Fear and loathing as heavyweight presenters quit O'Brien radio empire

 

The departure of Eamon Dunphy and Sam Smyth has raised the question of whether Denis O’Brien is using his media power to enforce his agenda, or if his critics are driven by envy and disregard for reality of falling ratings, writes PAUL CULLEN

EVEN BY Eamon Dunphy’s standards, it was an astonishing tirade. Presenting his last programme at Newstalk last weekend, he described the independent station as a slum, claimed its producers and reporters were being “intimidated and blackguarded” and accused station owner Denis O’Brien of despising journalism.

Over at the other national independent radio station, Today FM, which is also owned by O’Brien, veteran investigative journalist Sam Smyth is packing his bags.

Station chief executive Willie O’Reilly insisted Smyth’s enforced departure had nothing to do with his reporting of the Moriarty tribunal, in which O’Brien figures so centrally; O’Reilly, coincidentally, announced a few days later that he himself was leaving.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, losing one leading presenter could be regarded as unfortunate on the part of O’Brien, but losing two looks like carelessness.

Unless, of course, as Dunphy and others allege, there is a pattern at play here, directed by the country’s richest businessman.

O’Brien has threatened to sue Dunphy over the remarks made on his own station, and he is also pursuing the Sunday Independent, part of the Independent News and Media group in which he has a 21.6 per cent stake, over two recent articles, as well as Smyth.

So is O’Brien manipulating Ireland’s media landscape with the aim of rescuing his tarnished reputation following the publication of the Moriarty tribunal report?

Or are his critics driven by envy or spite, while failing to face up to the reality of falling ratings?

WEALTH

The first and most obvious thing to say about O’Brien is that he is rich. Very rich – the Sunday TimesRich List puts his wealth at €2.92 billion, while Forbesmagazine estimates it at over €3.05 billion.

O’Brien’s wealth continues to increase, largely thanks to Digicel, the mobile phone conglomerate that operates in dozens of countries in the Caribbean and the Pacific Rim. Forbes reckons his wealth has almost doubled in three years.

That kind of wealth provides a war chest that few can match. O’Brien can afford to plough money into business ventures that have no prospect of break-even. He spent the guts of €500 million building a stake in INM and still failed to break the hold of the O’Reilly family on the company.

Wealthy business people have always thrown money at media companies, as much for vanity or profile as for purely business reasons. Communicorp, which operates his 42 radio stations in Ireland and eight other countries, lost over €5 million last year.

TRIBUNAL

So if it isn’t for the profit, why has O’Brien invested so heavily in Irish media? Is he, as critics allege, looking for a way to offset the damage done to his reputation by the tribunal, which has dogged the businessman for over a decade with its investigations into the payments he made to Michael Lowry in the 1990s?

Last March, the inquiry finally delivered its findings, which were devastating for both men, principally because it failed to accept their contention that the award of the first mobile phone licence to O’Brien’s company Esat was above board.

The report found that a payment of £147,000 was made by O’Brien through others to Lowry when Lowry was minister for communications in circumstances giving rise to a reasonable inference that the motive for making it was connected with Lowry’s public office. No finding of corruption was made against either man, but aspects of O’Brien’s evidence were found to be “inconsistent, unconvincing and implausible”.

The report listed a further payment of £300,000 from O’Brien to Lowry and a “benefit equivalent to a payment” for £420,000. It detailed the $50,000 donation by Esat/Telenor to Fine Gael, as well as a total of £22,140 O’Brien gave in donations to the party.

Although Taoiseach Enda Kenny promised to act decisively in the wake of the report, taking action against the central figures doesn’t seem to form part of his game plan. Far from being made a pariah, O’Brien was invited to the second Global Irish Economic Forum last month and even delivered former US president Bill Clinton to Dublin in his private jet. Kenny hosted the event and, according to diplomatic sources involved in its organisation, signed off on the invitation list. As far as Fine Gael is concerned, it seems O’Brien is too big to burn.

The billionaire’s name also surfaced during the presidential election, where Mary Davis, who has described O’Brien as her “mentor”, was an independent candidate. O’Brien has given millions to the Special Olympics movement, founded in Ireland by Davis, and chaired the Dublin Special Olympics in 2003.

Given their interactions, it was hardly surprising that Davis refused to criticise her benefactor; more striking was the refusal of any of the seven candidates to cast doubt on O’Brien as a suitable member of the Council of State when they were asked the question during the last televised debate.

DUNPHY

Coming on foot of the controversy over his appearance at the forum, the rows at Newstalk and Today FM have put the spotlight back on O’Brien’s influence on Irish public life.

Dunphy was unrepentant when he spoke yesterday to The Irish Timesabout O’Brien’s influence on Newstalk and journalism. “He wants to take the edge out of journalism, to replace it with a soft focus and make it a lightweight thing,” he claims.

He accuses the station of “rewarding people who take Denis O’Brien’s view of things – golf club man’s view of the world – while creating a fearful, acquiescent group of young men and women who need work”.

The 66-year-old speaks of a “culture of fear” among younger staff, some working 13-14 hour days or seven-day weeks and forced by cutbacks to buy their own newspapers, notebooks and pens.

O’Brien was away on holidays this week, but James Morrissey, his media handler, says there is no substance to Dunphy’s claims.

“If Denis O’Brien wanted to control the media in the way it is claimed, why on earth would be allow Eamon Dunphy to rejoin the station after what he said about him in the past?”

Newstalk says staff work a standard 40-hour week and are provided with all the materials they need to do their job. On occasion at the weekends, producers may have to buy newspapers but are reimbursed via their monthly expenses. A spokesman said producers earn about €40,000 a year and researchers get €30,000.

NEWSTALK

Like other media organisations, Newstalk has cut pay, by up to 10 per cent in 2009. Further cutbacks were introduced this summer, including a salary reduction for Dunphy and others.

A number of Newstalk staff contacted by The Irish Times supported Dunphy, but declined to go on the record. In contrast, one presenter, Fionn Davenport, scoffed at the veteran broadcaster’s remarks. “So Dunphy left ‘as a gesture of solidarity with the staff’,” Davenport tweeted this week from his honeymoon in Thailand. “For a guy who didn’t know anybody’s name, or was rarely in, that’s some gesture.”

George Hook, rugby pundit and drivetime Newstalk presenter, then weighed in to the row with a few tweeted insults from Haiti, where he is working with O’Brien’s charity, Haven. “Dunphy is like Greece – full of crap but people keep giving him huge money,” Hook quipped, before accusing Dunphy of being an opportunistic controversialist.

Two years ago, O’Brien told a conference that standards in journalism were in decline and that some journalists were “anti-business and anti-enterprise”.

Newstalk management has sought to encourage positive coverage. Two years ago, editor Garrett Harte and chief executive Frank Cronin drew up a pre-budget “state of the nation” broadcast after O’Brien approved the concept. This week, defending the station against Dunphy’s “false and malicious” remarks, Cronin acknowledged that staff were asked to focus on positive news stories.

In September 2010, Cronin sent a memo to journalists calling for “new energy and thought” on their part.

“The issues facing the country continue to be defined in mainly negative terms. It is imperative that while continuing to deal with issues with integrity, that we give due considerations to viewpoints which offer different lines than normal journalism follows.”

Even before this, one former producer at the station says he was regularly instructed not to use certain journalists because they were perceived as too critical or negative in their views.

Established, respected commentators such as Dearbhail McDonald or Justine McCarthy were not used for long periods despite the protests of programme staff, he says.

“There was definitely a sense of ‘yeah, let’s be friendly to business, let’s talk about social entrepreneurship and the like’,” he adds.

Another former staffer claims that tribunal-related items had to be cleared by Morrissey (who is a non-executive director of Newstalk) or Harte first. Instructions were given as to which journalists were and were not to be invited to appear on the programme.

He too says McDonald was not used for a period after she appeared to criticise O’Brien during a radio interview with Vincent Browne.

He also claims that Shane Ross was blacklisted for a period while he was a senator for his critical views on the way the economy was being managed. This staffer says he was told by managers that these directions came from “on high”.

A Newstalk spokesman said staff have never been instructed not to use certain journalists: “In certain circumstances, the overuse of certain guests would be highlighted to producers. This would apply not only to journalists but to all guest selections.”

Morrissey says the claim that tribunal stories had to be cleared by him before broadcast is totally wrong. “No one in Newstalk ever asked my opinion on any programming topic,” he says.

The station’s coverage of the tribunal report on the day it was published has also been the subject of allegations, but a spokesman pointed out that the one complaint made about this was rejected by the broadcasting watchdog.

“Newstalk completely refutes any claim that presenters were told what to say and is happy that its coverage of the tribunal was delivered in a fair and balanced manner.”

Another recent departure from Newstalk is Karen Coleman, a foreign affairs specialist who presented The Wide Angle. She says she walked when she was asked to self-produce, which meant she would have had to research the items and find the guests for her own show, as well as presenting it.

“I left because they asked me to do something that wasn’t feasible. They wanted me to work for five days a week, effectively, without pay.”

Coleman is also angry at the manner in which the news was broken to her – it happened while she was away travelling, and after other staff had been briefed in the office.

Newstalk says self-production was introduced as a cost-cutting measure for pre-recorded shows and Coleman was given a budget to cover production costs. A spokesman points out that another presenter, Orla Barry, agreed to the change.

Morale at the station is very low, Coleman says. “People are very nervous about losing their jobs. They see what is going on in the economy, and in their industry, and they’re not prepared to speak out. This kind of atmosphere helps to create a climate of fear.”

A byproduct of the changes wrought at Newstalk over the years is the disappearance of women presenters from the daily schedule; the likes of Claire Byrne, Orla Barry and Brenda Power have all either left or been banished to weekend slots.

Coleman, in common with other staff members, says she doesn’t have any personal experience of Denis O’Brien handing down “edicts” on how journalists should carry out their work.

She says she began to feel uncomfortable working in Newstalk after the publication of the Moriarty tribunal report because “there was no compelling reason not to believe it”.

SAM SMYTH

Over at Today FM, the replacement of Sam Smyth “raises fundamental questions about the editorial independence of the station”, according to the National Union of Journalists. Smyth, who first revealed Michael Lowry’s business dealings, is also on the list of people being sued by O’Brien over remarks made on TV3 and in the Irish Independent.

However, Smyth, like Dunphy, has been losing listeners, with both broadcasters struggling to contend with a resurgent RTÉ weekend schedule. It was also strange that the two men were put up against each other on the same Sunday slot. Sunday Supplement, presented by Smyth for 14 years, lost 15.5 per cent of its audience over the past three years, according to official figures.

Today FM is very different from the station that started as Radio Ireland, with Smyth’s programme and Matt Cooper’s drivetime show almost the last talk-driven redoubts in a mainly music-filled schedule. Smyth broadcasts his last show from New York tomorrow having, in contrast to Dunphy, kept his counsel about his sacking.

Cooper, another journalist critic of O’Brien’s, continues to broadcast The Last Word daily and has tackled Moriarty-related issues without interference.

POLITICS

Denis O’Brien has long been an active financial supporter of Irish politics. He gave €63,500 each to Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the PDs in 2000; Labour got the same sum but returned it. His contributions include €2,000 to Fine Gael’s Seán Kelly in the 2009 European Parliament elections and over €3,000 to Conor Lenihan, a former employee, in 1997.

Last month, Mary Davis said she got a contribution of €2,500 from the businessman for her presidential campaign.

Nobody I talked to in Newstalk believes there is any bias towards Fine Gael within the station, yet the number of connections with the party is striking. Breakfast programme presenter Ivan Yates is a former Fine Gael minister. George Hook is a long-time supporter and introduced Dublin candidates at a pre-election meeting in February.

Fine Gael strategist Mark Mortell has presented the business programme. Sarah Carey, a former Irish Times columnist and employee of O’Brien’s who has family links to Fine Gael, presents a weekend programme. Meanwhile, Smyth’s replacement at Today FM, Anton Savage, has worked as a media consultant for Fine Gael.

CHARITY

Just as O’Brien has his fingers in so many business pies, his charity involvements are multiple. Despite not being resident in Ireland for years, he spends millions every year on good causes. Cynics might see in his philanthropy an effort to counteract the blight on his reputation caused by the tribunal, but the recipients of his largesse aren’t complaining.

“It was as impressive as anything I’ve seen from an NGO in a disaster situation,” says Paddy Maguinness, a veteran aid worker, of the response of O’Brien and Digicel to the earthquake in Haiti last year. “He was down there in the earthquake zone within 48 hours and made a huge impact.”

Maguinness sits with O’Brien on the board of Haven, which plans to build 10,000 homes in Haiti.

The millions he has bestowed on charities in Haiti well exceeds what might be expected of the owner of the country’s largest mobile phone company, and it has also garnered him adulatory coverage in the international media, as well as cementing his relationship with Bill Clinton, who has also been fundraising for the benighted Caribbean state since the disastrous earthquake there last year.

Despite being a rugger man to the core, he has stumped up half of Giovanni Trapattoni’s salary as manager of Ireland’s soccer team over the past four years. This investment could pay dividends later this month if the team manages to qualify for the European championships. Amnesty and Front Line have also been major recipients of his largesse.

The threat on the horizon is Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte’s promise to draw up new legislation to govern media mergers. This won’t affect O’Brien’s existing holdings but could scupper his chances of further expansion, including an eventual takeover of INM.

Here again, though, the billionaire could be ahead of the curve. Just as he built his fortune by spotting the potential of local radio and mobile phones before others, he is now interested in acquiring Eircom. A Digicel spokesman declined to comment on speculation and there are other potential bidders.

A debt-laden fixed-line telephone company mightn’t seem like an ideal takeover target, but in an era of media convergence, telephone lines could prove as vital in reaching customers as radio sets or newspapers.

10 THINGS YOU MAY NOT KNOW

1 He is the richest Irish-born person on the planet, with a fortune estimated at about €3 billion

2 His fortune has almost doubled in three years, according to Forbesmagazine

3 He spent about €500 million in a failed attempt to take control of Independent News & Media

4 He recently replaced his $60 million Gulfstream jet, nicknamed “the silver chicken”, with a newer model

5 He is resident in Malta, and flies home regularly to his family in Dublin

6 Before Malta, he was resident in Portugal

7 He repeated his Leaving Cert

8 He studied arts in UCD – history, politics and logic – but spent much of the time painting houses and offices in his first business venture

9 His mother Iris regularly protested outside the US embassy in the 1980s over its policy in Nicaragua

10 He gave Vincent Browne his break in broadcasting