I thank the committee for the opportunity to discuss what we believe is significant legislation and perhaps a recognition of how much our media has converged in recent years.
I imagine committee members had the opportunity to consider our written submission made some months ago and our briefing paper submitted earlier this week. I do not propose to go into all the elements in which we have an interest but I am keen to focus on three things.
Mr. Esslemont has touched on the point around prominence in some detail. The findability of Irish public service channels and programming within myriad international channels and content on major platforms is critical if Ireland is to maintain a distinct national culture and Irish identity in future. I agree with the comments made by Mr. Esslemont on the Irish and English languages. We noted the statement yesterday from the Minister to the effect that she would insert a prominence head into the Bill. That is a welcome development. I do not intend to say more about that. We can talk about it afterwards in questions if it is useful.
Mr. Esslemont also referred to the content levy in heads 76 and 77. Article 13 of the audiovisual media services directive, AVMSD, allows member states the opportunity to create levies or investment obligations on audiovisual services that target audiences in the member state, even if they are located elsewhere. In total, nine countries within the EU currently do this.
The intention of this section of the directive is to promote the production of European works and support investment in local programming. At present, significant revenue is derived by media service providers located elsewhere, which target Irish audiences, but which have no obligation to invest in Irish content. In RTÉ’s view, the Bill provides a unique opportunity for the lawful imposition of a levy on media service providers which target audiences in Ireland. The funds derived from such a levy would provide an invaluable stimulus for the independent production sector here that has been devastated, first by the economic crash and, more recently, by Covid-19.
I know that next week the committee will be talking with the Joint Creative Audiovisual Sectoral Group, who prepared a detailed submission, informed by independent research conducted by Indecon. I hope that members will give them a fair hearing. It is a very substantial piece of work and, hopefully, an important contribution to this process.
I am finally going to touch on the issue of online harm. The real-world consequences of online behaviour have never been more apparent. From the increasing evidence of misuse of online data in the electoral process, to the consequences of online bullying and hate speech, to the increasing blurring of the editorial and the commercial, to the insidious rise of misinformation and fake news, online harm is no longer an abstract issue. It is a material risk to the well-being of citizens, societies and nations. RTÉ, therefore, welcomes the ambition to create greater monitoring and enforcement around online harm in this Bill. RTÉ notes that it is not proposed to define harmful online content as a singular concept, rather the approach of the general scheme is to enumerate definitions of categories of material considered to be harmful online content. RTÉ would support and agree with this approach.
At present, however, the Bill excludes misinformation, disinformation or fake news as a category from the definitions of online harm. In RTÉ’s view this is a very significant omission. Accuracy in news and information is extremely important, regardless of how content is delivered. We know that content that is designed to deliberately mislead or confuse, distributed at scale online, can cause real harm. This is an area which RTÉ believes needs to be specifically addressed, in the context of regulating harmful content.
RTÉ would suggest that the regulatory codes regarding accuracy, fairness, impartiality, transparency and accountability that have sustained our broadcast media for many years could be a useful guide in considering how to protect the public from online misinformation, while at the same time balancing the right to freedom of speech.
Commercial communications on broadcast media in Ireland have long been regulated. Again, there are lessons here for the regulation of online commercial communications. Underpinned by primary legislation, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland's general commercial communications code sets out very clear objectives. For example, to ensure that the public can be confident that commercial communications, that is, ads, are legal, honest, truthful, decent and protect the interests of the audience and ensure that commercial communications do not impinge on the editorial integrity of broadcasts. These objectives, among others, are as relevant and appropriate in the context of the regulation of harmful online content as they are on broadcasting.
Harmful and often misleading commercial communications have long been a feature of the Internet, for many years. Online video ads are now sharing the same screens as broadcast ads.
Finally, I will just touch on the issue of online harm and democracy. This of particular concern to politicians more than anyone else perhaps and, particularly, in the context of elections. We have a complete asymmetry between the rules which govern how broadcasting is governed versus how online communications and online media behave. The area of political advertising is just one example and the moratorium is another. These are real issues which need to be considered, in the context of when all of these services are existing on the same smartphone and the same television. I thank the Chair and I hope we can elaborate further in the questions.