'Independence of Celtic Media titles assured,' says INM boss
The editorial independence of seven regional newspapers will be protected if they are taken over by Independent News and Media, an Oireachtas committee has been told.
Robert Pitt, the CEO of INM, gave a guarantee that existing editors at the Celtic Media titles will be retained along with all their journalists and production staff.
Celtic Media, which includes titles such as 'The Connaught Telegraph', 'Anglo Celt' and 'Meath Chronicle', employs 98 workers - but according to its CEO Frank Mulrennan, is facing serious challenges to survive.
He told the Communications Committee that the business model for local newspapers is "broken", adding that Facebook and Google "are swallowing up ever-increasing slices of Irish marketing budgets".
"We're in survival mode," he said, warning that the business is already being forced to sell its offices in Cavan to pay a bridging loan because of the delay in the proposed merger.
The INM merger, worth around €4m, was approved by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission last November, but Communications Minister Denis Naughten has sought a review by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.
"The interests of my colleagues and the future of our newspapers will be best protected through being part of a larger company with the resources to invest in digital platforms and marketing - while still committed to our long and proud history of editorial independence," Mr Mulrennan said.
He noted the "commercial reality" meant Celtic Media had to halve its investment in digital resources since January.
Encouraging committee members to support the takeover, he said: "We cannot row against the digital tide. The only future is to have a digital future."
Some members expressed concern about the reduction in media plurality and diversity if the merger is allowed to go ahead, but Mr Pitt said he was "quite categorical" that the "editorial function in INM stands alone".
"Our regional editors stand completely independent with those titles," he said.
Mr Pitt told the committee that an independent free press is "a cornerstone of democracy" but news organisations must remain commercially viable.
"As a result, consolidation and collaboration have become commonplace in the global newspaper industry," he said, explaining that INM, which publishes the Irish Independent, has entered into agreements with the 'Irish Times' to facilitate distribution.
The NUJ is opposing the merger and the trade union's Irish secretary, Seamus Dooley, raised concerns about the level of "cross ownership" in Irish media.
Senator Terry Leydon (FF) said he would back the deal because without INM 98 jobs could be at risk.
However, AAA-PBP TD Bríd Smith suggested INM was "gobbling up" the media market.
She said that while Mr Mulrennan's concern for his workers was commendable, he should be worried by the recent pension controversy which saw INM apply "savage" cuts of up to 70pc to the pension entitlements of some employees.
Mr Pitt said the pension issue was "handled as well as it could be" under the circumstances.
Fianna Fáil's James Lawless described the INM/Celtic Media merger as a "convenient but loveless romance".
In reply, Mr Pitt argued that INM is "small compared to other news industries operating in this country" such as News International.
A number of academics were also invited to address the meeting. Roderick Flynn argued that it may be time for public monies to be used to help fund local media. He noted RTÉ is assisted by the TV licence fee.
Professor Colum Kenny said: "I do not view this proposed takeover by INM in terms of personalities. Those who effectively control a media organisation today may be gone tomorrow.
"The owners of Fox or of the Breitbart News Network, for example, could take over INM next week, or Silvio Berlusconi buy TV3 with no way to stop him.
"This proposed takeover is a matter of public protection in the face of concentration, not a matter of personalities."
A former lecturer in journalism at DIT, Michael Foley, claimed if the takeover goes ahead some people would receive national news, local news and radio news "all from the same company or some from media organisations linked to each other through shareholding".
Mr Pitt was also questioned about a recently reported row at boardroom level over a potential takeover of Newstalk radio. He said INM is no longer looking at the possibility of acquiring any radio stations on the island of Ireland.