Sunday 24 March 2019

Proposed charter for INM reporters is bad for Irish journalism

Denis O'Brien could use his sway to create a media that gives a voice to truth, that transcends grudges – this isn't it, writes Colum Kenny

The issuing of a proposed new charter for journalists at Independent News & Media (INM) has set the cat among nervous pigeons.

Some journalists at INM fear that their own company board, now dominated by billionaire Denis O'Brien, is out to soften their cough.

The Financial Times reported last year that Mr O'Brien has spent more than €500m building up his share of INM. Why does he want it so badly?

Mr O'Brien this month won a court case against a rival newspaper group that had questioned his motivation in helping Haiti after its earthquake. He was previously reported to have contemplated suing two journalists personally for their comments, and in 2011 his company's Newstalk radio station felt it necessary to deny that its editorial policy blunted critical journalism.

Mr O'Brien is said to believe that he is unfairly treated by some media, particularly in their amplification of findings of the Moriarty tribunal about him.

Like most people, Mr O'Brien reasonably believes that the media should not be allowed to treat people with undue harshness.

But sometimes a bit of harshness is due, and the best people to decide when it is due are editors and their readers, not investors or higher management. This is where the proposed new charter for journalists at INM comes in.

Although INM has not yet made the charter public, it reportedly lays down among other things that: "Sustained or repeated adversarial editorial material concerning individuals or organisations will only be maintained on the basis of justification in the public interest with the written approval of the managing editor." No crusading without permission, in other words.

One Irish Times business affairs correspondent has already linked this new rule to criticism of some of Mr O'Brien's business affairs that was published in the Sunday Independent.

The Sunday Independent is the most successful Sunday broadsheet in Ireland. Bought by all social classes, it has more Irish Times-type readers alone than that newspaper has on any day of the week.

But it has at times concentrated its editorial focus on individuals or topics in ways that some people find painful. In April last year, for example, it published a number of articles highlighting aspects of Denis O'Brien's activities. It is said that he found these grossly unfair, although he did not complain about them to the Press Council.

During his defamation case against the Daily Mail this month, Mr O'Brien made his disdain for the Press Council process very clear. He feels that it has too few teeth. Yet it was set up by agreement between newspapers and the Government and its ombudsman has successfully resolved or determined a considerable number of complaints already.

Because Denis O'Brien feels that the Press Council does not go far enough, the new INM charter presumably goes further. It may make journalists feel more wary when doing their job of reporting and interpreting facts that others would prefer to stay hidden or misunderstood.

The INM charter, as reported, seems to introduce new restrictions on the traditional judgement call of editors. If in fact it encourages or puts pressure on journalists to run to management when they fear the personal consequences of not second-guessing their editor on editorial matters, then it will be a bad day for Irish journalism.

It is usually the editor, not the managing editor of a newspaper, whom a judge will summon to answer directly for contempt of court. This reflects the fact that managing editors have tended to look after practical matters and left day-to-day journalism decisions to editors, unless asked for their input.

If management is now to intervene more directly in determining the content at INM newspapers, then this change matters. The extent to which any media content reflects the interests and ideology of particular investors such as Rupert Murdoch, Tony O'Reilly, Denis O'Brien or the State varies and is not "all the same".

If individual journalists are now encouraged or pressured in any way to run to management to pre-empt coverage of a story that the editor wants written then the confidence of reporters and editors who wish to address matters of public interest will be shaken.

Hit hard by Judge Moriarty, who laid out facts about Mr O'Brien's financial dealings with the Fine Gael party in general and with one of its ministers in particular, Mr O'Brien wishes to vindicate his name but has not gone to court to do so in respect of the Moriarty Report.

Asked by the BBC's Lesley Curwin in 2011, "Did you make corrupt payments?", he replied, "Not at all. No", and added, "Get on with my life is the best thing, Lesley. If you are from a small country, you are a tall poppy and that can be a disadvantage."

According to the Financial Times, "Mr O'Brien made his fortune by winning the licence to operate Ireland's second mobile phone network." But he has grown even taller outside Ireland.

Mr O'Brien is an immensely successful businessman across Europe, China and the Caribbean, who has generously funded a human rights organisation and other charitable endeavours. He also helped to build up a private broadcasting sector in Ireland and abroad, one enjoyed by many listeners, and has won himself an international reputation for innovation.

How one interprets the findings of the Moriarty tribunal is a matter of opinion. They certainly give rise to questions of public interest, as does the billionaire's great influence across Irish media.

Ireland does not have an especially robust news industry. With more than 900,000 readers, the Sunday Independent brings in millions in earnings for INM. It is a distinctive media brand. But many Irish media companies have been badly hit by the recession. Irish media also labours under laws that can make it hard to tell the full story about scandals and improprieties that continue to contribute to Ireland being as it is today. And not all media owners have the appetite even to try.

As a billionaire, Denis O'Brien can afford to be generous. He could commit himself at this time of national crisis to helping to create a fearless and exciting public sphere where media speak up for the weak and poor and minorities, proving himself big enough to transcend any personal grudges against individual journalists.

But if the proposed charter for journalists at INM is what it seems to be then, at best, it replicates the existing work and code of the Press Council. At its worst, if reports of its content are confirmed, it could in practice introduce new restrictions on INM editors that may make their jobs harder if not impossible in some cases.

Nobody at the Sunday Independent asked me to write this article. I have never invested a single euro in INM shares. Denis O'Brien has. More than €500m, they say. Was he only after profit, in which case it was a bet that backfired, or also after editorial control?

And if he wants control, then for what? It is time that he let us know more clearly. It is a matter of public interest. We need strong, controversial and sometimes rude media in Ireland, to speak truth to the powerful.

Dr Colum Kenny is Professor of Communications at DCU and was a member of the Media Mergers Advisory Group, the report of which was completed in April 2008 at the urgent request of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment but has not yet been implemented by government.

Irish Independent

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