However, the study by Roddy Flynn of Dublin City University found overall that media ownership, whether State or private, did not have a major influence on the content and tone of articles and broadcasts.
Dr Flynn examined coverage of four news stories, comparing how two of them were treated by state-owned RTÉ and O’Brien-ownedand , and how two others were covered by O’Brien’s Independent News and Media newspaper titles and by non-INM titles.
A study of 140 articles published about the Moriarty Tribunal in INM titles and 227 in non-INM titles between March 23 and April 2, 2011, showed INM titles were generally more likely to put the focus on Michael Lowry than on Denis O’Brien.
There was no difference in the tone of the coverage of Lowry, with 60% of the INM articles placing him in a negative frame compared to 58% of non-INM articles. However, only 18% of INM articles framed O’Brien negatively compared to 38% of non-INM articles. Non-INM articles were also twice as likely to publish articles carrying suggestions of improper dealing than their INM rivals.
More subtle differences emerged after last year’s controversy when Catherine Murphy TD used parliamentary privilege to read into the Dáil record details of the banking relationship between Denis O’Brien and IBRC and Mr O’Brien obtained a court injunction to stop broadcast or publication of what was said.
Some 83% of INM articles framed parliamentary privilege negatively, stressing concerns such as the danger of it being abused, but so too did 63% of non-INM articles. INM articles were more likely to back an individual’s right to privacy over the public interest, as O’Brien argued in court.
Dr Flynn presented his findings at a conference on media ownership hosted by Independent MEP Nessa Childers.
He also examined broadcast coverage of the allegations of cronyism in Fine Gael’s appointment of John McNulty to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art just before he was nominated to contest a seat on the Seanad’s Cultural and Education panel in 2014.
Just 10 seconds separated the amount of airtime RTÉ’s Drivetime and Newstalk’s The Right Hook gave the story over two weeks, and assumptions that RTÉ might have a pro-government bias were not borne out for while the state broadcaster used more clips of government assurances that the appointments process would be improved, it also used more clips that were critical of the Taoiseach.
Similar comparisons of the handling of the GSOC surveillance story showed that while RTÉ gave it more airtime, there was little difference between the stations in the kind of issues they raised about it.