Timmy Dooley, who signed off on the FF policy document on future funding of broadcasting, print and digital media, told me in conversation last week that taxpayer money would not be made available to “little organs of hate”. He would not be drawn on the Irish media outlets he had in mind. It raises a great many questions about who will decide which media our taxes should support.
Whatever he had in mind, it wasn’t RTE. The big-budget, public-funded broadcaster is certainly not ‘little’ but there are many who would say its scabrous skit on Christian belief on New Year’s Eve should fall comfortably within the government’s definition of ‘hate speech’. However, nobody in either government or RTE seemed to think it did, and it took widespread condemnation and protest to force the eventual removal of the offensive content from RTE’s web site. Since there are now many new alternative media platforms operating online, both from this country and beyond, it would be really interesting to know which of them Dooley has in mind.
In my view, Fianna Fail’s media proposals show an astonishing lack of knowledge about the dynamics of 21st century media. As in so many other areas of life today, we go online more and more to access news content across a wide spectrum, from sport to culture, entertainment to lifestyle, fashion to politics, business to celebrity gossip. While hard copy newspaper sales have plummeted and continue to plummet, there is a far greater corresponding rise in uptake of their digital editions For instance, the Irish Independent reported an 8% drop in print copies of their newspaper but a 33% rise in digital uptake a couple of years ago. It would be reasonable to assume that such a trend has since gathered pace. The lockdowns must have added their own momentum too over the last year. Why would anyone think this is a bad development? Yes, there is something more human and personal about the tactile experience of handling a book or magazine compared to scanning a screen. There is also something about writing and posting a letter that is lost in the relative perfunctoriness of an email. But times change and technology’s revolutions tend to prevail and of course they have collateral consequences, some of which can be undeniably problematic.
One significant consequence is that newsprint and broadcasting no longer have a hegemony on advertising. Advertising has found many other ways of reaching its targets online. Sometimes it uses news platforms but very often it does not. Social media platforms like twitter, facebook and google and private blogs have hoovered a lot of lucrative advertising from their traditional hosts. That naturally poses a challenge for them. In addition, they are faced with world wide competition they never had to contend with in pre-internet days. Not such good news for them but for the reading and viewing public, very good news indeed.
They, the traditional outlets, claiming the soubriquet of ‘mainstream’ and the authority and impartiality that is meant to imply, have been forced from their comfort zone. Yet, numerous other businesses have had to meet the same challenge and meet it without politicians making common cause with them. To be fair, many media outlets have made the transition with little or no hand wringing. These are the outlets that offer good content and in many cases fill a void in the media market for many readers who find such outlets well informed, fair and balanced and perhaps, most significantly of all, relatable. They become the first go- to point for news and comment for more and more readers. A considerable number are start-ups that have never known anything but the cut and thrust of the crowded, fiercely competitive cyber market of news and ideas.
But Timmy Dooley, rather extraordinarily, seems to want to rewind the clock of progress. He wants to spend taxpayers’ money promoting the ‘distribution and delivery’ of print media to households, something he claims the French government is undertaking. In an age when we are all advised not to print material unless necessary and to consider the carbon cost of our behaviour, this is a truly extraordinary proposal. Even more so considering that Dooley’s brief was Climate change as well as Communications.
From the point of view of politicians like Dooley, digital media is less easy to control because it operates both inside and beyond territorial boundaries. Governments don’t subvent them so they dance to their own tunes. Because some of their content is clearly hated by politicians, does that mean that they can be characterised as ‘ little organs of hate’ and handicapped by subventing their more politically correct rivals with public money?
Dooley’s document states that it is unfair that journalists’ work is shared online without payment either to the writer or the publisher. But if you share an article, you are generally thanked by the outlet concerned. They want you to share. That is how they promote their brand and attract the interest of advertisers, many of whom are keen to connect with outlets ‘that target key demographics’, as RTE puts it in its pitch for commercial sponsorship. It is up to individual outlets at what point to set their paywall. Some allow one or two free articles per publication. Others none at all so you only get to share the article’s title and possibly a teaser paragraph or two. Reading patterns offer advertisers a great tool for sussing out potential customers so there will always be particular interest in advertising on news platforms. Naturally, the wider the platform’s circulation, the greater the potential.
Timmy Dooley thinks that state supported journalism will ensure quality. He sees such support as a way of diffusing ‘the lies’ of social media. However, across all sectors of production, it is the open market that can best be trusted to deliver both quality and value for money. Does Dooley not trust the public? Why does he think the public should trust politicians like him by giving them permission to use their money to prop up certain media outlets and not others? Or is citizens’ choice a good thing only when it advances his agenda?
Subventing media is a way of controlling it in authoritarian regimes and always has been. Invariably the case for control is equated with the defence of ‘truth’. But truth is not always as unambiguous as Timmy Dooley would have us believe. Very often one person’s truth is at best partial truth for someone else. The lie too can be carried in omission and spin as much as in false claims. We don’t all see things in the same way and it doesn’t always mean someone is consciously lying or influenced by ‘fake’ news when they hold an opposing view. Besides, social media, which seems to be Dooley’s major bugbear, is not going to disappear. No amount of sunvention will put that genie back in the bottle. You might for instance cancel Donald Trump but the 75 million who voted for him will still be posting with their wide range of views on the ideologies they felt he offered a bulwark against, whatever his flaws.
Yes, of course governments have a duty to regulate media just as they regulate other businesses and the daily lives of citizens. Freedom comes with responsibilities in every area of life. They already regulate media. Regulation does not require the state to effectively appropriate media by making it dependent on subventions. That is control and is in nobody’s interest except those who want to shape the public conversation to their own ends. That must be resisted.