Entertainment Books

Sunday 16 December 2018

Review: Media: Independent Newspapers – A History Edited by Mark O’Brien & Kevin Rafter

Four Courts Press, €45, hbk, 240 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

William Martin Murphy is remembered primarily for three separate events, all of which became inextricably linked and all of which would shape his legacy.

They were the founding of the Irish Independent as a "cheap commercially driven title"; the publication of two inflammatory leading articles calling for the execution of 1916 Proclamation signatories, James Connolly and Sean McDermott; and the five-month long Great Lock-Out, which brought the impoverished Dublin working class to its knees and which prompted WB Yeats to launch an embittered attack on the City's merchant princes.

What is lesser known, however, is that he refused a knighthood, strongly supported the rise of Sinn Féin after the Civil War and probably never saw the offending leading articles before they were published. It is likely, however, that he would have agreed with them for, despite being offered plenty of opportunity, he never disassociated himself from them.

A devout Catholic who took over his family's building firm at the age of 19, it is said that the only reason he chose to live in the Terenure/Darty area of Dublin when he moved from Cork was because it was populated in the main by the Protestant business establishment.

He was, as Kevin Rafter points out in this very timely history of Ireland's largest newspaper group, a very rare breed: a highly successful Catholic businessman.

He owned railways and tramways, the Imperial Hotel in Dublin and Clery's, the largest department store in the country.

When he led Dublin employers into the infamous lock-out, observers said of the man who had set up several branches of the St Vincent de Paul Society that he carried the Companies Act in one hand and the Imitation of Christ in the other.

He had dabbled in newspapers on each side of the turn of the century but in 1905 he realised there was a gap in the market and he launched the Irish Independent, the newspaper group that by the end of the century would span the globe.

His newspaper obsession probably helped him divert his thoughts away from a failed political career which saw him lose his Dublin seat after only seven years as an MP, and his vision and energy laid the foundations for what was to become an international media empire.

As Gavin Ellis, a former staffer on the company's New Zealand titles, illustrates: "By 2001 (INM) published more than 200 newspapers and magazine titles with weekly circulations in excess of 15m copies in Europe, Africa and Australasia. It employed more than 12,100 people, had a turnover of €1.5 bn and gross assets of €3.5 bn. Yet in December 2010 the company's revenue was less than half that of a decade earlier (€626.4m) while its assets were valued at €841.2m".

This book is a collection of analytical essays by a group of contributors, all of whom have impressive track records in the world of journalism or academia or both.

Over 15 well-thought-out chapters -- there is one notable exception -- it covers the establishment of the newspaper group that had and still has an extraordinary influence on the way the nation sees things.

At times, however, its role as a shaper of national opinion was somewhat confused. Its first editor, TC Harrington, had a unique way of formulating editorial policy. His role, according to contributor Felix M Larkin, was to follow public opinion as he perceived it and articulate positions broadly acceptable to his predominantly middle-class Catholic readers, so as not to lose their custom.

And all the while the public lapped up what the newspaper had to offer. By the end of 1915 it was selling 100,000 and circulation reached 143,000 by June 1931, two months before the Irish Press was established.

In 1952, by which time the Sunday Independent had been launched, the daily title was selling 203,000 while 400,000 people bought the weekly title. Golden days indeed for the Murphys, who controlled the newspaper group for more than half a century after William Martin's death in 1919.

Few things ever change significantly at the heart of newspapers. Resonances of today's strident debates over proprietary interference with editors are echoed in the conflict between Murphy and Harrington. And it is Harrington who had the last word, after Murphy had requested him to support a friend in a by-election.

Harrington rose to his full editorial height and thundered at Murphy by letter that he was seeking reassurances "that I will be given a free hand as regards the policy of the Independent on political questions and matters and that you will not persist in forcing your unpopular political views on me with a view to getting them into the editorial columns of the Independent".

So, no interference there then. There are significant contributions here on other editors like Frank Geary, who supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War simply because the other side were Communist and anti-Catholic, and the legendary Hector Legge, who edited the Sunday Independent for more than 30 years and who once told this writer on Milltown Golf course, "I find I can't hit them as far since I turned 90".

John Horgan, detailed as ever, brings us through the changing of the guard between 1961 and 1973 as the Independent began to shed its arch-Catholic cloak and tried to grapple with the changes which the '60s threw up for the newspaper industry.

He introduces us to Bartle Pitcher, a young accountant, who was later to become managing director and who would be remembered as the man on whom Tony O'Reilly relied as the empire expanded.

And in another essay we meet Liam Healy, who was at the forefront of the expansion. He confided to executives in Australia and New Zealand: "Newspapers are about people, products and profits. Get the first two right and the other follows."

O'Reilly's story is well told and we see a small, local newspaper group emerge on to the world stage as an international media player.

Gavin Ellis's contribution on the Independent's foray into the Southern Hemisphere is a classic and informed analysis of how newspapers become big business. Ellis is a former managing editor of the New Zealand Herald, one of the titles snapped up by the Independent, and with him we follow the trail of INM across Australia, into New Zealand and India, where the group bought into a title for €30m, selling it just five years later for €90m. His piece is considered, packed with accurate information and well delivered.

Not so Joe Breen's analysis of the editorship of Vinnie Doyle, who presided over the Irish Independent between 1981 and 2005.

Here I must declare an interest. I worked with Vinnie Doyle and we became good friends. He was, to me and many others, the consummate editor and total professional.

He re-built the Irish Independent from the inside to face the challenges of a new society, and in doing so created a modern, resilient newspaper that sat comfortably in the modern era. However, in his contribution on Doyle as an editor, from the headline to the last paragraph, Breen uses anonymous scources -- hardly standard practice for an academic publication -- and produces a sad and revisionist piece, which is littered with inaccuracies surrounding facts which could easily have been checked.

It is a piece which is mealy-mouthed and fails to put any context on an editorship which was one of the most significant in the long history of the Independent. It has no place in this work.

The story of this newspaper is a colourful and complex one. Politicians were placed on pedestals under one editor or proprietor only to be dragged down like Communist statues under another. It is that type of newspaper.

Ask John Bruton and Dick Spring, Taoiseach and Tanaiste respectively, who were targeted by the newspaper on the eve of the 1997 general election. That day, the Independent cast aside generations of support for Fine Gael and published a front-page editorial which has become infamous as "Payback Time".

Vinnie Doyle took personal responsibility for it. The piece, which appeared across the top of Page One, asked Irish Independent readers to forsake the Bruton-Spring Rainbow coalition and support Fianna Fáil, who were duly returned to power the following day.

Bruton was furious, blamed Doyle directly for what he saw as betrayal and never spoke to him again, while Spring labelled the editorial as disgraceful and despicable and a new low in Irish journalism.

Politicians and newspaper editors seldom make contented bedfellows.

Given the current travails of the Independent Group, the boardroom battles and the end of the O'Reilly years (where this book ends), this is a timely volume. It does not brim over with revelations, but it is the first history of Ireland's most significant newspaper group.

The editors, Mark O'Brien and Kevin Rafter, have worked well to deliver the story in an eminently readable fashion.

Michael Brophy recently retired as INM chief executive for Northern Ireland.

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