O'Brien's control of INM should be stopped

There are many reasons why we should be concerned about Denis O’Brien’s concentration of media ownership

There are many reasons why we should be concerned about Denis O’Brien’s concentration of media ownership

THE BROADCASTING Authority of Ireland had a meeting on Monday at which it discussed the ownership and control of the media in Ireland. According to a spokesperson, following that meeting a letter was written on behalf of the BAI to Communicorp, which is, according to the latter’s website, “Ireland’s premier media company and the home of some of Europe’s leading commercial media brands [which] owns and operates a portfolio of media channels with a strong focus on commercial radio and emerging digital media”.

Ireland’s premier media company is owned and controlled by Denis O’Brien. O’Brien now also controls Independent News & Media, “a leading international newspaper and media group [whose] main interests are located in Ireland, Northern Ireland and South Africa”, according to its website.

The BAI’s stated policy is to maintain “plurality of ownership, content and viewpoint” in the media and, presumably, it is concerned about the concentration of media ownership that O’Brien’s media holdings represent. There are many reasons to be concerned about that and only a single reason to be reconciled to that.

The first reason to be concerned about such extensive media ownership concerns INM itself. INM on its own is too large a media presence in Ireland to be controlled by any one person.

According to itself it publishes five “market-leading” national newspapers – the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent, the Evening Herald, the Sunday World and, as part-owner, the Star; 13 regional newspapers; and a free daily newspaper, Metro Herald (also as part-owner).

Furthermore, it is Ireland’s largest newspaper and magazine wholesaler and distributor. It has 13 paid-for weekly regional newspapers published in Cork, Kerry, Dublin, Louth, Wexford, Wicklow, Carlow and Sligo.

Control of newspapers is not similar to control of, say, supermarkets, although a plurality of ownership in that sector is also important.

Control of as many newspapers as are in the INM group gives the controlling interest a huge say in the public debate in any society in which such control prevails. This is subversive of democracy.

In my opinion this was abused by the previous controller of INM, Tony O’Reilly, and it is not likely O’Brien will behave otherwise, not because he and O’Reilly are malign people but because that is the nature of the business.

Secondly, in O’Brien’s case, his control of the media in Ireland is very much more extensive than O’Reilly’s ever was because of his ownership and control of Communicorp. This owns 98FM, a Dublin music station; Newstalk, “Ireland’s only commercial all-talk station”; Today FM, another national station; Spin 103.8, another Dublin music station; Spin South West, a music station in the southwest; and Phantom 105.2 FM, another Dublin music station.

A third and important factor is that, in my opinion, nobody who has significant corporate interests outside the media should be in control of a significant portion of the media, for the usual accountability that the media supposedly exerts on corporate power is thereby blunted. O’Brien’s extensive corporate interests in Ireland and abroad, outside the media, are such as arguably to debar him from control of any significant sector of the media.

The fourth consideration is that there are special concerns about O’Brien’s control of such a large sector of the media because of the findings of the Moriarty tribunal.

The tribunal found that O’Brien siphoned large amounts of money to Michael Lowry, who was the minister of the department that awarded O’Brien’s company, Esat, the second mobile phone licence.

Unless and until O’Brien can refute convincingly these findings, it is hardly appropriate that he be permitted such considerable influence in public affairs that his media interests afford him.

All the more so at a time when the main party in government seems to want to ignore such findings. It is fair to acknowledge that O’Brien vigorously contests these findings. However, the very fact of these tribunal findings requires the media to enforce accountability on O’Brien and that accountability is hindered by his media power.

Finally, there are his attempts to have a journalist with the Irish Independent, Sam Smyth, removed from coverage of the Moriarty tribunal. On October 29th, 2010, one of the directors representing O’Brien’s interests on the board of INM, Leslie Buckley, telephoned the then chief executive of INM, Gavin O’Reilly, saying he had been speaking to O’Brien, who was “very upset with Sam Smyth” who, according to O’Brien, was conducting “almost a vendetta” against him.

O’Brien wanted to know whether Smyth could be taken off the story of the Moriarty tribunal and moved on to something else. This was followed by repeated phone calls and representations to get Smyth off the Moriarty tribunal story (this is all based on contemporaneous memos by Gavin O’Reilly subsequently posted online). This clearly was an abuse of the lesser control he then exerted in INM. Now that control is close to absolute.

The single reason to be reserved about making a fuss about all this is that if O’Brien is, for instance, forced to dispose of some of his radio interests, Newstalk would almost certainly close and that would be a blow to the plurality of voices on Irish radio.

Instead, Denis O’Brien should be stopped from controlling INM.