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Lynn Boylan commissioned a report to get result SF wanted


Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan Photo: Collins

Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan Photo: Collins

Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan Photo: Collins

Lynn Boylan's much-publicised Report on the Concentration of Media Ownership in Ireland tells us little we didn't already know about the newspaper, radio and television market here. But it patently fails to tell people much about what they should know about the wider media sector.

As far as the report - commissioned, but not written, by the Sinn Fein MEP on behalf of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group in the European Parliament - is concerned, the elephant in the room is Denis O'Brien. Specifically, his ownership of newspapers and radio stations in this country.

Yes, O'Brien is a major media player here, with control over some key elements of the so-called traditional media. That can't be disputed. But is that fact the most pertinent point with regard to plurality in the media in Ireland today?

Because the irony is that the analysis in this report largely ignores a massive behemoth of its own - the enormous, and growing, influence of new media (blogs, YouTube) and social media.

The report describes Ireland as one of the most concentrated media markets of any democracy in Europe. But all the evidence suggests that Irish people have never had such a multiple of news sources available to them.

Thirty or 40 years ago, people got their news from a small number of media outlets - RTE (just a couple of times a day, mind), the Press Group, Independent Newspapers, the Irish Times - and perhaps the Cork Examiner group if you lived in Munster. Fleet Street newspapers had barely penetrated the public consciousness outside of the east coast. There was no competition in TV or radio. Today, the influence of the traditional, old-style domestic media is seriously diluted. Around two-thirds of people have a Facebook account - 74pc of them use it daily and around half use it as a source for news. Mark Zuckerberg might claim Facebook is a tech, rather than a media, company. But, all the evidence suggests otherwise.

It mightn't create its own news content but, in today's world, control over distribution is just as important as actually creating the content. For better or worse, Facebook is arguably the most powerful media company in the country right now (yes, more so even than RTE).

Virgin Media, with its strong broadband presence in Dublin - not to mention its ownership of television channels, including TV3 and UTV Ireland - falls into a similar category. Yet curiously neither company gets a mention in Boylan's report.

It doesn't stop with Facebook or Virgin Media. One in 10 people says social media is now their primary news source, with over half getting at least some news through social media sites. The rates are higher the further down the age demographic you go. My 14-year-old son doesn't read a newspaper every day. But within minutes of the story of the Paris attacks breaking last year, he had picked up on it on Snapchat and was texting me about what had happened.

For now, TV remains the big beast when it comes to accessing news, with three quarters of people getting their news this way. But given that many of the younger generation barely watch traditional TV, it remains to be seen how long this dominance will last.

Even for those who see the obvious merits of sticking with the traditional media companies, they can now access news for free on a range of domestic and international websites. Many liberal urbanites here will use the Guardian website as their first port of call for the US presidential election.

The Irish edition of timesonline has emerged as another significant player in the Irish market. On the face of it, the level of choice couldn't be greater, yet there are strong grounds for believing that more choice, particularly online, doesn't necessarily bring the kind of plurality of opinions that might be expected. The reality is that in many cases people go to websites or blogs for views that reflect their own. Social media has created a whole new way for people to find, share and talk about news stories. But the choice of news that you see there is influenced by your online circle of friends or indeed by past behaviour on the site. The tendency therefore is for people to read content that reinforces their existing viewpoint - as opposed to potentially challenging it as the best columnists on a traditional news site do. Plurality is not just about media ownership.

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The tendency towards group-think is not confined to social media sites. On the issue of the repeal of the Eighth Amendment for example, there's not a huge amount of plurality in evidence in the traditional media - with the exception of some, admittedly high-profile, anti-repeal columnists - and that's nothing to do with the extent of concentration of ownership of media organisations. And we in the media need to be honest enough to face up to that regardless of what our views might be. That might be outside the remit of the report commissioned by Boylan, but it's arguably no less important.

That report declares that "we need a media that holds those in powerful positions to account, one that seeks the truth and ensures that the public has access to the truth". That, of course, is hugely important, but it's also something of a truism. Who would disagree?

However, are there really grounds for concern here? There are of course many conspiracy theorists who believe the establishment, including the media, is closing ranks and conspiring against the people.

But are there really grounds for arguing there's a danger our traditional media outlets are not currently holding the institutions of the state, and "those in powerful positions", to account?

There is always cause for vigilance on these grounds. But the issues and the challenges facing the Irish media go far, far deeper than any Commission of Inquiry into media plurality - as earnestly suggested by the report.

Leave aside the fact that we need yet another Commission of Inquiry like a hole in the head, the way we consume media is changing so fast that any such commission would be like a fire engine trundling along to the wrong fire.

There should indeed be "extremely grave concerns" about the Irish media sector. But it is about how good, no-nonsense journalism - consisting of hard news reporting and well-researched/sourced analysis of depth - can continue to prosper in the new world of tweets and Snapchat.

Perhaps Sinn Fein might have commissioned a report into that - instead of focusing its attention on O'Brien. But then, as we know, such reports tend to be commissioned with a view to getting the required result.