Thursday, 13 July 2023
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Looking out the back window, we can see that print has collapsed by more than 50% since the year 2000. RTÉ and TG4 together have 52 minutes per day of viewing, which is less than YouTube, as people move away to the à la carteapproach and multiple channels of consumption. We have seen commercial income in RTÉ collapse from €250 million to €150 million. I would like to explore with the Minister where these trends are heading in the future, in her view, and what it means for public policy.
One of the key objectives of the Future of Media Commission was to consider how changing trends in media consumption were affecting media in Ireland and how future funding could be made secure and sustainable. In broad terms, the commission identified a long-term shift in the pattern of consumption of media towards online media and social media platforms, and towards accessing media on phones and laptops rather than traditional television sets. This analysis of the long-term changes in patterns of consumption underpins current media policy. In July 2022, the Government decided to accept 49 of the commission's 50 recommendations and, in January 2023, the Future of Media Commission action plan was published and set out key timelines for the implementation of the commission's recommendations.
A key recommendation accepted by Government was the establishment of a new media fund. This fund will support public service content provided by local, regional and national media in the commercial and community sector, as well as by statutory public service broadcasters. Of key importance is the fact that it will be platform neutral and will be open to print and online media as well as broadcasters. Establishing the media fund will require legislative change and the approval of the European Commission in relation to state aid aspects.
In the interim, I secured €6 million in budget 2023 to establish the fund on an administrative basis, with the priority being the development of a local democracy reporting scheme and a courts reporting scheme. My Department has consulted extensively with stakeholders on the proposed approach and is currently finalising the broad parameters of the schemes. This will inform their detailed design and implementation by Coimisiún na Meán.
The Government has paused a decision on the future funding model for public service broadcasting until such time as the external independent examination of RTÉ that I am initiating is complete and the findings considered. This will be an important input into rebuilding trust in RTÉ by the public, the Oireachtas and its staff. It is envisaged the media fund will be supported in the longer term through that future funding model rather than the annual Estimates.
I brought the Online Safety and Media Regulation Act through to enactment last year. This Act overhauls the regulatory framework for media to ensure it is fit for the new age of media consumption and that regulatory standards are applied to user-generated content for the first time. I acknowledge that in bringing that legislation through the Houses, I was building on the work done by Deputy Bruton as in his time as Minister with responsibility for communications.
What I am trying to get at is the Minister's perception of the direction of the media. Are we going to see a continuing decline in print media which will undermine what we have got used to, that is, local print media and quality printed journalism? Will we continue to see the commercial income of these traditional media decline more and more? Some 55% of advertising revenue already goes to the online platforms and it looks to be heading only one way. The Government has ducked the issue of reform of the funding mechanism and the more powerful broadcasting commission that was envisaged by the Future of Media Commission. That has been dodged, to an extent. The question is what is the alternative to that if these trends continue.
The rise of new technologies and delivery channels for people to consume news has had a profound effect on news media, both in Ireland and across the world. In particular, traditional news media, such as television and print news, have significantly declined as a main source of news for Irish people since 2015, with print suffering a decline from 49% to 23%.
This is in contrast to online media, including social media, which has remained a main source of news for approximately 80% of Irish people since 2015. This has given rise to funding difficulties across the news media industry, given the lower willingness of the public to pay for online news.
I have the report of the technical working group, and the funding model was something I was advancing. I agree with the Taoiseach - indeed, it has been my modus operandi- that we have to grasp this nettle. I am determined to do that, but we had to pause the decision even though I was at an advanced stage of negotiations with the relevant Ministers on the recommendations on a future funding model. I had to pause it because, to make the new model land, we needed an environment of trust. We will continue the discussions, though. I do not believe we will pause those, nor should we. There are recommendations from the technical working group that was established to examine the funding model. Such an examination was essential because what is now in place is not the way forward. It needs reform and we need an enhancement of the television licence fee. It is essential we reflect changes.
It seems the Government has rejected the Exchequer funding model in favour of trying to patch up the leaky licence fee model. It also seems the Government has rejected the idea of a powerful broadcasting commission that, as the developmental body, would not just oversee in considerable detail the performance of RTÉ but also the performance of the other media that looked to it for funding. Is this the future? Does the Minister agree with having a stronger broadcasting commission that would oversee content to the sort of minute degree it oversees RTÉ now? RTÉ’s detailed performance reporting runs to hundreds of pages. Is the mix of commercial income and limping along with the licence fee the alternative to that? I feel we are falling between two stools. We do not have a clear picture of the direction of future travel.
Securing sustainable funding is key to the success of public service media. The regulation of all media is essential. We accepted 49 of the Future of Media Commission’s recommendations. The one that was not accepted last year was on an Exchequer funding model. The Government is of the view that reform and enhancement of the current television licence fee system is essential. We set up a technical working group to examine how that could be achieved. That group submitted a report to me at the end of March and we were at an advanced stage of negotiations on that, but it would not be appropriate for me to discuss the content of the technical group’s report before it is considered by the Government.
Given recent events, the decision has been paused, but we are determined to make a decision on the matter in the lifetime of this Government. Regulation of media is essential. We will not have the exact same codes for broadcasters and YouTube, for example, but there will be strong regulation of those as needed.
We are in the worst of all worlds at the moment. A cloud is hanging over RTÉ and the Government is withdrawing the future funding process. Effectively, there will be political decisions about funding in the short term. That is not a satisfactory position. We need to clear the fog rapidly. I commend the Minister on having a review, but there is work to be done by the Government to have a much clearer vision of where our landing zone might be.
The decision had to be paused because the environment of trust is not there. That is why the examination I have initiated is key. We are cognisant of the value of our national broadcaster and its security from the points of view of public service broadcasting and its staff.
Regarding the Future of Media Commission’s report, there was a provision for interim funding. I provided €15 million last year under the recommendations. The report provides for €16 million this year. We need to take everything into consideration in September when we examine how RTÉ stands in terms of the television licence and commercial advertising compared with last year. There will be an interim funding mechanism while we discuss the decision on the future funding model.
Has sufficient cognisance been had of the considerable advantage social media has over national broadcasting in terms of control, product, quality and presentation? Will that be taken into account sufficiently to ensure public broadcasting can exist against that kind of competition? How might we try to achieve a level playing pitch?
All of this was considered by the Future of Media Commission in its report, which was concerned with changing trends and different ways of accessing information. We accepted 49 of the report’s 50 recommendations. It was just the commission’s recommendation on the funding model that we did not accept because we were afraid of the connection between the Government and public service broadcasting.
Long-term funding is something we are discussing. User-generated content cannot be treated the same as editorial media. I have introduced strong legislation in the Online Safety and Media Regulation, OSMR, Act.