was important. Many Deputies and Senators will take it as an opportunity to mention their local newspaper and there is nothing wrong with that, because we are all aware of the incredible service provided by local newspapers. National newspapers deserve a mention here too. I see the challenges facing local print media at the coalface in my area. I am from Clonakilty in Cork South-West. It has The Southern Star. Sean Mahon sits on the board of Local Ireland and he has briefed me on this regularly. We also have the West Cork People, the Bandon Opinionand The Carrigdhoun. It is quite a healthy offering of local print media but we can see at first hand the challenges these titles face.
I want to speak about the contributions that newspapers have made, particularly during Covid, the information people had at first hand and the adaptability that they showed, whether switching to digital formats or going back to old-school newspaper delivery. I thought it was fantastic, when people were confined to within 2 km of their homes. I apologise if I am repeating what other members have said, as I was not here when they said it. I know people availed of a delivery service in their droves. They welcomed seeing their local newspaper. We must keep in mind that some people read it from front to back and really rely on it. The local newspaper was an important information service.
There has been mention of accountability. We probably all pay for political advertising in our local newspapers and we use it as an opportunity to express our views on certain matters or to deliver good news. However, there is also accountability. It is not like one is getting a free ride. We are held to account if there are mishaps. If there are issues on which people do not necessarily agree with us, we will be held to account. If that is lost, local accountability is lost. As Mr. O'Hanlon said, local print media is the most truthful, honest source. If ever there was a situation in which someone could not be accused of producing "fake news", it would be with local print media. It is honest, old-fashioned reporting. These newspapers provide support for local events, particularly awards ceremonies. Many local newspapers are connected to sports, business and tourism awards. We all take these for granted, but they have significant value.
I support the calls for extra grant aid. Mr. Mahon has briefed me on the benefits that a reduction in VAT would have, which I also support. I believe Mr. O'Hanlon mentioned how journalists must now write across both print and online media.
Are politicians and public representatives at fault in some way? I have been in politics for 13 years. Previously a politician who got a good news story would send a press release to the local media and now they are straight on to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Are we playing a part in the demise of local media? I believe national print media has made not a seamless but quite a good transition to the digital world such as Twitter and having articles online. Even though the local newspapers are trying, they do not appear to be as successful at it. Do we have a part to play? Are we too quick to go to social media?
I appreciate being here. I am not a member of this committee and I am grateful to the Chairman for notifying me of the meeting. Some of the witnesses will know me from local radio. I have often debated with Mr. O'Hanlon on Shannonside Northern Sound on the Joe Finnegan show. I also did some small features for newspapers like the Roscommon Heraldand the Roscommon People, formerly the Roscommon Championin Roscommon. County Roscommon is also served by the Westmeath Independent, the Longford Leader, the Athlone Topic, the Leitrim Observer, The Connacht Tribune, and the Tuam Herald. All those newspapers are bought in Roscommon because of our geographical location. For accuracy, honesty and fair play the newspapers are fantastic and we should never forget that.
Many rural areas do not have broadband and will not have it for some years irrespective of what good work is done. Those local newspapers are very important, particularly to the older generation. I have a brother who is a postman. It is a great policy of An Post that, wherever they can, postmen and postwomen are delivering a newspaper to a person living alone. The newspapers still have an important role. We need to try to get some support and funding for them because they face enormous challenges in present circumstances.
Along with my colleagues, I am always prepared to put my advertisements and Christmas greetings into the local newspapers. It is not just putting Eugene Murphy's name out there; it is really important for us to support them. While we all need to use social media because of the times we are in, if we present a piece to a local newspaper which contains facts that need to get out there, it is always very well covered by the journalists and editors. There is a very important role to play in that regard.
Many of my party colleagues, including the Chairman, have mentioned other aspects of this. I will certainly try to work to support local newspapers at this very important time. I hope we will not see the demise of this very important product. We do not want to lose the social aspect of this, particularly for those in rural areas. I also know Siobhán Holliman in the Tuam Herald. I thank all the witnesses for their contributions to date. From the perspective of all those around the table, irrespective of their party, we all want to try to support the newspapers at this time.
Mr. Frank Mulrennan:
I thank Deputy O'Sullivan and Senator Murphy for their comments and encouragement. We run good, modern businesses. Deputy O'Sullivan mentioned the Southern Star, which has a tremendous podcast as one of its new initiatives. In the other corner of the country great work is being done with the growth of the digital footprint of The Western Peoplein the past 18 months. The Deputy mentioned taking newspapers for granted. The Anglo-Celt and Westmeath Independent were first published in 1846. They grew up when the country was in the middle of famine. We are asking people not to take us for granted and assume we will always be around. We are facing some substantive challenges now. We believe it is incumbent on the Exchequer to help us out right now. Once we can get over this hump and get over the challenge of the tech dominance, we can create legitimate businesses again. We have bright journalists who are willing to embrace multiple platforms, but it should not be taken for granted that the immediate challenges can be overcome. We need help.
Mr. Vincent Crowley:
On behalf of the national newspapers, I thank the members of the committee for what has been a very supportive engagement today. There is a good appreciation of the challenges that local and national newspapers face. National newspapers are just as much part of the fabric of the country as local newspapers are. We all relate to our local newspapers. However, if we woke up and The Irish Timesor the Business Post was gone, we would be equally concerned and bereft. I accept the local feeling around the table, but let us not forget about the national titles. If people do not have the Irish Independent, The Irish Timesand the Business Post, there will be a gap and they will miss it.
We need to be given the time and space now to address the digital challenge. We are doing that, and we are investing in it. The Government needs to look at what the digital giants are doing. Since they are providing such employment in the country, there is reluctance to disturb them too much. We have a chance to level the playing field as is being done in Australia, the UK and France. It is instructive to look at what is being done in those countries. It is not about neutering what they are doing but about reallocating some of the gains they get from us back to us to enable us to invest in journalism and what we need to be doing digitally.
As Mr. Mulrennan said, we need immediate short-term support. It is the continuation of that advertising support in newspapers now with the vaccine coming through. It will be very important. A big hearts and minds job will need to be done in getting people to accept the vaccine's safety and the need take it. Newspapers are a great medium for doing that because they are trusted. If it is a slightly complex message, it can be set out clearly giving people time to absorb it.
I need to bring our meeting to a conclusion as another committee is due to meet in this room. We are under strict instructions not to exceed two hours. We could sit here all evening debating the topic. I understand the situation in which the newspapers find themselves. The witnesses have brought a very clear message to the committee as to what government needs to do in supporting them in a way that in five or ten years' time we will have no regrets as to how we supported them and tackled the issue of the tech giants in that regard.
I thank Mr. Vincent Crowley as well as Mr. Liam Kavanagh, Mr. Colm O’Reilly and Ms Ann-Marie Lenihan, who joined us remotely. I know it is never as real as being in the room with us. We appreciate their contributions. I also thank Mr. Frank Mulrennan and Mr. Johnny O’Hanlon, all the way from County Cavan.
Of course, I did not get time to ask my list of questions. I thank all those in our national media who provide critical information to politicians on a national level and to those in our constituencies, in particular The Anglo-Celtand The Northern Standard, which have for many generations ensured that people were informed, that information was transparent and that there was critical thinking on the important things going on on the ground.