Monday 20 January 2020

Businessman sets out view on media landscape

For whatever reason, Mr O’Brien has decided now is the time to take on Sinn Féin and the perception of his role in Irish media Photo: Bloomberg
For whatever reason, Mr O’Brien has decided now is the time to take on Sinn Féin and the perception of his role in Irish media Photo: Bloomberg
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

For somebody who owns a lot of media interests, Denis O'Brien doesn't often appear in print, on radio or online by choice.

His interactions with journalists are usually limited to the odd interview with the likes of Bloomberg, primarily on business matters, and occasionally stray into unavoidable topics like water charges.

On Tuesday, his representatives told the Irish Independent they had no comment to make on a Sinn Féin-commissioned report into media ownership.

So it's fair to say that when a 900-word statement arrived yesterday, it was unexpected.

But even more surprising was the content and the tone.

To break it down, the businessman had two very clear messages.

The first was about the Sinn Féin agenda against big businesspeople.

He described the party as "anti-enterprise and anti-Irish", suggesting that if it is so concerned about freedom of the press, it should become "a fully fledged broadcaster and publisher and create some jobs for a change".

Of course, it's not unusual for businesspeople to criticise Gerry Adams's party in this way. Before the general election, Ibec said there would be "a direct correlation with a left-leaning Sinn Féin-type government and the high cost of capital, less public services, more jobs at risk and less investment".

The second point was about media ownership. Aside from pointing out some basic inaccuracies in the report, he tried to outline his view of the landscape in which journalists today work.

INM, which publishes this newspaper, was, according to Mr O'Brien, "days from forced closure back in 2011".

I don't remember feeling we were days from closure but what happens in the boardroom rarely finds its way to the newsroom.

He was essentially posing the question as to whether Sinn Féin would prefer if INM had collapsed at the height of the recession. Of course, the answer is probably 'yes'.

Sinn Féin, more than any party, bristles under the spotlight.

Some INM titles have, over many years and under different editors and ownerships, legitimately been healthily sceptical of the party's relationship with the truth.

For a party that prefers fawning friends in the media, this has been hard to take.

For all the talk in the Sinn Féin-backed report on media ownership, it totally ignored several developments in the media landscape in the last few years.

Notably, it failed to recognise Rupert Murdoch's snapping-up of radio stations in Ireland and the expected consolidation with his newspapers here.

Similarly, it failed to acknowledge Virgin Media's strong new presence on the island as a major television player, with three stations, and a formidable broadband presence. Facebook is by far the biggest media player in Ireland, and the rest of the globe, but no emphasis is put on this.

Back to Mr O'Brien. He said: "I am the owner of Communicorp which like RTÉ, TV3, 'The Irish Examiner' and 'The Sunday Business Post' operates in a very challenging environment."

"I understand 'The Irish Times' is currently considering various funding options. I believe that some media companies will not survive this decade without radical structuring including substantial funding."

Regardless of what you think of the billionaire, it's an analysis that even his biggest critics would struggle to disagree with.

For whatever reason, Mr O'Brien has decided now is the time to take on Sinn Féin and the perception of his role in Irish media.

It's something other business leaders speak about in private, now he has brought it to the surface. Whether Sinn Féin - with its multi-millions in funding - will take up his recommendation of buying into media is another matter.

Does anyone really have the appetite to buy a Republican version of 'Pravda' or sit in front of an Sinn Féin version of Russia Today?

On his views of the unfolding print media landscape, it's a battle that we will follow just as closely as those on the outside.

Irish Independent

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