Government ponders decision on INM takeover of local newspapers

Denis Naughton obliged to assess proposed deal on grounds of ‘diversity of ownership’

The National Union of Journalists has called on Mr Naughten to block the proposed takeover. Photograph: Fran Veale

The National Union of Journalists has called on Mr Naughten to block the proposed takeover. Photograph: Fran Veale

 

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten has two months to decide on the acquisition of a newspaper group by Independent News and Media.

The proposed deal was approved by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission this week, but now it must be considered by the Minister on grounds of media plurality.

Mr Naughten must assess the proposed takeover on the grounds of “diversity of ownership” and “diversity of content”.

Some opposition parties and the National Union of Journalists have called on Mr Naughten to block the deal, citing the extensive local and national newspaper and online interests of the INM group.

They also note that Denis O’Brien, INM’s largest shareholder, controls several radio stations including Newstalk and Today FM. Newstalk is now the largest provider of news to local radio stations.

A spokeswoman for Mr Naughten said the proposed merger had not been formally notified to the Minister, though this is expected in the next two weeks.

Once that has happened, officials in the Department of Communications will assess the takeover for its impact on media plurality. The Minister has six weeks to make a decision from the date of notification.

He can permit the deal to proceed, with or without conditions. But if the Minister believes the merger may be contrary to the public interest on media plurality grounds, he can refer the issue to the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI). The BCI will then examine the proposed merger on media plurality grounds and report within 80 days. It must consult with the Oireachtas communications committee.

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The proposed deal with Celtic Media Group would mean INM controlling seven regional newspapers including the Anglo-Celt in Cavan, the Meath Chronicle and the Connaught Telegraph.

The media company already owns a number of local newspapers including the Fingal Independent, the Kerryman, the Sligo Champion, the Wexford People and the Bray People.

The decision places Mr Naughten and the Government in a tricky political situation, with sources noting political dangers whatever decision is made.

No Government wishes to antagonise the country’s largest newspaper group. But Ministers know approval for the merger will lead to criticism of favouring Mr O’Brien, an especially controversial figure for the political left.

The National Union of Journalists has called on Mr Naughten to demonstrate “political leadership and courage” by blocking the proposed deal. “Failure to do so would represent an act of political cowardice, something we have experienced many times when it comes to challenging media interests,” said the NUJ.

Sinn Féin MEP for Dublin Lynn Boylan called on Mr Naughten to show “political backbone” and reject the acquisition.

“If approval is given to the acquisition of Celtic Media, Denis O’Brien and INM would not only expand their newspaper portfolio by seven regional newspapers but they would also extend their geographical footprint by five counties,” said Ms Boylan.

She said it was unthinkable that the merger should be allowed to go ahead.

Labour communications spokesman Seán Sherlock expressed concern that the deal could mean “a diminution of local newspapers as we know them”.

“The Minister shouldn’t be afraid to delay the decision. I fear that local content will be the main loser in this,” said Mr Sherlock.

Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley said any approval of the merger “was not a political decision as such”.

“It depends on the evidence presented to him by his officials,” said Mr Dooley, adding that he expected to be consulted by the Minister in advance of the decision. His principal concern would be that diversity was maintained in the media, he said.