Rabbitte says concentration of media ownership not desirable
Media mergers legislation will present ‘very difficult questions’
Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte: said it was cross- ownership in the media that made one player so significant
Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte has said the growing concentration of media ownership in fewer hands is not a desirable situation.
Ahead of the Cabinet giving approval to long-awaited legislation on media mergers later this month, Mr Rabbitte referred specifically to the position of Communicorp, and its founder Denis O’Brien, in the Irish media landscape.
In an interview with the Irish World in London, Mr Rabbitte said once the new legislation was enacted, it would pose challenges in dealing with players such as Communicorp and Mr O’Brien, with holdings in Independent News and Media as well as Today FM and Newstalk.
“Very difficult questions would confront the minister of the day if a decision was made to ask Communicorp to divest its radio business. Would there be buyers in the marketplace at the moment for that? These are the questions that arise.”
Mr Rabbitte said he had talked to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland about such issues but pointed out that it was cross-ownership that made one player (Mr O’Brien’s Communicorp) so significant because it held interests not only in the print media but also in radio.
The Consumer and Competition Bill, sponsored by Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton, has been long delayed but the Cabinet is expected to approve its publication at its meeting next week. Responsibility for media competition and mergers will be transferred to Mr Rabbitte’s department (until now his department’s responsibility in this regard have primarily related to the broadcast media).
In the interview, Mr Rabbitte said the nature of media was tending more and more towards aggregation.
“Of course Communicorp is a very big stakeholder in Irish media – cross-media ownership, not just print. The new regime will come into place.
“We will then have to interpret the provisions in the new legislation in setting down guidelines for media conduct in the future,” he said.
Tested in courts
He said diversity of content and diversity of ownership were the two cardinal principles, adding that how the Government dealt with two principles was likely to be tested [in the courts] at some stage.
In reference to the adverse findings of the Moriarty tribunal report on Mr O’Brien, Mr Rabbitte made a distinction by saying were no negative findings against the civil servants who handled the competition for the second mobile phone licence in the mid-1990s.
He added: “The processes put in place that time in terms of the awarding of that particular licence would not be fit for purpose today. As a result of Moriarty and as result of a lot of commentary around that deal, different circumstances would apply today.
“We recently had a spectrum auction. That was held at arm’s length from me so that the kind of more easygoing procedures that applied at the time wouldn’t apply now.
“We have changed fairly significantly the circumstances where they would be such an auction, but it is a matter of some comfort that the civil servants at the heart of the business were not indicted,” the Minister added.