Speech by Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten TD
News Brands Ireland Journalism Awards,
2nd November 2017, Mansion House, Dublin.
I'd like to thank News Brands Ireland for inviting me to be here today at this year's Journalism Awards.
I've looked at the entries in the various categories and they're very impressive and extensive so congratulations to those of you who have been nominated. Some of you are established names and some are very welcome new additions to the media scene.
As much as my colleagues and I in Leinster House might enjoy the odd tussle with members of the fourth estate, most, if not all of us as public representatives, acknowledge that the press plays an exceptionally valuable role in society. Journalism goes to the heart of who and what we are as Irish people. It is how we interrogate ourselves as a society. It is the backbone of a democracy. It is like a mirror, which shows us - or strives to show us - the bare truth and the harsh realities of life.
As we celebrate your contribution to our country here today I'm very much aware that we do so against the background music of growing concerns facing the newspaper industry - particularly as you grapple with the coming of age of online digital media platforms. For newspapers in particular, online competition has come in like a wrecking ball. Virtually every click of your mouse is now sold for a cent online.
The providers want to deliver information for a new age of news hungry people who are impressed by the volume, the ease and the speed of online news content, information and entertainment. In the week in which we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we might reflect on the power of news, and of new technologies that convey it.
Since the earliest ancestors of the modern newspaper was first printed and published in Germany in 1609, broadly speaking the newspaper industry has remained essentially undisturbed and unchallenged.
Certainly, the introduction of radio and television, censorship, and advertising have all affected the media business in different ways. But nothing that has gone before has caused such a cataclysmic revolution to news and media as the development of the internet.
But no industry has ever simply arrived, it has developed over time. The difference now, is that such a scale, in such a short space of time, is unprecedented, since the invention of print itself. In truth however, social media is still only in the foothills of its development. In terms of its life cycle, at present the current form of social media is basically an electronic version of the boy or girl on a bicycle who used to deliver the newspaper through the letterbox.
Access to information is vital for the evolution of any democratic society but this increased access amplifies the challenges that online media poses to our public discourse. As the depiction of press as a false messenger poisoning minds is growing, free speech must be cherished and be protected. Finding a reasonable way in which to deal with the challenges that have arisen is difficult.
As a Government we have a duty of care to ensure that our citizens are not exploited and that our democratic process remains untarnished by corruption. In much of the western world, the need felt for much of the twentieth century to curb the excesses of big government, is now exceeded by the need to curb the excesses of big corporations. Liberty depends on free speech. Speech to be authentic must be accurate as well as opinionated. Accuracy depends on dependable, reputable sources of curation, which can be depended upon.
I don't believe that it is possible or wise to attempt to regulate 'fake news'. It is simply electronic gossip and vitriol. The problems posed by "fake news" will only be combatted by a discerning readership, by the strengthening of traditional media and by quality journalism. The best way to deal with 'fake news' is to support reliable content which is relevant and provides a trusted reference point for Irish audiences, both local and national.
All media organisations are dealing with new challenges in one form or another – from Community Broadcasters and independent radio stations, through to local and national newspapers and the television broadcasters. Because of these challenges I have asked the Joint Oireachtas Committee to look at the future funding of Public Service Broadcasting. To consider the wider question such as whether our current definition of public service media will be fit for purpose in 5 or 10 years' time.
You may also be aware that I received government approval for the drafting of a number of proposed amendments to the current Broadcasting Act 2009, which includes changes to the broadcasting levy. This amendment will help alleviate the levy burden on independent broadcasters, many of whom are also a staple of local communities in a globalised, homogenised world. Crucially, the amendments also provide for a Bursary Scheme for young journalists working in local or community radio.
The traditional news market in Ireland and internationally is still strong and print media has a special position in Irish society. So I hope that this bursary scheme could serve as a model for future schemes for other kinds of media - no matter the medium – to encourage local and investigative reporting based on best journalistic practices. In order for communities to function properly, they must have active community and local journalism in order to focus on the needs of each specific community.
I know that News Brands recognizes the importance of this issue. I was encouraged to see that over 8,000 students took part in the "Press Pass" scheme this year run by News Brands Ireland. Press Pass is an excellent initiative that promotes literacy and critical thinking skills by bringing newspapers into the classroom, encouraging students to study them in detail and to analyse the society they live in. This bodes well for the future of journalism in our country.
I know that one of the difficulties facing many Irish journalists and newspapers are Ireland's libel laws. As you know, work is continuing on the review of our defamation laws, which was launched with a public consultation at the end of last year.
The aim of the review is to assess whether the Defamation Act 2009 still strikes the correct balance between the right to freedom of expression in a democratic society, and an individual's right to protect their good name and privacy against unfounded attack. These rights are, of course, protected both under our Constitution and under the European Convention on Human Rights. I know that this review has been of key interest to News Brands and to its members, and particularly our law and procedures around the award of damages in defamation cases.
These issues have been the subject of judgements in June and July this year by the European Court of Human Rights and by the Supreme Court. Those judgments will also form part of the review which the Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan is expected to receive in the coming months. Every profession and every industry has faced the challenge of evolution throughout the course of its history - journalism and the news industry are no different. How the industry deals with this phase in their evolution is the question which now presents itself. Perhaps an even more pertinent question is what role should politicians play in carving out the road map for best practice?
Politicians have a role to play in the survival of a free press – in spite of President Trump's best efforts in attempting to destroy it. However I note his attacks on The New York Times specifically haven't really had the desired effect he was hoping for - shares in the New York Times are up 30 per cent and digital subscriptions up over 300,000 since he became President. In such a fevered climate of change, promoting digital safety is exceptionally important to me as a policy maker.
Last year the Law Reform Commission recommended that the Government appoint a Digital Safety Commissioner. I am working on developing this Office with my relevant Ministerial colleagues.
Today's awards celebrate the quality, original journalism that makes our newspapers such an indispensable part of Irish daily life. It would be remiss of me to finish today without taking the opportunity to remember the recent loss of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist whose enemies finally decided, after a number of threats were made on her life, that her journalism needed to be silenced.
Journalism and media organizations are regularly criticized, but it is important that we remember the key role you play in our society and how much those who have gone before us, have given to secure the right of freedom of speech for us all.