Thursday 23 November 2017

John McGee: Ignoring key role of mergers in survival is delusional

Any debate about media plurality in Ireland needs to take account of the many financial and structural challenges facing the industry first

The Media Ownership Bill 2017 seeks to
The Media Ownership Bill 2017 seeks to "rebalance the media landscape in Ireland to improve media plurality and minimise the potential for over-concentration of media ownership with any one individual or company" Photo: Getty Images

John McGee

Earlier this week the Social Democrats took the unusual step of publishing details of a new bill which it hopes to bring to the Dáil next week. The Media Ownership Bill 2017 seeks to "rebalance the media landscape in Ireland to improve media plurality and minimise the potential for over-concentration of media ownership with any one individual or company".

Forgive me, but where have I heard that line before?

Championed by Catherine Murphy TD, the proposed bill seeks to curb the control and influence of press barons who seek to distort our view of the world and, in doing so, undermine democracy.

However well-intentioned the Leixlip-based TD is in her quest for greater media plurality, the proposed bill is fundamentally flawed on a number of levels. Leaving aside her "history" with Denis O'Brien, the largest shareholder in INM, publisher of this newspaper, it also smacks of an attempt to derail the proposed acquisition of Celtic Media Group by INM.

While the acquisition has already received the green light from the Competition and Consumer Protection Authority, like all M&A activity in the media industry, it still requires the imprimatur of the Minister for Communications, Denis Naughten.

While I've absolutely no idea how Naughten's review will pan out, it would do him no harm if he took stock of some of the wider trends within the media industry, the many financial and structural challenges it faces and what kind of future we would like to write for an industry that is of vital importance to democracy. Now that I think of it, Catherine Murphy and the Social Democrats should have done the same.

The last time I checked, my passport said I was living in Ireland, not Turkey, North Korea or Saudi Arabia. I am also pretty sure that Ireland has one of the best and most competitive media industries in the world when it comes to ensuring its citizens are informed about the key political, social and economic issues of the day.

I can also say with a degree of certainty that the Irish media industry offers up, on a daily basis, an impressively broad and diverse range of perspectives, ideas and opinions. A bit like this column, if you like.

You don't necessarily have to agree with everything I write, but, hey, that's democracy for you.

As a young journalism student in DCU back in the late 1980s, the issue of media plurality regularly raised its head during a series of lectures that were, in the main, soporifically mind-numbing and often instantly forgettable.

Press barons like Beaverbrook, Rothermere, Conrad Black, Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer were often demonised and their influence on the political and democratic process was hotly debated.

In the intervening period, there has been plenty of hand-wringing, tut-tutting by politicians and media academics the world over. But some things never change.

In addition, various half-hearted and botched attempts have been made to legislate against the influence of powerful media owners in different countries. Forums like the Leveson Inquiry in the UK a few years ago have also weighed in with their own ideas.

Despite all of this, I'm not sure that a lot has changed since my DCU days and, given the many challenges facing the industry, I'm not convinced that much will change in the future either.

In many of the debates about media plurality, the significant financial and structural challenges facing the sector are often overlooked. Sometimes conveniently. Because of media's importance, these debates about plurality should not be conducted in a vacuum.

Again, the last time I checked there is no queue of investors willing to take a punt on the traditional media industry in Ireland. The days of frothy valuations being slapped on newspapers are long gone. Yes, deep-pocketed investors like Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos have come to the rescue of newspaper groups like the Omaha World Herald or the Washington Post in the USA but most right-minded investors would prefer to plough their cash into the next hot start-up in fintech or medtech. And Ireland is no different.

Over the next few years, the Irish media industry will go through a period of profound structural change the like of which it has never experienced before.

Apart from the enormous financial challenges thrown up by the likes of so-called media intermediaries like Google and Facebook, if the industry is to emerge intact and be in a position to meet the key foundations of media plurality, consolidation in form of mergers or acquisitions will have to play a key role. If this means newspaper groups merging or TV and radio stations forming alliances, then so be it. Anybody who says otherwise is whistling past the graveyard and severely deluded.

While I'm all up for plurality, let us put the horse before the cart in the debate.

Contact John McGee at john@adworld.ie

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