Irish Democracy needs a Diverse, Professional Media
I would like to thank you for your invitation to speak this morning particularly because you have chosen such an important topic – one which goes to the heart of our social and political culture.
It is vital to understand that Ireland is not simply reflective of other countries. We have a media which feels many of the same pressures and shows many of the same practices which are to be felt elsewhere – but it has a central role in Irish life which may not be unique but is certainly distinct.
Ireland is unusual in how it has retained very high levels of newspaper readership as well as broad audiences for broadcast news and current affairs. While in some countries the recession led to disengagement, in Ireland levels of engagement with serious media has actually increased. The reach of the main news broadcasts is enormous. So too are the listenership figures for local and national discussion programmes as well as the overall readership of newspapers both print and online.
In light of this, one of the most surprising things is how little debate there is about the media in Ireland. Yes we frequently have controversies concerning individual cases or programmes – but we have almost no serious discussion about the broad direction, standards and importance of the media.
This should concern us all because I have no doubt whatsoever that a healthy Irish democracy needs an active, diverse and professional journalism. It needs people who have the time and the platform to create and facilitate work which is reflective, challenging and constructive.
The traditional way in which the issue of media bias has been approached is solely on the basis of looking at political bias – the favouring of one party, ideology or person over others.
With limited exceptions it is hard to find a politician who doesn’t believe that bias is common or a journalist who will admit that they have ever shown any.
Of course there is bias.
By covering one issue or one person over another, choices are made all the time by journalists. The idea that these choices are always free of bias is patently ridiculous. It’s also not a very productive area for discussion. It requires proper study over years rather than minutes.
A far more important way to approach this issue is to look at other ways in which the media can become biased. These include the bias which comes from a lack of diversity; from a short-term approach; from the de-professionalising of the industry; from an over concentration on the centre and from a failure to value specialisation.
Before getting into these we have to first acknowledge the exceptionally difficult environment experienced by much of the media and the growing pressures this is placing on journalism.
The internet has enabled individuals to have their voice in an incredibly valuable way. This has revolutionised how issues and events emerge into the wider public sphere.
Much highly professional citizen journalism has appeared and it has provided a great service. However, the growing influence of a dispersed online community is not without negative impacts.
The area of cyber-bullying and the ‘swarming’ of opinions in order to shut them up are very real but not what I’m talking about in this context. I think we need to at least start talking about whether we are properly valuing or distinguishing the role of journalism as a profession.
We cannot crowdsource everything because then only the crowd will have a voice. More seriously, those who have the resources or position to manipulate will be able to have much greater power.
Much of what is most important in journalism and is most vital to a democratic society is impossible without organisations which invest in providing time, resources and expertise to issues. Organisations which demand basic standards of proof, which are there to be held accountable for errors and which can value accuracy over advocacy.
Today Ireland has one of the world’s longest continuous records of democracy. We have had free elections with loud debates and changing governments. We have had a media diverse and professional enough to ensure this. This is something very valuable and not to be taken for granted – and it is something that we cannot expect to be free to us.
And let’s also remember that the foundation for much citizen involvement in public affairs is provided by the work of professional journalism.
And just as we need to support good journalism we also need to speak out when we see developments in the media which are inherently biased – and support principles which work for greater balance.
Perhaps the single greatest protection against bias is to have a diverse media and there’s no way of escaping that our media landscape is becoming significantly less diverse.
Some of this is inevitable due to the economic factors I mentioned, but much of it isn’t. This matters a lot and it is not a comment directed at any particular entity.
It doesn’t matter how open or self-critical a society you have, media diversity is essential to protecting it.
I find it amazing that after four years in office the government’s only policy on media diversity is to avoid having a policy. It has nothing to say about diversity within or between different media types. It has nothing to say about what levels of concentration of ownership are reasonable.
Without having a national policy on this developments are carrying on regardless.
The concentration of media power into relatively few hands, both public and private sector, could have a potentially chilling effect.
Whether or not an owner or controller imposes their views directly it is basic human nature that journalists will be influenced by how they perceive the interests of the people they work for or feel they may one day need to work for.
The only way of combating this bias is through media diversity.
There is also a growing risk of a bias towards speed at the cost of context and complexity. The rush to keep up is in many ways giving us a black and white picture of a world which is made up of colour and shade.
Analysis is now immediate and there are fewer forums available for the genuinely long-term or reflective view. Is monitoring Twitter really a legitimate primary source for monitoring public attitudes?
The evidence from elsewhere suggests that the faster the news cycle the higher the role of opinion in reporting. The fewer facts there are at hand the more you need to turn to speculation and analysis to fill the space and time.
There are very important exceptions to this and we as a society should value them more and be less tolerant of thinly-sourced hyperbole.
An obvious area of bias is the growing dominance of reporting from the centre rather from within the broader community. This is a factor even in Dublin.
There is an extraordinary clustering of reporters in our country. Irrespective of where the reporters come from, there is growing sense that it is the agenda set from a small part of Dublin rather than a genuinely national agenda.
I meet many people who believe that the only time their community and their interests get attention is when there is a crime, a factory closure or other serious problem.
Perhaps the biggest example of how we can have a bias to the centre is how Northern Ireland has slipped off the agenda except for times of conflict. There are Northern correspondents who work hard and file important stories, but there is an obvious editorial disinterest which I believe enabled a governmental disinterest which caused real damage.
Our national discourse is incomplete unless we challenge the bias towards the centre. I will give two very different examples. Many people’s impression of the agri-food industry is dominated by coverage of disputes about farm payments. These are important and worthy of attention, but you can’t understand these disputes unless you also see the incredible changes there have been on farms and the world-beating agri-food businesses which they have enabled.
Sinn Fein is currently posing as a radical alternative in the 26 counties. The same party is in government in the North and this week has implemented an austerity package the like of which they would be organising demonstrations against if it was tried in Dublin.
If we don’t give time and space to covering the North we’ll not only risk damaging breakdowns we’ll fail to hold accountable a significant political party.
The final bias I think we need to be wary of is the bias against specialist coverage. There are many excellent specialist correspondents but the nature of their roles is that they have little space beyond covering the immediately newsworthy. An important example is education. Disputes have to be covered, but we’ll a shape a better education system only if we take the time to get into more detail.
Ask any organisation or party and they will say that there is less and less media interest in covering hard policy initiatives. At launches the issue of the day dominates and complex policies get summarised in a few minutes.
One of the consistent points made about the decade and a half before the recession has been that the policies which would have avoided the crash were not on any political agenda.
Dáil Éireann spent more time debating greyhound doping than the regulation of banks. There was no motion calling for less spending or higher taxes.
So we are far from what the Taoiseach called the Democratic Revolution of 2011 as things have actually are worse, with the agenda more tightly controlled than ever by government.
This is why a media which has the capacity to step away from the political issue of the day and enable a broader, deeper debate is essential.
As I’ve said, I believe there are important biases in our media but that we have been served well by our media. At a time of enormous change we need to make sure we don’t lose that and we need to challenge growing biases.
The most important thing we can do as citizens is to understand that we need a balance which incorporate genuine diversity in our media and also the resources required to invest in those things which can only exist through professional journalism of the highest standard.
Our democracy needs and deserves it.