BAI ‘stands over’ O’Brien-INM ruling as it launches media ownership consultation

Authority says O’Brien’s 29% INM holding gave him a ‘substantial interest’ not ‘control’

Denis O’Brien was also the biggest investor in Irish private radio services in 2012.

Denis O’Brien was also the biggest investor in Irish private radio services in 2012.

 

Michael O’Keeffe, chief executive of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), says he “stands over” a regulatory determination he made in 2012 that Denis O’Brien does not exercise “control” over Independent News & Media (INM).

The BAI is the only State agency with responsibility for monitoring cross-media ownership. In 2012, it assessed Mr O’Brien’s level of control of INM, in the context of his attempts at the time to oust the old regime of the company led by the O’Reilly family.

Consultation

Despite calls at the time for it to intervene, the BAI declined on the basis that Mr O’Brien’s 29 per cent holding in INM gave him a “substantial interest” in INM but not “control”. Mr O’Brien was also the biggest investor in Irish private radio services at the time.

Mr O’Brien had just helped to oust Gavin O’Reilly as chief executive, while his long-time business associate Leslie Buckley was later installed as INM chairman.

Mr Buckley stepped aside this year in the midst of a wide-ranging corporate governance investigation of INM by the State, including allegations that journalists emails were compromised. This sparked calls in April from the National Union of Journalists for the BAI to revisit its 2012 determination on Mr O’Brien.

When asked if he had considered whether his ruling could have erred, Mr O’Keeffe replied: “It was a comprehensive evaluation [by the BAI of Mr O’Brien’s interest in INM]. I’m happy to stand over it.”

He was speaking on Tuesday morning as the BAI launched a public consultation on media plurality and ownership.

The regulator is giving members of the public seven weeks to make submissions on a proposed new policy on maintaining media plurality in the State.

The BAI is also proposing to change its policies on media control and ownership, which has also been put out for public consultation with a similar deadline of January 30th.

Policy

The draft new ownership and control policy, which was last updated six years ago, proposes several changes to the old regime. These include adding a new objective for the BAI to support “the viability of individual broadcasting services” when regulating them.

It is also proposing to loosen the rules that limit concentration of ownership of broadcasting licences, by eliminating certain tests that are applied when investors get near 20 per cent of the market.

In addition, the BAI is proposing to loosen provisions that govern the transfer of radio licences from one company to another. And it is changing the rules surrounding the character tests applied to investors in the radio sector, as well as applying new tests to assess how broadcasters licensed by it report news and current affairs “in practice”.

At a media briefing about the public consultation, Mr O’Keeffe also said that the BAI would ask the Government to change media ownership laws to allow it to take into account digital media, when assessing cross-media control.

The laws also prevent the BAI from applying restrictions on cross-media ownership to the existing media landscape, and only become relevant if there is a change of control at a media company.

When asked if it would also ask the Government to change the law to allow it to examine existing media holdings, without the need to wait on a deal, Mr O’Keeffe said he wouldn’t because he didn’t “think it would pass muster”.

He said BAI recently prepared a report for the Government on media plurality in the State between 2015 and 2017, and this would likely be made public in the New Year. He declined to reveal the conclusion the BAI had reached in its report on whether ot not media ownership in Ireland is too concentrated.