Jesuit's press edict continued a grain of truth


DRIVING around Dublin confronted at every turn with hoardings utilised by the Murdoch owned News International coup to promote the Times and the Sunday Times, I found myself thinking of one R.S. Devane S.J. Some 46 years ago, Father Devane published a little remembered pamphlet, The Imported Press, subtitled: A National Menace: Some Remedies. No buttery liberal, Father Devane took a dim view not just of the imported press - by which he meant the British press - but also of a range of phenomena which he associated with its pernicious influence here. It was sad, he lamented, to look back on the halcyon days of the Gaelic League, when the nation had been one "in ideal and action". The Civil War, if I interpret him correctly, had put paid to all that. "Gone is the idealism; gone the mysticism; gone the Messianism. They have been replaced by cynicism, fatalism and pessimism. Native music and song have given way to jazz, crooning and the dances of African primitives."

Father Devane was not a man given to sitting on the fence, and the culture of the time allowed him full rein to say what was on his mind: "The process of Anglicisation, about which so much was heard at the beginning of this century, has rapidly, though unconsciously, gone on," he declared, "and in such proportion the freedom of the Irish mind has been lost." Although emphasising the dangers to what he termed "culture", it was clear that he had in mind something more specific. He referred to the "gross obscenity" of British papers, and the danger to public morality which he perceived them to represent.

I am surprised that Father Devane has not surfaced in the present discussion about the continuing incursion of British newspapers into the Irish market. For he is precisely the kind of bogeyman advocates of particular forms of freedom love to let loose to dispose of objections to their version of freedom. I have this only half joking theory that characters like this were planted back in the 1950s to create an unlimited fund of ridicule for arguments against "modernisation". Thus, any future objector to the incursions of British newspapers could be silenced by a knowing nod and a softly spoken: "Ah, a follower of Father Devane, is it? I see."

BUT somewhere between Father Devane's concern for Irish culture and his distaste of the dances of African primitives resides a grain of sense, and one which concerns us more today than it did in 1950. In round figures, when his pamphlet was published, the Irish market was consuming about 20 million copies of British Sunday newspapers per annum band about five million dailies. Today, while the figure for Sundays has increased only marginally, the number of British dailies sold here has increased tenfold to about 50 million per year. Concerned as he was in 1950 that some British Sunday papers had "appointed whole time Irish representatives", I wonder what Father Devane would have made of the determined onslaught being made on the Irish market by News International, or of the "The English Just Don't Get it" advert for The Sunday Times, as cunning a piece of propaganda as can be imagined, suggesting as it does that this act of attempted recolonisation is actually the enablement of a self distinguishing defiance.

Clearly, Irish people are buying these newspapers, presumably of their free wills. So, on what basis should we be concerned about their encroachment? Indeed, should we be concerned at all? Should such concern be to do with something called "public morality"? If not, what? Politics? Culture? Is it to do with Irish jobs in indigenous newspapers? And if the more predatory British titles have what they call Irish editions and are reemploying the Irish journalists made redundant as result of the deleterious effect of competition on the indigenous industry, does this not make it all right? And does this mean that the issue is simply one of ownership, and if so, does it matter if control of the newspapers Irish people read passes into foreign hands? And if the marketplace has already made many of the indigenous products virtually indistinguishable from imported ones, is there any point being concerned?

I am disingenuously laying out the arguments which Irish newspaper editorials would present if the issue was any other product except newspapers. Of course it matters. It matters also, and for the same reasons, whether our airlines, telephone system, postal service, and countless other elements of our cultural, commercial and industrial infrastructure, are native or foreign controlled, but try telling that to the average leader writer.

THE Commission on the Newspaper Industry, in its recent report, hinted that there is something special about newspapers, which it described as being "fundamental to the well being of Irish society". Isn't it time we started to define what this something might be? And when the commission called for "special treatment and unusual measures" to protect indigenous newspapers from foreign competition, was it not repeating, in more restrained form, the point made by Father Devane, who called for tariffs on imported titles?

To date, we have "dealt" with all this by avoiding awkward questions about what the culture of Ireland is, and to what extent it is to be protected, by relying on abstractions like "unfair competition" and "below cost selling". For a long time, the wolves were kept at bay by the resilience of the indigenous media. Thus, it was possible to relax on the bean bag of pseudo liberalism, basking in the "freedom of choice" afforded the Irish market by virtue of having equal access to media from both Britain and Ireland.

If you walk around central London you will notice that around one in three newsagents stocks Irish newspapers. This is good, not just for Irish newspapers but also on account of the increased choice it offers the consumer. But is it really, as we would be led to believe by the logic of open markets and collapsed boundaries, the same thing as the saturation of the Irish market with British titles? Clearly, somewhere between the two lies an invisible line dividing also choice from domination, options from oppression, freedom from unfreedom. One situation is good for the culture of two nations, the other is overwhelmingly to the disadvantage of the weaker/smaller culture.

Endless blather about competition policy and predatory selling will not allow us to escape the fact that, given unqualified freedom under existing logics, an operator with prior access to the larger market, is bound to dominate. Expansionism is the means by which markets keep costs down, and no amount of filigreed fudge will prevent this leading to its logical conclusion.

Of course, the dangers to the Irish newspaper industry, and the limitations of fudge as a means of dealing with them, expose also the fundamental dishonesty of much media thinking on competition and globalisation. The Irish press cannot ultimately save itself until it gets its thinking straight.