Thursday, 15 September 2022
Report of the Future of Media Commission: Statements
I thank the Minister very much for coming to the House. I very much welcome the publication of the report in July and thank the members of the commission. It is very clear from the 258 pages of the report that an enormous level of analysis and research went into the report and we owe a debt of gratitude to the commission members for their work. Notwithstanding the 50 recommendations, some of which were very detailed, this is only the start of what needs to happen. I do not doubt the Minister's determination to enact 49 of the 50 recommendations, although it does seem from listening to her comments that quite a lot will be delegated to coimisiún na meán and I worry about the range of work it will have to undertake. I think in particular of equality, diversity and inclusion and fear it will become the poor relation when the coimisiún has so much else to do once established. We will give it the benefit of the doubt.
In terms of the elephant in the room - the TV licence and the proposals to move away from that towards direct Exchequer funding - this discussion is never going to be an easy one. Successive Ministers have grappled with this question. It would not be popular to change it, as such, but we see how unpopular the charge is at the moment given the declining numbers who pay it. The figures in the report are sobering and point to a drop of 80,000 TV licence permits sold over a ten-year period from 2010 to 2020. That is at a time when the number of households in this country grew. I am concerned by the arguments put forward by the Government to directly fund RTÉ from the Exchequer. Some of the comments in July suggested that it would amount to a danger to democracy. There is a question here as to whether the Government can trust itself. More important is what sort of corner is the working group that is due to report in November being backed into. It is being set up to fail. We in the Labour Party have talked about a broadcasting charge to ensure sustainable funding for both RTÉ and TG4. We have got to get away from the days of recurring top-ups for RTÉ and the semi-permanent funding crisis in RTÉ. We must grasp that nettle. There are no easy or popular answers here, but if we are serious about our public broadcaster then we cannot shy away from the issue. We look forward to what the working group will report on, but I worry that it is being boxed into a corner.
There would be no media without the journalists, print workers and the other paid employees who make the sector work. We are living through a moment where traditional media outlets are facing relentless competition for the attention of audiences, in particular from the social media actors. The concentration of ownership threatens the sector's diversity. We cannot sit back and wait for quality, independent journalism to adapt to the market. In that regard, investment in the media in this country must significantly increase. I welcome the two new funds for court reporting and the local and regional fund. They will be very important, but we need to go much further than that.
The concentration of ownership across some regional and local titles is of concern. In certain titles across the country the standards now in place for the terms and conditions of workers have seriously deteriorated. There is a question mark over how journalism can survive into the future unless we ensure that it is properly resourced in this country given that it is the cornerstone of our democracy that we have an independent and thriving media sector and in particular journalists who earn a decent income. I stood with the National Union of Journalists, NUJ, and the workers from the Reach media group, which includes The Starand other newspapers in this country in August. They were out on strike because of a failure of their employer to agree very modest wage increases. We need the Government and the State to look at media concentration. I do not believe we saw enough detail on that in the report.
A second issue is how we provide direct supports to newspapers. In that context, there was a very clear call by a large number of newspapers across this country for a zero VAT rate. We must look at newspapers as a public utility and, as such, how we support and subsidise them in so far as that is possible. There is a real opportunity coming into the budget to apply a zero VAT rate. There is an urgency.Other Senators have referred today to the enormous increases in the cost of paper and other utility costs. Immediate actions can be taken in this budget with regard to supporting local and regional newspapers. Maidir le cúrsaí Gaeilge, tá sé an-tábhachtach go mbeidh níos mó acmhainní á dtabhairt do TG4. I am very pleased to see the proposals within the commission's report with regard to TG4. Of course, we need to do more to ensure the availability of opportunities for Irish language broadcasting in this country.
The last thing I want to touch on, which the Minister and I have spoken about in this Chamber previously, is equality, diversity and inclusion, EDI, within broadcasting. Of course, we had First Stage of the Broadcasting (Gender, Cultural and Other Diversities) Bill 2022 before the House earlier this year, but we also obviously considered this in the context of the much larger Bill establishing Coimisiún na Meán.
While it is very good to see the recommendations in respect of EDI within the report and particularly the commitment to greater monitoring, we need to see tangible changes with regard to greater diversity within broadcasting, in particular looking at the diversity of output within broadcast media. I call for much stronger targets to be set down. I note there is a recommendation regarding the diversity of boards, which is very welcome. However, it is only when we actually see diversity in the output within radio stations that we will begin to see the population reflected in what they are listening to.