Micheál Martin likes to think of himself as an ideas man. Most of his are bad, many are terrible, but his latest plot to bring the dying print media under state control represents a new low for him, and a giant leap along the road to serfdom.
Fianna Fáil’s Communications spokesman and Martin loyalist Timmy Dooley recently stated that should the party enter government, they will introduce state funding for newspapers and other traditional media organisations.
“Journalism is under threat – phenomenally so – because of falling revenues, falling circulation, falling advertising,” Dooley explained. “It is our view that in order to protect professional journalism, state support would be provided.”
Not that this is purely a Fianna Fáil idea. In October of last year, the Communications Minister and Independent TD Denis Naughten signaled that he also supported state funding, because of the risk that print media was going to go the way of the dodo.
The politicians are right about the overall trends in newspaper sales. NewsBrands Ireland’s circulation figures for January to June 2017 tell a grim story, particularly when one examines the figures for previous years.
They reveal a pattern of steep and steady decline. In the daily broadsheet category, the Irish Independent is down to 94,502, while the self-declared “paper of record” The Irish Times is at just 62,423. The Irish Examiner is down to a paltry 28,338.
Nor are the tabloids or the Sunday papers performing well. The biggest Sunday paper – The Sunday Independent – had a circulation of 265,455 in January to June of 2010. In the first half of this year, it had reduced to 185,080.
Reduced circulation means less money coming in, not just from sales but from advertisers, who are realising that a spot in the newspaper is no longer the best way to get their message across.
Online is where it’s at now, for news and advertising. Virtually all of the Irish newspaper outlets have recognised this by devoting far more resources to their online content, but as with media outlets elsewhere, they are having a hard time finding a way to make money from this.
There is too much free news online for many people to justify spending money on subscriptions to specific newspaper websites. This is great for online media consumers, many of whom would be willing to buy newspapers if they were still worth the price on the cover.
It is clear that there has been a steep decline in the quality of Irish journalism in recent years, one which is rapidly accelerating. Faced with budget shortfalls, newspaper bosses have had to slash salaries with the result that talented and experienced journos, middle-aged and above, have left the industry voluntarily or been shown the door.
In their place now sit young journalists fresh out of the various college courses, journalists who have not had to serve the lengthy on-the-job apprenticeships that their predecessors did.
Some on the right like to pin the blame for falling newspaper sales on the Irish media’s left-liberal bias. There is some truth in this, but it does not explain the situation fully.
The core issue is instead the vicious cycle where declines in journalistic quality and in sales volumes continuously reinforce each other.
Increasing numbers of people are looking at newspaper stands and deciding that it’s simply not worth the cost in spare change or spare time, and they’re right. The hope of many in Irish media is that they will attract more young-readers with the same views as themselves in order to replace the older readers who they have been haemorrhaging through disinterest or death. Unfortunately for them, students and young professionals aren’t going to pay to read the thoughts of the Millennial Generation when they can access them for free on Twitter or Facebook.
As newsrooms get younger and younger, and even more uniform in their opinions, an increasing number of older readers will simply stop buying papers. Who would blame them?
The way journalism in this country is going, the next editor of The Irish Times will be a transition year student on work experience who is only there because her first choice placement at a tech firm fell through at the last minute.
But I digress.
People are voting with their wallets and not buying newspapers, and the second-largest political party in the state plans to prop up this flailing industry by taking taxpayers’ money and giving it to an industry which most citizens have clearly shown they no longer want to support financially. If they did, they’d buy newspapers. Except that they don’t.
From a resource allocation standpoint, the proposal is horrendous. Ireland’s debt-to-GDP ratio hovers at around 75% and Irish taxpayers start paying the higher rate of income tax when their earnings hit just €34,550.
Taxpayers are hard-pressed by international standards, major (and costly) challenges remain in the areas of housing and infrastructure, and yet Fianna Fáil consider it appropriate to compel people to pay for a service they’ve voluntarily opted out of.
It’s not all about government resources, though. Even if the Government were awash with money, state funding of newspapers would still be a reprehensible policy.
When explaining his party’s proposal, Timmy Dooley pointed to the dangers of online news, referred to Russian hacking in recent elections, and alleged that the decline of traditional media represented a “threat to democracy.”
Dooley’s charge against online media is that of the standard Luddite. New technology has supplanted older forms of communication. The smartphone generation is not going to forsake the varied marvels at their fingertips for their parents old habits of leafing through pages of text manually.
The newspaper industry can either find a way to adapt to this new reality or get used to being a niche industry like independent bookshops. There’s nothing undemocratic about this shift. Elections took place in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece thousands of years before newspapers became common. Electoral democracy preceded the newspaper industry and will survive long after the last press ceases to function.
As for the alleged sins of ‘fake news’ producers, all one can say is that the centuries-old history of libel shows that there is nothing new about dishonesty in journalism. The most egregious example of defamation in recent times came not on some uncontrollable social media platform, but from a Prime Time Investigates programme in which an innocent priest was accused of raping an African teenager by the long-established and lavishly-funded state broadcaster.
State broadcaster. There is something positively chilling about those words. State newspaper sounds even creepier, and calls to mind such fine journalistic creations as Pravda, the newspaper of “choice” in Soviet Russia.
Of course, we do not live behind an Iron Curtain, and though the state’s involvement in the lives of free men and women grows ever more intrusive – minimum unit pricing of alcohol, sugar taxes, bans on smoking in cars, etc – we are not likely to suffer such oppression any time soon, thankfully.
Yet state funding is inextricably linked with state control, and a media under the state’s control is no media worth having.
When initially floating the idea of state funding back in August, Micheál Martin suggested he wanted to create a state-sponsored fund for the newspaper industry to protect quality journalism.
This fund, he told The Sunday Independent, would be kept at “arm’s length” from government to prevent politicians from pressuring newspapers.
This is preposterous. State funding always comes with strings attached, strings which connect those at the bottom with the puppet masters at the top.
There is no better example of how this happens than the funding of Irish politics itself.
Twenty years ago, and partly due to public disgust over various scandals involving payments to politicians and political parties, public (read ‘taxpayer’) funding of parties was introduced in Ireland.
Parties now receive levels of funding in accordance with the share of the vote they received in the previous election; money which allows for the effective operation of political parties, the employment of full-time staff, the funding of campaigns and so forth.
Over €12 million was doled out to the parties in 2016, with Fine Gael scooping up half of this in spite of never once having had the support of half the Irish people. They get 30% support in an opinion poll on a good day, but the other 70% have to support them anyway, along with the rest of Dáil Éireann’s basket of deplorables.
This generous if unwilling funding by you and I provides the traditional parties with a safety net, while also erecting an enormous barrier to entry by any new competitors in the market, thus ensuring that the status quo of Irish politics abides.
No matter how toxic a political brand becomes, the well-oiled political machine behind it is – thanks to state funding – always well-placed to deliver enough votes to keep the show on the road.
Had state funding not been available, it is conceivable that Fianna Fáil would have been completely wiped out in 2011 rather than living to fight another day. Had the Labour Party not collected millions during their five year stint in government, they would surely have been annihilated in the general election of 2016 – it was a close call for them even with the money.
State funding also managed to enable a massive and highly consequential change to occur in politics against good sense and the opinions of most voters: gender quotas.
Gender quotas were never popular with the public as a whole, but when the Fine Gael-Labour government introduced them all political parties quickly followed suit. Had parties not met the quotas for the minimum number of female candidates, they would have been deprived of 50% of their funding. As a result, all the parties eagerly complied.
A simple diktat ordering the introduction of gender quotas could have resulted in discontent, or perhaps long, drawn-out court cases taken by non-compliant parties. Simply by threatening to cut off the flow of money, the political elite was able to coerce every political party in the state to embrace the initiative.
To believe that the state funding of newspapers will not lead to similar decrees from on high requires extreme naivety.
Levels of state funding will have to be agreed on a regular basis, and there is a risk that those publications which toe the party line of whoever is charge will be the most generously rewarded.
Furthermore, the political establishment – particularly those in government – will gain an enormous advantage in their relationship with the press.
Consider the recent controversies over comments by Kevin Myers and George Hook, when the Taoiseach rushed to grab attention and adulation by participating in the verbal lynch mobs.
Now imagine if Newstalk’s board had to appear before an Oireachtas committee or a task force of civil servants to make their case for an increase in state funding next year. Imagine how decisions over editorial or personnel policies would be affected should the media become subject to the whims of politicians.
More likely though, the ongoing provision of funding will be used in a more subtle fashion, to target ideas, rather than individuals or individual outlets.
Dissenting views and minority opinions will be particularly vulnerable to persecution whenever a politician seeks to suppress public sentiments, even those which are shared by a significant number of people.
In 2015 for example, Angela Merkel suffered minor embarrassment when she was overheard confronting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for failing to crack down on criticisms of her government’s immigration policy by German users.
Now, though it would be extremely difficult for a large social network to come under the full control of the state, it would be relatively easy for a country’s newspapers to be brought into line by isolating and marginalizing those who express views contrary to those of the ruling class: they who have suffered bloody noses at the polls on both sides of the Atlantic and who are now seeking to stack the deck in their favour for the years to come.
It would be even easier if all the political decision makers had to do in order to achieve uniformity and acquiescence was to dangle the carrot of state funding in front of editors and managing directors and let them do the work.
Worst of all is the sheer corruption of all of this. Articles have begun to appear in the Irish media in which print journalists write earnestly about the need for public funding of their dying industry. Politicians can be sure that those of their profession who support these self-interested calls will be the beneficiaries of more generous coverage in future.
Where is the taxpayer in all of this? Many voters don’t even know that they’re currently funding every single political party in the Dáil: now they are being asked to also fund the newspapers? If we had a proper media, they’d investigate the issue of state funding of political parties fully, and make the public aware of what is going on.
They don’t do this, and after newspapers start collecting payments from the state they will have even less of an incentive.
Where we need to have independent watchdogs, instead we will have well-fed poodles, eager for whatever crumbs will fall from their master’s table.
State funding of political parties is an anti-democratic and borderline fascistic farce in which citizens are forced to hand over their money to assist parties which they would never voluntarily support, on pain of being thrown in a cell should they refuse.
State funding of newspapers would be even worse, as it would destroy forever the hope that a free press could hold those in political office to account about this and other abuses.
Such a policy would be a grotesque waste of public funds, a grave affront to human dignity and a hammer blow to the cause of liberty. On those grounds alone, we can expect our politicians to introduce it in the coming years, if not sooner.