Wednesday 19 June 2019

Donal O'Donovan: 'Takeover can bring stability after a decade of convulsions'

  

Independent House on Dublin's Talbot Street. Photo: Arthur Carron
Independent House on Dublin's Talbot Street. Photo: Arthur Carron
Donal O'Donovan

Donal O'Donovan

In any country, the sale of its biggest independent media group is a major event. The sale of its biggest private sector publisher to a foreign buyer doubly so.

It's a sad testament to a decade of upheaval at Independent News and Media (INM) that the proposed sale to Belgian group Mediahuis is unlikely to provoke a major negative reaction from the public or policy makers.

INM's titles, including this newspaper, remain the market leaders but the financial, corporate and financial convulsion of the INM plc mean the Irish media giant that once had global ambitions will go out with a whimper rather than a roar.

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The group has been in or close to crisis for a decade, starting with a shareholder battle between Tony O'Reilly and Denis O'Brien, that in hindsight now looks like a scrap between two bald men for an especially sharp comb.

That corporate war was followed immediately by the wider financial crash, including an advertising collapse which the then badly over-indebted INM barely scraped through - and then only at the cost of losses for shareholders and, indirectly, for taxpayers exposed through loans from AIB and Bank of Ireland.

The impact of the crash was then compounded by the technological shift for all media as consumers and advertisers moved online.

In Dublin yesterday, Thomas Leysen, chairman of Mediahuis which wants to buy INM, said its own expansion beyond its national borders in Belgium reflected the need to operate on a large enough scale to be able to afford the technology needed to compete in any media market.

INM is now simply too small to compete on those terms. That's a sobering prospect for rivals like 'The Irish Times', now including the 'Irish Examiner'. The other big papers here - 'Daily Mail' publisher Associated Media, and Rupert Murdoch's 'The Sun' and 'Sunday Times' titles and 'Irish Mirror' publisher Reach plc - can draw on bigger parents in the UK, but the risk of importing some of the divisiveness of the British media market must be a worry here.

Readers, citizens, policy-makers and advertisers all care who owns the media.

So-called fake news - spread virally over hands-off social media platforms - and the Balkanisation of established media - print in the UK and TV in the US - into highly partisan camps are major concerns.

Ireland has so far escaped the worst of that. The arrival of a complete outsider as the major player in the Irish newspaper market - which Mediahuis will become if its succeeds in buying Independent News and Media - throws a new card into the mix.

So far, the signs are good. Mediahuis's own stable contains a noisy mix of editorial products with a range of histories and backgrounds that the group is happy to range across.

Its top executives went out of their way in Dublin yesterday to stress a commitment to editorial excellence and independence as well as to financial discipline.

Financial viability is ultimately the best guarantor of media.

At the right price, INM's sale should safeguard that.

Irish Independent

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