‘Public value’ test to be introduced for media ownership

Guidelines say it is ‘undesirable’ for single person or business to hold excessive influence

The National Union of Journalists and others have raised concerns about the levels of media ownership of billionaire businessman Denis O’Brien.  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The National Union of Journalists and others have raised concerns about the levels of media ownership of billionaire businessman Denis O’Brien. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

New Government guidelines on media mergers say it is “undesirable” for one person or business to hold excessive influence and introduce a “public value” test for future consolidation in the industry.

The draft guidelines, which will apply across print, broadcast and online, also set out thresholds that specify how many shares or holdings are needed to be able to influence the “direction or policy ... with regard to news, current affairs or cultural content”.

They say that “a holding or voting strength of more than 20 per cent ... will generally constitute a significant interest”, while a 10 per cent share could also constitute a “significant interest”.

A “significant interest” is defined as having “sufficient voting, financial or ownership strength” to influence direction or policy.

The draft guidelines will be published today by Minister for Communications Alex White. A public consultation process will be open until next month.

The final rules will not apply retrospectively, but one source said that recent media acquisitions might not have passed the new test.

O’Brien concerns

The National Union of Journalists and others have raised concerns about the levels of media ownership of billionaire businessman Denis O’Brien.

Mr O’Brien is the biggest shareholder in Independent News and Media (INM), with a 29.9 per cent stake, but he has been deemed by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland not to control INM.

Mr O’Brien also owns Communicorp, the radio group that includes Today FM and Newstalk.

Newstalk also supplies news to some 20 local stations around the country.

The draft guidelines set out how a media merger will be assessed. While a range of submissions is expected, sources said the document to be published today reflects Mr White’s approach.

The new “public value test” is described as the most important element. It involves “a more thorough definition of media concentration than before” and deals specifically with cross media ownership.

“It is undesirable,” it says “to allow any one media business or individual to hold excessive significant interests within a sector or particularly across different sectors of media businesses in the State.”