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Sunday 17 December 2017

Editorial independence of regional titles will be protected in takeover - INM CEO tells Oireachtas committee

Robert Pitt, CEO, Independent News & Media
Robert Pitt, CEO, Independent News & Media
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

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 Oireachtas Communication’s Committee that the business model for local newspapers is “broken”, adding that they are suffering at hands of Facebook and Google “which 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 sale, 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.

Mr Mulrennan said: “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.”

He noted the “commercial reality” meant Celtic Media have had to halve their investment in digital resources since January because they need to reign in costs.

Encouraging committee members to support the takeover, he said: “We cannot row against the digital tide. The only future it to have a digital future.”

Some members express 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 added that news organisations must remain commercially viable.

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 that INM was “gobbling up” the media market.

She said that while Mr Mulreenan’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 current and former employees.

Mr Pitt said the pension issue was “handled as well as it could be” under the circumstances.

Roderick Flynn argued that it may be time for a public monies to be used to help fund local media.

He noted that RTÉ is assisted by the television licence fee but no other media outlets have such assurances of income.

Mr Pitt was also questioned about a recently reported row at boardroom level over a potential takeover of Newstalk radio.

He said that INM is no longer looking at the possibility of acquiring any radio stations on the island of Ireland.

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