Denis O’Brien’s media power must be addressed, report says

New survey claims businessman’s dominant position threatens media’s independence

Businessman Denis O Brien. The Government should establish a commission of investigation into media ownership in the State, an independent report has found. File photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Businessman Denis O Brien. The Government should establish a commission of investigation into media ownership in the State, an independent report has found. File photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

 

The Government should establish a commission of investigation into media ownership in the State to address the concentration of power in the hands of businessman Denis O’Brien, an independent report has found.

The report, commissioned by Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan and written by lawyers in London and Belfast, is to be launched in Dublin on Monday.

It finds that “Ireland has one of the most concentrated media markets of any democracy” because of the dominant position of Mr O’Brien - who owns extensive newspaper and radio holdings - and the extent of RTÉ’s reach.

The report finds that the extent of Mr O’Brien’s media ownership, combined with his willingness to use the State’s restrictive libel laws, creates a “perfect storm which threatens news plurality and undermines the media’s ability to perform its watchdog function.

“This report concludes that there are very grave concerns about the situation in Ireland, and the threats to diversity, plurality and freedom of expression.

“We strongly recommend that these concerns be addressed as a matter of urgency, and be seen to be addressed,” it says.

Significantly, the report says that, contrary to some assertions, there are no legal barriers to addressing the existing balance of media ownership in the State.

“We reject any suggestion that it is not legally permissible to address the status quo and that tackling the current concentration of media ownership is impossible given the importance of property rights in the Irish Constitution,” it finds.

Media plurality

In a statement to The Irish Times on Sunday, Ms Boylan said she commissioned the report on the back of the EU-funded Media Plurality Report, which found Ireland to be in the high-risk category.

“As somebody who believes in the fundamental principle of a robust, diverse media, I was frustrated by repeated claims of constitutional barriers to deal with the problem of concentration of ownership.

“This report clearly shows that such excuses are merely a convenient fig leaf for politicians who are nervous of taking on newspaper owners.

“The Irish Government and Minister [for Communications] Denis Naughten must act with urgency to address the situation.

“The Minister should now show the political courage to tackle this thorny issue and set up a cross-disciplinary commission of inquiry without delay.”

The report cited research which found that Mr O’Brien “received less critical coverage in his own titles when he was embroiled in controversies”.

Mr O’Brien is the largest shareholder in Independent News and Media (INM), Ireland’s largest newspaper group, and also controls Communicorp, which owns Newstalk, Today FM and a number of other radio stations.

Newstalk also supplies news bulletins to many local radio stations.

The report noted that last month INM agreed a deal to add seven more newspaper titles to its stable by acquiring the Celtic Media Group, extending its regional footprint to five more counties. The deal is subject to ministerial approval.