I'm with the old-style mogul

 

Those who care about freedom of the press should root for Tony O'Reilly over Denis O'Brien in the power struggle in Independent News & Media, argues EAMON DUNPHY, who has worked under both

IN JANUARY 2006, Denis O'Brien announced that he had acquired a 3 per cent stake in Independent News and Media (INM). As there was no love lost between O'Brien and Tony O'Reilly, the acquisition was noted with some interest. Especially as O'Brien was not obliged to publicly declare his 3 per cent holding. Was the telecoms tycoon teasing or threatening a rival who'd won the race to secure Eircom, pipping O'Brien in the process?

Today, O'Brien owns 22 per cent of INM. He is the second largest shareholder after O'Reilly. He clearly wasn't teasing the great man. War has been declared, the stakes are high, somebody is going to lose and lose big.

So far this story has been depicted as a struggle between two rich men with large egos. O'Brien has questioned INM's corporate governance, pointing in particular to the estimated £15 million O'Reilly "wasted" annually subsidising the London Independent.

Announcing INM's annual results recently, Gavin O'Reilly responded by questioning O'Brien's capacity to run a large international media company such as theirs.

As shares in INM are traded in large bundles by both parties, speculation grows ever more intense. Until now this story has been carried in the business sections of our newspapers. That is a mistake. This argument is about control of Ireland's most powerful publishing group and some of our most influential newspapers.

Given the importance of a free press to our democracy, the outcome of this war matters to every one of us. We should take a closer look at the protagonists and the real issues that lie behind this so-called clash of egos.

Here I should declare an interest: I have worked for both O'Reilly and O'Brien. I quit working for both and don't anticipate any circumstances where I will need to seek employment from either in the future. Strictly speaking I have no dog in this fight, although the 11-year-old fatwa issued against me by the Sunday Independent might incline me to take up the cudgels on O'Brien's behalf.

But the issues here are too important to be coloured by personal concerns. The single biggest issue is the integrity of newspapers, their willingness to publish inconvenient facts and allow their contributors to express opinions that challenge conventional wisdom and/or cause the governing elite to feel uncomfortable, better still distressed.

I WORKED AS a columnist for the Sunday Independent for 13 years. Many of the opinions I expressed were deemed controversial. I didn't really care - about anybody, however powerful. I was at odds with the cosy world around me and inclined to lay into the great and good with a relish that provoked considerable anger.

Seamus Heaney's poems were mediocre - this two days after he won the Nobel Prize. Pat Kenny was a plank, Mary Robinson a fraud, Dick Spring a treacherous gobshite. The Irish Times was smug and redundant, the house magazine for the Official Ireland I despised. RTÉ was frequently targeted. And then of course there was Big Jack and all of that.

A working class lad of no particular distinction, a former Millwall footballer to boot, the Sunday Independent allowed my voice to be heard. The complaints were many: Guinness threatened to pull their ads after one attack on Big Jack; Seamus Heaney was an admired friend of Tony O'Reilly; the then tánaiste Dick Spring was very angry.

And worse was to come when I attacked John Hume for conspiring with the Provisional IRA. The Hume/Adams talks began in 1988 and were conducted parallel to the IRA's vicious terror campaign. Official Ireland was shocked by the frequent and vicious attacks on Hume, then and now regarded (rightly) as a saint.

So was John Hume. He regularly rang the editor to complain, and made it clear that he would prefer if I were not writing for the newspaper.

In a Republic that was, to say the least, ambivalent about IRA terrorism, the Sunday Independent's savage onslaught on the embryonic peace process caused great offence. Not just to Hume, but to the Department of Foreign Affairs and to Irish America, which was seriously involved in what can now be regarded as a noble endeavour: the search for some accommodation with the terrorists.

During the 1994 World Cup, I encountered a senior Department of Foreign Affairs official in a bar in New York. An abusive tirade ended with the observation that I would be "f***ed before you're much older". Through all this, I enjoyed the support of Aengus Fanning, a brilliant editor with deep resolve. A resolve that never wavered for a moment. For Tony O'Reilly, there were heavy consequences at home and, in particular, among his influential peers in the wealthy Irish-American community.

One of the popular Irish-American publications carried a bitter attack on the Sunday Independent for its "McCarthyite" campaign against the push for peace. The Clinton White House let its displeasure be known. O'Reilly was answerable for our crimes. There is no doubt that the man Denis O'Brien recently described as "an old-style mogul that really needs to go" felt some heat.

Fortunately, O'Reilly's resolve never wavered either. Old-style is the right style when you're placing your own interests second, your journalists first. Owing me nothing, O'Reilly defended my right to express an opinion.

During this fraught period, I met Tony O'Reilly in west Cork, where I was living. We discussed the North, he established where I was coming from and told me to keep going.

Although I was no Carl Bernstein, and wouldn't want to be Bob Woodward, O'Reilly referred to the legendary journalists who broke the Watergate story that led to Richard Nixon's downfall. His friend Ben Bradlee edited the Washington Post during Watergate. The late Katherine Graham was the publisher.

At a certain point in the Watergate drama, Bernstein and Woodward's copy became almost too hot to handle. To publish or not a story that would ensure the end of a presidency? Bradlee and Graham stood by their hacks.

O'Reilly belongs in that tradition. I write of my own experience merely to establish that very important fact. We don't have to look far to establish O'Reilly's unyielding commitment to our free press. The London Independent has been cited by Denis O'Brien as an example of poor corporate governance. If he was seeking to establish his media bone fides, O'Brien couldn't have chosen a worse example.

Tony O'Reilly was in favour of the invasion of Iraq. The London Independent has vigorously opposed the invasion, a mission lent unimpeachable credibility by the reportage of its brave and brilliant Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk.

Tony Blair, who knighted Tony O'Reilly, has been pursued relentlessly in this classic example of campaigning journalism. Denis O'Brien's characterisation of O'Reilly as an old-style mogul is rendered cheap and rather pointless set against the views of Fisk and his former editor, Simon Kelner, whose profound appreciation of O'Reilly was vouched to me in London as recently as last week.

The London papers lose money, a substantial amount of it, as a result of a price war initiated by Rupert Murdoch, but the service rendered to their readers' interests is incalculable. O'Brien argues they should be sold, which begs an important question: to whom? Selling the London Independent would grow INM's profits. Selling the Sunday Tribune would also lend lustre to the group's bottom line. We can only speculate about the damage a change of ownership of these newspapers would inflict on the common good.

RICH BOYS LIKE Denis O'Brien aspire to media ownership. Doors open, people listen when you speak, gravitas is conferred way beyond the dreams of merchants. Alas, as outlined above, publishing on the INM scale is for wealthy men rather than rich boys.

Old-style barons prepared to take the pain, willing to stand by great reporters as well as opinionated former Millwall inside-forwards.

Although it ended acrimoniously, I reflect fondly on my working experience with INM and Tony O'Reilly. I was free to write what I wanted, and supported, right or wrong. A couple of their newspapers have spent the best part of a decade trying to damage me with vulgar abuse, bearing unwaveringly malicious intent. No mud has stuck. The journalists concerned are entitled to their punishing opinions, as I am to mine. If you dish it out, you are obliged to take it. C'est la vie.

Denis O'Brien's capacity to absorb the pain, much less the responsibility that comes with media ownership, is a matter of grave concern as his bid to take control of INM reaches its decisive phase. Before reflecting on my traumatic experience working for O'Brien's radio station Newstalk, let's consider the correspondence recently released by Gavin O'Reilly as INM went on the offensive in this conflict.

In June 2003, Gavin O'Reilly sent O'Brien a note congratulating him on his stewardship of the Special Olympics. This letter is worth publishing: "Personal, 23rd June 2003. Dear Denis, I fully suspect that I might be the last person you'd expect to get a letter from, but I just felt I had to write to congratulate you on, and thank you for, the Special Olympics. Saturday evening was a really unbelievable showcase - like never before; that owes to your incredible perseverance, drive, creativity and generosity.

"It may sound corny to utter it - but I felt truly proud to be Irish - and from the reaction of everyone I met, it will certainly go down in the annals as the night Ireland Inc played the leading role in such a wonderful and inspirational undertaking as the Special Olympics. Our involvement - as media sponsor - was fairly modest in comparison to others, but we were, and are, delighted to have played our part.

"At some stage (at your choosing), we should get together . . . as I detect that absence has not been our greatest ally! In the meantime, renewed congratulations and my personal best wishes to you and Catherine. Yours sincerely, Gavin O'Reilly."

Gracious, solicitous, generous and accurate, because O'Brien had indeed presided over an unqualified success.

O'Reilly's message was as revealing as O'Brien's reply: "Strictly Private and Confidential, 3rd July 2003. Dear Gavin, Thank you for your letter dated 23 June. Forgive me, but my first reaction was to throw it in the bin. As far as I'm concerned, Independent News and Media have spent the last seven years trying to destroy my reputation. Some of the coverage of my affairs, both business and personal, in the Sunday Tribune, Sunday Independent, Irish Independent and Evening Herald have caused hurt and enormous damage to my reputation, not to mention the emotional distress suffered by my wife, Catherine, and my family. I very much doubt whether you or any member of your family could have survived a similar onslaught. Control of the media brings privileges and responsibilities.

"While I am waiting for the appropriate time to rectify the damage, I note and appreciate your gesture and in a spirit of goodwill I am willing to meet you to see whether we share any common ground. Yours sincerely, Denis O'Brien."

Yes, bitter, small-minded, with the thinly veiled threat to "rectify the damage" somewhere down the line. INM's crime appears to be nothing worse than reportage of the controversial circumstances that led to O'Brien's acquisition of Ireland's first mobile telephone licence. A free press at work, exploring a matter of profound public interest.

The most chilling - or boneheaded - reference in O'Brien's missive is to "control of media" and the "privileges and responsibilities" attached. His inference is that Gavin O'Reilly should exercise control over the editorial content of the newspapers mentioned in his letter.

THE POINT ABOUT a free press as presided over by O'Reilly's INM is that editorial content is a matter for journalists, not proprietors. Journalists, the best of them, are congenitally uncontrollable. Which is why the many fine journalists who work for the O'Reillys respect them.

INM is not perfect, there are always issues with the reporting of O'Reilly's own business interests, and the bottom line is a corporate imperative. But INM journalists are broadly free, even as they sometimes savage each other. We need look no farther than Bertie Ahern's recent travails as covered by the Sunday Independent for proof that INM is a broad media church that facilitates Eoghan Harris and Gene Kerrigan.

My experience at Newstalk offers no such reassurance. As editor and presenter of The Breakfast Show, I operated in the constant shadow of a man with strong opinions about the content of the programme. His name was Denis. O'Brien's misgivings were not conveyed in person. But his people let me know when he wasn't happy with, say, Robert Fisk, Eamonn McCann, or the various contributors to our business slot.

Although, with a small team of gifted and committed young journalists, we increased audience share exponentially, our view of what The Breakfast Show should be was as odds with the proprietor's. The hassle, though low-level, was constant and utterly demoralising.

To be fair to O'Brien, he is not the only person responsible for the journalistic slum that is commercial broadcasting in Ireland. The system of regulation of the sector that has been put in place is pitiful. However, I can testify to the fact that O'Brien has done nothing to render the slum more habitable. And, in the context of such inadequate regulation, the prospect of O'Brien controlling both four national newspapers and two national radio stations is one that should concern everyone in a free democracy.

My previous experience with Today FM informed my view of what could be achieved with the support of one rich kid who understood the challenge of taking on RTÉ.

After its inauspicious beginning, Today FM was heading for bankruptcy when Australian consultants were engaged to put the house in order. Having analysed the problem, our Aussie friends decided that The Last Word programme I edited was surplus to requirements.

Again a small, dedicated and gifted team of young journalists were engaged in the task of offering listeners a respectable, and we hoped innovative, alternative to RTÉ.

As the axe was poised to fall, I went to John McColgan, the majority Irish shareholder, to plead for a stay of execution. He backed me and said no to our consultants, enabling The Last Word to survive, ultimately providing Today FM with the foundation upon which to build a very successful commercial radio station.

One rich guy made that difference. It took the bones of five years and much in-house nurturing to create a programme that remains a credit to the commercial sector. I don't think Denis O'Brien would have liked the anarchic mix of shade and light that my team and I created at Today FM.

Which is why Newstalk continues to struggle, incurring massive losses that have been funded from O'Brien's pit of new money. He is no John McColgan, much less a Tony O'Reilly. The record of sackings, resignations, and bitter feuds with former executives of his various business ventures suggests that he is indeed the man revealed in that letter to Gavin O'Reilly.

He doesn't like hacks to be out of control. And the thought of him running Independent News and Media is, to me at least, disquieting.

SPEAKING TO ONE former Communicorp executive this week did nothing to reassure. This person summed up by saying: "This was not a free-thinking organisation." It was certainly one in which journalists were way down the pecking order, after marketing and advertising.

Newstalk executives lost patience with me over a dispute that may seem insignificant, though I don't believe it is. The station being a financial basket case, a decision was taken to double the cost to listeners who texted our programme. Loving the interaction with our audience, regarding the texts as a resource, I was shocked to be confronted with the new deal just before I went on air.

Had any other merchant sought to double their costs, we would have gone after them. Now we were proposing to rip off listeners. I told our listeners what was going on and expressed disapproval.

All hell broke loose. "What do you think you're doing?" the managers wailed when I came out of studio. "Journalism," I replied. Inquiring later about this get-rich-quick scheme, I was informed about a new revenue stream that was badly needed to pay my wages. The new revenue stream would yield €13,000 a year. I laughed and prepared to pack my bags. All bar one of the outstanding young team of budding journalists left shortly after. O'Brien didn't care.

As the war between old-style mogul and Denis Wannabe heads towards its denouement, one is forced to take sides. As a journalist and a citizen, I'm with the old-style mogul.