Why the fourth estate in Ireland has been so afraid of one man

I would often say how worrying it was that Denis O’Brien had such control over the Irish media, writes Alison O’Connor

Why the fourth estate in Ireland has been so afraid of one man

AS A political journalist, I talk to politicians, including senior ones. In recent years, I would often say how worrying it was that Denis O’Brien had such control over the Irish media, and the chilling, nay freezing, effect that had on reporting matters to do with him.

I would say to the politicians that I had never imagined, having worked in Irish media for so long, that we would have reached such a situation. I would speak of how remarkable it was that journalists were in such fear of one person. I would tell them of the experiences of colleagues who raised the issue of O’Brien’s concentration of media ownership, or otherwise scrutinised his business affairs, only to be put through so many hoops by their legal department that, by the end of it, they would hardly know their own name, let alone get the names “Denis” and “O’Brien” mentioned in the one report. This is not good for democracy, I would say, feeling this was a rather dramatic statement to be making over coffee, but a true one, nonetheless.

In response, I would get feigned interest and a sort of “gosh really, do you think so” sort of answer. Or else it was a “what can you do?” shrug of the shoulders. It was hard not to conclude that as well as not having a single intention of doing anything, or of being afraid to act, the politicians and their aides were not at all unhappy with journalists being made so uncomfortable, regardless of the subject matter. “At least someone is able to put manners on you crowd” appeared to be the subtext.

Then, of course, there was always a general election around the corner and the awful prospect for a politician that if they upset someone so influential in the print and broadcast media, they could be made to pay.

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When journalists gets together socially, there is a hell of a lot of gossip bandied about. In my own social circle, this banter was often followed by a discussion on the latest development in the O’Brien situation.

There were the individual cases O’Brien took against journalists, which I wrote about here a few months ago. Prime Time reported, on Tuesday night, that from defamation to injunction proceedings, in the last 12 years Mr O’Brien has initiated 24 separate high court actions against media outlets and journalists, some of them repeatedly.

There were the absolute tangles that media managers would find themselves twisted into if one of their journalists was pursuing such a story.

I have a memory, from seven years ago or so, of suggesting to my then-editor, in a different newspaper, that Denis O’Brien was to be the subject of my column that week. I can’t remember the exact detail of what I wanted to write, but I do remember his reaction. It was: “Oh, no” and a groan. When I asked if he was telling me not to do it, he said not at all, but that in doing so I would cause him no end of trouble. Even back then, the combined war of fear and attrition was a success. The sheer pugnacity of O’Brien’s spokesman, James Morrissey, in his media performances, in recent days, gives a good indication of O’Brien’s approach.

My friends and I would chat about what was happening at Independent Newspapers, how, for instance, the once-traditional structure of an independent, stand-alone editor of the Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, and Evening Herald had been replaced by an overall editor-in-chief. Perhaps it was just our paranoia to think it was a further centralising of control.

There were tales of “editorial charters” being introduced that would require journalists to get permission from the managing editor before they could write any stories critical of public figures. That sort of thing would soften your impudent, journalistic cough for you, all right.

We saw the name of one of the best-known journalists in the country, Sam Smyth, disappear from the pages of the Irish Independent, where his byline often appeared over stories on the Moriarty Tribunal. He also lost his Sunday morning show on Today FM. The fearless Vincent Browne has also been put through the wringer and, in 2012, he received a letter from O’Brien, in which he was told: “I am putting you on notice that if you continue to libel me … that I will be left with no other avenue but to sue you personally”. Browne replied that the threat was an abuse of money and power.

Another high-profile name is that of academic Elaine Byrne, a long-time critic, who received a legal letter in 2011, after she wrote an article in the Sunday Independent. The letter accused her of an appalling lack of objectivity and said her article was a “truly objectionable piece of journalism, strewn with factual inaccuracies and devoid of any balance or objectivity”.

This is not to suggest that any individual, no matter how rich, should not be allowed to protect their own good name. We have heard the vehement assertions from Mr O’Brien, as well as Alan Dukes and former IBRC chief executive, Mike Aynsely, that his dealings with the bank were above board.

The problem is that having appeared to treat media queries and inquiries with aggression over the past decade, there is an element of the boy who cried wolf for O’Brien in getting short shrift in terms of credibility.

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Three months ago, I wrote here of a speech that the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, had given on media bias in Ireland.

“Perhaps the single greatest protection against bias is to have a diverse media and there’s no way of escaping that our media landscape is becoming significantly less diverse,” he said.

“This matters a lot and it is not a comment directed at any particular entity. It doesn’t matter how open or self-critical a society you have, media diversity is essential to protecting it.”

He found it amazing that, after four years in office, the Government’s only policy on media diversity was to avoid having a policy.

The concentration of media power in relatively few hands, both in the public and private sectors, could have a potentially chilling effect, he stated. He outlined what journalists had been whispering to each other in recent years.

“Whether or not an owner or controller imposes their views directly, it is basic human nature that journalists will be influenced by how they perceive the interests of the people they work for, or feel they may one day need to work for. The only way of combating this bias is through media diversity.”

Reading that speech in February, it certainly did feel as if there was an elephant in the room that had not been named, and that was the increasingly powerful O’Brien media empire.

At the time, I inquired as to why the Fianna Fáil leader had kept it so general, and was told he simply wished to keep it that way. So, even the leader of the largest opposition party in the country, while willing to venture where other politicians dared not to, at that time, was fearful of naming names.

Well, Pandora’s box has well and truly been opened now, and Micheál Martin has been at his absolute political best in standing up for press freedom. We can just hope that it will remain open.

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