Monday 27 January 2020

Anne Harris: Best value for money in a paper is the truth

A former INM director and friend of Denis O'Brien feigned to dismiss a recent issue as 'boring' but our sales speak volumes

Sales figures of newspapers are of absolutely no interest to its readers. It's like reading Tender is the Night while wondering how many copies it sold. So at the outset let me apologise to our readers. You might imagine, however, sales would be of interest to someone who intended to become intimately involved with a newspaper group and whose close colleague intended to take one over.

In Friday's Irish Times, Leslie Buckley, friend and associate of Denis O'Brien, a former and putative future director of Independent Newspapers, made some extraordinary pronouncements about the Sunday Independent. In that bluff faux Olympianism only truly perfected by Corkmen, he dismissed a recent issue, which carried a number of articles critical of his friend Denis O'Brien, as boring. "Half the country must have been bored stiff by that issue," he said, implying a switch-off.

Fact is, 5,000 more people are now buying the paper each week than at the beginning of this year.

And just to get the figures out of the way. There are 10 Sunday newspapers out there. In the last year more than 50,000 sales disappeared from the Sunday newspaper market, due to emigration and enforced tightening of belts: people increasingly look for value for money from their newspaper. In that time, despite the advent of a new newspaper (The Sun on Sunday), the Sunday Independent increased its market share to over 27 per cent.

The Irish operation at INM is very profitable, but Buckley was prolific in his criticisms of it. We should be making more of the online business, taking the whole thing digital. Well, wouldn't that be ironic? Gavin O'Reilly to be ousted because he failed to do what Rupert Murdoch, Guardian Newspapers and a host of others couldn't do. Making money out of online newspapers has yet to be figured out. The Wall St Journal and the Financial Times manage it because they are specialist products. The Mail might be getting somewhere with it worldwide because they have truckloads of Lord Rothermere's legacy and buy up every picture of every celebrity and charge everyone else for them.

But it would be disingenuous of me not to admit that the really chilling sentence in the interview was the stated intention of the new broom "to look under the bonnet". That's us. Editorial. The Board and Editorial. Ask most journalists who the members of their board are and they can't tell you. And that's how it should be. Never the twain should meet. But this comes as a surprise to some.

On yesterday morning's The Business with Richard Curran on RTE radio, author and Irish Times journalist Siobhan Creaton said that recent attacks on Denis O'Brien in the Sunday Independent indicated that the boardroom battle destined for the AGM in June had been brought forward.

Let me here dismiss any idea that the Sunday Independent, through me, is doing the work of Gavin O'Reilly. I last met him at the funeral of my late husband Aengus Fanning in January. He embraced me and uttered hardly a word. Neither did I. I have not spoken to him -- or anybody on his behalf -- since. In the preceding year I spoke to him only in response to his real concerns about Aengus's struggle.

In fact, it occurred to me that the strong comment in the Sunday Independent might be making things more difficult for him. But if so, I have not heard. And I never would. That's how it is with editorial and the board here.

Do I think that the very fine Irish Times interview with Leslie Buckley by Ciaran Hancock had anything to do with the fact that a member of the Irish Times board is also a director of Digicel? Of course I don't. We are still a free press and journalists and only journalists are the custodians of it. Why is it so difficult for Irish commentators to see that sometimes there are real principles at stake? That, as Brendan Howlin says, people feel there should be consequences for people against whom adverse findings are made by tribunals and that they certainly should not be waltzing through the corridors of power, making clear their intentions to take over the media.

The furore about Denis O'Brien arose because three things happened which opened the can and the worms can't stop spilling out.

In the space of 10 days, we had The New York Stock Exchange (and, by the way, the outcry over that did not begin in the Sunday Independent), the anniversary of the Moriarty tribunal and the Mahon report, both of which brought a spotlight on O'Brien and Michael Lowry and a feeling of unfinished business. The surprise ingredient -- a veritable serpent in the can --proved to be Fine Gael's entrenchment behind both O'Brien and Lowry.

The reason all this matters to the Sunday Independent is that we may be about to lose one of the most important tools of transparency -- press freedom. Take a government with an obscene majority, allow a media mogul who has influence -- O'Brien makes no secret of his desire for influence -- with the dominant party and before long it may not be just an appearance of the dictatorial.

Auto-censorship happens very fast and before you know it, it is impossible to discuss uncomfortable matters openly. Which is what the Sunday Independent has been doing.

Of course we are concerned about a boardroom battle. But we are not a part of it.

If I might put things very plainly, the Irish public is sick of swimming in shit.

The real and only value for money that they want in their newspaper is the truth.

Sunday Independent

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