Politicians back NUJ involvement in new Irish media commission
1 October 2020
The exclusion of the NUJ from the new Commission on the Future of the Media in Ireland has been strongly criticised in the Dáil and Seanad Eireann.
The government's media minister, Catherine Martin, has agreed to appear before senators next week for a debate on the commission following criticism from senators Shane Cassells, a former journalist and NUJ member, and Lynn Boylan.
Senator Shane Cassells told the house that the exclusion of the NUJ from the commission was "akin to printing a paper without a headline". He added:
"We would not establish a commission on the future of agriculture, pack it full of stockbrokers and have no one from an agricultural background on it. The people in the NUJ, headed by Séamus Dooley, know at first hand the real problems and challenges facing the media sector, in particular in the past 15 years, as well as the broken funding model afflicting it. This time last year, the leader and I met representatives of the regional newspapers to discuss that broken funding model. They included Gavan Becton, the editor of our local paper, the Meath Chronicle, and its owner, Frank Mulrennan of the Celtic Media Group. Indeed, it was Mulrennan who gave me my first job in local journalism some 20 years ago when he was chief executive of the Drogheda Independent. It had three titles at the time but those three newspapers are, in journalist staffing terms, a pale shadow of what they were 20 years ago.
"In the last decade, we have seen sales of local papers across Ireland plummet, with advertising moving to social media and owners slashing and burning their newsrooms. The funding model is broken and regional and local newspapers are on their knees. Is it any wonder we see such an exodus from the press gallery as our fine journalistic minds leave to become government special advisers? If I was to do it all again, I wish my career guidance teacher had told me 25 years ago to become a government special adviser rather than a journalist.
"This commission is to be welcomed. I look forward to its work but I stress to the leader that, first, we need to see the NUJ recognised on it. The NUJ represents the printing industry, which is the sector facing the most pressure within journalism."
Senator Lynn Boylan also called for the inclusion of the NUJ and supported the union’s criticism of the terms of reference announced on Tuesday. She said:
"I welcome the establishment of the commission as a first step but I have some concerns regarding some of its terms of reference and some glaring omissions. There is no reference to media diversity, plurality or ownership structures. A 2016 report by the KRW Law-LLP firm found that Ireland had one of the most concentrated media markets of any democracy. Likewise, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom has repeatedly flagged the lack of media plurality in Ireland. There is no mention of the role and impact of the digital search engines and social media platforms. The terms of reference also fail to mention the employment challenges facing those who work in the sector.
"Journalism is increasingly becoming a precarious job and many young journalists have left the field in recent years. This leads me to my concerns regarding the make up of the commission, and I say this without questioning the calibre of those who have been appointed. The commission lacks anyone who has direct experience in the Irish news publishing industry at a local or national level. There is no representative of a digital news platform. There is no trade union representative who can speak to the employment challenges. There is no one with a background in journalism education on the commission and that is for no shortage of the very fine schools of journalism in this country. Finally, I have grave concern about the absence of anyone from the local and community media sector. I fear that if they have no voice around the table, community and local media will be completely forgotten despite the hugely valuable role that they play. I urge the minister to come before the house to hear these concerns."
Responding the leader of the house Regina Doherty described the exclusion of the NUJ as "a glaring omission" and said she had already asked the minister to attend for a debate next week.
In the dáil, taoiseach Michaél Martin was evasive when pressed by Catherine Murphy on the exclusion of the NUJ and print industry representatives from the commission. Murphy called for expanded terms of reference for the commission to include libel reform.
Catherine Murphy said it is essential that the make up of the commission is inclusive. She added:
"The last thing we want to see is a worthy initiative such as the establishment of this commission falling short because there are gaps in expertise. It is also essential that the terms of reference of the commission are broad enough and cover all the key issues.
"The terms of reference provide for the commission to look at Irish public service broadcasters as well as other broadcasters in addition to the print media at all levels, and to look at a sustainable future. That is the central tenet of the work. There are, however, other aspects that impinge on the sector's sustainability, including Ireland's defamation laws. While everyone is entitled to his or her good name, the balance of our defamation laws often protects the individual at the expense of society. I would have thought the commission would have been asked to consider this important aspect, not least because it has a chilling effect. Issues that are in the public interest on occasions are not aired because of the risk of ending up in the high court, which has the potential to put further jobs in the industry at risk. It often takes significant courage on behalf of an editor to air stories. We saw that recently in the past year with the Sunday Times and the very successful book written by Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan that is out at the moment articulates that very well. Many sports journalists were frustrated over the years that they could not write those stories. Had they been able to write those stories, one wonders if the FAI would be in the position it is at the moment. It just demonstrates the point.
"A defamation case was successfully defended last year, which was in the courts for three weeks. The courts are not always available to citizens but they are certainly available to those with deep pockets and a zest for litigation."
The taoiseach did not respond directly to the request for an extended commission and responded to the points raised about libel reform by saying the government will honour the commitment in the programme for government to review and reform the existing defamation laws.