Friday 23 August 2019

John Horgan: 'The priest, three brothels and a new era for INM'

The paper: Copies of the Irish Independent are printed at the Independent News & Media print plant in Citywest, Dublin. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
The paper: Copies of the Irish Independent are printed at the Independent News & Media print plant in Citywest, Dublin. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

John Horgan

Over 40 years ago, the modern Irish Independent changed hands for the first time since its foundation in 1905. When the young entrepreneur Tony O'Reilly acquired control in 1973 from the Murphy family, it was largely on the basis of his hunch that - as we entered the EEC - the domestic newspaper business was, of all Irish industries, probably one of the best protected from foreign ownership and competition. The wheel has now come full circle with the takeover offer from Belgian-Dutch media group Mediahuis, but in circumstances neither he nor anyone else could have predicted even as recently as five years ago.

One of the defining characteristics of the new owners is that they regard media, and newspapers in particular, as more than just businesses. Newspapers are, warts and all, institutions that have a huge public service remit and a public responsibility. One of the greatest and most permanent of those responsibilities is holding the feet of the powerful to the fire and, as a great US journalist once put it, comforting the afflicted as well as afflicting the comfortable.

The foundational Murphy era in Abbey Street was remarkable for its consolidation of the middle market at a time when social and even technological change was proceeding at a snail's pace. It was hardly coincidental that its 50th anniversary was marked by the publication of a congratulatory message from Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin, or that - on another famous occasion - newspaper vans were despatched at high speed in the middle of the night to successfully retrieve all early copies of the Independent from a town whose deceased and highly regarded parish priest, the type-setter had mistakenly recorded, was survived by two sisters and three brothels.

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Newspapering has also, traditionally, been a fellowship as well as a competitive market-place. When the 'Irish Times' was replacing its presses, and enhancing its competitiveness, it was actually printed - at commercial rates, naturally - by its rival in Abbey Street.

When O'Reilly took over in 1973, it was not only at the dawn of an era of seismic social and economic change, but it was also an end to the days when the office managers in the Independent would economise by carefully cutting pencils in half before supplying reporters with these tools of their trade.

The eventual demise of the peculiarly managed 'Irish Press' group consolidated the Independent's position in the market-place, even though this was compromised from time to time by experiments with MMDS (multi-media distribution systems, a failed precursor of the internet), problematic experiments with radio stations in the US, and the high-profile but ultimately sacrificial adventure involving the London 'Independent'. Management, under the late Liam Healy in particular, seemed to have a Midas touch.

This was buttressed by conservative, commercially sensitive editorial policies and by an investment policy based on borrowing to buy assets rather than on weakening board control by broadening and increasing shareholder investment.

The O'Reilly era was marked by extraordinary and profitable expansion into Australia and New Zealand and South Africa, its role in South Africa in particular coinciding significantly with the end of apartheid and the support for Mandela.

Subsequent events, however, demonstrated that even major and apparently invulnerable institutions can sometimes develop weaknesses that few could have predicted. In the case of the Irish newspaper industry, two factors were involved.

One of them is the advent of the internet, and the inability or unwillingness of governments everywhere to realise that the lack of regulation and accountability of this new economic model posed a threat, not just to so-called 'legacy' media, but to public life and standards generally. There are, thankfully, some signs that the EU and national governments are now taking this threat seriously.

When external threats like these suddenly appeared contemporaneously with internal difficulties such as the boardroom battles which hobbled Independent News & Media in recent years, it is close to becoming a perfect storm in which only the fittest will survive. In this context, a major problem facing the Independent group has been its inability successfully to manage simultaneously both the new technological, commercial and editorial challenges, and the internal civil war which inevitably consumed huge swathes of everyone's time.

Many years ago, I was a member of the Commission on the Newspaper Industry. So was David Palmer, then managing director of the Independent group. While David and I agreed on little, we achieved harmony on one issue: management always had the right to change an editor, but - if they had any sense - they should not interfere with editorial policy. That sums up the peculiar nexus of the newspaper industry: it is private enterprise, but with a public purpose, and its success depends not only on its management but on the skill, commitment, and values with which its journalists approach their societal role and responsibilities.

The media will always be a locus for contention and controversy - which is as it should be. Variety in ownership and control will enhance the growth of adaptability that will help ensure the success of newspapers into the future. We once thought, after all, that television heralded the end of the cinema! And public measures aimed at supporting the media's role in providing readers with essential information and opinions are what will enhance public debate, inform public and private decision-making, and support the endless disagreements that enliven, vivify and inform civil society.

John Horgan is emeritus Professor of Journalism at Dublin City University, and served as Ireland's first Press Ombudsman

Irish Independent

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