Former tánaiste Michael McDowell was "chancing his arm" when he said new regulations on media holdings should allow existing arrangements to be challenged, Minister for Communications Alex White has said.
Mr White said “labyrinthine commercial issues” and constitutional property rights mean it would be impossible to introduce a law on media mergers with retrospective effect.
“I think Michael was chancing his arm,” he said. “As a lawyer for whom I have enormous respect, it just beggars belief that you could introduce a law that had the kind of retrospective effect that is being contended for.”
Responding last night Mr McDowell said he was “completely taken aback” by Mr White’s comments. “I doubt very much that the Attorney General would agree with the views expressed by Alex White,” he said.
He added that if the State regards certain criteria as proper for media concentration there would be nothing wrong with requiring existing industry players to bring themselves into line with new regulations as long as doing so didn’t force them into a fire sale of assets.
Mr White was speaking at a media event in Dublin where The Irish Times editor, Kevin O'Sullivan, said he agreed with Mr McDowell's comments in the Sunday Business Post recently that it "did not make sense to establish criteria by which any future merger or concentration of media power would be judged while at the same time leaving all existing arrangements untouched".
Mr White also alluded to rumours about a merger between Independent News and Media and TV3 when he said there had been "a lot of speculation recently about the possible sale of a major Irish TV station".
“Should this speculation turn out to be well founded, it would be just one example of a significant restructuring of the media ownership landscape.”
In such a case, the Minister could refer the proposed merger to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland for a "full examination" and then decide whether to grant or refuse permission.
Mr O’Sullivan said he didn’t doubt the Minister’s overall commitment but that a more extensive repurposing of the BAI was required if the process was to be effective.
“The BAI will make the ultimate recommendation to the Minister on mergers that range far beyond its current broadcasting remit. Its composition is dominated by ministerial, ie political, appointees ... it is arguably neither expert nor independent in the sense that the press council is,” he said.
Mr O’Sullivan and the Minister were speaking at the launch of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2015 (Ireland), which showed consumers in Ireland were now more likely to source their news on the internet but that television remained the most trusted medium. Traditional media such as TV and radio were the main source of news for 23 per cent of respondents, compared with 43 per cent for digital.
But the Reuters report showed TV was still the most highly valued news source in the country, commanding the most trust because of its accuracy and reliability.
The study said social media was not as highly valued as other news sources in Ireland, with just 7 per cent considering it reliable and accurate compared with 37 per cent for TV and 12 per cent for print news.
Facebook dominates social media usage in Ireland at 71 per cent and usage as a news source at 46 per cent, both figures above international averages, the report states. YouTube and Twitter also show above average use in Ireland.