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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 15 Sep 2022

Vol. 288 No. 2

Report of the Future of Media Commission: Statements

I welcome the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Martin, to the House. Even though she is based in Dublin, I still describe her as my neighbour from home, which she is.

It is a privilege for me to be elected by the constituents of Dublin Rathdown, but I am a proud Monaghan woman and I appreciate the reference to us as neighbours each time I come in.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teach as cuireadh a thabhairt dom bualadh libh chun plé a dhéanamh ar Thuarascáil um Choimisiún na Meán. A diverse, vibrant and independent media sector is essential for our democracy, cultural development and wider society. However, with technological advances, how we consume media has changed dramatically. This has had a profound impact on traditional broadcasting, in particular, and the media sector in general. These changed viewing habits, as well as falling print sales and the resultant move from traditional revenue streams to online advertising mean that media companies have had to alter their business models. More and more, competition is global rather than national.

Beyond these commercial concerns, growing disinformation and misinformation challenges our democracy and our society, having the potential to undermine public confidence in news and information. The Government recognised this, and the programme for Government committed to the establishment of the Future of Media Commission to consider the future of print, broadcast, and online media. The commission was tasked with making recommendations to Government to ensure the future funding of public service media is sustainable, ensures independent editorial oversight and delivers value for money to the public.

The high level of interest shown in the work of the commission is a clear demonstration of how important the media sector is to society. The commission’s deliberations were informed by more than 800 public submissions, while more than 50 expert panellists took part in the online webinars along with 1,000 members of the public. The commission has fulfilled its remit to the highest standard and I am sure the Senators will join me in taking this opportunity to thank Professor Brian MacCraith and the commission members for their work in bringing this comprehensive report to fruition.

The commission’s comprehensive and timely report details both the challenges and opportunities for media companies in Ireland. The recommendations contained in the report are a blueprint for the Government to now build a framework to support the media sector to face the challenges ahead, and to continue its vital role in educating, informing and entertaining the public. The Government accepted, in principle, 49 of the 50 recommendations made by the commission, which demonstrates how positively it was received. However, the Government was unable to accept the commission’s recommendation to move to a fully Exchequer-funded model. A key consideration in this regard was the need to ensure the continued independence of media and minimise even the perceived risk of political interference, which could arise in a situation where public service media was fully dependent on Exchequer funding.

The Government also believes that any new or reformed funding model should retain and build on the existing revenue stream from the direct sale of television, TV, licences, which provides an important direct link between broadcasters and the Irish public, to maintain a link between the creation and consumption of media content. Furthermore, given the many pressing demands on the Exchequer, I am sure the Senators will appreciate that this is not the time to impose an additional burden on Exchequer funding.

However, the Government recognises the need to reform the TV licence model. A technical working group, led by my Department, has been set up and will report back to me in November on the practical steps that need to be taken to create a fairer, more efficient and more sustainable system. Both public service media and providers of public service content will benefit from the reform of the TV licence fee.

A cornerstone of the Future of Media Commission’s report and recommendations is the establishment of a media commission, a new regulator with a wider remit to address the shift in media consumption. Such a new body, coimisiún na meán, is to be established under the provisions of the Online Safety and Media Regulation, OSMR, Bill 2022. The Bill will commence Second Stage next week in the Dáil, having been debated extensively in this House before the summer. I again thank Senators for their contributions and suggestions, many of which I was able to take on board on Committee Stage in the House.

An coimisiún will provide the regulatory and developmental framework to implement the commission’s report and two of the initial commissioner roles will play a significant role in delivering on the Government’s implementation of the Future of Media Commission report, the broadcasting commissioner and the media development commissioner. During the summer, the positions of executive chairperson, media development commissioner and online safety commissioner, were advertised by the Public Appointments Service, PAS, through public competitions. The appointment processes are continuing. In addition, the current CEO of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, will act as the interim broadcasting commissioner in coimisiún na meán.

Tectonic shifts in how media is produced and consumed mean that a media regulator cannot restrict itself to broadcasting; it must regulate and support the entire media sector and it must act with a sense of urgency. I secured funding for this year to support the establishment of an coimisiún so that it could hit the ground running. I am sure that Senators will agree that the broadcasting fund and the sound and vision scheme, which are operated by the BAI, have been successful in the creation of high-quality audiovisual content.

While it is primarily funded through the proceeds of TV licence receipts, I was delighted to secure significant additional Exchequer funds to increase support to the sector during the Covid-19 pandemic. I was also pleased to announce in May a further €10.5 million in additional funding for 2022. Some €5 million of this has been assigned for a special round of the sound and vision scheme, which will create programming related to climate change and climate action, and is being co-funded by my Department and the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. A sum of €2 million has been earmarked for Irish language programming, €2 million for live music programming and a further €1.5 million has been assigned to general sound and vision programming. Notwithstanding this, I welcome the Future of Media Commission’s recommendation to significantly enhance the existing broadcasting fund, an expansion to a platform-neutral media fund. The BAI will commence work on the design of the new schemes, and of the six recommended schemes, I have prioritised those for local democracy reporting and court reporting. I expect that coimisiún na meán will be in a position to commence roll-out of these schemes in 2023.

The planned schemes have the potential to be transformative for local and regional media, including the print sector. The local democracy reporting scheme will help local media keep the public informed on areas such as regional health forums, joint policing committees and local authorities, among other areas. I agree with the commission that is it essential to support local media to provide comprehensive coverage of issues related to local democracy and to provide additional supports for counties with Gaeltachtaí.

Likewise, the courts reporting scheme will enable improved reporting from local, regional and national courts. Comprehensive, professional and publicly accessible reports of court proceedings are integral to our democratic process. While I have set out the priorities in this regard, other planned schemes will also play a significant role in supporting our media to meet the challenges they face. The digital transformation scheme will help traditional media adapt to the changing media landscape, while the access and training scheme will develop internships, bursaries, and diversity training opportunities for both new and existing staff. Senators will also appreciate how important it is to cover news that has high public interest but that is in danger of being under-reported and the proposed news reporting scheme will support the provision of news on topics we all care deeply about, such as the environment, equality and diversity.

I am sure that the Senators are as committed as I am to our national broadcaster. RTÉ is continuing to serve the public well. This was never so apparent and necessary as during the dark days of Covid-19 restrictions, when RTÉ played a very important role, together with other media, in keeping our people informed with reliable and trustworthy news. I welcome the commission’s recommendation that RTÉ develops a strategic capital asset management plan. This will help the organisation to optimise its use of available resources in the medium and long term. I also agree with the commission that RTÉ needs to complete its digital transformation by investing more in technology, particularly streaming services, such as the RTÉ Player. Through strategic planning, digital innovation, and the support of organisations like NewERA and coimisiún na meán, the organisation can build on its strengths as a key public service broadcaster.

The commission proposed that during the interim period of 2021-23, RTÉ, TG4 and the broadcasting fund should receive additional investment. The Government will now look again at the funding levels that were proposed, taking into account changes in the financial position and economic climate since the commission made its assessments. Funding decisions will need to be considered in the context of the ongoing budget and Estimates processes, and the competing demands on the Exchequer.

Like the commission, I applaud TG4 for its high-quality and innovative Irish language programming, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, with initiatives such as Cúla4 ar Scoil for families and teachers who were homeschooling. As a mother and a former teacher, I appreciate how important this initiative was and I was pleased to be able to provide supplementary funding of €1.9 million to TG4 in 2020 towards Covid-19 related costs. I also provided another €3.5 million in budget 2021 and €4.2 million in budget 2022 to TG4, with this year’s increase being the single largest increase provided to TG4. This has supported it so it can continue to develop high-quality content, increase its reach and support the Irish language creative sector.

Tugaim tús áite, ar leibhéal pearsanta agus mar Aire le freagracht as an nGaeltacht agus as an nGaeilge, do chur chun cinn agus forbairt na teanga. Tuigim go maith an ról tábhachtach atá ag na meáin chun freastal ar riachtanais agus mianta chainteoirí Gaeilge, chun cabhrú le daoine ar mhaith leo labhairt na Gaeilge a fhoghlaim agus chun straitéis 20 bliain an Rialtais don Ghaeilge a sheachadadh.

I very much support the commission’s recommendation that coimisiún na meán conduct a comprehensive review of Irish language provision, looking at the roles of TG4, Raidió na Gaeltachta, RTÉ and other content providers. We need to avoid duplications and find synergies and to attract new audiences. Irish language broadcasting is a priority for the BAI, and the sound and vision scheme already allocates a quarter of its funding to Irish language projects. New media fund schemes will also be accessible to Irish language projects. The local democracy reporting scheme and the community media scheme should be of particular interest to Irish language media.

The commission’s report details the challenges the print sector faces in Ireland and how deeply the commission consulted with the industry. National, regional and local newspapers will benefit from the expanded media fund. The radio sector will also have much to gain, both from the widening of the sound and vision scheme to support news content and from new media fund schemes, such as the media access and training scheme, the community media scheme and digital transformation scheme. A diversity and inclusion strategy for sports reporting and broadcasting will also be developed, as coimisiún na meán and Sport Ireland develop a strategic plan for sports broadcasting. We must showcase more sports across multiple platforms and work together to create a more active population.

Another area in which many organisations will need to work together to achieve a common aim is the fight against disinformation. I completely agree with the commission’s recommendation that we need to develop a national counter-disinformation strategy to explore how to combat the growing problem of disinformation. My Department will lead on the development of such a strategy in the coming months, in conjunction with the Tánaiste’s Department, which is overseeing the Digital Services Act.

More generally, coimisiún na meán will promote sustainability in broadcast, print and online media by setting sustainability standards for media fund schemes. The BAI’s existing sustainability network will be expanded to include all of the sector. Gender equality standards have shown themselves to be highly effective under the sound and vision scheme. In the most recent round, more than 50% of TV funding went to projects in which half or more of the key production roles are filled by women.

However, I agree with the commission’s recommendation that we go further in addressing equality, diversity and inclusion, EDI, not only in the content the sector provides but within the media sector itself. The recommendations on EDI standards, increased research and auditing and the establishment of diversity boards will all play a part in ensuring the sector is a true reflection of our society today.

The Future of Media Commission report is a comprehensive document with far-reaching recommendations. I look forward to hearing Members’ thoughts and contributions. Gabhaim buíochas leis na Seanadóirí as a gcuid ama inniu.

Ár mbuíochas leis an Aire as ucht an ráiteas cuimsitheach sin chun tús a chur leis an díospóireacht ghinearálta. Glaoim anois ar an Seanadóir Garvey.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus gabhaim comhghairdeas léi as an obair dhian atá déanta aici ar an gcoimisiún seo. Well done to the Minister for fulfilling a programme for Government commitment to see this through with the completion of the report of the media commission. It is a very important document. Now more than ever, the way in which our media operate and how we support the are key, given the huge shift to everybody believing everything they read on Twitter and Facebook. Now more than ever, we need mainstream media like RTÉ and local media to be funded properly and recognised for how important they are. Coming from a rural constituency, I know Clare FM, which is an award-winning local radio station, The Clare Champion and The Clare Echo are still valuable media outlets for people. Those people may be of a certain demographic but that demographic deserves to be able to access those media too. In Clare, we are very proud of our local media. It is good that the commission recognises the importance of that and the value people in Ireland attach to access to local media. I welcome that finding in the commission's report.

I have to support the Minister and the Government in their conclusion with regard to the TV licence. At first I thought it might be great if we were to abolish the TV licence. That was my knee-jerk reaction. I thought of it as another fee so let us cancel the fee. However, if we had no fees, we would have a 100% Government-dependent media outlet and national broadcaster. That would mean the Government could dictate what way the broadcaster could operate. Now I see I was wrong in thinking abolishing the TV licence would be a good idea because of what might happen if 100% of the funding came from the Government. We have seen politicians try to use that in the past. There have been cases in the past where politicians tried to interfere with RTÉ's independence and were rightly rebuffed. We often see good "Prime Time" debates and research and documentaries highlighting issues that we as a Government needed to be seen and shown. I learned myself how important that is. It is easy to say we should abolish fees and that the Government is trying to get more money off people. However, the fees reflect the people and the TV licence is a direct link between the people and RTÉ. If people do not want to pay the fees, then RTÉ needs to look at that and see what it needs to do to encourage people to value it enough. If it was completely reliant on Government funding, it would not have to care what people think. It would just be trying to keep the Government happy all the time, which we do not want because in a democracy we want clarity and open information from our media sources.

The new media fund is welcome but until it is fully established, we have to increase our support for TG4 and RTÉ. The support we have received to date for TG4 is great. The commission highlights the importance of the Irish language in mainstream media. We cannot expect TG4 to do all the work. Tá ár dteanga féin chomh tábhachtach. Má tá sí á húsáid ar RTÉ níos mó, beidh níos mó daoine ag éisteacht léi, á cloisteáil agus ag féachaint uirthi mar theanga bheo. Mura bhfeiceann daoine an Ghaeilge á húsáid go beomhar, ní bheidh meas acu ar an teanga. Tá sé riachtanach go bhfuil an coimisiún ag rá go bhfuil sé sin tábhachtach. The commission recommended that RTÉ give greater priority to the Irish language in its general programming and on all platforms. In other countries like the Netherlands, there are loads of programmes in other languages but they are subtitled in their own language. It would be great to see more Irish language programmes broadcast on RTÉ, as opposed to TG4 being left to do all the work for the Irish language. TG4 as a whole has been amazing in what it has done for the Irish language over the years. It has got better and better. The quality of the documentaries it produces is second to none. It is great that the commission recognises the importance of increased funding for TG4. We do not want Facebook and Twitter to be dictating what everybody believes and thinks. We have seen how populist and polarising those forms of media have become, which is why this commission is so important.

I have one last point to make, which I think is important. One of the recommendations of the commission was that the media in Ireland should adopt a more focused and ambitious approach to addressing environmental sustainability in its widest sense, including climate change and biodiversity. It is not about just airing the odd episode of "Eco Eye", which has actually lost funding recently. We have a climate and biodiversity crisis. That should be reflected in the media, and not just when COP26 is taking place. There was a whole week of programming around climate then, but just for that one week. There should be daily news reports about climate and biodiversity, because these are the facts we are living with. Farming is dictated by our weather patterns. It is all becoming increasingly erratic. We have to prioritise this because it is affecting everything. It is affecting our air quality, how we travel, our stress levels and our hope. There is a good, positive news story here, which is that even though we are in a crisis, we have all the solutions. They are there and we need to highlight them. RTÉ needs to realise how important it is for it not just to do some odd token thing when issues around climate and biodiversity become controversial. We need this to become a daily news story about the different situations we are facing, not just in far-off places, because we see the effects of climate change daily in Ireland.

I welcome the findings of this report on what is needed for local media. I look forward to these recommendations being implemented. Again, it is always good to be open to learning because I had initially thought the TV licence should be abolished. Then, when I thought about it properly and informed myself properly, I realised it would be bad to accept the recommendation that all funding should come from the Government as that would lead to a biased broadcasting service, which we do not want. We want RTÉ to become better and better at promoting what is important, whether biodiversity, climate action, our culture or our language. We want it to do this in an unbiased way where it does not have to try to keep the Government happy. I welcome that decision by the Government and I support the Minister’s recommendation on it.

The Minister is very welcome. I want to relay apologies on behalf of Senator Cassells, who could not be here for unavoidable reasons. I am speaking on behalf of both of us.

We were disappointed that we did not have this report prior to our discussions on the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill. However, I thank the Minister and note the time she gave to our discussions on that legislation, which were substantial. I thank her for being here for all the discussions, which took 25 or 26 hours. I also thank the commission for all its work. The report is a substantial piece of work and runs to over 200 pages. You would not read it in one night by any means. It is substantial and comprehensive. I thank Professor MacCraith and all the members of the commission for the work they have done. They have made 50 recommendations, 49 of which have been accepted.

When I was media spokesperson for Fine Gael, my colleagues, Deputies Bruton and Cannon and Senator Buttimer, worked with me to make a submission to the commission. We met representatives from the industry, including local radio and newspapers in particular, at a regional and local level around the country in order to put forward their views for the report. This has been reflected in the recommendations that have been made. One of the main findings in the report is the commission's conclusion that:

Ireland’s media sector has an enduring value and importance to members of the public, to wider society and democracy. It rates comparatively well in terms of a number of respected international benchmarks, has delivered well on its public service aims and is broadly valued and trusted by the public.

That is a strong statement about our media. As I said at the committee meeting yesterday, a survey was done, which is reported on page 39, showing that over 70% of the public have high or very high trust in our television stations, local and regional radio stations and local and regional newspapers. This compares with an average of approximately 30% who have high or very trust in social media, where there is a significant amount of disinformation, as the Minister has noted.

It is important that we strengthen and support the newspaper sector. There are a number of recommendations to fund and support the sector and, indeed, the introduction of a broader media fund and the expansion of the Sound and Vision scheme to include news and current affairs. I welcome the fact the Minister has initially had the roll-out of the local democracy scheme and the court reporting scheme to cover local authority meetings, court sittings and joint policing committee meetings ahead of the roll-out of the legislation. We also have significant proposals to support digital transformation and develop bursaries and internships in conjunction with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and the establishment of media hubs.

With regard to the Irish language, the Minister has fixed funding for more Irish language content and there is the appointment of an executive within the RTÉ board with responsibility for the Irish content. It is important that somebody is responsible within RTÉ to ensure we increase the level of content in the Irish language. I compliment TG4 for the work it has done in bringing the Irish language to every family home across the country.

With regard to sport, in which I have a keen interest myself, I am very favourable to the whole idea of promoting alternative sports on our media. The report in particular mentioned swimming, running and cycling. I believe that if we have more of that sport on our televisions, we will see more people out taking part in those sports, being more active and becoming healthier. It is a very positive proposal.

I await the report of the technical working group with regard to the reform of the television licence in November. All of these proposals are going to cost money so more money needs to be collected from the television licence to fund all of these extras that are being proposed by the commission. We put forward a proposal to take it out of Exchequer funding but I see why the Government has looked at this in the light that it has. It is important, whatever format is brought in, that there is at least a €60 million to €70 million increase to make the funding available to put into these alternative supports that are being put in place by the Government.

Earlier today, we met with NewsBrands Ireland and Local Ireland and the Minister is due to meet them next week. They painted a very stark picture of where the newspaper sector is at the moment with regard to costs. Being a small retailer myself, I can see the reduction in the purchasing of newspapers because people are looking at online content, so a lot of the advertising and income from sales has been affected. As I said, they painted very stark picture. I ask that the Minister would look strongly at supporting them with their asks in regard to 0% VAT. The cost to the Exchequer is in the region of €18.5 million but I think it is worth it. We need proper, correct and trusted information, not the disinformation which we have from some other sources. I would be very strong in asking for support on that.

With regard to a support that could be put in place - it was mentioned yesterday and I want to put it on the record today - a number of years ago, reports from the Houses of the Oireachtas were sent out to the regional newspapers and radio stations with regard to Members’ activities in their local area. That is something that could be done by the Oireachtas that would support those sectors.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I know she is very supportive of the sector. She works very hard in her Department and has got significant funding across the Department in recent years to support various sectors. I look forward to the proposals that may be coming in the budget to support this sector even further.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I am going to repeat many of the issues that we raised yesterday. In the first instance, one of the recommendations from the Future of Media Commission is that, following detailed scrutiny of RTÉ’s financial situation, the commission recommends that in advance of the introduction of a new public funding model in 2024, the Government should ensure that RTÉ is funded through a combination of television licence fee revenues and Exchequer contributions to the extent of €213 million in 2022 and €214 million in 2023. Does the Minister accept that recommendation?

The same couple of pages in the report talk about efficiencies in RTÉ and, unusually, talk about the potential retention or disposal of assets in RTÉ. I think all of us would hope we do not need to dispose of any more assets in RTÉ and I am a bit disappointed to see that written in the report. When it comes to efficiencies, I am conscious that RTÉ's operating costs in 2008 were about €439 million and in 2020 they were down at €308 million, so there is a pretty big reduction in operating costs in RTÉ, although I am obviously not forgetting the issues of freelance workers and bogus self-employment in Montrose. Nonetheless, it is to be borne in mind that there has been a reduction in operating costs when we call for a focus on efficiencies.

I also want to defend the call the Future of Media Commission has made in regard to general taxation. It has a lot of merit and it would probably be fairer and more progressive to have general taxation funding of our public service media. It would reduce prosecutions, given, as I said yesterday, 4,500 cases went to court in 2020. It would also lower collection costs, which are currently at €10 million. On the issue of the threat to independence that we hear about if we were to fund RTÉ from general taxation, we should not forget that TG4 is funded through general taxation and that the State covers through the household benefits package some 483,000 households at a cost of €70 million. Those are the reasons there is merit in the general taxation approach.

The working group that the Minister has set up and that is due to report in November has a lot of work to do to make up the loss which RTÉ has identified, which is €35 million due to no-television homes although this is a device-specific charge, and the loss of €30 million because of evasion. Its work is cut out for it to report by November on how we make up those losses under the current system.

I want to turn to community media, which rarely gets a shout out and sometimes, when it does, it is just confused with local commercial media. I want to put on the record of the House and welcome the fact the Future of Media Commission has identified the calls for increased public support for community media. CRAOL and the Community Television Association, CTA, have proposed the establishment of a community media support fund which would offer funding support, training and content production support. I was involved in Dublin Community Television when I was younger. It always relied on Sound and Vision funding and never received core funding support. I hope the committee will invite NEAR TV, NEAR FM, the NEAR Media Co-op and Dublin Digital Radio, which is a community radio station operated by members. I hope we can engage with them around their aspirations for funding. I want to put that on the record.

We spoke briefly about Article 15. Given the newspapers were in the Oireachtas calling for reform of the VAT rate, it is probably relevant today to go over that. We have seen in other jurisdictions, such as Australia and France, a rebalancing of the relationship between media and big tech, and how that can have profound implications for the sustainability and future of a vital, independent public interest journalism. I am talking about the remuneration of journalists and news outlets when their work is carried on Facebook, Google, Twitter and so on.

In Australia, reforms have resulted in Meta announcing a AU$15 million fund to invest in public interest journalism and Google announcing a digital news academy that will fund 60, 12-month journalism trainees over three years. I wonder what are the projected economic or other benefits of the effective implementation of Article 15 to Irish publications. The report recommends that the assessment of the impact of the copyright directive be concluded and findings published within 12 months of the transposition of Article 15. Article 15 was transposed in November 2021 and the assessment and publication of findings is due to be completed by November 2022. Will the Minister inform us as to what stage the process is at? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the measures currently prescribed are not going to be enough to give effect to the primary aim of Article 15 and effectively redress the current imbalance between Irish publications and big tech. We need to see big tech companies engage in a real and meaningful way with Irish publishers. Is the Minister willing to step in if those engagements do not prove to be fruitful?

I have just one minute remaining. I am disappointed to see very little mention in the report of the future of the communications network that keeps Saorview going and the national infrastructure in 2RN. There is some mention of it, but 37% of households watch TV through Saorview. This is national infrastructure that is desperately underfunded. A lot of Irish homes receive BBC and international terrestrial channels through the Astra 2 satellite. Britain is probably going to switch off digital terrestrial television in 2034 so those homes will be without BBC and BBC NI. There are lots of conversations that we need to have about the future of digital terrestrial television. Obviously television is increasingly being delivered over broadband, but as we know, that infrastructure is not owned by the State. There is a long history there. The 2RN infrastructure is deeply underfunded at the moment and there are many years left in terms of people receiving TV over that network. They are the points I wish to put on the record.

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 Star and 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.

As there are no more speakers, I invite the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, to make her closing remarks.

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.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Next Tuesday at 2.30 p.m.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar athló ar 5.33 p.m. go dtí 2.30 p.m., Dé Máirt, 20 Meán Fómhair 2022.
The Seanad adjourned at 5.33 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 20 September 2022.