Running the gamut of dealing with fake news, to potentially doling out slush money, to saving struggling journalistic titles, the Future of Media Commission is arguably the most important government commission you’ve never heard of currently in operation.

Prompted by long-term Fianna Fáil kite flying for what they portentously call ‘Public Service Journalism’, the Commission sprung to life in October having been promised under the Programme for Government 2020.

The long and the short of the Commission is to financially shore up struggling media outlets in an era of social media platforms dominating distribution, and managing the twilight days of print media. With ample opportunity for directing political patronage to pro-government outlets, nevermind an Orwellian overuse of the term ‘fake news’, the Commision has justifiably gotten a negative reception from rightist quarters.

The Commission has multiple unspoken balancing acts to grapple with, from supporting financially anemic local outlets, to clipping the wings of tech giants monopolising news mediation. Also on their plate is the issue of dealing with the rise of ‘misinformation’, nevermind ironing out any kinks in a proposed grant system.

For that reason the Commission could have avoided the heat brought upon it from one of its board members Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of The Guardian being asked to resign on account of his involvement in the slowly boiling over Roy Greenslad media fracas.

Overall, in terms of board members, the Commission could have done a lot worse, and personally having seen state committees with the ideological orientation of a People Before Profit branch, one ought be a little grateful. From Irish language broadcasters, academics, the inevitable lefty disability activist, to the RTÉ mandarin, the committee is hardly any friend to readers of this publication, but could have been a lot worse given the current climate.

Evaluating some of the submissions provides an interesting opportunity to take the pulse of some of the major players on the Irish political and media scene and how they look set to interact with the emerging media ecosystem.

Fianna Fáil: The effective political progenitors of this Commission, and the notion of state grants for media entering the political mainstream, the boys at De Valera House have one of the most unashamed submissions. Spearheaded by Timmy Dooley and aiming to prop up the ailing newspaper industry specifically some of the highlights are:

  • A Minister for Media in charge of a new portfolio dealing with operating a new grant system and dealing with media related matters.
  • A Print Journalism Unit functioning out of the already existing BAI charged with assessing and distributing grants with fellowships being created for tyro journalists. Additionally an ‘expert group’ will be set up to evaluate any issues emerging in the Irish media landscape.
  • The proposed measures are expected to cost €57 million and will be funded through ring-fenced VAT from papers to the tune of €27 million as well as a 6% fee on digital advertising,

With Fianna Fáil, a party that came to prominence through its masterful manipulation of the print press in the 1930s, it is hoping to reignite that flame in the 2020s. Nevertheless even disregarding the chances of this scheme being abused, the submission by Fianna Fáil is very much a 20th century solution to a modern problem, only looking at the moribund print industry.

Communicorp: Long the media hobbyhorse of erstwhile plutocrat Denis O’Brien, Communicorp emerged in the 1990s from gobbling up radio stations in the former Eastern Bloc before entrenching itself here. Per a February decision, it is to be sold to the German Bauer Media group, with the sale currently under regulatory review. Wanting a chunk of the licence fee shared out to other broadcasters, rather than RTÉ alone, as well as the clamping down on general evasion of license fee payment is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Communicrop’s proposals, as is mention of reducing regulations on the ownership of media entities.

As an aside, The Burkean reported in July 2020 of the collaboration between Newstalk (under the Communicorp umbrella) and the Anti-Defamation League, working against hate speech and boycotting those who let it persist on their platform. 

While media companies are approaching the public coffers with cap in hand, let it be known that they all carry a distinctive business and ideological agenda. Even outside of the realm of hate speech, Newstalk has found itself home to various media turf wars from its legendary dislike of Sinn Féin, its dismissal of George Hook on spurious grounds of sexism, and the informal rule against platforming Irish Times journalists, leaving some nasty smells around the Fourth Estate.

Whatever the motivations of Communicorp are in advocating this approach, one might infer that they are tailoring their submission to whatever suits their corporate interests, a further underlying trend of how pernicious this entire process of state grants for journalism really is.

TheJournal.ie: An early financial victim of Covid-19, the blog known as The Journal implemented pay cuts to its staff members due to the pandemic, symptomatic of the general ailments facing the industry. Unsurprisingly their submission is rather front-facing in its desire for access to the public purse for funding what it Soviet-style calls ‘Public Service Content’, with Google Digital News Innovation Fund serving as an example.

Quoting from their submission,

The State should make financial supports available for that content which exemplifies high-quality Public Service Content. This content — investigative journalism, fact-checking, reporting of issues affecting minority audiences, social justice concerns — is, as previously stated, the most costly to produce.

In short next time you click onto one of their abysmal fact checks you may very well have the pleasure of having to pay for the bugman journalism they spew out, like it or loathe it.

Google and Facebook: A thrusting force in all submissions is the chokehold that major tech firms have on the mediation of news in the digital era. Therefore the submissions by the two corporations can be seen as a defence of their current business practices, and them laying out mechanisms by which they can provide journalists with sustainable financial incentives. While many journalists regard the two leviathans as merely freeloaders profiting off the backs of their labour, the two seek to counter this with use of strategic funds to help subsidise the creation of what they deem to be ‘high quality journalism’. While Google and Facebook seem willing to cover the costs of journalism to a certain extent on account of their market dominance, their submissions are a reminder that this is very much a corporate affair. Both groups look set to expand their reach under any planned dispensation.

The Irish Times: Stressing its own importance during the current pandemic, the Irish Times’s self-congratulatory submission is impenitent in wanting state support through a financial scheme, as well as reform of Defamation and Copyright Law and the removal of VAT off newspapers. The thought process behind the submission was laid out in a piece from last month.

Financially the Irish Times is one of the more secure names on the bloc, through its well managed fund and some strategic sales of assets. Regardless, its request for effective state assistance is symbolic of how radically the scene may alter heading into a new decade. Don’t expect many Tara Street hacks to be going hungry with the impending recession, but don’t expect them to have much moral legitimacy left either having prostituted out their trade under the ghastly spectre of becoming Public Service Journalist.

National Union of Journalists: One of the bigger journalistic guns, the NUJ or rather the Irish branch of the British NUJ, is one of the more vocal proponents for state grants, with its secretary Seamus Dooley flying the flag on the concept in print recently. Making positive reference to the influence of both George Soros and Bill Gates (no joke) in highlighting the role of philanthropic entities bankrolling ‘high quality journalism’, the NUJ posits its own recovery plan for journalism post-covid, including a voucher system for 18 and 19 year olds to incentivise the uptake in paid subscriptions.

A very much left-of-centre submission, the NUJ is scathing of the undue influence of billionaires in the media realm, pointing to the example of a deregulated America and the Murdoch Empire that filled the void. 

At its core the Future of Media Commission embodies a distinct consolidation of media power with the embrace of state sponsorship. Let it be known if these reforms were occurring in Beijing or Budapest, our Oireachtas and NGO lobby would be sanctimoniously irate at the fusion of state and media power. Knowing the history of this state as well as the current progressive haze, there is no question of the potential of abuse of funds and compromising of this country’s media machine even further. Journalism faces many hurdles and one of the welcome changes that may emerge from this Commission is the extirpation of unjust defamation laws but in terms of long term solutions limping towards becoming deputised state propaganda organs is hardly a remedy.

Keep an eye on the Future of Media Commission, for while they appear not to be able to operate a Zoom call properly, they look preordained to set the tempo on the media landscape for a generation, and with that a good deal of the nation’s politics. 

Posted by Ciaran Brennan

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