The proposed acquisition of the Irish Examiner by The Irish Times DAC has been cleared by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) and will now be referred to the Minister for Communications for approval on media plurality grounds.
The CCPC said the purchase of Sappho Limited, from Landmark Media Investments Limited, "will not lead to a substantial lessening of competition in any relevant market in the State".
It found no evidence that The Irish Times and the Irish Examiner are each other's closest competitor in the publication and sale of daily national newspapers or in the sale of advertising, whether in print or online.
The CCPC found that while sales of The Irish Times are predominantly in Leinster, the vast majority of sales of the Irish Examiner are made in Munster.
It also found that both publications would continue to face competition after the deal.
In the sale of daily national newspapers and daily national newspaper advertising, this competition will come from groups such as Independent News & Media (INM), Trinity Mirror and News Corp UK & Ireland, while in the sale of online advertising it will come from Google and Facebook as well as these newspaper publishers.
The competition watchdog said it had come to this conclusion after an extensive investigation of the proposed transaction, which was agreed between the two media groups last December. In March, the CCPC decided to carry out a “phase two” study of the deal.
Under the media mergers process, Minister for Communications Denis Naughten will now make a separate assessment of the acquisition's impact on media plurality.
The Minister must then decide whether to allow the merger to go ahead as proposed, allow the merger to go ahead under certain conditions to protect media plurality or refer it to a second-phase process for further study.
However, the Social Democrats have called on the Minister to recuse himself from the decision. This follows the revelation last week that Mr Naughten told a lobbyist working for INM on a 2016 phone call that he intended to refer INM's proposed takeover of the Celtic Media group to a second-phase study, giving him this information before he announced the move.
In a response to a query to the Minister on the Social Democrats’ stance, his department said in an emailed statement that there was “no provision for the Minister to recuse himself” from the process, either under the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014, which governs media mergers, or the related statutory guidelines.
“The current media mergers process has been in place for under four years. Over that period, it has proved to be robust and transparent,” the department said.
The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has already approved the change of ownership of the radio stations involved in the transaction. The Irish Times will acquire majority stakes in WLR in Waterford and regional station Beat 102-103, as well as a 17.6 per cent holding in Cork station Red FM, if the deal goes ahead.
Sappho Limited also publishes the Evening Echo newspaper and owns the websites breakingnews.ie, recruitireland.com and benchwarmers.ie.
The deal, if approved by the Minister, will mark the end of the Crosbie family's ownership of the Irish Examiner, which dates back to 1872, when journalist Thomas Crosbie took over the proprietorship from John Francis Maguire.