Denis O'Brien cannot buy FM104 as part of €200m deal


Broadcasting regulators have refused to give billionaire businessman Denis O'Brien permission to buy out Dublin radio station FM104 as part of a €200 million deal through which he will gain control of national radio station Today FM, writes Arthur Beesley, Senior Business Correspondent.

Mr O'Brien's acquisition of Today FM was approved yesterday by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI) in a ruling that takes him a step closer to becoming RTÉ's biggest rival in the national radio market.

The deal with British media group Emap is still subject to separate approval from the Competition Authority, which is examining whether it will result in a significant diminution in competition in the radio sector.

However, the BCI ruling opens the way for Mr O'Brien to sell off his national station NewsTalk to gain control of Today FM if the Competition Authority finds against his ownership of both stations. Mr O'Brien is already the owner of 98FM - FM104's main rival - but his prime target in the Emap deal was Today FM.

His media empire includes a large minority stake in Independent News & Media and outright ownership of Communicorp, a radio group that has 38 radio stations in seven European markets. The Emap deal will go ahead in spite of the BCI ruling, but Mr O'Brien will have put FM104 on the market before the transaction takes effect.

There was no comment last night from Mr O'Brien, whose spokesman said the ruling was being considered. Neither was there any comment from Emap.

While clearing Mr O'Brien's takeover of Today FM and the Donegal station Highland Radio, the BCI ruled the addition of FM104 to Mr O'Brien's group would give him an "undue" share of the radio market in Dublin.

"The commission was not satisfied that Communicorp would not hold an undue amount of the communications media in the Dublin city and county franchise area following completion of this transaction. "Accordingly, the commission did not grant approval to the proposed acquisition," it said yesterday.

The regulator said it had considered whether Emap had justified the deal in the context of an examination of the totality of the media in Dublin, including a different weighting to be given between national and local services.

It also examined Mr O'Brien's ability to influence opinion-forming power, and his group's dominance of the audience share of any communications media in which it held an interest.

Following the BCI ruling, the National Union of Journalists called on the Government to establish a commission to examine all aspects of media ownership in Ireland. Its Irish secretary, Séamus Dooley, called on Mr O'Brien to confirm that Communicorp would recognise existing collective agreements and recognise the right of employees to union representation.