Media merger guidelines are impotent and an act of cowardice

It was a barefaced cheek of the minister to make a virtue out of the new guidelines, writes Alison O’ Connor

Media merger guidelines are impotent and an act of cowardice

THE general lack of reaction to the Government’s new media-merger guidelines, which were published last week, says a lot.

In the midst of a massive national controversy about the concentration of media ownership and censorship, Alex White, the communications minister, finally publishes the new rules for governing this area. Sure, they got a few headlines and some discussion, but then most people, and the media, shrugged their shoulders.

It’s difficult to understand the disconnect here, when you consider the outrage that everyone had been channeling for the previous few weeks, in the wake of concerns about Siteserv, IBRC, freedom of speech, and media ownership.

Perhaps the best that can be said about White’s offering is that he actually made one, given that the National Union of Journalists first requested legislation on media ownership in the early 1970s, when Tony O’Reilly took over Independent Newspapers.

The Fianna Fáil leader, Micheal Martin, was praised in this column last week for how he has conducted himself during these recent controversies. I concentrated on his defence of good, properly resourced journalism, and the importance to democracy of a free press, but I add the caveat that his party had been more than happy to let matters lie for the previous number of decades. Perhaps the last significant thing Fianna Fáil did in Government was to appoint an advisory group on media mergers, in March 2008.

That group completed it’s work in a most un-Irish way — that is, in a speedy fashion, and had it wrapped up by June of that year. The report was published by then enterprise minister Mary Coughlan, during the Christmas holiday. The minister promised action.

Roll on to September, 2011, when the then communications minister, Pat Rabbitte, announced that responsibility for the approval of media mergers was moving from the Department of Enterprise to his Department of Communications. What followed was a tug of war between the two departments, but also between a Fine Gael minister and a Labour one.

Eventually, the legislation was introduced in the autumn of last year. Bringing matters full circle, White published his draft guidelines on media mergers, prepared under the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014, at Christmas 2014. This, of course, is an optimal time for gathering people for a discussion on a matter of such national importance, with everyone immediately dropping their yuletide plans to rush to contribute to the debate and draw up detailed responses. Not.

In its introduction, the Department of Communications says the guidelines on media mergers are in recognition of the fact that a free and pluralistic media is an essential component of our representative democracy. Given the “critical” role of the media, it states that it is vital to the public interest that the State protects media pluralism, as far as is practicable.

In breathtaking prose, it states that the concentration of ownership of media organisations in the hands of a small number of individuals, or businesses, is potentially detrimental to media plurality.

“It runs counter to the public interest that the organs of free expression should be overly influenced, and potentially controlled, by any one individual, group or organisation; as such, it is undesirable to allow any one media business, or individual, to hold excessive, significant interests within a sector, or particularly across different sectors of media businesses in the State”.

It borders on the extraordinary that this document could be drawn up with such a straight face, talking the talk on media plurality, while the Irish media landscape is so utterly unbalanced by the concentration of ownership in one individual. How ludicrous is this? We now have the scenario whereby, in the future, someone with over 20% shares or ownership would find it more difficult to carry out mergers. This, in theory, is as you would wish it to be. Yet you could have Denis O’Brien in the corner, metaphorically thumbing his nose at these prospective, newer media mogul upstarts looking to get bigger and more powerful, but destined to be mere minions forever, in comparison to his mega-media status.

Mr O’Brien has a 29.9% majority shareholding in Independent News and Media. His Communicorp group includes Newstalk, Today FM, Spin, and 98FM. Newstalk operates a syndicated news service, making it the largest supplier of radio news in Ireland.

Media merger guidelines, in fairness, are not an easy thing to draw up, particularly with the complexity of media that now exists and the difficulty in working out how influence can be used or misused. White was also dealing with an inherited situation, in terms of the preexisting dominance in our media landscape.

But rather than openly acknowledge this, especially given all the O’Brien-related outrage in recent weeks (the perfect opportunity, one might have thought), he behaved as if he was simply powerless and also extraordinarily unaware.

He did not indicate that serious consideration had been given by the Government to how those with excessive levels of media ownership could have been required to divest themselves of their interest. He didn’t even do us the justice of engaging in the pretence that it all had been explored and nothing had worked out.

This is political cowardice, and it was a barefaced cheek to make a virtue out of the new guidelines, while such a serious situation already exists and is ignored.

The least that could have been done was to take on board the NUJ recommendation that a commission on the future of the media in Ireland be established to examine all aspects of our media.

The union also made a very good suggestion that all applications for changes in ownership of media organisations should be the automatic subject of investigation by an advisory panel, and that public hearings should be held. They were clearly considered too radical.

It is interesting to note just who did get it together in January, to make submissions on the draft merger guidelines that were published last Christmas. There were 14 submissions, including from the NUJ, the National Newspapers of Ireland, ICTU, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, UPC, a few law firms, and two individuals.

There were only two political submissions, one from Sinn Féin’s Deputy Michael Colreavy, the party’s spokesman on communications, and one from Deputy Tommy Broughan, who said he was writing “on behalf of constituents in Dublin Bay North and myself”.

The shortest submission came from a woman in Dublin.

“I think Denis O’Brien has too much control of the media in this country,” she wrote. “I am concerned with regard to mergers and acquisitions in this country. The Government has failed in their role of governance and competition and allowed a free-for-all to buy Ireland.” Out of the mouths of private citizens, and all that.

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