States should not intervene to save struggling media outlets, says Rabbitte

‘Fettered’ media leaves democracy worse off

Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte:  “If media is fettered, either by the interests of owners, by fear of authority or by simple groupthink, then our democracy is worse off.” Photograph: Eric Luke

Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte: “If media is fettered, either by the interests of owners, by fear of authority or by simple groupthink, then our democracy is worse off.” Photograph: Eric Luke

Fri, Mar 22, 2013, 19:53

It would be wrong for governments to intervene to preserve struggling media outlets, Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte has said.

Addressing a seminar on media pluralism in Dublin yesterday, Mr Rabbitte said societies had to ask whether “the character of democracy” could be sustained in the emerging media ecosystem. “The answer is that we don’t know,” he said.

“In simple terms, it is impossible to conceive of a modern democracy without a free and diverse press.”

However, Mr Rabbitte argued that while governments could provide a “level playing field” in the media industry, they should not hold up one type of model or media outlet as exemplar and support it to the detriment of others. “To preserve media in some sort of legislative aspic would be to remove one of the primary reasons for media’s assertiveness and, sometimes, downright belligerence,” he told the seminar at the Institute of International and European Affairs.

Referring to the recent restructuring of Thomas Crosbie Holdings, Mr Rabbitte said it would be a tragedy if “anything were to happen to the group, or in particular to the Sunday Business Post , which is a very important Sunday newspaper”. As part of the restructuring, an examiner was appointed to Post Publications Ltd, publisher of the Business Post.


Media mergers Bill
The Government is preparing a Bill to strengthen the criteria to be applied when assessing a proposed media merger. These will include the likely effect of a merger on plurality, including diversity of ownership and content, and the desirability of allowing any one individual or entity to hold significant interests within a sector.

“If media is fettered, either by the interests of owners, by fear of authority or by simple groupthink, then our democracy is worse off,” Mr Rabbitte said.

An expert report written for the European Commission recently recommended 30 steps that could be taken by the EU, member states and media outlets to enhance pluralism and freedom in the industry. The document has provoked some criticism from the sector, whose complaints have focused on the suggestion that Brussels be given greater po wer to oversee national press councils to ensure they “comply with European values”.

European Commission vice-president Neelie Kroes, who commissioned the report, told yesterday’s conference she was opening a public consultation on the recommendations and was open to suggestions.

“The solution may lie in action from the EU or member states, from the sector itself, or from a mix. But whatever the answer, I am clear that freedom of speech is a fundamental EU value, and the EU has a duty to ensure it is safeguarded,” she said.

The editor of the Sunday Independent , Anne Harris, told the seminar there was “an elephant in the room” in that there was a “burgeoning problem of plurality here in Ireland”.

She said: “There is a potential concentration of ownership issue, and it is already having early signs of infring ing some freedoms.”