Saturday 1 October 2016

Vague media merger rules give minister room for manoeuvre

Published 13/06/2015 | 02:30

Communications Minister Alex White
Communications Minister Alex White

Media companies are getting together like never before. Charter's hooking up with Time Warner Cable. Verizon has tied the knot with AOL. Vox media recently snapped up Re/code. And the canniest of investors, Warren Buffett, has been acquiring local newspapers in the US for a few years now.

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But there's not a lot of action back here in Ireland. Our media landscape is dominated by RTE and a handful of big players. INM - owners of this paper and a host of other titles - accounts for over 40pc of all Irish newspaper sales. UTV Radio runs seven stations in the country. Communicorp has full ownership of five. Landmark Media Investments owns three regional radio stations, 11 local newspapers and one national one. We already have a fairly consolidated media market.

So the Government's new guidelines on media mergers, released earlier this week, may well be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

These new guidelines set out how the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources will determine if any further consolidation would have a detrimental effect on media plurality and what the minister can do about it.

So how do the guidelines work?

Imagine you own a few radio stations and you're thinking of acquiring a newspaper too. Well, first thing you'll have to do is ask Alex; you need the Minister's permission. Don't be worried about approaching the Minister, the guidelines specify that the Department is happy to facilitate meetings in advance of any notification.

After receiving your application, Minister White has to make a call, taking in factors like your overall market share, editorial management, and editorial output. Any consolidation of content between your radio stations and your newspaper may be judged to diminish the plurality of media in the State.

The minister also has to consider whether the proposed merger would have any effect on our public service broadcasters, RTE and TG4. Once the minister has made his decision, there are three options open to him. He can give it the green light; or greenlight it subject to certain conditions; or, if he's concerned that your proposed merger may damage the plurality of the Irish media, he can ask the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to step in and carry out an examination. The minister can't just say no.

But a quick no would be better once you read what an examination from the BAI entails. The BAI has to invite public submissions and get a submission from the relevant Oireachtas committee within 20 days of kicking off their examination. They can invite you in to talk about your burgeoning media empire, they can ask for more information, and the minister can appoint an advisory panel to help with their deliberations. All in, the process will take 80 days. Once that's done, Minister White has seven days to correct any typos in the BAI's report - I kid you not, that's in the guidelines. It's unclear what he has to do after those seven days, but he does have 20 days to decide whether you can buy your newspaper. This time around, he can say no. He can now say no, even if the BAI doesn't have a problem with the merger. This temporary outsourcing of executive control makes the whole process seem rather pointless.

But the guidelines also outline some responsibilities of the BAI that are worthwhile. They outline how the BAI has to publish a report on the state of the media in the State every three years, describing the ownership and level of control media owners have on their media outlets. The report also has to describe changes in overall ownership and control, and offer an analysis the effects of such changes on plurality of the media in the State.

This triennial report could be a mine of information. But there's every likelihood that it could become a box ticking exercise from media outlets, reluctant to disclose any more than they have to.

The problem with the Government's guidelines is that they are redundant before they even come into force.

Further consolidation in the Irish media landscape is pretty much guaranteed, given the size of the market and the number of external new players who are disrupting the commercial model and sucking up advertising budgets.

Doubtless, the Government is well aware of this; that's why the guidelines are so vague that the minister can do what he wants. Or what's best for the ongoing survival of our media outlets, regardless of plurality.

Irish Independent

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