The new Press Ombudsman, Susan McKay, has said the dominance of social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube is threatening the viability of print media in Ireland.
She told an Oireachtas Committee on Thursday that social media companies continue to devour advertising revenues, and “are attracting readers away from seeing locally-produced news as an essential part of their day or, alternatively, reproducing such news without paying those who provide it”.
Ms McKay, a distinguished journalist and author, was appointed press Ombudsman last October, succeeding Peter Feeney in the role. The position is an independent one, funded by the Press Council, the membership of which comprises the majority of not-broadcasting media organisations in Ireland.
Appearing before the all-party Committee on Public Petitions, Ms McKay welcomed that the Government has said that online-only publications will be brought under the remit of the Press Council under proposed new defamation laws.
She said that online publishers such as the Journal come under her remit, and that Gript and The Ditch also applied to join the Press Council.
Asked by committee member Pat Buckley (Sinn Féin) if the Press Council could regulate content published by social media companies, Ms McKay said that many of those platforms refuse to recognise they are publishers.
“They say that they are just simply a portal for (the content) which is clearly not the case. They are publishers. If you look at recent controversies with Elon Musk and Twitter, you see that many (of the platforms) are ideologically driven. That is an anomaly.”
Ms McKay said that one of the other issues that needed to be clarified is if the online content from broadcasters such as RTÉ, Virgin Media, and Newstalk would come under the Ombudsman’s remit, especially in circumstances where the content differed to the content that was broadcast.
Turning to the global social media companies, Ms McKay said they had a “large proportion of advertising which newspapers traditionally had”.
She said that despite the pressures on resources, the quality of journalism in Ireland remained “extremely high”.
In relation to the 2021 annual report of her office, Ms McKay said it was an unusual year because of Covid, the reporting of which generated many complaints. “The most striking change in relation to complaints was that there was an increase of around 50 per cent. There were 527 complaints, of which 200 related to press coverage of Covid.
“In fact some 50 complaints related to just three articles,” she added. “Many of the complaints were driven by anonymous social media accounts which provided people with the text for their complaint.”
Ms McKay said the case manager in her office, Bernie Grogan, had pointed out the strategy was “quite pointless” because in such cases the Press Ombudsman’s office will choose a lead complainant and process the complaint accordingly.
Thirty-one complaints were decided by the Press Ombudsman, of which seven were upheld during 2021, she said.