This article was originally published at 'The Irish Times'
Some years ago, the then cathaoirleach of the National Union of Journalists’ Irish executive council, Mary Maher, and myself were called before an Oireachtas committee on communications.
On arrival at Leinster House, we happened to meet Michael D Higgins, former minister for arts, culture and the Gaeltacht and a future President of Ireland.
Deputy Higgins inquired as to the purpose of our visit. We explained that we were going to give our views on public-service broadcasting.
“Ah, Mary,” the former minister cautioned, “they will look at you as if you were an advocate for shoelaces at the time of the introduction of the slip-on shoe.”
"Covid-19 has exposed the fragility of the industry: the consequences of underinvestment"
Michael D’s foreboding words resonate again as the Future of Media Commission considers the future not just of public-service broadcasting but of public-interest journalism.
The concept of journalism as a public good may have fallen out of fashion but over the past 12 months there has been a renewed appreciation of the value of informed, authoritative journalism from trusted sources.
But at a time when public-interest journalism is most needed the media is in crisis.
Commercial media organisations are struggling to survive, the regional newspaper sector teeters on the edge while Facebook and Google siphon off revenue by exploiting the work of those whose precarious future should be the dominant concern of the commission.
Covid-19 has exposed the fragility of the industry: the consequences of underinvestment, the paucity of action to protect public-service broadcasting, public-interest journalism and media diversity.
The commission has been charged with charting the path for public-service broadcasting and for public-interest “content” provided by commercial media across all platforms.
"The time has come to challenge the shibboleth that acceptance of government support, however regulated, would automatically compromise editorial standards"
In any debate the focus should not be on the platforms used to convey stories but on journalism, a phrase I prefer to “content”.
RTÉ and TG4 provide quality public-service broadcasting despite political cowardice when it comes to reforming funding and the licence-collection system.
A vibrant private-sector media is also important to a healthy democracy. This is recognised through supports for independent production companies in the film and broadcasting sectors, yet no such supports exist for the newspaper or digital news sector.
The time has come to challenge the shibboleth that acceptance of government support, however regulated, would automatically compromise editorial standards.
The NUJ’s submission to the commission, Journalism, Not Just Business, calls for the establishment of an independent, publicly funded agency which would support public-interest journalism and have a development and training role across all media platforms.
The concept of subsidising commercial news organisations is seen in some quarters as a heresy. Many citizens, including NUJ members, are understandably fearful about the threat to editorial independence, based on a belief that any State subventions would compromise editorial independence. These fears can be addressed through transparent structures.
There is no evidence to suggest that State aid would be detrimental to a free press or that funding automatically compromises editorial content.
There are numerous examples, such as the Economic and Social Research Institute think tank, where editorial independence has not been compromised by acceptance of or reliance on State aid.
The commission should look at international models such as Sweden and Norway, where it is recognised that a viable media is essential to a healthy democracy.
Public subsidies for the press were introduced in 1969 in Norway, where media policy is predicated on the country’s constitution, which affirms that it is the responsibility of the state to facilitate an open and enlightened public debate.
In the same way article 40.6.1 of Bunreacht na hÉireann supports the right to freedom of expression and could be interpreted as vindicating State support for media plurality and diversity.
In Ireland, funding from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund and the Mary Raftery Fund have enhanced public-interest journalism.
The BAI Sound and Vision Fund is financed through the State broadcasting licence and a levy system and has enabled independent broadcasting of the highest quality.
The NUJ has always been mindful of the potential influence of advertising and commercial sponsorship on editorial content. We have also been alert to the reality of owner interference in editorial matters.
The lines between editorial content and advertising are increasingly being blurred, partly a desperate response to the challenge to traditional revenue streams by tech giants.
There is a strong industry lobby for more State advertising and a zero VAT rate for news providers, yet an apparent reluctance in some quarters to even consider a transparent funding model, with an independent board and clear procedures.
Far from being a threat, alternative funding streams could be a powerful weapon in defence of ethical, public-interest journalism if specifically ring-fenced for that purpose.
The proposed media foundation would also provide grants to freelance journalists who, unlike their counterparts in the arts and entertainment sectors, have received no special assistance during the Covid-19 pandemic.
No public money would be made available for firms imposing compulsory redundancies or denying the right to trade-union organisation.
The State urgently needs to tackle the issue of tech giants, who could be a source of funding for media training and development.
In 2020 the UK government introduced a digital services tax which provides a template for a new revenue source.
The NUJ is proposing a windfall tax of 6 per cent on tech giants, based on the UK scheme.
Tech giants benefit greatly from the use of media-generated content and attract users, clicks, views and advertising from and on the back of the traditional media who constructed it.
Journalism is not just business and we need to secure, support and sustain public-interest journalism on radio and television, in print and across digital platforms at national and regional level.
We do not need to be hidebound by history to secure our future.
Séamus Dooley is Irish secretary of the National Union of Journalists