Politicians warned of imminent threat to news services on Independent Radio

Politicians have been warned about the danger of complacency regarding the future of news and current affairs on independent radio.

They’ve been told that many services regarded as essential for the maintenance of democracy are under immediate threat.

The Independent Broadcasters of Ireland told a briefing meeting of TDs and Senators on Wednesday that reform of the funding model for public service broadcasting needs to be more than just about RTÉ, and it needs to happen now.

Independent radio is required under broadcasting legislation to ensure that a minimum of 20% news and current affairs as part of its public service commitments. Many stations say that following years of disruption by unregulated online and social media platforms, they are reaching a point where the market can no longer support these services.

“The Covid pandemic showed how our stations play a vital role in providing information that is accurate, reliable, and most importantly trusted and how this contributes positively to communities in times of difficulty. Without the provision of accurate information by our stations during the pandemic, all sorts of mad conspiracy theories would have taken hold, creating real unrest,” according to John Purcell, Chair of IBI.

“The events last week on the streets of Dublin show how our country faces very serious threats to its stability because of disinformation and misinformation and the harnessing of online and social media by elements in society who are seeking to sow discord, fear and chaos in communities. At the very time when news and current affairs services on independent stations are needed the most, they are facing maximum financial pressure, with many close to breaking point.”

IBI Picture Conor McCabe Photography.

The briefing in Leinster House was told that the IBI believes that only full implementation of the Future of Media Commission recommendations (FOMC) to help radio stations could be as much as 2 – 2 1⁄2 years away. In addition, regardless of the timing of the introduction of the schemes, the independent radio sector has serious concerns that they will not be suitable to sustain the vital public services stations provide all over the country.

The IBI had hoped that a pilot support scheme recommended by the FOMC entitled “The Local Democracy Reporting Scheme” would be in place in time for the Local and European Elections in June next year. However, this will not now be possible as the introduction of the schemes is currently stalled by an EU Commission review of the scheme under State Aid Rules. Vital coverage of the upcoming elections on many stations is, therefore, likely to be curtailed and will create a vacuum in local reporting. Delays in bringing in the schemes couldn’t be coming at a worse time for news and current affairs on independent radio.

IBI says that politicians and the Government parties need to broaden the scope of their concern about the future of public service media away from purely being about RTÉ. As well as the €56 million interim bailout approved for the State broadcaster, a package of measures
for independent radio needs to be agreed upon without delay.

“Unfortunately, we cannot afford to wait until a range of experimental pilot schemes have made their way through the slow and laborious EU Commission approval process,” says John Purcell. “The Future of Media Commission was talked about for many years and was eventually formed over three years ago, but apart from the publication of plans, nothing has happened. If we want to protect our trusted independent media, then Government needs to act now otherwise, the sector will weaken and become unsustainable. We can no longer afford to sit around talking about future solutions, we need immediate action from politicians and the Government.”

Over 70% of time spent listening to radio in Ireland is to local, regional, and national independent stations other than RTÉ with 3.1 million people tuning in daily.

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