Bog Lane Theatre members perform scenes from She Stoops to Conquer
The rise of social media and Ireland’s defamation laws have been listed as “the biggest threats” to Irish journalism - at local, regional and national levels.
At last weekend’s 35th Annual Oliver Goldsmith International Literary Festival, a host of industry representatives laboured these points under the theme: “‘Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no fibs’ [a line from character Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops to Conquer]. Journalism, News and Democracy: Grub Street in the 21st Century.”
However, the strides that digital news platforms are taking to “fight back” against the dangers of misinformation and fake news online were also outlined over the three-day event which took place at various locations along the Westmeath/Longford border.
Contributors to the discussion included: Tom McGuire, head of RTÉ Radio 1; Willie Kealy, former associate editor of the Sunday Independent; Cian McCormack, RTÉ journalist; Prof Brian O’Neill of DIT; Peter Feeney, press ombudsman; Denise Canavan, Shannonside FM producer; Gráinne Ní Aodha, TheJournal.ie reporter; and Dave O’Connell, Connacht Tribune group editor.
Longford native Tom McGuire - who was educated at St Mel’s College – got the conversation rolling during the festival’s opening night at The Rustic Inn, Abbeyshrule – which included a performance by the Innyside Singers.
“Of all the developments over the centuries it is that little black box on top of the telephone pole, and its companion in our handbag or in our pocket, that has the greatest influence on journalism, news and democracy.
“In the world of social media there is no shortage of questions and fibs. And one could easily be dismissive of new technologies; but it’s how we adapt to them that is critical,” he said.
Keynote speaker Willie Kealy - who has worked in the newspaper industry for more than 50 years – drew comparisons between Oliver Goldsmith’s time as a practising journalist in the 18th century and news generation today.
He reflected in particular on the introduction of defamation laws: “The periodicals he [Goldsmith] contributed to would have been pamphlets, no doubt with agendas of their own, and it would be the lot of the ‘hack’ to please some publishers and their readers and displease others.
“Much like a wandering minstrel in search of a patron, the hack was a pen for hire, and if he fell foul of a local worthy, the most he might fear was a horse whipping.
“His proprietor, on the other hand, would have been in greater peril because such grievances between those who regarded themselves as gentlemen were settled by duelling, often to the death.
“But eventually duelling was outlawed and instead the laws of defamation were introduced to offer a civilised remedy for those who felt they had been slandered or libelled.
“During the 19th century when newspapers as we know them today began to have common currency, there was plenty of recourse to these laws, not least because many proprietors of the time had little respect for the truth, and produced publications so scandalous, salacious and sensational that they would embarrass the National Inquirer of today or the late lamented News of the World.
“But today the defamation laws are one of the biggest threats to the future of newspapers,” he said.
In his view, the current laws governing defamation “amount to nothing more than a gamble” for the media. He says it is a lottery in which they can “rarely win”.
“The most they can often hope for is to break even. I hold no brief for those who perpetrate serious libels and refuse to admit culpability, hoping against reckless hope that the lottery that is the courts will somehow get them off the hook.
“And we do need defamation laws to allow every individual the right to defend their good name without having to rely on the pistol or the sword.
“But as the law stands today, the odds are heavily stacked against the media and consequently against freedom of speech and ultimately against the essence of democracy,” he said, adding that proposed new legislation on defamation is expected to be delivered from the Government shortly.
For Kealy, as for many of the weekend’s speakers, the other big threat to traditional media is the internet, and especially social media.
“The effect of the internet on newspapers will be to make them toast with maybe a few high profile publications, like, in America, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, surviving.
“For some time now we have rightly been in thrall to the benefits of the internet - worldwide communications and the phenomenon of social media. And successive governments here have kow-towed to the international specialist media facilitators, treating their tax affairs with the lightest of touches, and shying away from any meaningful form of regulation.
“That approach is defended politically on the basis of trying to attract business to this country, thus creating jobs.
“And there is probably an element of being afraid to take on people who you know are a whole lot smarter than you on what is, after all, their specialist subject.
“But while all this is happening, or not happening, we have seen the rise of fake news and interference in the democratic process, as well as bullying, and the encouragement of suicide and anorexia.
“And the tech companies are granted a fool's pardon not available to any other publisher, with the claim that they merely provide the tools of communication (and charge handsomely for their use) and have no way of knowing in advance what someone will say through the medium,” he said.
Again, it was highlighted that new legislation from the Government on the whole area of social media is expected soon.
Kealy contends that “good journalism is expensive” and “has to be paid for somehow”.
“It may be that this will eventually require state subvention, possibly in the form of a tax break, if the best of what currently exists is to be preserved. It works for RTÉ and the BBC. And the question of concentration of media ownership has to be dealt with.
“But while we fret over the medium, we must never lose sight of the fact that what is really important is the message.
“Journalists have to see themselves as being in a continuous struggle for the truth. The cause is nothing less than freedom and democracy. And that cause will always be worth fighting for,” he said.
During Saturday’s panel discussion ‘Press Freedom or a Free Press’, press ombudsman Peter Feeney described the decline of print media in Ireland over the last decade as “catastrophic” - quantifying the decline as a staggering 50% drop in circulation sales.
“Newspapers have been cutting resources for the last decade quite considerably – but you still have a newspaper to fill so how do you do that? You stretch your staff further and thinner.
“You decide there are some things you won’t cover anymore, such as the courts. You rely on stringers and the consequence of that is perhaps you have a less attractive product.”
He highlighted the importance of viable local media coverage: “It creates a sense of community that is terribly important. You buy the local paper because you want to know what people in that area think, what their concerns are.
“If that newspaper ceases to exist, you won’t be able to have that information on local communities. Local radio can still provide some of this; but the consequences to that sense of local community would be quite considerable,” he said.
He highlighted that the majority of young and increasing-middle aged people receive their news from social media – including: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram; Youtube, Snapchat and Whatsapp.
He said there is ample evidence that the way in which people consume information on social media is significantly different than if they access it on radio or television.
“How can you absorb the necessary background, context and debate and argument about an important subject matter if you’re only spending 30 seconds on a story? The answer is you don’t. We are increasingly consuming thin reads to require information.
“Social media debates are so superficial – whether it’s about abortion or divorce or immigration – it has increasingly become about a lot of people shouting at each other and nobody listening to each other. Real debate is when you listen to what the other has to say and ask yourself whether you need to adjust your position.
“I may sound like an old man moaning but the risk of an over-reliance on social media is a triviality. It also is largely driven by entertainment news,” he said.
Feeney also pointed out that major social media organisations in Ireland between them receive 85% of the overall digital advertising spend.
Dave O’Connell, group editor of the Connacht Tribune acknowledged that the print media itself has played a role in declining circulations; he also spoke about possible digital platform solutions.
“Most regional titles have been around for a century and a half; but our future has never been more in doubt. Part of the solution might be a pay fence, rather than a pay wall. Readers could be asked to pay for access to the newspaper’s archives,” he said.
Meanwhile, Gráinne Ní Aodha, reporter with TheJournal.ie stressed that digital newsrooms are working hard to “fight back” against disinformation online.
She stressed that news habits among the public have changed and that the current demand is for instant, up-to-date news.
“Journalism as an industry has always been challenged throughout history. Citizen journalism is one of the really great advantages of online news. It’s a great way for readers to feel they can contribute to the news that they consume.
“We are constantly trying to engage with our audience because they are constantly hungry for facts. We fact check all claims and we will link that information back to our readers in the articles.
“When it comes to hearing about the lack of resources and the pressure that journalists are under, for me, I’ve never known anything different. I started in this industry when news was online 24 hours.
“The expectation among young journalists is that’s what you have to do. My generation are not in the habit of buying newspapers and part of the reason is we don’t have the time to read them Monday to Friday on issues that you may, or may not, have an interest in.
“It’s just the way things are. In my view, it’s about making the news as accessible as possible for people that are constantly rushing around and doing it in a way that will add value to their lives,” she said.
At the Sunday Miscellany at Ballymahon Library, attendees were treated to insights on sustainability, the Irish media, local history and life in the defence forces from speakers Brendan Farrell, Dr Mel Farrell, Neil Moxham and Patrick Eibhear O’Hanlon.
This was accompanied by musical interludes from Claire Sheerin and Donie Keyes.
The literary genius of Goldsmith was also awakened by a Bog Lane Theatre performance of She Stoops to Conquer at Conway’s Pub – otherwise known as Nally’s Yard – in Ballymahon.
The future talent of the region was also celebrated by the winners of the festival’s annual children and adult poetry competitions – held during the picturesque event, Poetry at Pallas which also included recitals from award-winning poet Noel Monahan and music from local flautist Gerry Bohan.
Speaking after the event Arthur Conlon PRO of festival committee said: “We felt this year, that we had a very relevant and thought- provoking theme centred around the future of the journalistic profession.
“We assembled an excellent line-up of speakers, all with real experience and passion at the heart of the media industry and every one of them provided some remarkable insights into the theme.
“All our talks were very well attended and the beautiful venue of the Goldsmith Room of Ballymahon Library provided a very fitting backdrop to Saturday morning’s events.
“We also attempted this year to bring some of Goldsmith’s works to life with dramatised excerpts from, She Stoops to Conquer on Saturday evening - a highlight of the event for many.
“We had a full house for Goldsmith Miscellany on Sunday morning and, although the weather may have been a little inclement at times, the Poetry at Pallas was, as always, a beautiful and inspiring event.
“We hope to build on some of this year’s innovations in terms of bringing the festival out into the public eye and we will be working to make next year’s event an even bigger success,” he said.