Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4)

Alan Kelly

Question:

1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the establishment of the Future of Media Commission; and the role his Department will have in supporting the work of the commission. [35142/20]

View answer

Paul Murphy

Question:

2. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the inaugural meeting of the Future of Media Commission. [36612/20]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the establishment of the Future of Media Commission; and the role his Department will have in supporting the work of the commission. [36675/20]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the establishment of the Future of Media Commission and the role of his Department in its work. [36853/20]

View answer

Oral answers (18 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

I am pleased to report that the commission has been established by Government and is now fully up and running. It has met on two occasions and will continue to meet on a regular basis the coming months. I provided a pre-recorded video message to mark the commission's inaugural meeting on 29 October.

The commission has been constituted as an independent expert body, and its members have been appointed by the Government on the basis of their expertise in broadcast, print and online media. The collective expertise of the commission spans areas as diverse as public service media, independent journalism, social media, new technology platforms, media economics, culture, language, creative content, governance and international best practice.

It is envisaged that, over the coming months, the commission will engage comprehensively with stakeholders, including broadcasters, journalists and their representatives, publishers, regional media and the wider public. The secretariat to the commission has been provided by officials from the Department of the Taoiseach in conjunction with officials from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. I very much look forward to receiving the report and recommendations of the commission in due course.

The Taoiseach will be aware that the Labour Party expressed concerns at the time about the fact that there was no trade union representation on the group and no regional print media representation initially. The Taoiseach went some way towards addressing that issue with the appointment of Ms Siobhán Holliman, who essentially wears two hats. She is the deputy editor of the Tuam Herald but also an activist of the National Union of Journalists, NUJ.

The Taoiseach said at the inaugural meeting that it is important that we examine how the media can be funded. Does he have any suggestions in that regard? I draw his attention to a policy that emanated in 2018 from the then Fianna Fáil communications spokesperson, Senator Dooley. He proposed a €30 million fund for print journalism, the ring-fencing of VAT and a 6% levy on all digital advertising. Is it the Taoiseach's intention to implement this proposal?

Has the Taoiseach a view on the review and reform of our defamation laws? Is there a timeline for a review? Does the Taoiseach believe juries should be removed from defamation cases?

I want to raise the issue of the broadcasting charge, which was alluded to in the past couple of weeks by RTÉ's television controller, Mr. Andrew Lynch, at the Oireachtas committee. Why is the Government insisting on pushing ahead with plans for a new stealth tax on every household with this talk of a broadcasting charge? Did the Taoiseach not learn any lessons from his experience of the water charges? For years, he has been pushing for a broadcasting charge. Last year, he went so far as to say that if we were Taoiseach, he would introduce it in his first year. Now we have a commission on the future of the media and part of its purpose is clearly to give cover for such a tax. The reality is that the current TV licence is a very unfair, regressive, flat tax. It may be loose change for someone on the Taoiseach's salary but it is a lot of money for a low-earning family. With Covid, many people are struggling to pay the charge but, instead of a bit of understanding, it was announced that TV licence inspectors are still calling to people's homes in the middle of a level 5 lockdown. One cannot have any family over unless they happen to be a television licence inspector. How can the Taoiseach justify that? Rather than charging the fee or imposing a new broadcasting charge on ordinary families, should we not be levying a charge on the massive digital media companies, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, and using the funds to invest in quality media and broadcasting?

Irrespective of the criticisms we may sometimes have of RTÉ, public service broadcasting and having a national broadcaster are important because the alternative is the big, private, for-profit IT companies and the big digital online purveyors of movies, such as Amazon and Netflix, which are making an absolute fortune. If we are to safeguard the future of public service broadcasting and the media, we should, rather than imposing broadcasting charges on ordinary people who are already paying through the nose for Sky, Netflix and God knows what and then imposing another charge on them, impose a digital tax on the profits of the companies.

It is outrageous that important national matches, certain GAA matches and so on can be viewed only on some of the private, pay-per-view platforms. It should not be allowed. Similarly, we also need to ensure the public service broadcasters give more time to domestic musical and cultural output. Indeed, a set percentage of their output should be committed to this.

The Taoiseach has previously remarked that the commission has been constituted as an expert group rather than a stakeholders' representative body. This observation is to miss the point of the concerns raised about the breadth of the commission's membership in terms of addressing the limitations of the goals set for its work. There is no reference in the terms of reference to the consideration of declining employment prospects, media plurality or media ownership. Their inclusion is crucial if the stated purpose of the establishment of the commission is to be realised.

Precarious contracts have become the norm for a significant number of workers within print and broadcast media, both public and private. The economic shock of Covid-19 will be felt for some time and will exacerbate this reality. Local media, as has been said, have taken a battering over recent months. It is with these newspapers and radio stations that young journalists have traditionally cut their teeth. Employment rights, career opportunities and the ability to progress are the foundations of the professions' and sector's sustainability and credibility. How will these be factored into the commission's work?

The latest Media Pluralism Monitor from the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom highlights common challenges across the European Union. Just over half the member states, including Ireland, score a medium risk under market plurality. This, of course, is not a new concern. How will that be addressed?

I see that the Taoiseach was quoting Lenin down in UCC recently. I will give him a quote from Lenin myself.

John or Vladimir Ilyich?

It was Vladimir Ilyich that he was quoting. Lenin — it was not John Lennon — once said there is freedom of the press in capitalist society for those who own one. I want to ask the Taoiseach about the high concentration of media ownership in this State. The Media Pluralism Monitor states it puts this State at high risk. Reporters without Borders said last year it was the single largest threat to press freedom in this country. It is not talking in the abstract; it is talking about circumstances like those in which Denis O'Brien and Communicorp control Newstalk and Today FM, or 52% of the Dublin market, and 29.9% of shares in Independent News and Media, which owns the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent, the Evening Herald and the Sunday World. Rupert Murdoch and News Corp own and control The Sunday Times, The Irish Sun, five radio stations etc. What is the media commission going to do to tackle this problem? I favour the ending of the for-profit element in media ownership. Media should be collectively owned and democratically controlled and reflect the diversity of viewpoints in society. There is a debate as to the best way to tackle this. What timescale has the commission, particularly given that there are vacancies in it?

We did respond to the points Deputy Nash raised in the House regarding trade union involvement, but also regional media involvement. That occurred in the context of the additional appointments. We respond to points raised from time to time. As the Deputy said, the appointment of Ms Siobhán Holliman — the deputy editor of the Tuam Herald, member of the Press Council and joint cathaoirleach of the Irish executive council of the NUJ — goes some way towards addressing those issues.

On the observations of those on the far left, decisions have got to be made on this at some stage, rather than saying the commission is a cover for the introduction of a charge or whatever. We need independent public service media, and the commission has a role in that in terms of analysing RTÉ and TG4.

How does one ensure arms-length independent public service media? That is an important consideration.

Deputy Murphy is right. I have in the past advocated the replacement of the RTÉ licence fee with a universal charge that would cover everyone because of the emergence of new technologies and so on. The capacity to sustain independent public service media is at risk. I say that without fear or favour. I do not necessarily benefit from any good coverage one way or the other in some respects. That is not the issue. The issue is how we develop media in Ireland that are independent and how we develop a funding model that is sustainable. I have no wish to prejudice what the commission may come to, but private sector media in Ireland are under pressure and regional media are under pressure. How do we deal with the social media platforms?

There was a media commission on ownership and plurality some years back. It identified the growth of social media as a new platform for media and as something that was disruptive in the classic sense of "disruptive". That really created a new plurality, some of which was good and some not-so-good. Hence, in terms of what was not-so-good, the need for strong, robust, independent public service media and independent media as well. The challenge is how we create a sustainable funding model for private sector media as well that could give greater independence in terms of employability. The sector will require a proper funding model in terms of sustainable employment and good quality employment in journalism. What is going on at the moment is not satisfactory. It must be a difficult career choice for young people going into journalism. It is difficult and challenging. It is never-ending. It involves multitasking and all of that. I suggest strongly to the House that the funding model as it currently stands is not sustainable.

When the commission comes back with recommendations, the real challenge for us is whether we can put our ideology to one side, bite the bullet and make decisions? I am prepared to make decisions, even if they are unpopular. I get the sense that others want to look at whatever might come as a basis for another campaign. Deputy Paul Murphy is great for campaigns but they do not achieve a great deal other than stymie decision-making.

(Interruptions).

Through the Chair, I am saying that as a general observation. We can campaign all we like. I believe our national broadcaster needs sustainability and support. It needs reform and it needs to change. Fundamentally, given what has happened in other countries and states, we need to be mindful and careful of the degree to which democracy can be undermined by a plethora of platforms that seek to distort the truth and do not give the citizens of our democracy good, objective material.

What about accountability?

The Taoiseach would be better to focus on his own performance.

I do not understand. I am making a general point in answering. I was asked questions on the idea of the universal charge. It has been around for a long time. It is not a new concept. An all-party Oireachtas committee supported it in the past. It is my understanding that the committee, either by majority or unanimity, supported the idea of a universal charge. Anyway, it is up to the commission to decide.

I do not understand-----

The Taoiseach challenged Deputy Murphy.

No, I did not. I made a political point.

There are 35 seconds left to reply.

As I said, the commission is broad in its membership and I believe it will deal with the core issues that are necessary, especially in terms of public service broadcasting. Then it will deal with regional media, local media and the private sector media as well.