BAI decides not to update definition of media ‘control’

‘Media ownership’ issues behind Ireland’s fall in World Press Freedom Index

In 2012, the BAI perplexed many when it decided Denis O’Brien, who lies in BAI’s orbit as the biggest private radio investor in the State, did not exert “control” over INM.

In 2012, the BAI perplexed many when it decided Denis O’Brien, who lies in BAI’s orbit as the biggest private radio investor in the State, did not exert “control” over INM.

 

This year, Ireland slipped two places to 16th in the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders. That’s 10 places behind Jamaica and six behind Costa Rica.

The group attributed the decline in the State’s rankings to the “highly concentrated nature of media ownership in Ireland” which it said “continues to pose a major threat to press freedom”. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) is ostensibly a broadcasting licensing body, but by a quirk of regulation, it is also the only State agency with a remit to examine cross-media ownership. It is therefore appropriate that the BAI has moved to compile for the first time a policy on media plurality.

Media plurality

The BAI has put its new media plurality policy, as well as an updated version of its old media ownership and control policy, out for public consultation. Concerned citizens have just seven weeks to make their views known to the BAI – a short timeframe, made far shorter by the fact that it includes the entire Christmas and new year season. If the aim was to engage the public on the issue of who owns the media, which is of fundamental importance to the functioning of democracy and public debate, then perhaps the consultation’s timing could have been better. The media plurality document essentially just reiterates the BAI’s approach to the nebulous concept of media plurality, insofar as it pertains to the BAI’s regulatory role as set out in various pieces of broadcasting legislation. The new policy document does not contain any hard and fast rules.

The updated media ownership and control policy, however, is more detailed and definitive. One issue stands out. As the document states, there is no statutory definition in Irish media law for the concept of “control” within a media organisation.

It is therefore up to the BAI to decide what constitutes control. As part of the process of preparing its updated policy, the BAI engaged consultants to speak with media companies. Arising from this, it was suggested by industry respondents that it should further clarify what constitutes “control”.

Perplexed many

In 2012, for example, the BAI perplexed many when it decided that Denis O’Brien, who lies in BAI’s orbit as the biggest private radio investor in the State, did not exert control over INM where he is a 29 per cent shareholder.

It came to this conclusion just weeks after a campaign that saw Gavin O’Reilly ousted as INM’s chief executive.

O’Brien’s close ally, Leslie Buckley, was later installed as chairman. If, in the BAI’s view, O’Brien wasn’t exerting control over INM at the time, then what else could you reasonably call it?

Industry figures suggested to the BAI that its definition of control should be expanded to include “de facto blocking minorities” at media companies. In its updated policy, the BAI, without being specific, concedes that some of the suggestion it received on this issue were “reasonable”.

Despite this, however, the BAI has decided not to update its understanding of what constitutes “control”, which may come as a surprise to many in the non-O’Brien corners of the media landscape.

“Notwithstanding this, the BAI welcomes and will have due regard to any additional views of this matter,” the document states.

The public consultation ends on January 30th.

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