Does it matter who owns a newspaper? Does ownership affect the way a particular paper covers a particular story? A small case study unfolded in our newspapers on Sunday and yesterday. As it happens, the story in question is actually about media ownership and the extreme lack of diversity in the control of Irish media.
At issue is a report formally launched in Dublin yesterday afternoon. It is a legal analysis of the concentration of media ownership in Ireland, commissioned by the Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan and written by four independent lawyers. It is an important piece of work, not just because it highlights yet again the unusually high concentration of ownership in Irish media but because it persuasively argues that there are no barriers, either in the Constitution or in European Union law, to State action in support of a more diverse media. As is usual in these cases, advance copies of the report were given to the Sunday newspapers and to the daily papers for coverage in yesterday's editions. If ownership didn't matter, you'd expect each of these papers to run broadly similar factual accounts of the contents of the report.
The Sunday Business Post gave the report extensive coverage, with a prominent piece on page five by its business editor, Tom Lyons, and an opinion piece by Boylan on its Media and Marketing page. The Irish edition of the Sunday Times carried a front-page report headlined "O'Brien's 'chilling effect' on news" and continued it on to page two. And yesterday The Irish Times had a news piece by Pat Leahy on page four, which set out the report's main findings and quoted Boylan's comments to the paper. In each case, the papers were doing the basic work of journalism: telling readers about a significant piece of research in which there is an obvious public interest.
But what of the biggest-selling papers? Yesterday's Irish Independent carried no word of the media ownership report. The Sunday Independent did deal with it, but by way of comment rather than reportage. Liam Collins opened his Zozimus column on page 12 with a reference to "Yet another tiresome blog on the 'worrying lack of plurality' in the Irish media from that paragon of British liberalism, Roy Greenslade. " Greenslade, who is professor of journalism at City University London, had posted a piece on his Guardian blog drawing attention to the report.
It is, of course, entirely legitimate for Collins to find Greenslade’s writing on the subject tiresome – that’s a matter of opinion. What’s striking, though, is that the only account of the report that readers of the Independent titles received on Sunday and Monday was through an attack on another reporter whose views were discounted in advance because he is, of all despicable things, a paragon of British liberalism.
Those readers would have no idea what the report actually says. The substance of Collins’s take on it, indeed, is that no one should bother reading it. He gives three reasons for this. One is that it is essentially foreign: as well as Greenslade’s British liberalism, there is the fact that the report itself is “by four lawyers at two UK-based legal firms”. (One of those firms is based in Belfast and three of the four lawyers are, so far as I know, Irish.)
The second is that it was commissioned by a member of Sinn Féin and thus ceases to be an independent legal analysis and becomes a “Sinn Féin-sponsored socialist report”. (Socialism being, presumably, as automatically obnoxious as liberalism.)
The third is that the launch of the report was due to be held yesterday at the rather posh Cliff Townhouse in Dublin, which means that all those involved in writing it are “smoked salmon socialists”, cliched code for hypocrites.
This is all perfectly legitimate opinionising, if not especially impressive reasoning. The essential point, however, is that the sum total of the information presented on this event in the Independent papers on Sunday and Monday was to the effect that Shinners, Brits, liberals and socialists (a range of targets for contempt to suit every taste) have produced a tiresome document that you, the reader, don’t need to know about.
Now, there are two equally silly interpretations of this. One is that Denis O'Brien, who is the largest shareholder in Independent News and Media and chairman of Communicorp, which owns both of Ireland's national talk radio stations, issued a directive that the media diversity report was not to be covered directly. This is absurd. And equally absurd is the notion that it is mere coincidence that the papers partly owned by O'Brien treated this story in a manner markedly different from the rest of the broadsheet press.
The truth, almost certainly, lies somewhere in the very grey areas between these two absurdities. Sunday Independent writers know very well that media ownership matters: in the very same column, Liam Collins refers to the journalists on the Irish edition of the Sunday Times as "the colonial staff of Murdoch's Dublin outpost". Presumably, they do not imagine Rupert Murdoch on the phone barking orders to his employees in Dublin. They probably imagine a much more subtle and insidious process of self-censorship.