Colum Kenny: O'Brien seen as bogeyman but media issue is broader
A diverse and pluralistic media choice is essential for a modern democracy like Ireland aspires to be, says Colum Kenny
Denis O'Brien is a rich and influential man. Controversial, he has contradicted findings of the Moriarty Tribunal that impugn his character. He has successfully sued a newspaper for questioning his motives in helping the people of Haiti after its earthquake. Some people hate him.
O'Brien has invested heavily in Ireland and in poor economies abroad, creating much needed jobs. He denies that the IBRC gave his loans special treatment and claims that allegations made about him in the Dail are inaccurate.
He is a powerful force in Irish media, the major shareholder in Independent News & Media (INM, which owns the Sunday Independent) and national and local radio. Along with RTE, and with Rupert Murdoch whose companies control SKY TV channels and Ireland's main digital distribution platform - as well as the Sun and Sunday Times, Denis O'Brien is well placed to shape Irish public opinion.
His recent efforts to gag media coverage of his various dealings with IBRC, as well as his earlier bitter struggle to wrest control of INM from Tony O'Reilly, stiffened the resolve of people who would stop O'Brien from buying more Irish media.
But two governments have dragged their heels making new rules to make it harder for one Irish media company to merge with another.
Finally, last week, new rules came into force. Where there's a will, there is now a way to control more effectively any proposed mergers. Assuming that there is a will.
Back in 2008, a Fianna Fail minister appointed a voluntary Media Mergers Advisory Group to propose changes in ownership rules that were widely seen as too weak then.
Within a few short months, as requested urgently, the group had completed its research and endorsed a substantial report with recommendations that its chairman, Paul Sreenan SC, and myself as a member had drafted for it.
The government did not publish that report for a further six months, and then only via an online link. The recommendations lay on a shelf for years. Fine Gael seemed in no hurry to change things when it came to government. Now, finally, we have new legislation and guidelines. The Government admits that these "generally incorporate" the advisory group's recommendations, leading one to wonder why it took seven years to do so.
The Government says that this new reform recognises that "a free and pluralistic media is an essential component of our modern representative democracy." Ultimately, any decision on diversity and plurality boils down to a judgment, and so is partly political.
The responsibility for media mergers approval has now passed from the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton, to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Alex White. The move should lessen any temptation to reduce media choice to number-crunching, a method beloved by competition authorities but inadequate when it comes to freedom of speech.
Now merging companies have to notify the minister of a broad range of concrete indicators of diversity, including details of editorial control and selection and sentiment; a breakdown of content across types of story; details of sources of news; evidence of corporate governance compliance and grievance procedures.
These new rules cannot undo past deals. Nor stop takeovers from outside the state where a foreign undertaking does not already control Irish media. While some worry that Denis O'Brien could take over TV3, would it be better if Silvio Berlusconi did so? A US multinational in fact looks set to buy TV3.
And what if a government were to reach a decision on a merger influenced by the editorial opinions of a newspaper? If a Sinn Fein minister for communications took a view on INM because this paper has held out critically for Sinn Fein accountability?
Wealthy entrepreneurs such as Denis O'Brien can get frustrated by critics who do not move at their level. Bono, for example, has dismissed criticism of his band's tax arrangements, saying: "Tax competitiveness... has been a successful policy. On the cranky left that is very annoying, I can see that."
And a lawyer for Tony O'Reilly has claimed that AIB tried to "humiliate and embarrass" that former media tycoon, once Ireland's business poster-boy. O'Reilly ran INM with a relatively light editorial hand, but still incurred much Irish begrudgery. He wasn't thanked for investing heavily in the state's cable-free MMDS network when few others even bothered to compete for it.
A free and diverse press ensures that critical views are aired. Last week, the Irish Times senior columnist Fintan O'Toole expressed concerns about editorial freedom at INM, lamenting the departure of investigative journalist Sam Smyth from media in which O'Brien is now the major shareholder. O'Toole claimed that journalists at INM, "and especially columnists" who write for its papers, "are afraid to write critically about Denis O'Brien." I can only speak for this columnist, who is not.
But it is definitely difficult for journalists to go hard on shareholders or managers of media that employ them. No doubt some at the Irish Times, for example, feel more strongly than they have written about their own paper's adventure in online property services that cost it tens of millions in euro that they believe would have been better spent on investigative journalism and on other media initiatives in the public interest.
And when did RTE last reveal what its employees also do for private clients? Competitors and independent producers have long criticised RTE for too little transparency.
And then there are some of the chattering class who boast that they "do not buy the Sunday Independent", Ireland's most widely read broadsheet across all social classes, while tucking Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times under their arms!
Irish people need good journalism. That requires experienced journalists with enough time, resources and freedom both to research and tell crucial stories. Journalism is under severe pressure from cutbacks and profiteering.
We need media diversity and plurality so that a range of stories can be told in full.