BCI plays dead in ruling on O'Brien


How can it be acceptable for one person to control so much of the media, asks VINCENT BROWNE

DENIS O’BRIEN now has effective control of Independent News and Media (INM). Although he owns only 26 per cent of the shareholding of INM and has only a minority of directors on the board, it is he who is playing a central role in the most crucial negotiations INM has undertaken in its history: those with the INM bond holders who are demanding to be paid €200 million.

According to its website, INM “has market-leading newspaper positions in Australia (regional), India, Indonesia, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa. In the United Kingdom, it publishes the flagship national title, The Independent, as well as being the largest newspaper group in Northern Ireland”.

It publishes over 200 newspaper and magazine titles, delivering a combined weekly circulation of over 32 million copies, with a weekly audience of over 100 million consumers and includes the world’s largest read newspaper, Dainik Jagran, in India (again according to its website).

In the Republic of Ireland it claims to be the number one newspaper publisher, the number two regional newspaper publisher, the owner of the leading news web site, the number one property web site and the leading wholesaler and distributor of newspapers and magazines.

It owns or controls the Sunday Independent, the Sunday World, the Sunday Tribune, the Star on Sunday(half ownership), the Evening Herald, Herald AM and the Irish Independent, plus a host of regional newspapers.

When Tony O’Reilly, INM’s former chairman and chief executive, was the controller of the corporation, many of us were complaining that his media ownership was far too extensive. And how could our complaint be any different now since Denis O’Brien holds the controlling interest. Except . . .

Except that Denis O’Brien, aside from all of the above, also controls two national radio stations, Today FM and Newstalk, Dublin channels Dublin’s 98 and Spin 103.8 and has a “substantial” stake in Spin South West radio, which broadcasts in Clare, Limerick, Kerry and parts of Tipperary and Laois.

And yet in a ruling on Monday, The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI) stated it was “satisfied” that the media holdings of Denis O’Brien do not constitute dominance “in terms of his ability to influence opinion forming power in any of these franchise areas”.

It said: “The board was satisfied that Mr O’Brien’s substantial interest in Independent News Media, coupled with his radio interests, do not constitute dominance in terms of his ability to influence opinion-forming power in any of these franchise areas.”

Disregarding the smug pretention in the use of the word “satisfied” (as though what satisfied these people on the board of BCI was either here or there), how conceivably could these people have thought it was acceptable for one person to control so much of the media?

The Radio and Television Act 1988 requires the BCI to have regard to plurality of ownership and diversity of content in broadcasting. The 2001 Broadcasting Act specifies “the desirability of promoting diversity in the sources of information available to the public and in the opinions expressed in the communications media”.

The BCI’s own objectives include “to promote plurality of ownership of the communications media, with particular reference to radio and television services”.

I don’t have any animus towards Denis O’Brien, indeed quite the reverse. I have known and liked him since 1982 and it was he who brought me into broadcasting, via 98FM. But there is something quite absurd in the BCI determining that he now does not have a far too extensive control of the Irish media. And this is all the more relevant at a time when he himself is the object of such media scrutiny and attention.

Last weekend two of the newspapers that he now controls, the Sunday Tribuneand the Sunday Independent,published two self-serving interviews with him, intended to take the “sting” from the anticipated final findings of the Moriarty tribunal on the award to him of the mobile phone licence in 1996.

If his own version of the Moriarty tribunal findings prove correct, they would be a devastating indictment of himself, along with the then minister for communications Michael Lowry, and of civil servants involved in awarding the licence.

If his version is true, he will be accused of the most spectacular piece of corruption ever in this State, with the possible exception of the Irish Hospital Sweepstake scam.

And, it will seem, if what he says is true, that he has built his vast personal fortune on the basis of a criminal act.

I don’t know if this will be so and, for his sake and that of others, I hope it proves not to be true. But if it is true, how will a large sector of the media here, most of the national print media (all except The Irish Times, the Examiner, the English titles and the Sunday Business Post) and a large chunk of the broadcast media not be constrained in their coverage of this major event?

And meanwhile the BCI plays dead.