Saturday, 27 September 2014

Digital World Brings New Challenges That Could Threaten Local News and Media

“The digital world brings new competitive and economic challenges which, while benefitting many consumers, could also threaten locally supplied news and other media.”   That’s according to Robin Foster,  a British-based economist specialising in policy, strategy and regulation in the media and telecommunications sectors, and author of ‘News Plurality in a Digital World’.*

Mr. Foster was speaking at an event, today (25.09.14), organised by theBroadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) in the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin.  Its purpose was to explore and share views - among broadcasters, the print media, representatives of new media and other interested parties - on the relevance of traditional approaches to safeguarding plurality in the media.

Over 60 people attended the event which is one of a number of ‘conversations’ that the BAI has been holding with stakeholders to enable it to hear views on matters of current importance in the broadcasting and media sector. The event was moderated by Dearbhail McDonald, Associate Editor and Legal Editor at the Irish Independent.

“To deal with these challenges, we need a new toolkit of measures, which is centred on positive public interventions to secure a wide and diverse range of news and other content, and relies less on old-style media ownership rules,” Mr. Foster said.  “To this end, there are four broad themes which should be central to any future plurality debate including, a cross-media approach to plurality; new thinking about digital intermediaries such as Google and Facebook; a more sophisticated approach to policy development; and more proactive intervention to guarantee diversity.”  

Mr. Foster said that any future measure of plurality should include new, as well as traditional, media.   “Share of the print newspaper market, for example, is an increasingly irrelevant measure when citizens now get their news from a much wider range of sources. Instead, we need a new cross-media metric which will measure market shares across all media.

“We also need to understand the influence of digital gatekeepers or intermediaries like Google, Facebook and Twitter on media plurality, and work out how best to include them in the overall plurality framework.  They should clearly be included in any media merger regulation but we might also consider remedies to improve their accountability and secure open access,” Mr. Foster went on to say.

In addressing public policy approaches to ensuring plurality, Mr. Foster said: “Rather than placing a cap on growth, the focus could be on improving the quality and range of journalism offered.  However, if the market can no longer guarantee the range and diversity of content any society would like to see, then public intervention may be the only option.”

Speaking at the event, Mr. Alex White, Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources said: “By its very definition, this explosion in the availability of existing media has given rise to a level of media pluralism that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago.  It might look or seem chaotic to some, but in my view this pluralism, this diversity, can only be regarded as a good thing.

“We have a new set of gatekeepers now, particularly where digital media is concerned, so concerns about editorial control and influence now have a broader base.  Arrayed against these challenges to pluralism and diversity are a number of factors, including the sheer disruptive power of the technology, derived from its democratic nature. The internet is not owned by governments – so long as it remains untrammelled and free, the internet will always facilitate the movement of information because people will do exactly that.”

Also addressing the event, the Chairperson of the BAI, Mr. Bob Collins said:  “The world of media is rapidly changing. New technologies are reshaping the way we communicate and the way we perceive information. Ireland is a dramatically more diverse place then it used to be. For all these reasons, plurality in the providers of content and the sources of reliable information is crucially important. But a varying range of providers is not, in itself, a guarantee of diversity of content and a reflection of the rich tapestry of contemporary Irish life. That is where public policy has an essential role to play and that is why a public engagement such as this has real value.”

For further details about the BAI, visit: www.bai.ie