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Anne Harris: O'Reilly's free press beliefs won hearts and minds

A golden summer Saturday evening in the early 2000s. Tony O'Reilly's annual dinner dance in the marquee outside his house in Castlemartin.

The invitation list was that eclectic mix that made a social gathering sing -- the kind of thing nobody talks about nowadays, but which had an innocence of its own: pop stars, legal eagles, chat show hosts, editors, DJs, foreign presidents, Finance mandarins, Taoisigh past and present.

There wasn't much flash about the food or drink. But the wives and girlfriends glammed up and with Jim Doherty and his session musicians there was a Gatsby glimmer.

On a table inside the marquee entrance where O'Reilly greeted guests were displayed the day's newspapers -- all the Independent titles. The Sunday Independent always arrived last, fresh off the Citywest presses which were closer to Castlemartin than Middle Abbey St, from whence the editor would set out, having seen the paper to bed.

On that summer's evening, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was late, editor Aengus Fanning -- as always -- was late, but the papers were punctual. O'Reilly had time to scan them as he waited. Ahern arrived, to be greeted by O'Reilly with Aengus fast on his heels. Aengus didn't normally do embarrassed, but he felt something akin to it hit his gut as he watched Ahern's hand freeze in O'Reilly's and followed his eyeline which was fixed on the table behind and the Sunday Independent splash headline declaiming, over a picture of Bertie: "Go Bertie. In the name of God, go."

Bertie recovered quickly. Aengus recovered quickly. But O'Reilly had nothing to recover from. Editorial was independent.

The malice of time and chance will no doubt put a slight perspective on this incident. But Bertie Ahern was powerful and the NNI (National Newspapers of Ireland) were very concerned at the time about a punitive level of VAT on newspapers. At best, it would be a mere dinner party killer.

Today, there is concern about the concentration of ownership in the hands of one person. In the absence of enlightened legislation, it's about checks and balances. It all depends on where those hands are. The O'Reilly hands were always, in my experience, in the right place. Which is Off.

Vincent Browne, on his TV programme, accused the Sunday Independent of having a vendetta against Denis O'Brien over the last four weeks. It's not like Browne to use language loosely. A vendetta -- apart from the obvious Sicilian meaning (which up to now, at any rate, doesn't apply to this situation) of a blood feud where the the family of a murder victim seeks revenge for his murder -- means a bitter quarrel or a prolonged campaign against someone. You could hardly describe a few weeks' comment, arising out of specific incidents, as a vendetta.

Someone with as loose a definition of vendetta as Browne's might ascribe the word to Browne himself. Because having been fired by the O'Reillys from his position as editor of the Sunday Tribune, he never misses a chance to put the boot in. No opportunity to remind people of their faults -- and they have faults -- is ignored.

But I wouldn't call it a vendetta. Because, while he appears to be bitter -- vindictive even -- he has real issues with their ownership. He thinks they own too many newspapers and he doesn't think that's healthy and in this he is consistent. He has been for many years. He could at least give us the same entitlement for a few weeks.

Mr Justice Moriarty made adverse findings about the way Denis O'Brien was awarded the biggest, most lucrative licence ever granted in the history of this State by a Fine Gael-led government. The government which awarded the licence is very similar to the current Government and Denis O'Brien's proximity to Fine Gael is undeniable.

Denis O'Brien already owns radio stations. If your free speech antennae didn't quiver at O'Brien's intention to take over INM, it's arguable you don't deserve democracy's foundation stone.

The boardroom battle is over. I imagine freedom of speech probably rarely came into those toxic spats. But if the newspapers were not there -- popular, commercial, and truthful -- there would be nothing to do battle about.

Editorial independence was the culture in which Gavin O'Reilly learned his craft. He was nurtured in newspapers. He may have set out, with a certain "Hi, I'm Gavin O'Reilly" welcome for himself, but INM life soon knocked the corners off him as he hawked the Independent Directory around looking for ads, as he got down and dirty learning all there is to know about printing and printers, as he was blooded in the boardroom with libel actions and fractious editors. But he was extremely good at it. And he was a fast learn as destiny propelled him to the top job.

As in all jobs, there are qualifications required for this one. Qualifications which show awareness that media is about hearts and minds -- often about changing them. In an industry, not for nothing, called Grub St, the O'Reillys brought a sensibility. Newspapers in Ireland (including the red tops in the group) never descended to the levels of the UK.

The O'Reillys brought a creativity. Gavin O'Reilly kept the jobs of journalists in the Irish operation safe by cost-cutting and investing in the correct measure.

But above all, they brought a pluralism. The only O'Reilly diktat was "no comfort to terrorists". It may seem a truism now. A generation has reached adulthood since Good Friday 1998. But there was a time when the Peace Process often threatened to become an Appeasement Process; when Mo Mowlam and her civil servants, as well as certain sections of the media, were so in thrall to the IRA that they forgot there were two sides to a peace process; when clarity only broke through with the frequent, inevitable tragic funeral corteges; when only a coterie of gritty Sunday Independent commentators, like Eilish O'Hanlon, Jim Cusack, Eoghan Harris, Aengus Fanning, Eamon Dunphy and Alan Ruddock stood out against the consensus.

And I am willing to guess that many an O'Reilly dinner party was ruined over these commentaries. But obviously we never heard.

Gavin O'Reilly brought all these qualities to the job. Qualities from his father, qualities from his mother and qualities he didn't even know he had. He had an inordinate respect for diversity of comment -- which some have said was to the point of anarchy -- in the Sunday Independent. He worked all the hours God gave. And above all, as he got older, so his decency grew too. We will miss him.

Vincent Crowley is our new CEO. He spent 20 years working with the O'Reillys. It is unlikely Crowley will ever, as Tony O'Reilly was wont to do, ring the editor with an offer of a review of a cricket book or the latest World War Two diaries (Aengus, it's fair to say in this respect, would have relished a bit more hands-on from O'Reilly.) But we know Crowley to be his own man. The boardroom battles are over and the freedoms are safe here. Which is just as well.

With Sinn Fein at 21.6 per cent in the polls and growing in direct ratio to every austerity measure, Ireland desperately needs a pluralist newspaper group. And as Sinn Fein looks more and more likely to form a part of the next Government, the guardianship of the fragile flower of freedom of speech becomes more imperative.

We've postponed yet again legislation which will deal with diversity of newspaper ownership and content.

Step up to it Pat Rabbitte.

Sunday Independent