Time to level the me­dia play­ing field

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - COMMENT -

THE Euro­pean Broad­cast­ing Union has an­nounced a new cam­paign called ‘Keep Me­dia Good’, which is de­signed to demon­strate the pos­i­tive im­pact pub­lic ser­vice me­dia has on so­ci­eties. And so say all of us. This was the first time pub­lic ser­vice me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions across Europe, in­clud­ing RTE and TG4 in Ire­land, came to­gether to cham­pion pub­lic ser­vice me­dia in the face of a pro­lif­er­a­tion of fake news, po­lit­i­cal im­bal­ances, dis­putes over fund­ing and the rise of on­line stream­ing giants. These com­bined trends, it was said, “dis­tract” from the fact that pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing is one of so­ci­ety’s most valu­able as­sets.

Which was all well and good, but not en­tirely the full pic­ture: if any­thing, the ‘Keep Me­dia Good’ cam­paign im­me­di­ately failed in its first duty to ac­cu­rately in­form peo­ple that it is not pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ers alone who at­tempt to avoid fake news and po­lit­i­cal im­bal­ances and that com­mer­cial me­dia is, in fact, not in­her­ently ‘bad’ but in most cases also per­forms a vi­tal pub­lic ser­vice to in­form, in­spire, en­gage and in­no­vate, and to pro­tect and strengthen democ­ra­cies.

The over­sight is im­por­tant in light of re­ports that the Oireach­tas Com­mit­tee on Com­mu­ni­ca­tions is soon to be­gin de­lib­er­a­tions on the is­sue of pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing as fi­nanced by the tele­vi­sion li­cence fee, the vast pro­por­tion of which goes di­rectly to RTE, which, un­like many pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ers through­out Europe, also ben­e­fits hugely from ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enues in di­rect com­pe­ti­tion with com­mer­cial me­dia. Let us also con­sider the wider land­scape. Com­mer­cial me­dia is also under at­tack from global dig­i­tal giants such as Google and Face­book who com­mand an ever-in­creas­ing slice of dig­i­tal me­dia ad­ver­tis­ing, thereby prov­ing to be a di­rect threat to the con­tin­ued vi­a­bil­ity of the com­mer­cial me­dia model as we have come to know and un­der­stand it.

A new re­port to the Oireach­tas Com­mit­tee has sug­gested that the cur­rent TV li­cence fee of €160 should be raised to as much as €175, along with a fur­ther sug­ges­tion that its rate should be linked to in­fla­tion in the fu­ture. How con­ve­nient. But re­ally, this pro­posal fails to take ac­count of the broader land­scape in which all me­dia are now fight­ing for sur­vival. Here is a novel sug­ges­tion equally wor­thy of con­sid­er­a­tion: would it not be bet­ter to abol­ish the li­cence fee al­to­gether and the rev­enue re­placed through con­ven­tional taxes on con­sump­tion and in­come? Af­ter all, the li­cence fee is noth­ing more than an an­nual tax on the own­er­ship of a con­sumer durable, re­gard­less of use, and makes as much eco­nomic sense as a tax on wash­ing ma­chines or cook­ers. Such a new fund­ing model could then be ap­plied ac­cord­ing to an ut­terly changed me­dia land­scape, the com­mer­cial play­ers in which equally value a strong, ver­i­fi­able and trust­wor­thy news ser­vice and im­par­tial to boot, or at least as im­par­tial as the RTE News pub­lic ser­vice main­tains it­self to be.

A func­tion­ing democ­racy needs se­ri­ous ra­dio and TV sta­tions, and also broad­sheet and in­deed tabloid news­pa­pers, the pitch upon which the po­lit­i­cal game is played, as it were. In its de­lib­er­a­tions, the Oireach­tas Com­mit­tee on Com­mu­ni­ca­tions should strive to en­sure that the play­ing pitch is some­what lev­elled. The al­ter­na­tive, as we saw in the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, can have a desta­bil­is­ing ef­fect which could un­der­mine rather than bol­ster democ­racy.

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