Reading between the lines

 

Media observers in Northern Ireland have little doubt that the British Department of Trade and Industry's ruling on the mandatory sell-off of the Belfast Telegraph as part of its owner Trinity Holdings' merger with the Mirror Group was based on political rather than commercial considerations.

Like almost everything in Northern Ireland, the newspaper market reflects the political affiliations of its readers. It is dominated by two morning papers - the nationalist Irish News, owned by the Fitzpatrick family, and the unionist News Letter, part of the Mirror Group - and the evening paper, the Belfast Telegraph which could be described as a tabloid with unionist leanings.

As for circulation figures, the Belfast Telegraph's 124,000 compares favourably with the Irish News's 53,000 and the News Letter's 34,000.

The official reasoning behind the British Trade and Industry Secretary's decision hinges on two points.

First, Mr Stephen Byers agreed with the Competition Commission that if Trinity owned the Belfast Telegraph and the News Letter, it was likely "the latter's distinctive voice in representing unionist opinion would be lost".

Second, "in view of the strength of Trinity's titles in Northern Ireland, which would be coupled with the reach of Mirror Group's national titles in the nationalist community, I think that bringing these titles together under common ownership poses a real risk to the Irish News's ability to obtain sufficient advertising revenue . . . Such an outcome would be a serious public interest detriment, as it would deprive the nationalist community in Northern Ireland of its most important voice in the press".

On the first point, one could argue that the Belfast Telegraph these days takes a more pro-union stance than the News Letter, whose political position under the editorial leadership of Mr Geoff Martin has shifted towards the centre and whose joint editorials with the Irish News, appealing for calm and reason on the eve of Drumcree 1997, won both papers an international journalism award last year.

The second argument, not endorsed by the Competition Commission, does not hold water with media analysts, either. They say advertisers wishing to appeal to nationalists would continue to choose the Irish News, but Mr Byers had been "impressed by the cross-community concern expressed about the future of the Irish News" and based his decision on such concerns.

The anti-Agreement Ulster Unionist MP, Mr Jeffrey Donaldson, who campaigned against a take-over of the News Letter, "the province's oldest unionist paper", by the Dublin-based Independent News and Media, was pleased the paper would remain in UK ownership.

He said it was rather ironic that the News Letter's shift to the political centre had led to the Belfast Telegraph becoming the voice of unionism. "I have no doubt that the personal views of the News Letter's editor have lost the paper a substantial number of its core unionist readership," he said.

Prof Adrian Guelke, a professor in comparative politics at Queen's University, Belfast, and independent observer of the North's media, was not surprised the merger was so politically emotive.

"You must not forget how strongly partisan the two communities feel about `their' papers . . . The fact that both the News Letter and the Irish News's positions have become more liberal and less polarised since the onset of the peace process might reflect a more enlightened editorial approach, but it is also evidence of a softening of views among readers," Prof Guelke added.

Northern-Ireland-born Trinity chief executive Mr Philip Graf regrets having to sell the paper on a personal and on a commercial level. He refused, however, to speculate on any political reasons behind the DTI's decision.