Windows on to the 'Indo'

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NEWSPAPERS:Independent Newspapers: A History, Edited by Mark O’Brien and Kevin Rafter, Four Courts Press, 215pp. €45

NEWSPAPERS are conflicted institutions. Obliged to trade in a viciously competitive marketplace, they are frequently castigated because they do not always behave with the ethics of the Society of Friends. They have to operate commercially as businesses. Yet they are the only private industry whose role is affirmed in Bunreacht na hÉireann.

Just like people, they can be at their most interesting when they are at their most wicked. Still, we wouldn’t be without them, would we?

We may soon find out. It is both a delight and a deficiency of this book that it tells the story of Independent Newspapers as if print were not in retreat under a potentially deadly onslaught of new media that are faster, cheaper and more agile. This story is set in a time when, in a phrase used here, Irish people “were in love with newspapers”.

The original, pro-Parnell Irish Independent was born out of the Irish Parliamentary Party split of 1891. Its acquisition, along with the Evening Herald, by William Martin Murphy in 1905, and the launch of the Sunday Independent, gave Independent Newspapers in Ireland the core configuration that it was to retain for most of the century.

In 1973, after the Sunday Independent’s vivid exposé of the finances of the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes, the Murphy family sold the company to a young entrepreneur named Tony O’Reilly. He injected energy and capital and created a platform for a successful worldwide business, latterly Independent News & Media plc. Last April, almost 40 years of O’Reilly control ended after a bitter boardroom battle with Denis O’Brien.

This book is not strictly a history. It is a compendium of essays, each narrating different aspects of the Independent story. It includes contributions by editors Mark O’Brien and Kevin Rafter, both journalism-faculty members at Dublin City University. The topics are eclectic, from profiles of editors and managers to a short treatise on the role of the newspaper proprietor by Rafter.

He probes the relationship between business and editorial. He is in no doubt that the first objective of private proprietors is profit. But he concludes that “examples of undue, direct proprietorial interference at the Independent titles have been relatively few”. The question might be asked: would proprietorial interference have been “undue” had O’Reilly sought to mitigate the sustained hostility of his Sunday Independent to the Northern Ireland peace process?

In his contribution, Independent Newspapers and Irish Society, Mark O’Brien examines the diminution of ownership diversity brought about by the growth of the Independent group. He traces some of the issues that have arisen in relation to the coverage by Independent titles of certain of O’Reilly’s other business interests. O’Brien’s essay also revisits the “payback time” front-page editorial published on the eve of the 1997 general election. Credited, or blamed, by some for delivering the contest to Fianna Fáil, it fed into the legitimising of the borrow-and-spend culture of the Celtic Tiger years. The same essay sketches the bitter exchanges between the Independent and its critics in the Dáil, following Magill magazine’s revelations in 1998 of earlier payments from O’Reilly’s Fitzwilton company to the discredited former minister Ray Burke.

Other essays cover the life of William Martin Murphy, the role of Independent Newspapers in the national movement, and censorship in the “Emergency” years. The press ombudsman John Horgan narrates the “changing of the guard” at the daily in 1961 after the conservative 26-year editorship of Frank Geary.

Gavin Ellis, former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, takes us on a tour d’horizon of INM’s global businesses. Ida Milne’s essay, The Sense of History: Working at Independent House, narrating family loyalties among the Independent workforce, is at once nostalgic and unsettling.

The essay format has advantages in a relatively compact book of just over 200 pages. It enables the reader to see a multifaceted story from a variety of angles. But it results in some repetition. And it leaves the reader in doubt as to whether the full, complex persona of the Indo has been captured.

It would be difficult to overstate the role of the Irish Independent in public life during the first six or seven decades of the 20th century.

It was the organ of conservative, Catholic, middle-class Ireland. For all that de Valera’s Irish Press was the vehicle of Fianna Fáil orthodoxy, the Independent was the steady, sometimes strident, exponent of establishment values. The Irish Times was a bit player, its circulation reflecting the decline of the dwindling Protestant business classes.

On good days, the Independent could sell 200,000 copies. The Irish Press challenged but was never a contender for top seller. The Independent had the soul of middle Ireland. It was a national institution and, under O’Reilly, an expanding business. Managing director Joe Hayes liked to stress its “underlying strength”.

From the early 1960s, The Irish Times reinvented itself as the preferred journal of a new establishment that was forming around an expanding economy and a liberalising social ethic. It is a pity that none of the contributors here quite pinpoints why and how the Irish Independent lost its place as the forum of public discourse and ideas to The Irish Times.

It lost more than prestige. With The Irish Times appealing more to the affluent AB cohort, the Independent was cut off from a growing share of the advertising cake. Increasingly it was forced to the middle market. The Murphys sacked the cerebral Louis McRedmond from the editorship. The shift to sensationalism, mild at first, was begun.

O’Reilly was a benign proprietor. He loved his newspapers. But like the Murphys before him, he baulked at investing in editorial resources to match The Irish Times. The frantic efforts of old-school newsmen such as Vinnie Doyle could not make up for that. Doyle gets a chapter to himself, penned by Joe Breen. Nor could occasional dramatic “scoops”, such as Sam Smyth’s Ben Dunne interview, which finally blew the whistle on corrupt links between business and politics.

Independent executives sought comfort in the fact that the exotic concoction that the Sunday Independent had become was the biggest-selling broadsheet, commanding extraordinary strength in readership across all social classes.

Today, INM struggles with debt, shrinking resources and the challenges of internet media. The auguries scarcely suggest a coming golden age of editorial development under the new regime. The first challenge, however, is to sustain earnings in a volatile market. In the end, the only truly free press is the one that pays its own way. In all of its manifestations, in good years and bad, Independent Newspapers has always proudly done that.


Conor Brady was editor of The Irish Times from 1986 to 2002

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