Who decides what you read in a newspaper?

An editorial charter is on the cards for Independent News and Media. Michael Clifford looks at where this leaves freedom of the press

WHO decides what you read in a newspaper? Is the traditional role of the editor under attack in Ireland’s biggest media company?

Recently, it was revealed that a new editorial charter is to be introduced at Independent News and Media (INM), publisher of the Sunday Independent, the Irish Independent, the Irish Daily Star, the Sunday World, and a host of regional newspapers.

The discussion document, which has not yet been approved, would require journalists to get written approval of the managing editor before writing any “sustained or repeated adversarial material concerning individuals or organisations”.

The managing editor in INM is not ordinarily involved in editorial decisions. The office is more concerned with managerial issues, such as major libel actions, rather than deciding what is written in any newspaper.

Such a charter would be a new departure in Irish journalism. As reported, it stipulates that any breach would result in an investigation, which could lead to disciplinary action, with the ultimate sanction of dismissal a possibility. So far, the charter is at a “discussion” stage, but with 39 points enumerated in the draft, discussions must be at an advanced point.

Where does all this leave freedom of the press? Is the charter a paved avenue towards editorial interference, or is it merely a means of ensuring that taste and fairness is observed at all times? One example of the kind of journalism that might come under threat in any such charter was the front page lead story in the most recent Sunday Independent. The newspaper got its hand on a recording of a telephone conversation between Michael Lowry, and a land agent named Kevin Phelan, who featured in the Moriarty Tribunal.

The tape has Lowry saying that he had not declared a sum of £250,000, among other controversial issues. The name of Denis O’Brien, now the main shareholder in INM, crops up in the tape. Undoubtedly, the story is in the public interest, but would it have seen the light of day under the proposed charter? Would somebody in management have decided that Lowry had already been the subject of “sustained or repeated adversarial material” and the paper should back off?

Any examination of the new charter requires context. INM is now effectively under the control of telecom billionaire O’Brien. He was involved in a high-profile battle for the company for a few years until finally ousting the other main shareholders, the O’Reilly family. During the same period, the Moriarty Tribunal reported draft findings, and, eventually, its final report.

Moriarty found that then minister for communications Michael Lowry interfered with the awarding of the second mobile phone licence in 1995. O’Brien’s company Esat Telecom won the licence. It also found that a money trail leading on a circuitous route from O’Brien to Lowry was established.

O’Brien has always said the tribunal was unfair and biased against him, and that its findings are based on opinion rather than fact. He expressed himself very unhappy at some of the coverage, particularly from the Irish Independent’s Sam Smyth, the man who broke the story that led to the setting up of the tribunal in its original phase.

In 2010, during the tussle for control of INM, correspondence emerged in which O’Brien’s ally Leslie Buckley suggested to INM CEO Gavin O’Reilly that Smyth be removed from covering the tribunal for the daily paper. Last year, Smyth’s contract to present a programme with the O’Brien-owned Today FM was terminated. (O’Brien also owns Newstalk.)

The then chief executive of Today FM, Willie O’Reilly, said the termination was an editorial decision, based on declining listenership. Smyth and others claim it was connected to his coverage of O’Brien’s tribunal travails. The journalist has also departed from INM.

Against all this background, the Sunday Independent carried out a sustained attack on O’Brien. Much of the coverage was wrapped up in high-minded rhetoric about the tribunal, and O’Brien’s fitness as a media owner. However, most saw the attack as a weapon in the armoury of the O’Reillys, who were attempting to repel O’Brien’s corporate interest in the company.

In one edition of the Sindo, Apr 1, 2012, 15 articles about O’Brien appeared, nearly all having a go at him in one form or another. A letter was written on behalf of O’Brien to the managing editor, Michael Denieffe, describing the attack as “pernicious journalism at its worst”. “What standards or ethics permit such behaviour? Where was balance — a cornerstone of professionalism in journalism,” the letter read.

On the other side of the ledger, former INM chairman James Osborne has alleged that O’Brien tried to have a story in the Sindo about his borrowing with Anglo Irish Bank binned before publication.

“I got a call from Denis... then he said, ‘they’ve been on to me, there’s an article in tomorrow’s paper and I want it withdrawn’,” Osborne recalled in an interview with the Sunday Independent. He says he refused to get involved.

Since O’Brien took effective control last August, with the appointment of Buckley as chairman of INM, the Sindo has calmed down. O’Brien no longer features on the pages as a big, bad wolf.

This is the background against which the proposed charter is being formulated. Few would argue with the proposition that the charter is a reaction to what might be termed the “sustained and adversarial material” that was published about O’Brien in the Sindo, prior to last August.

But is a sledgehammer being used on a nut, and what are the wider implications for this proposed charter? One of the Sindo’s hallmarks over the last two decades has been its herd journalism, in which a number of reporters or commentators monster an individual. John Hume was subjected to this treatment in the 1990s when he was drawing Gerry Adams into the peace process. Arguably, the treatment was disgraceful, going way beyond any scepticism over appeasing terrorists.

Controversy has followed the newspaper up the sales rankings and down again. The treatment of the late Liam Lawlor has never been properly dealt with. Lawlor was portrayed as accompanying a prostitute in Moscow prior to the car crash in which he died. The woman sued successfully, but nobody at the paper was ever held to account.

Some within the group, including senior journalists, have seen incidents such as that as damaging the INM brand, and alienating readers. On not a few occasions, the paper has gone way beyond any public interest, often lurching into a place where settling scores topped the agenda.

Now, any such assault will have to be filtered through a management layer.

What happens if, for instance, Enda Kenny begins cocking up all over the shop? Traditionally, this might have led to the Sindo monstering him. Will such action now need to get the OK from above? Will the same consideration be given if Gerry Adams is the subject of a sustained attack? What happens if, for example, Sinn Féin, began soaring in the polls?

In previous years, any surge for the party led to the attack dogs in the Sindo being unleashed. Will they now need prior approval, and would such requests be entertained with the same consideration if the subject of an attack was Fine Gael? What if the anti-property tax campaign catches fire in the public imagination? Will the Sindo be allowed to go after the leaders in a sustained manner, as would have been the paper’s wont? Will wider political and business considerations form a part of any decision to allow such targeting?

On the face of it, the whole notion of the charter is an attack on editorial independence.

It’s not as if there weren’t suspicions of interference by the previous owners of INM.

In 1997, front-page editorials across the group denounced the departing government, which hadn’t sorted out the problem of illegal TV deflectors to Tony O’Reilly’s satisfaction.

Ahead of the 2007 general election, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen had a private meeting with O’Reilly. For weeks prior to the meeting Ahern was getting the monster treatment. In the weeks after it, the Sindo portrayed him as a cross between George Soros and Mahatma Gandhi.

But the proposed charter could be of a different order. O’Brien is a powerful individual with cross-media interests in newspapers and radio. He has shown himself to be highly sensitive of how he is portrayed in the media.

Just days ago, he was awarded €150,000 damages against the Irish Daily Mail for the latest libel action he has taken. In that case, the jury determined that O’Brien’s reputation has been unfairly assaulted.

The jury also decided that the offending article, which concerned O’Brien as a figure in the Moriarty Tribunal and in post earthquake Haiti, was not in the public interest. Is it possible that introducing the proposed charter in INM will lead to a further narrowing of the definition of the public interest? Those now in control of the company can hardly be blamed for eyeing the flagship Sunday paper with deep suspicion.

However, dealing with the issue by opening up a route that could easily lead to editorial interference raises wider questions about the direction of the media at a time when O’Brien dominates the landscape. When even the perception exists that it’s no longer left up to the editor of a paper to decide on the public interest — irrespective of taste — then it’s a bad day for the freedom of the press, and all that that entails.

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