Exactly two years ago today, Communicorp, which operates the nationwide stations Newstalk and Today FM, along with a number of regional music stations, announced it would ban Irish Times journalists from all its programmes because of "vile comments" made by columnist Fintan O'Toole in the wake of statements about rape and consent by since-departed Newstalk presenter George Hook.
At the time, the decision by the Denis O’Brien-owned company was criticised by some politicians and by organisations including the National Union of Journalists. After a while, though, the controversy died down, and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland ultimately decided the action did not break the terms of Communicorp’s radio licences (although the authority did indulge in some stable-door-locking by adjusting its regulations for future licence applications).
And there the matter might have rested, if Communicorp hadn't decided last week to do it again. This time, the target was The Currency, a news start-up launched by journalists Tom Lyons and Ian Kehoe. Earlier this year Denis O'Brien lost a high-profile court case over an article written by Lyons for the Sunday Business Post when Kehoe was that newspaper's editor.
In an email to staff, Today FM assistant programme director John Caddell warned that The Currency would offer "podcasts, events and news stories – competing directly with some of our brand offerings" and helpfully provided a link to a profile page listing not just the staff of the company, but also contributors, including economist Stephen Kinsella and former Sunday Independent editor Anne Harris, all of whom would be barred from Communicorp shows.
The rationale was odd. Why hadn’t it been applied to journalists from other sites which offer “podcasts, events and news stories”, like TheJournal.ie, Independent.ie, and IrishExaminer.com? What made The Currency different?
Two years ago, another peculiar justification was offered for the Irish Times ban, when Communicorp management claimed that action reflected the anger felt by its staff about O’Toole’s article. Strangely, few staff members could be found to support this claim publicly. I was in contact at the time with many employees inside Newstalk and Today FM who opposed the ban but were afraid to go on the record.
In this regard it’s worth noting the eerie silence on both bans from the company’s own high-profile presenters, many of whom have national newspaper columns and sizeable social-media followings. These people are not usually lacking in opinions, but there hasn’t been a peep out of them about the Irish Times ban, and I’ll be pleasantly surprised if they have anything to say about The Currency one.
Whatever the actual chain of decision-making within Communicorp that led to action against Irish Times journalists (not the same thing, by the way, as action against The Irish Times), from the outset the whole affair, while serious, also seemed faintly ludicrous.
This newspaper’s journalists have managed to survive without the tiny fees Communicorp pays for contributions to its talk shows (as an occasional stand-in presenter on Today FM, I took a slightly bigger hit, but not a particularly serious one). In fact, the only people who really suffered were the hardworking producers and researchers in Newstalk and Today FM whose jobs were made harder by this futile gesture.
Holding the licences for the country's only private-owned national radio stations still confers great power
There is an irony here: transformations in media in recent years should cause companies to re-evaluate who their competitors are. Clumsily put it may have been, but Caddell's email to staff correctly identified the blurring of lines between broadcast, print and digital media, with all increasingly playing on the same pitch. That poses a particular challenge for commercial current-affairs radio, because it relies so heavily on specialist correspondents from other media companies to fill the gaps left by its own skeletal newsrooms. The drivetime shows on Newstalk and Today FM simply could not survive in their current forms without those correspondents. Conversely, it might be time for newspapers and digital news outlets to start considering whether it's such a good idea to let the people whose wages they pay appear so frequently – for a pittance – on rival platforms. The old justification for this was some vague notion that the exposure was important for the brand. The evidence of the past two years suggests this is not necessarily the case.
Incidentally, despite its portrayal in some quarters, this is not a “war”. What the National Union of Journalists described at the time as a “mean and vindictive” action by Communicorp has not been reciprocated. The Irish Times continues to feature interviews with Communicorp presenters; it reviews their shows and it employs them as columnists.
For a small company like The Currency, the stakes here are higher. It has no right to airtime, but radio listeners surely do have a right, regardless of what the broadcasting legislation says, to be given the fullest possible range of news and expertise on publicly licensed broadcasting services, unrestrained by arbitrary blanket bans imposed for questionable reasons.
"I don't think that anyone should be banned from the radio, from TV or from any publication solely based on who their employer is," Leo Varadkar told the Dáil this week when he agreed to sign a letter from party leaders calling on Communicorp to reverse both bans. It remains to be seen whether this has any effect.
In the two years since the Irish Times ban came into effect, the Irish media landscape has changed greatly. Events at Independent News and Media (INM), arising from a whistleblower allegation by its former chief executive concerning a proposed sale of Newstalk to INM, have led to revelations that some INM employees' emails were accessed by outside parties. The unfolding of that tangled story has been followed by a rapid change of ownership at INM, with Denis O'Brien selling his stake and crystallising hundreds of millions of euro in losses. A media empire that once seemed worryingly large is now greatly reduced. But holding the licences for the country's only private-owned national radio stations still confers great power. There are legitimate concerns about how that power is being exercised and on whose behalf.
I always enjoyed working in Today FM and in Newstalk and I respect many of the people who still work there. But there’s something deeply amiss going on in Communicorp and I wouldn’t go back there, even if they’d have me.