'Pretending to be Irish' pays off for UK titles - but for how long?

Thu, Oct 25, 2012, 01:00

MEDIA & MARKETING:ALAN CROSBIE, chairman of debt-strapped media group Thomas Crosbie Holdings, is probably better known for his pop at “the threat to humanity” posed by “new media” than he is for his views on the British-owned newspapers that have come over here, stealing our readers.

But UK papers are the “biggest problem” in the Irish market, he said last year. “They pay no VAT over there, there’s no VAT on the bulk of their circulation. Then they publish here and pretend to be Irish.”

Ouch. “Pretending to be Irish” has certainly worked out quite well up to now for the British-owned press. The Irish Sun is the third biggest selling morning newspaper in Ireland with a circulation of 72,499, while the Irish Daily Mirror and the Irish Daily Mail both shift an average of more than 50,000 copies.

The two titles to have seen their circulation hold up the best over the last five years – a time of general bloodbath – have been two British-owned Sunday titles, the Sunday Times and the Irish Mail on Sunday. And when the Sun on Sunday launched in February, it may have failed to recapture all of the News of the World’s abandoned circulation, but it didn’t have any difficulty attracting Taoiseach Enda Kenny as a guest columnist.

Mail-owner Associated Newspapers was the last to the localised-content party, and, who knows, it may be the last to leave. This week it announced that Sebastian Hamilton, former Irish Mail on Sunday editor, took over from Eric Bailey as editor-in-chief of the two Irish Mail titles. But unlike last week’s change of the guard at the Irish Sun – which saw Michael McNiffe replaced on an interim basis by Paul Hudson, the assistant editor of the Sun in London – the Mail’s reshuffle does not appear to be coinciding with any retrenchment.

Indeed, its attention to Ireland may be protected in the long term by MailOnline’s discovery of an audience here – the site pulls in 1.7 million monthly unique visitors (compared to 4.5 million at RTÉ.ie and four million for Irishtimes.com).

Irish readers who love a good “sidebar of shame” would presumably have little truck with Crosbie’s argument that UK-owned press groups’ presence in the Irish market infringes on our democracy. In any case, relations between “indigenous” newspapers and those ultimately controlled from London have generally calmed down since the days when the former group could be heard fuming about predatory pricing.

There are still flare-ups. It was 1916 all over again when Michael O’Kane, the suspended editor of the Irish Daily Star, published topless pictures of Kate Middleton in September. This Anglo-Irish cultural skirmish had the distinction of taking place between not rivals, but business associates – Independent News Media and Richard Desmond’s Northern Shell, the two 50:50 partners in Independent Star Ltd.

Desmond’s threat of “immediate” closure lifted, but the incident was a reminder that Northern Shell, just like News International or Trinity Mirror, could stop bothering with the tiny Irish market at pretty much any time. This would be good news for the titles that hang around long enough to mop up bereft readers – or try to – and bad news for their employees.

But media groups don’t have to stop going on sale here to stop employing people here, as the six newsroom staff at the Irish Sun threatened with redundancy last week know all too well. In an email described as “worrying and bizarre” by the National Union of Journalists, Sun editor Dominic Mohan told staff the company need to make “significant changes” to secure its future.

“Our guiding principle is to bring more of the DNA that lies at the heart of the Sun into the Irish edition without compromising the paper’s Irish identity,” he wrote.

(A cynic might say this means Niall Horan will remain its favourite member of One Direction, rather than, say, Harry Styles, and that there will continue to be more glowing pictures of Úna Healy than of her Saturdays bandmate Mollie King.)

It is this reference to “DNA” that has triggered alarm at the NUJ, with general secretary Michelle Stanistreet calling on News International to clarify the use of the term.

“Will staff be targeted for redundancy on the basis of not having the ‘Sun DNA’?” she asked. “How is it defined and is it a national characteristic?”

So far, there is no word on the subject from Rupert Murdoch, who earlier this year visited the offices of the Irish Sun, posing with a hurley and describing the paper as a “massive success”. The decision to cut jobs and introduce “more of the DNA that lies at the heart of the Sun” sends a less friendly message.

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