Media control – Dominance not good for democracy

As communications become more internationalised, personal and unfettered it may seem anachronistic to suggest we need to pay more attention to our domestic media, who owns and controls it.

A new concentration of ownership suggests we need to consider how that influence is applied and how that unaccountable power might be used to deflect attention from uncomfortable truths, how it might be used to silence valid criticism or even objective commentary.

It is difficult to get this issue on a decisive agenda but recent developments should persuade even those who dismiss it as one motivated by commercial rivalries or the vanities so splendidly active in the fourth estate that we need to confront the threat latent in any potential media domination.

Two of the country’s most respected journalists — Sam Smyth and Vincent Browne — find themselves in billionaire Denis O’Brien’s cross-hairs for doing no more than accepting the findings of the Oireachtas-sanctioned Moriarty tribunal: that tax cheat, beneficiary of Dunnes Stores’s generosity to the tune of €500,000 and North Tipperary poll topper, the disgraced former Fine Gael communications minister Michael Lowry, had arranged that Denis O’Brien secure the State’s second mobile licence.

The profits that achievement generated helped make Mr O’Brien an international player and turn him into a billionaire tax exile with significant interests in six radio stations and a 29.9% slice of Independent News & Media (INM). He has a range of international media and communications interests as well.

Mr O’Brien has always contested the Moriarty findings and has not been shy about undermining the tribunal, its staff or its findings. He has threatened to sue Vincent Browne — rather than his employers — for writing that he was not a fit person to control INM.

Sam Smyth had presented a Today FM radio show for 12 years but was dumped after Mr O’Brien bought the station. Mr Smyth has rejected suggestions by the station he was fired because of falling audience figures.

Two years ago Mr O’Brien threatened to sue Mr Smyth for remarks he had made on Vincent Browne’s TV3 programme. Mr Lowry has sued Mr Smyth twice and lost on both occasions.

Fine Gael and Enda Kenny have been less convincing than they must be in explaining their links with Mr O’Brien. The infamous New York photograph was, at first, shrugged off with a standard we-didn’t-know denial but was later shown to be absolutely untrue.

Government also refused to say whether or not Mr O’Brien, a man indicted by an Oireachtas-sanctioned tribunal, might be invited to any future Farmleigh conference. One of Mr O’Brien’s former business partners, former ESAT CEO Barry Maloney was more direct; he withdrew from Farmleigh because of Mr O’Brien’s involvement.

All around us we see the consequences of uncontrolled and unanswerable power. Mr O’Brien is approaching that position in the Irish media and this is neither good for Ireland nor Mr O’Brien, especially as he has shown that he is more than ready to use his resources to try to protect a damaged reputation.

Politicians were slow to reform libel laws but in terms of legislation around media concentration and independence they do not have that luxury. The issues at stake are too important to be long-fingered.


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