Fintan O’Toole: Denis O’Brien’s influence and the meaning of press freedom

‘Announcement suggests that, whatever the bluster, Denis O’Brien does not take seriously the prospect that the Fine Gael-led government will do anything either to curb his current media power or to stop its future expansion’

‘The startling thing about Leslie Buckley’s announcement is it suggests that, whatever the bluster, Denis O’Brien does not take seriously the prospect the Fine Gael-led government will do anything to curb his current media power or to stop its future expansion.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

‘The startling thing about Leslie Buckley’s announcement is it suggests that, whatever the bluster, Denis O’Brien does not take seriously the prospect the Fine Gael-led government will do anything to curb his current media power or to stop its future expansion.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

At the end of a week dominated by the implications of Denis O’Brien’s power for Irish democracy, he upped the ante. After the agm of Independent News and Media, in which O’Brien is the largest shareholder, his close associate Leslie Buckley, who is chairman of INM, announced the group is planning to spend up to €100 million on the acquisition of yet more media companies. Some will be spent in the UK, but some of it will go to acquire further Irish media assets to add to what it is already O’Brien’s unparalleled influence over both newspapers and broadcasting.

The Irish Independent reported yesterday that INM, perhaps aware the timing of Leslie Buckley’s announcement was unfortunate, is now downplaying the prospect of INM acquiring TV3. But the startling thing about his announcement is it suggests that, whatever the bluster, Denis O’Brien does not take seriously the prospect the Fine Gael-led government will do anything to curb his current media power or to stop its future expansion.

To understand why this matters, it is necessary simply to reflect on a striking absence. Over the last fortnight, the media faced the most fundamental challenge it has been presented with in the history of the State: the attempt by Denis O’Brien to stop the reporting of a speech made under parliamentary privilege. It is inexplicable that by far the largest newspaper group in the State did not seek to clarify its own rights in this regard by going (as The Irish Times and the Sunday Business Post did) to the High Court. INM chief executive Robert Pitt said after the agm the company’s inaction was “an editorial matter”. I genuinely don’t understand what that means. I have never, in 37 years in journalism, come across any editor in any country who would not regard the banning of a report of a parliamentary debate as an attack on the most basic function of the media in a democratic society.

A second way to gauge why O’Brien’s confidence that he will be allowed to expand his influence over the Irish media should be alarming is to read Eoghan Harris’s column in the Sunday Independent last Sunday. Harris has been accused of many things but being a shrinking violet is not one of them. Even those who hate him would surely agree that his particular combination of extreme intelligence and combative pugnacity adds something unique to Irish public discourse. Tangled affairs Yet last Sunday he effectively told his readers that he felt unable to write about the story of the week – the tangled affairs of Denis O’Brien, IBRC and Siteserv. He wrote that he had considered doing so but, “On prudent reflection, I decided to take the advice of the Kerry sage, Tommy the ‘Kaiser’ Fitzgerald as dispensed in Tig Paud a Chaoin in Ventry.” Asked by a customer in trouble with the guards whether he should make a statement, the publican replied: “Na habair faic agus na scriobh faic, mar nuair a cuireann tu an dubh ar an gheal ta tu fuckalta a bhuachaill”. Harris translated, before moving on to another subject entirely: “don’t say anything, and don’t write anything, because when you put the black on the white [in other words, when you put anything in writing], you are f****d boy.”

Is Eoghan Harris saying he would be “fuckalta” if he wrote about an affair that is of great interest to his readers but of even greater interest to the largest shareholder in INM? And, if so, is that paranoid? After all, Leslie Buckley told a media briefing after the INM agm that “There is absolute editorial freedom in INM. I think this view that Denis O’Brien has any influence editorially at [sic] what happens in INM is nonsense.”

Maybe it is, but the fact remains that journalists – and especially columnists – at INM are afraid to write critically about Denis O’Brien. And their fear has a name: Sam Smyth. Smyth did Irish democracy considerable service by exposing, in the Irish Independent, Michael Lowry’s extraordinary business and tax arrangements with Ben Dunne and, in the process, opened the way to the Moriarty tribunal which revealed Lowry’s even more extraordinary financial links to Denis O’Brien. Smyth was the Independent’s leading commentator on public affairs and the editor and host of a popular radio show on Today FM. In his Irish Mail on Sunday column, Smyth wrote that after O’Brien took control of Today FM “management instructed me not to discuss the Moriarty tribunal or the mobile phone licence that O’Brien won when Michael Lowry was minister for communications”. He was told on the day the tribunal report was published that his programme was going to be dropped. (The chief executive of Today FM stated in a letter in The Irish Times the reason for Smyth’s departure was “the fall in audience numbers”.) His position at the Independent became untenable and he lost that job too. That’s what “fuckalta” means.

Maybe these fears are misplaced. If so, they can be banished by two simple declarations. The Government can say that there are no circumstances under which O’Brien will be allowed to increase his extraordinary influence over the Irish media. And O’Brien can say publicly that Independent journalists are free, within the law, to write what they like about him.

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