Government’s only policy on media diversity is to avoid having a policy

There was a time when, as a journalist, you were almost afraid to say Denis O’Brien’s name out loud given his penchant for taking people to court, writes Alison O’Connor

Government’s only policy on media diversity is to avoid having a policy

FIANNA Fáil leader Micheál Martin is not known for a sarcastic sense of humour. But he made a bit of an exception this week.

On Monday morning he tweeted a photo of the front page of the Irish Independent which had the headline: “FF backlash over Martin vow to pass FG budget”. Above this he wrote: “I have to compliment the very special effort made this morning in the Independent. My support for journalistic independence makes page 8”. In social media terms Micheal Martin, a man accused by the Taoiseach of having an old fashioned attitude to the online world, had just delivered a classic “burn”.

The fact alone of him having a go at a national title was interesting, but all the more so given the circumstances behind it. The article underneath the headline said the Fianna Fáil leader was facing trouble from his own party after he “vowed to complete the three-year confidence and supply agreement with Fine Gael and avoid an election this year”.

But what the Fianna Fáil leader’s tweet was referencing were other comments he had made in the same interview on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics addressing his “profound” concerns about data breach revelations at Independent News & Media (INM). In that he said the political system will ultimately have to take decisions “that once and for all ring-fence the independence of our media, underpin it and make sure it is free from any overbearing influences that can actually distort and undermine our democracy”.

Prior to those comments the silence from senior political figures on the recent extraordinary revelations from INM, and the move next week by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement to apply to have High Court inspectors appointed to INM on foot of concerns about the proposed purchase of Newstalk radio and an alleged data breach, spoke volumes. Newstalk is owned by Denis O’Brien, the largest shareholder in INM.

To be fair to the Irish Independent, while it stressed a potential FF backlash on the front page it did devote half of the bottom of page 8 to Micheál Martin’s comments on their own in-house saga. Indeed, there has been extensive reporting from INM journalists on this extraordinary story.

Denis O’Brien
Denis O’Brien

For instance, two weeks ago the Sunday Independent ran an incredible story by INM group business editor Dearbhail McDonald along with colleagues Shane Phelan, legal affairs editor, and Samantha McCaughren, Sunday Independent business editor, about the extraordinary goings-on in their place of work. It concerned INM’s data being removed from the premises “interrogated and searched against the names of various individuals, including amongst others, a number of INM journalists and two senior counsel.”

Last Sunday, in further coverage, Dearbhail McDonald wrote at the end of an article that caught up in the drama are “INM’s journalists and our colleagues honouring the 100-year-plus tradition of breaking news in the public interest and performing the difficult but necessary task of writing the story, even — and especially— when we become the story”.

It was difficult not to contrast that with an opinion piece in the Sunday Business Post by former editor of the Sunday Independent Anne Harris saying it was a “personal testimony” of her experience at INM which “unshrouds a media company that has long been worthy of questioning”.

She wrote of how difficult she found it to work in INM once Leslie Buckley, who she described later in the article as Denis O’Brien’s representative, became chairman. She “admits” during her time she challenged Denis O’Brien, but said in her view there were good reasons for doing so — “the adverse findings of the Moriarty Tribunal raised questions, and the miasma of the Siteserv deal created a public unease”.

“Standing up to INM is the equivalent of war,” wrote the former editor.

It is notable that the reporting in INM titles of recent weeks takes place with new chief executive Michael Doorly in place, but it is difficult to gauge what exactly this journalistic approach to the company’s own difficulties means exactly. Mr Doorly is reported to have stressed to staff at an internal meeting that a new team was now in charge. INM made clear this week that data, including emails, were given to a third party company on the instructions of its former chairman Leslie Buckley. He has previously said he would “robustly defend my position against each and every allegation”. The data interrogation was paid for by an Isle of Man firm beneficially owned by Denis O’Brien. Mr O’Brien watched former US president Bill Clinton make a speech to mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in UCD on Monday night but did not give any comment on the goings on at INM.

There was a time not so long ago when, as a journalist, you were almost afraid to say Denis O’Brien’s name out loud given his penchant for taking people to court. Certainly political criticism of the man who controlled so much of our media landscape was absent, apart from a few notable exceptions.

Now even INM journalists apparently feel free to report and comment on what they believe took place. But apart from Micheál Martin the silence from the Government has been fairly deafening. Our Communications Minister Denis Naughten is an independent TD, but clearly still feels some restraint in addressing the issue. Fine Gael has long been tongue-tied on the various controversies surrounding Denis O’Brien.

WE KNOW that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met Denis O’Brien on his first visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier in the year. In the Dáil recently Micheál Martin tried to get more detail including whether he met him with other people or separately, and what was discussed on matters related to Ireland. The Taoiseach did not answer that question.

Three years ago at the beginning of 2015 Micheál Martin gave a speech in UCC to a journalism conference on media bias. He spoke of how the single greatest protection against bias is to have a diverse media and that there was “no way of escaping that our media landscape is becoming significantly less diverse”.

This mattered a lot but he pointed out it was “not a comment directed at any particular entity”. Those were the days when we spent our time talking in and around Denis O’Brien — but fear kept us from mentioning him by name.

Micheál Martin found it amazing then that after four years in office the Government’s only policy on media diversity, including concentration of media ownership, was to avoid having a policy. To bring things up to date Fine Gael is now seven years in Government and the same situation exists.

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