Ireland’s media ownership concentration breeds pessimism

August 10, 2017

There’s considerable disagreement about how to tackle Ireland’s lack of plurality of media ownership. At the same time, there’s a growing pessimism that anything will change in the short term.

“There is no doubt we have a high concentration of media ownership in Ireland…that 45 to 50 percent of weekly newspapers – daily titles, plus weekends – are owned by one media organisation is unusual by any standards. Few other democracies exhibit this degree of concentration”,  Dr Roderick Flynn, who focuses on media plurality at Dublin City University told Mapping Media Freedom.

Broadcasting in Ireland is dominated by the semi-state body, RTE. Its radio station, RTE Radio One, holds a clear majority of the most-listened-to shows. Its main TV station, RTE One, is equally dominant. The station also has a very significant presence online, and in addition, owns the Irish language station TG4. RTE received a license fee worth €178.9 million in 2015 but, significantly, the company also competes for advertising on all of its media platforms. However, it posted a €20 million loss last year.

In the commercial sector, the businessman Denis O’Brien plays a very significant role in the broadcasting and publishing landscape. He wholly owns Ireland’s largest commercial news radio stations – Newstalk and Today FM – through his Communicorp group. In addition, the company owns music radio stations such as Spin FM. O’Brien is also the largest shareholder in the Independent News and Media group. INM has full ownership of titles such as the Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, Herald, and Sunday World as well as holding a 50% stake in the Irish Daily Star. It also owns regional newspapers such as The Kerryman and The Sligo Champion. O’Brien’s stake in INM stands at 29.9%.

The National Union of Journalists has campaigned for decades for successive governments to legislate to ensure that media ownership in the country does not remain overly concentrated. However, the NUJ has little optimism that things are about to change. Acting general secretary Seamus Dooley summed-up the mood when he told MMF: “Irish politicians have shown cowardice in tackling issues of media ownership, so we would not be confident of reform in this area.”

This situation has had an impact on Ireland’s reputation. A 2017 report from Reporters Without Borders described media ownership in Ireland as “highly concentrated” and asserted that this posed “a major threat to press freedom.” Ireland has fallen from 9th to 14th place in the RWB standings.

A prominent member of the Irish parliament, Catherine Murphy, who is the co-founder of the Social Democrats party, told MMF: “I think the risks are considerable. The media needs to provide the public with a critical analysis on the major issues. When media ownership is concentrated in too few hands, then there is a danger of ‘group-think’ emerging. A practical example would have been the media coverage in advance of Ireland’s property crash.”

Earlier this year, Murphy introduced a private members bill on media ownership, however it was opposed by the coalition government. She is reserving her judgement on indications by the communications minister, Denis Naughten, that the issue will be tackled.

“I think there were some commitments given, and fine words too, but I would want to see the heads of a bill, or a memo going to cabinet, before I would take those commitments and words seriously. There is a laissez-faire approach often adopted by government. I’m afraid that it could all be lip-service”, Murphy said.

During the debate in parliament, Naughten, said: “I believe a strong and pluralistic media is at the heart of a free and open democracy.” However, he then said that the government would be opposing Murphy’s bill, partly on the basis that he believed that “… the current regime to assess media mergers is working well.”

Naughten also asserted that he was precluded by legislation from taking retrospective action because parliament “… has not provided for powers to retrospectively examine, review or intervene in past media mergers.” He argued that this could raise “significant constitutional issues”  because it would be required to be balanced with the right to private property.

Ireland’s capacity to examine media mergers was due to be tested this year when Independent News and Media proposed acquiring Celtic Media – a move which would have increased the number of INM’s regional newspaper titles from 13 to 20. Under cross-media ownership regulations, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) was charged with conducting a review, after which the minister for communications would take a decision. However, the €4 million deal was called-off at the last minute – something welcomed by the NUJ which argued that such a merger would have “further undermined media diversity in Ireland.”

Dooley said that the government needs to take a holistic approach, given the plethora of problems facing Irish media – including the flight of advertising to online: “The NUJ has called for a commission on the future of the media in Ireland. This would look at the future of print, broadcasting and digital media. The issue of ownership would form part of the terms of reference. Yes – the industry faces challenges. And the impact of Facebook and Google cannot be understated.”  

Other players in the Irish print media include The Irish Times, which is owned and controlled by a trust. Landmark Media controls another national newspaper, The Irish Examiner, as well as a number of regional titles and local radio stations. Landmark is owned by the Crosbie family. The news media giant, News Corp, owns the Irish edition of the Sunday Times, The Irish Sun, and the print-online The Times of Ireland. News Corp also owns several regional radio stations. The Irish Daily Mail is a division of the UK parent company.

The newest broadcasting entrant to the Irish market is the communications giant Liberty Global, which purchased the independent television network TV3. Subsequently, Liberty absorbed the ill-fated station, UTV Ireland, and its financial power has seen TV3 outbid RTE for sports rights.

Given the current situation, the NUJ is very concerned about the capacity of the public to access quality journalism on the major issues of the day. Seamus Dooley told MMF: “Owners seldom directly intervene to influence content. But corporate policies shape news, content and help influence views. So if the emphasis is on maximising profit, at the expense of editorial investment, then that has a significant impact.”

Flynn of DCU has conducted considerable research into this issue. In 2016, he wrote the report Media Pluralism Monitor Ireland and presented the data at a conference in Dublin in 2017 organised by the European Centre for Peace and Media Freedom.  He told MMF: “A point that goes slightly under the radar is that as well as owning the two biggest independent radio stations in the country – Newstalk and Today FM – Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp group also owns the Dublin stations 98FM and Spin 103.8. While RTE still accounts for 43% of the County Dublin market as a whole, this drops to 11.2% amongst the 15-24 year olds. By contrast, JNLR listenership figures released in July 2017 suggest that Communicorp-owned stations accounted for more than 52% of the market share in Dublin.”

According to Flynn, the problem is not limited to Dublin. “Newstalk’s so-called ‘rip-and-read’ news service is now used for national and international news bulletins by all regional radio stations in Ireland. That’s another example of the concentration of media ownership here,” he said.

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