Wednesday 13 December 2017

Late editor honoured by his industry colleagues

Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Aengus Fanning, former editor of the Sunday Independent, was committed to being "a commercial editor" because he believed that revenue gave independence which guaranteed freedom of speech, his successor Anne Harris said, accepting the NNI Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Newspaper Industry, which was given posthumously at the Four Seasons Hotel in Dublin last Thursday.

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"Of the myriad tasks with which an editor is charged, entertaining the reader is one of the most important and the most difficult," she said.

Aengus Fanning was dedicated to it because he wanted circulation.

"His description of himself was, 'I'm a commercial editor.' He said it unapologetically, knowing it could strike fear and loathing in the hearts of those who thought commercial editing was anathema to the idea of freedom of speech. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"Circulation drives advertising," she said. "Advertising drives revenue. Revenue drives independence -- that is, independence from advertisers, governments and all manner of vested interests. Independence drives freedom of speech."

Aengus was dedicated to diversity of content, said Ms Harris. "He didn't invent opinion writing, but he brought it to a new level.

"He believed opinion should be free, contradictory and all over the place. One academic described the opinion pages of the paper as 'sheer anarchy' and this pleased Aengus. As he saw it, this was democracy functioning at one important level at least. Unlike our parliamentary democracy, which he described as 'inert'.

"When you consider that the Personal Insolvency Bill isn't likely to be working until the end of 2013, you begin to see his point. And then there's the Media Mergers Legislation which, like some dreary waltz in an Irish dance hall, has so many interminable twists that all who are invested in it have lost the will to live.

"It matters. Because if there's one single guarantor of diversity of content, it's diversity of ownership. But the following timeline tells a depressing story.

"April 27, the Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte warns against 'undue concentration of media ownership' before going on to a 12.30pm meeting with Denis O'Brien.

"May 2, Denis O'Brien writes a thank-you letter to Pat Rabbitte for the meeting.

"Also on May 2, Minister Rabbitte tells the Dail that he and Richard Bruton had 'agreed that media merger legislation would be transferred to his, Pat Rabbitte's department'.

"May 3, reports emerged that Denis O'Brien has bought a further 5 per cent of INM, bringing his stake to 27 per cent.

"May 5, Denis O'Brien buys another 2.9 per cent, bringing his stake to 29.9 per cent.

"May 7, the Irish Times reported that Minister Rabbitte is seeking approval from Cabinet colleagues for a new law on media mergers to go through the Dail before the summer recess.

"May 17, the Irish Times reported that the media merger legislation transfer would not take place. 'That conversation is now over,' said one Government source. There would be no separate bill as suggested by Minister Rabbitte. Another source said the matter had not been discussed at Cabinet.

"Unless there is something going on that we don't know about," said Ms Harris, "'inert' is putting it kindly.

"All urgency has faded and one has to ask, is there any longer a political will to tackle it?"

There was, however, Ms Harris said, some sense of urgency about this matter in Europe.

"Some European commissioners are pressing for acceleration of the study of the role of media as watchdog of democratic institutions and the central role of media ownership in that context.

"In short, they are recognising that Competition Law and the trend towards 'concentration of ownership of media' needs to be 'balanced' in the interests of democracy.

"Aengus Fanning," said Ms Harris, "despite the eccentric exterior, was a very serious editor who met with power along the way but never inhaled its incense.

"It would be hard to overestimate the pressure he was put under when the Peace Process was in danger of becoming an Appeasement process. Then there was his extraordinary clarity of vision about Germany's ambitions in the fiscal union.

"It was not unusual, even five years ago, for our newsroom to take calls from German news stations asking, 'Who is Aengus Fanning and why is he saying these terrible things about us?'"

Sunday Independent

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