Micheál Martin likes to think of himself as an ideas man. Most of his are bad, many are terrible, but his latest plot to bring the dying print media under state control represents a new low for him, and a giant leap along the road to serfdom.
Fianna Fáil’s Communications spokesman and Martin loyalist Timmy Dooley recently stated that should the party enter government, they will introduce state funding for newspapers and other traditional media organisations.
“Journalism is under threat – phenomenally so – because of falling revenues, falling circulation, falling advertising,” Dooley explained. “It is our view that in order to protect professional journalism, state support would be provided.”
Not that this is purely a Fianna Fáil idea. In October of last year, the Communications Minister and Independent TD Denis Naughten signaled that he also supported state funding, because of the risk that print media was going to go the way of the dodo.
The politicians are right about the overall trends in newspaper sales. NewsBrands Ireland’s circulation figures for January to June 2017 reveal a pattern of steep and steady decline. In the daily broadsheet category, the Irish Independent is down to 94,502, while the self-declared “paper of record” The Irish Times is at just 62,423. The Irish Examiner is down to a paltry 28,338.
Nor are the tabloids or the Sunday papers performing well. The biggest Sunday paper – The Sunday Independent – had a circulation of 265,455 in January to June of 2010. In the first half of this year, it had reduced to 185,080.
Online is where it’s at now, for news and advertising. Virtually all of the Irish newspaper outlets have recognised this by devoting far more resources to their online content, but as with media outlets elsewhere, they are having a hard time finding a way to make money from this.
It is clear that there has been a steep decline in the quality of Irish journalism in recent years, one which is rapidly accelerating. Faced with budget shortfalls, newspaper bosses have had to slash salaries with the result that talented and experienced journalists, middle-aged and above, have left the industry voluntarily or been shown the door.
In their place now sit young journalists fresh out of the various college courses, journalists who have not had to serve the lengthy on-the-job apprenticeships that their predecessors did.
Some on the right like to pin the blame for falling newspaper sales on the Irish media’s left-liberal bias. There is some truth in this, but it does not explain the situation fully. The core issue is instead the vicious cycle where declines in journalistic quality and in sales volumes continuously reinforce each other.
Increasing numbers of people are looking at newspaper stands and deciding that it’s simply not worth the cost, and they’re right. The hope of many in Irish media is that they will attract more young-readers with the same views as themselves, in order to replace the older readers who they have been haemorrhaging through disinterest or death. Unfortunately for them, students and young professionals aren’t going to pay to read the thoughts of the Millennial Generation when they can access them for free on Twitter or Facebook.
People are voting with their wallets and not buying newspapers, and the second-largest political party in the state plans to prop up this flailing industry by taking taxpayers’ money and giving it to an industry which most citizens have clearly shown they no longer want to support financially. If they did, they’d buy newspapers. Except that they don’t.
When explaining his party’s proposal, Timmy Dooley pointed to the dangers of online news, referred to Russian hacking in recent elections, and alleged that the decline of traditional media represented a “threat to democracy”. Yet somehow Fianna Fáil consider it democratic to compel people to pay for a service they’ve voluntarily opted out of.
Dooley’s charge against online media is that of the standard Luddite. New technology has supplanted older forms of communication. The smartphone generation is not going to forsake the varied marvels at their fingertips for their parents old habits of leafing through pages of text manually.
The newspaper industry can either find a way to adapt to this new reality or get used to being a niche industry like independent bookshops. There’s nothing undemocratic about this shift. Elections took place in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece thousands of years before newspapers became common. Electoral democracy preceded the newspaper industry and will survive long after the last press ceases to function.
As for the alleged sins of ‘fake news’ producers, all one can say is that the centuries-old history of libel shows that there is nothing new about dishonesty in journalism. The most egregious example of defamation in recent times came not on some uncontrollable social media platform, but from a Prime Time Investigates programme in which an innocent priest was accused of raping an African teenager by the long-established and lavishly-funded state broadcaster.
State broadcaster. There is something positively chilling about those words. State newspaper sounds even creepier, and calls to mind such fine journalistic creations as Pravda, the newspaper of “choice” in Soviet Russia.
Of course, we do not live behind an Iron Curtain, and though the state’s involvement in the lives of free men and women grows ever more intrusive – minimum unit pricing of alcohol, inheritance taxes, sugar taxes, bans on smoking in cars, etc. – we are not likely to suffer such oppression any time soon, thankfully.
When initially floating the idea of state funding back in August, Micheál Martin suggested he wanted to create a state-sponsored fund for the newspaper industry to protect quality journalism. This fund, he told The Sunday Independent, would be kept at “arm’s length” from government to prevent politicians from pressuring newspapers.
This is preposterous. State funding always comes with strings attached, strings which connect those at the bottom with the puppet masters at the top. Such a policy would be a grotesque waste of public funds, a grave affront to human dignity and a hammer blow to the cause of liberty. On those grounds alone, we can expect our politicians to introduce it in the coming years, if not sooner.