David Robbins: Key decisions for the Future of Media Commission

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In his essay Key decisions for the Future of Media Commission, David Robbins talks through the various groups that have been proposed and appointed in recent years to ’solve’ some of the problems facing the Irish media industry. The first of these Commissions is part of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill, which targets online abuse and disinformation. This Bill proposes a new Media Commission which would act like a more powerful Broadcasting Authority (BAI), with the ability to prevent harmful online content as well as regulating radio, TV and streaming services. 

The second Commisison is less concerned with regulation and more focused on funding and economic viability. Set up as the Commission on Irish Public Service Broadcasting in 2019 by then minister for communications Richard Bruton, it went through several lineup changes before being expanded by the Green Party in 2020 to “consider the future of print, broadcast, and online media in a platform agnostic fashion.” Robbins notes that much of the focus remained on public service broadcasting, with the Green document recognising “the important role of public service broadcasting in Irish life”

The Commission held a series of six ‘Thematic Dialogues’, in which news organisations highlighted the precarious financial situation they now find themselves in as advertising revenue continues to be lost to tech giants like Google and Facebook. Notably, the Irish Times reported that their daily circulation had dropped from 117,000 to 46,000 in less than ten years. In response, those same tech companies pointed out that they fund journalism via several different programmes, and that they direct a lot of their online traffic to news websites.

One thing that was agreed upon was the need to fund the media in a way that wouldn’t compromise their editorial independence or their ability to hold governments to account, while providing them with adequate resources to pursue investigative public service reporting. 

These dialogues also drew attention to the important functions of journalism in democracies, from providing a public sphere for the discussion of ideas to investigating wrongdoing. A more recent addition to these functions was countering online disinformation, especially in relation to COVID-19.

There was some criticism of the Commission however, mostly due to a lack of input from newspaper publishers and an over emphasis of public service media. Robbins suggests that more attention should be paid to concerns that news organisations moving towards a subscription model could “result in access to diverse and professionally produced news becoming the preserve of those on higher incomes.”

Robbins’ big question is how any proposed media funding might be administered. Would the ‘old’ Commission be responsible or would there be a new independent body set up to ensure fairness? These decisions might seem minor, but the survival of some news organisations could ultimately rest on them.

Dr. Robbins’ essay and the rest of the Digital News Report can be viewed here.

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