Thursday, 15 September 2022
Report of the Future of Media Commission: Statements
I thank Senators for their contributions today. In closing I will try to address as many of the specific matters raised as possible. Forgive me if I do not get to touch upon all the Senators' contributions. Regarding the funding of public service media, as mentioned by all who contributed today in the House, I am sure Members agree that maintaining the independence of the media is vitally important. The Government believes that if it were to directly provide the full funding of our public service media providers, questions might arise - that is the Government's opinion - as to the media's independence from Government.
We have carefully considered how best to reform the television licence collection and as the commission itself stated, no funding model is without its challenges. We recognise that the television licence as it currently stands needs an overhaul and does not reflect the way we now consume broadcast content. We also believe that any funding model should retain and build on the existing revenue stream from the direct sale of television licences, which provides an important direct link between broadcasters and the Irish public and which has underpinned the independence of the broadcasting sector. A technical working group chaired by my Department has started work on the reform of the television licence model from the question of liability to pay to collection and enforcement. It is examining these issues in detail and will report back to me in November. I offered the terms of reference to the members of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media yesterday. I am quite happy to give Senator Sherlock and the members of the committee the detailed terms of reference. I have faith in the working group to do the job and task that has been assigned to it. It will report back to me in November.
Of course, that brings us to the question of implementation. While we all wish to see the necessary changes begin as soon as possible in accepting the report's recommendations in principle, the Government is conscious that some time has passed since the commission developed its conclusions. We must, therefore, take some time to reassess the timeline for implementation. The economic climate has changed and we must also have in place a regulatory and development framework. This has been put in place in coimisiún na meán. The implementation of the far-reaching recommendations of the commission will require changes to legislation, regulation and funding. It will also require the co-ordination of various Departments, agencies and external stakeholders. The Government has set up an implementation group, which has started work on developing a detailed implementation strategy. This group will also report to me in November.
The community scheme, which was raised by Senator Warfield, will provide funds for training, media literacy and community projects. It will aim to enhance the links between community media and higher and further education and support the establishment of community media hubs. With regard to his query on Saorview, RTÉ is mandated to maintain the network. I do not envisage any change in that. I agree with Senator Warfield that Saorview serves us well, particularly in rural areas. Three key recommendations of the commission were to enhance the exploitation of intellectual property rights, channel a content levy into the creator sector and expand section 4 for tax reliefs to include broadcasters. The implementation group will examine that.
On the issue of supports for the wider sector, the Government has already voiced its support for the commission's recommendation to establish a platform-neutral media fund. Priorities have been set out to establish the courts reporting scheme and the local democracy scheme in 2023. In response to Senator Sherlock, I believe that over time, the six recommended funding schemes will provide a full suite of support to the entire sector. We can all agree that the print sector still plays a crucial role in Ireland. The problems currently faced by the print sector are well documented. Declining newspaper regulation figures, falling revenues from advertising and the rise of big tech have all combined to place the newspaper industry under increasing pressure. I will meet representatives of NewsBrands Ireland next week. With regard to the 0% VAT rate, I am in budgetary negotiations with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, whose remit is in that area.
The expanded media fund will provide a support base for newspapers and, in particular, local titles. This will assist not only with content but with digital transformation and training and access. I completely agree with the commission, as well as many Members of the House, that radio is an essential part of the media landscape in Ireland. Joint national listenership research, JNLR, data show that four in five people in Ireland listen to the radio every day, tuning into international, local and community stations. The vital role played by radio was clearly shown during the Covid-19 pandemic. Radio stations are trusted sources of information and were a vital means of informing listeners of the threats posed by Covid-19 and how to deal with them. I thank the commission for its practical recommendations on supporting the radio sector, enhancing the sound and vision scheme to allow the funding of news and current affairs and introducing new schemes such as that to support community media. They are particularly important. In addition, the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022 will enable radio stations to earn more income through changes to advertising.
Senator Warfield mentioned RTÉ's financial stability. The New Economy and Recovery Authority, NewERA, and my Department will continue to engage with RTÉ on its commitment to deliver savings and efficiencies. Under the revised strategy for 2020 to 2024, the Future of Media Commission also sees an enhanced role for Coimisiún na Meán in setting targets for RTÉ and monitoring how well RTÉ achieves these targets. I have already addressed our commitment to reforming the public funding model. However, the commission's recommended interim funding for RTÉ will have to be addressed in the context of the ongoing budget negotiations and the competing priorities the Government must balance.
I have demonstrated my commitment to Irish language broadcasting by providing TG4 with its biggest ever annual increase in funding of €4.2 million in 2022, bringing its allocation to €44.9 million this year. As part of the annual Estimates and budgetary processes, I will continue to work with my Government colleagues to secure the funding to enable TG4 to continue to deliver on its ambitions. I also agree with the commission that TG4 should be designated as a NewERA body, which will enable TG4 to benefit from NewERA's financial management expertise.
Like Senator Sherlock, I am very supportive of the promotion of gender balance, inclusion and diversity in our media, as are others in the Oireachtas. Senator Sherlock brought that particular issue up, however. We are making progress in gender equality but there are still many areas in which women are in the minority in Ireland, including on our airwaves. A refrain we often heard in the commission's thematic dialogues was "You have to see it to be it" and it is one with which I completely agree. We need to see more women on screen and on air and more women behind the scenes also. Minorities and people with disabilities must also become much more prominent in a diverse media landscape that should reflect the wonderful diversity of our society. I trust Senators will agree with me that Coimisiún na Meán should play an even greater role in creating and enforcing EDI standards across the media industry. I support the commission's call on media organisations to create diversity boards and media lead roles to promote diversity and equality.
I acknowledge Senator Carrigy has a particular interest in this and Senators will see the merit in calling on media organisations to use new media fund schemes to assist in the broadcasting of minority sports.The transmission of sporting events, like so much else in the media industry, is undergoing rapid change. The national sports policy 2018 to 2027 highlighted the need to create a more active population. I endorse the commission’s suggestion that public service media should be used in the promotion of sports that tie in with this policy, such as swimming, running and cycling.
The commission met with many experts in the field of culture and the creative economy. It applauded the great strides that Ireland had made in this regard and the opportunity to achieve even more. With a relatively small home market, the commission is correct in highlighting the need for Ireland to punch above its weight and to take advantage of international opportunities. The implementation group will work with other Departments and stakeholders to explore how best to achieve this.
Alongside the seismic shifts in media, the commission noted the troubling growth in misinformation and disinformation. We are fortunate that the commission contained a number of members who are experts in this field. My Department will lead on this in the coming months in conjunction with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which is overseeing the transposition of the Digital Services Act. We will also work with the Irish hub of the European Digital Media Observatory, news organisations, industry stakeholders, civil society groups, Irish fact checkers and disinformation researchers.
Regarding Senator Garvey's contribution on sustainability, I agree with the commission that media must champion sustainability throughout our society while, at the same time, adopting more sustainable approaches to programming and content. The media sector must lead by example in this area.
Let me end with the first recommendation of the commission, which is that media should be recognised as a “merit good”. As Professor Brian MacCraith said at the launch of the report in July, public service content "should be recognised as a “merit good” that delivers valued benefits to society and the democratic system, and, as such, represents critical public infrastructure". As the Minister with responsibility for the media, I understand that without a healthy media we cannot enjoy a healthy society and a functioning democracy. The commission has clearly established that high-quality, independent journalism and a pluralistic media system is vital. We have a media system that has served this country well. However, we cannot take it for granted. The sector needs to adapt to rapidly evolving technology and changing consumer needs and we as a Government must also respond to these transformations. I look forward to working across government and with the media sector to ensure that together we achieve our shared ambition. I thank the Seanad for the opportunity to discuss the report.