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Dublin: 6 °C Wednesday 26 November, 2014

Column: The future of the media in Ireland is more diverse, more democratic and driven online

Talking about old versus new media misses the point, writes Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte. Instead, we need to look at copyright, regulation, and defamation.

Pat Rabbitte

THE MEDIA INDUSTRY everywhere is generally self obsessed – no other sector of society has the same ability or willingness to elevate their office politics to national news.

Journalists seem to love nothing more than talking about other journalists. In the normal course of events, this would be all very well and good. It might even be entertaining from time to time, so long as one was not directly involved.

But even the most casual of observers can tell you that the tone of the public conversation around media has changed in the recent past, and for reasons that go beyond the mere slings and arrows of battling outlets or egos. The ‘traditional’ media in Ireland has been hit by a set of twin challenges; the rise of a very different and internet oriented media ecology, and a severe and prolonged economic crisis. The first of these is undoubtedly global and globalising in its effect, the second has been particularly hard felt here.

To add to this, there is a burgeoning indigenous online or digital media sector in development, further adding to the woes of the traditional players. The commercial context in which this sector has evolved thus far has, in my view, coloured the debate in a very unfortunate manner.

Difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media

To some in the ‘old’ media, web based news organisations and commentators are either irresponsible juvenile keyboard warriors, or outright content pirates – cocky young pretenders playing at being grown ups, hiding behind the internet. From the ‘new’ media perspective, the old media are sometimes portrayed as dinosaurs, lumbering to their end in an era that that has simply evolved beyond needing them, batting feebly at the shiny young things.

None of this is true. Moreover, couching the debate in these terms is both unhelpful and a waste of time that we could all spend in more productive ways. ‘Old media’, in fact, often isn’t that old; traditional media outlets in Ireland remain at the forefront of online service provision, both in terms of the technology and in terms of their relative popularity online. Similarly, the internet is not an unregulated free for all (and it isn’t even that new – the first newspaper websites going online in 1995). Defamation law in Ireland applies just as readily to material published on the internet as in a newspaper.

‘Puppies, porn and piracy’

And there is more to the internet than “puppies, porn and piracy”, as someone once said – new media outlets already play a critical role in our democratic system, including outlets that are entirely focused on the Irish market. The world has moved on; casting the debate in the simplistic binary terms of print vs online, or broadcast vs narrowcast – something both sides are guilty of – misses the point that this particular debate has been over for several years.

The media of the future will be more diverse, more democratic, quite possibly poorer, and, most likely, it will mainly be online. It will be global in reach, but capable of almost infinite specialisation because it will harness communities, virtual or otherwise, in the delivery of their own news. That much we can tell already. But there is much that we can’t yet tell, and much that democracies can and must do to shape our media ecosystem for the future.

How do you regulate the internet?

Across the developed world, countries have long since evolved a generalised set of ways to regulate media, working out how best to balance freedom of speech and the public interest with the rights of the individual to privacy and the need to respect societal norms, and with specific rules for broadcast and print media. The internet has undermined all of that, in terms of the speed at which information can be disseminated, the fact that any ordinary citizen can do the reporting, and the simple fact that the internet has a global reach. It goes without saying that regulation has struggled to keep up. Much has been done of course, but the rate of change is such that all Governments are casting about.

In the medium or long term, the international nature of internet governance means that truly coherent solutions can only be found on an international level, through bodies like the EU, the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the United Nations. In the short term though, there are pressing issues that can and must be dealt with on a national basis, and around which debate should focus.

For example, media governance, including around how best to handle defamation and privacy online should be a central concern in any democracy. A number of years ago, the Press Council was established by the print sector in Ireland to provide a complaints procedure and a set of guidelines for the sector, and was subsequently given a special place in defamation law.

Issues facing the media

While the Press Council can already have web based publishers as members, the question arises as to whether, in its present form, it is the most suitable organisation to take on a specific online role, or whether a separate organisation is required. In fact, there may well be issues included in the forthcoming reports of the Leveson Inquiry in the UK that suggest that we take a more complete look at media governance in Ireland, despite the fact that the Press Council model has been commended in the course of that same enquiry.

Equally, payment models for media, both online and off are of vital concern, including the manner in which advertising is bought and sold in Ireland. Similarly, as we all know, copyright issues remain critical, and particularly around how we manage copyright violations and the reasonable use of content online.

These are concrete issues that matter, issues on which difficult and complex decisions need to be taken in the coming years if we are to retain a media ecosystem that is both vibrant and diverse, and which serves the needs of all of the people of Ireland. These matters are at the very least worthy of rational and informed debate, and I hope that all involved in the sector in Ireland, dinosaurs and highwaymen alike, will partake in a constructive manner.

Pat Rabbitte TD is the Minister for Communications, Energy & Natural Resources

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