• Donal Horgan

The case for no tax payer bailout of Ireland's failing media industry

At this stage, the proverbial dogs in the street know that the Irish media industry is in crisis. With the setting up of the Future of Media Commission it seems that we are going to have a national conversation of sorts about just where the Irish media is going. The real question at this stage is whether this is a prelude to some sort of state bail out for Ireland’s failing media industry.

One thing for sure is that journalists have an overpowering sense of their own importance and entitlement. We hear a lot about ‘fake news’ and the fourth estate with the clear implication that the Irish media are the good guys who serve a critical public service and so need to be saved for all our sakes.

Talk of the dire state of the media industry usually revolves around the damage done to it by social media giants like Facebook etc. This may be true, but it also misses the fairly obvious point that virtually every sector of economic activity has been similarly affected by the tech revolution of the last 30 years. Indeed, entire occupations have disappeared over the same period without scarcely a murmur from the same media.

RTE (and much of the media industry) see themselves as victims of the tech revolution and the nasty side of this is ‘fake news’, whereby uncorroborated and false stories are spread by their rivals on social media. The popular view fostered by the mainstream media is that it is some sort of bulwark against the scourge of fake news. The recent RTE ‘Truth Matters’ campaign warning of the dangers of relying on social media serves as a good example of this.

The notion of the Irish media functioning like some heroic fourth estate sounds very wholesome until you start noticing just how untrue much of it is. The proposition that the Irish media provide a vital public service is an untested one especially by journalists themselves.

Take the recent story regarding a second level school in Carlow and the supposed message delivered to its female pupils regarding the wearing of proper PE uniform. There were wild allegations about female pupils being cautioned by the school about what they wore in case they’d ‘distract’ the male teachers in the school. The story quickly spread via social media and in turn was broken nationally by journalists using the same social media.

While gravely warning people in its Truth Matters campaign of the dangers of ‘believing everything in your news feed’, RTE had no such problems itself running the story on its own news website based on an uncorroborated tweet by a journalist. Whereas RTE, of late, was pointedly prefacing news stories relating to the tweets of one well known American political figure with the tag ‘without evidence’ there were no such reservations on this occasion as the publicly funded national broadcaster filled us in on the ‘distractions’ angle of the Carlow school story.

In the interests of journalistic integrity, perhaps the record should now read that RTE, without evidence, reported on the ‘distractions’ angle of the Carlow school story. Much the same happened in the newspapers with various opinion writers and activist journalists jumping in and feeding on the story based on an uncorroborated tweet by another journalist on social media.

The entire story was debunked the following morning when the school principal, Ray Murray, was interviewed on Morning Ireland. Kacey O’ Riordan, the award winning journalist who first broke the story nationally, quietly deleted her tweet without apology. It appears that for young self-styled activist journalists, good lies don’t damage reputations in the same way that bad ones do.

Despite this, the narrative around how badly the girls (not the male staff) were treated continued in the media. Even after the whole story had been debunked, one journalist writing in a reputable national daily still felt entitled to deliver the column she had always wanted to write about the story – the one about the the male patriarchy.

Irish journalists may harbour notions of themselves as some sort of fourth estate holding power to account. However, the problem for journalists these days is that a lot of people don’t share their own deluded view of themselves. Perhaps this explains why the Irish media industry is now in crisis.

The point is the Irish media – RTE included - has no problem relying on ‘fake news’, social media or indeed anything else when it suits their own narrative. For the media, it seems that ‘fake news’ is something that you ascribe to people and opinions that you do not like.

The contention that the Irish media enjoy widespread public trust because of the vital public service they perform appears to be little more than a modern day wives tale invented by journalists themselves. Take the media coverage of the Eighth Referendum in 2018 and how it was perceived by the public.

A survey* of 1,000 adults conducted by Amárach Research while the referendum campaign was in progress asked people about their perceptions of media bias during the campaign. Asked about which side of the vote Irish media coverage favoured, the largest number (42%) responded that the media broadly favoured the Yes side. 28% said they believed the media were broadly neutral and 17% said the media favoured the No side with the remaining 13% not expressing an opinion.

Referendum on Eighth Amendment 2018

Public perceptions of Media Bias

Which side of the vote does Irish media coverage broadly favour?

The survey also asked if this perceived media bias influenced their behaviour as consumers of media. While the largest number (49%) said their perceptions around media bias was neither important nor unimportant in determining their media consumption habits, a significant number (37%) said it did. The declining fortunes of the Irish media industry may have as much to do with a growing distrust of journalists to be fair and impartial as it has with the changes wrought by new tech.

How important are your perceptions around media bias

in determining your Irish media consumption habits?

The increasing number of journalists jumping ship to become advisers and spin doctors for an assortment of politicians, NGOs and quangos hardly inspires confidence in Irish journalism. These days, the secret ambition of many Irish journalists would appear to be to land a job with the government or one of its state funded NGOs and quangos.

Notions of a contrarian fourth estate holding those in power to account have been replaced by the spectacle of a failing media industry more interested in pushing its own agendas than it is in performing any useful public service. It’s not journalism that is failing in Ireland today – it’s a particular model of journalism based on big business and the aggressive promotion of a progressive liberal agenda.

This is Ireland’s emerging Big State, one in which journalists are increasingly on the side of authority. In a country where increasingly it is state funded NGOs who not only control the language of debate but the very nature of public discourse itself, never has the need for an independent media been greater.

Today, the news story that journalists are most reluctant to write about is the one about why they have lost the trust of the public. The inconvenient truth for journalism today is that society may have as much to fear from journalists as it has from other third party agents. Perhaps, this is the truth that really does matter.

The right not to buy a newspaper or watch a particular TV programme is as much a part of free speech as exercising the right to do these same things. Equally, the rights of tax payers in ensuring that their taxes are not used to fund a discredited partisan journalism is also an intrinsic part of that same free speech.

Of late, state sponsored ‘consultation processes’ are becoming better known as choreographed set pieces whereby lobbyists and vested interests get what they want. Is this the prelude to a state bailout of Ireland’s failing media industry? Only time will tell if the Future of Media Commission asks the questions that Irish journalism prefers not to ask itself.

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