Media Diversity: Why does it matter?

Comments by Séamus Dooley, Irish Secretary, National Union of Journalists at a seminar hosted by Ms Nessa Childers MEP “ Media Diversity: Why does it matter?” on Monday 6th February 2012

At the outset may I pay tribute to Nessa Childers MEP for hosting this conference.

It is a timely initiative given the proposed transfer of responsibilities for media mergers to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the clear priority given to this issue by Mr Pat Rabbitte TD, the current minister.

It is worth noting that the report of the Advisory Group on Media Mergers chaired by Mr Paul Screenan SC was presented to Mary Coughlan, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment in June 2008 and published on January 2 2009.

The contrast between the respective ministers in their handling of media competition matters could not be sharper and may reflect the bravery – or foolhardiness of Mr Rabbitte in seeking to grasp this particular nettle.

Among the Screenan recommendations were:

There should be a statutory definition of media plurality (referring both to ownership and content) and crucially the important role of the media in a democracy should be recognised by Statute. I recognise the difficulties even in devising a statutory definition of plurality but the role of the media in democracy is pivotal and must be protected and underpinned by appropriate legislative measures.

There are those, mainly media owners, who believe that media organisations have a right to exist as they wish in a free market and to do as they wish, subject only to the laws of the media jungle.

But if we believe that journalists have a right of access to information, that journalistic sources should be protected and that the right to freedom of expression should be protected in law we must also accept that rights and freedom also bring great responsibility.

From an NUJ perspective we believe that in approving mergers or acquisitions – and in regulating broadcasting, consideration should also be given to employment standards. Relevant criteria to be considered by the Minister should include recognition by the application of State institutions and of the employment laws of this country.

If we are to defend media standards the conditions must exist for the protection of journalism and journalists.

We in the NUJ have known the truth about Murdoch for many years. Media workers in the UK – and in Ireland, have paid a very price for the failure of the political elite to control not a mogul but a monster who ruled by fear.

I recall a News International representative advising me, with reference to the Irish industrial relations infrastructure “We do not recognise the Court” not realising the irony or historic resonance of the declaration.

Since the closure of the News of the World we have provided advice and representation to NUJ members denied full employment status and a range of other employment rights.

News International, Associated Newspapers and Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp are among the dominant media organisations which refuse to engage collectively with trade unions.

In all cases the NUJ has a significant number of secret members who do not wish to reveal their union membership, for fear of reprisal. Such members enjoy a status similar to the secret cardinals of the church, union members in pectore an intolerable state of affairs in a modern democracy.

It is important to stress that such attitudes to trade unions is of course a much wider problem and can only be addressed by urgent legislative reform in line with our European Convention and ILO obligations.

The abuse of casual workers; the refusal to provide proper contracts of employment and to recognise the full range of employment rights is a particular problem in the independent broadcasting sector, where there is also a strong reliance on interns and unpaid labour.

This is not to say that there are not good employers in the sector – there are, but it is our experience that many commercial stations depend on free or cheap labour and this has consequences for editorial standards.

Murdoch’s derecognition of trade unions underlined his clear understanding that membership of the NUJ and a commitment to professional standards was a barrier to the unfettered creation of wealth. There is no doubt that lack of trade union protection and the right to organise contributed to the climate of fear among employees of News International.

There is a link between the absence of ethical standards and the derecognition of trade unions.

Membership of the NUJ and adherence to the NUJ Code of Conduct requires an ethical commitment – and we recognise that journalists must never operate on the principle that the end justifies the means, with no reference to the public interest.

The persistent failure of politicians in Ireland to address the issue of media ownership has had an impact on employment standards and on journalism in Ireland.

The issues of concentration of ownership and the power of individuals and groups may not appear so acute in Ireland but there are fundamental issues of ownership in Ireland. The primacy of competition law and the failure to give adequate consideration to the concept of the wider public interest have contributed to the situation whereby media ownership and control rests in the hands of a few.

Within the national and regional media sectors, in broadcasting and in print we have witnessed the loss of diversity with consequences for wages, for standards, for democracy.

The absence of adequate statutory protection for workers and the failure to legislate for collective bargaining, coupled with the actions of the Competition Authority in undermining the collective rights of freelance workers have contributed to the undermining of journalists and journalism.

While those at the helm of our financial institutions embarked on extravagant follies the Competition Authority turned a blind eye to their destructive behaviour, safeguarding the future of the Irish economy by clamping down on the rights of vulnerable freelance workers. They regard collective negotiations for freelance workers as price fixing and pursuit with uncommon vigour the trade union representative of freelance voice over actors.

Government action to protect these workers is long overdue. (And meanwhile the award for shooting fish in a barrel goes to the Competition Authority of Ireland) The madness which gripped the Celtic Tiger was reflected in the prices paid for regional newspaper titles.

Ill-advised expansion plans fuelled by overweening ambition and a desire to make a quick buck have had devastating consequences. The consequences of over borrowing has led to the undermining of employment not just in Ireland but also in the United Kingdom

Unwise investments and unrealistic expectations have characterised the national and regional media sector. At Executive level the remuneration paid to directors and senior personnel bore no relationship to their responsibilities and their contribution to their organisations.

A particular cause of regret is the fact that many solid regional newspapers established to make modest profits and with a wider civic or public remit were dragged down by a new generation of owners intent on “Makin Whoopee” on the back of inherited wealth.

Today the future of a significant number of Irish media organisations is determined not by editorial boards or even directors but by foreign bankers.

And it is the burden of debt which is crippling so many media companies.

Where journalists have taken pay cuts to preserve jobs the savings have not always been used to protect editorial budgets.

The decline in advertising revenue and competition from new media are clearly significant factors in the current financial crisis facing the print industry and there are many challenges to be faced.

How does all this this impact upon journalism and on readers?

We have experienced significant closures.

Changes in ownership and centralised management structures undoubtedly influence how newsrooms operate.

A growing number of local communities are now at the whim of media conglomerates.

The process of making editorial decisions is no longer determined on the principle of serving the community: the predominant factor now is cost.

In the battle for resources editors find themselves curtailing coverage, such as courts, parliament and local authority meetings.

The manner in which Northern Ireland is being largely ignored, including the Northern Ireland Assembly, by national media organisations based in Dublin, is an interesting example of editorial priorities.

Restrictions on travel expenses had led to journalists being metaphorically chained to their desks. The lack of “fresh air” journalism leads, as one member reported “to an unhealthy reliance on press hand outs with no time for follow up stories or developing local contacts”.

There is little time for investigative journalism.

FOI requests are being monitored on cost grounds.

In the area of sports coverage there is an ever increasing dependence on PROs, with fewer resources for reports and analysis.

The devaluing of press photography and the reliance of free pictures, often of doubtful quality, is another worrying trend.

The deterioration in terms and conditions of employment in many media organisations will have long term consequences for recruitment and on the quality of journalism. We also need diversity among the ranks of journalism which is in danger of becoming an unaffordable profession.

In a later session you will deal with the implications of new and emerging media on traditional media platforms. For my part I am confident that there will always be a role for professional journalism.

There will always be a need for Independent, verifiable information and for informed analysis. Media organisations must respond to the challenge of emerging technologies and all that they bring with them but that response must be informed by a commitment to editorial excellence.

“There can be no freedom of the media if journalists live in conditions of poverty, corruption or fear”.

The motto of the IFJ has a particular relevance in the context of this discussion. Where journalists are denied the right to collective bargain, where trade union representation is disallowed the conditions for media freedom do not exist.