Leader – Ireland’s media are in difficulty due to finance, ownership and … Denis O’Brien



There is no perfect, rational or obvious way to regulate the press. Democracy balances two forms of liberty- freedom of expression and privacy. Both have become iconic manifestations of the evolving sophistication of modern society and have been developed in unforeseen and wonderful ways over the last generation. But they make press regulation difficult.

If a democracy values freedom from intrusion more than freedom of expression, it needs state regulation. If it regards the press as so important that freedom of expression must be protected at all costs, then it will avoid state regulation. Each democracy must decide whether society gains more from a free press than it loses from its tabloids’ abuse of defenceless people. Perhaps a wise resolution will depend on the mores and media behaviour in each country.

Freddie Starr ate my hamster
Complete rubbish: the only problem we don’t have

German newspapers must print corrections with the same prominence as the original report; Scandinavian countries have acts of parliament overseeing press ethics; France has tough privacy laws. But parliamentary control of the press is anathema in Britain, which has a long tradition of light-touch self-regulation. The British government takes all this very seriously and has just agreed to establish a National Press Regulator (NPR) set up by a royal charter, underpinned by statute. It will impose punitive damages on any misbehaving newspaper that has elected not to join the new system. In return the libel system will be simplified. Arguably, all this still falls just shy of anathematic press regulation by parliament. But it should avert a repeat of the hackings that led to the Leveson Inquiry which recommended statutory press regulation to replace the feeble and press-dominated Press Complaints Commission.

The balance has in general been well struck in Ireland. There has not traditionally been a problem with a licentious press.  Long ago Seán Lemass saw RTÉ as “an instrument of government policy” and for a long time the media here were enmired in the sexless pre-Late Late Show ethos of old-fashioned morals.  But the era passed. For years, there was a perception that Tony O’Reilly’s Independent Newspapers group (INM) pursued some of his personal agendas, at least at the edges, but there have been less benevolent Press barons and he has been sidelined. There are serious problems of media ownership. RTÉ dominates television. INM titles still account for over 40% of all national newspaper sales and just three groups own 23 of our 37 radio stations. Most recently the problem in Ireland has been a cowed media. This is partly for financial reasons, and partly due to the fallout from the Moriarty Tribunal.

Television is doing well internationally: the average Briton for example watches four hours of it every night –  on a multitude of devices – half an hour more than in 2006. At $209bn annually, twice as much is spent on television advertising as on internet advertising (which is around the same as newspaper advertising), though the proportions are changing fast. RTÉ, however, is beleaguered with imploded revenue from advertising, adverse publicity from inflated celebrity salaries and delinquency in current affairs programmes. Most local radio is predictable and loss-making.

Almost all of the Irish print media lose money, driven by the rise of on-line alternatives and the recession. The Irish Times made unwise boomtown investment decisions and its product, online and in print seems to he somewhat stale; INM has suffered from fractious boardroom battles and has unwisely mooted a constricting editorial charter; the Thomas Crosbie Holdings group is in the throes of a controversial examinership.

Struggling under the collapse of advertising and sales revenues, newspapers have all but  suspended any effort at original investigative reporting, instead usually relying on information gleaned from official ‘political’ and ‘security’ sources, public relations and celebrity guff and what are euphemistically termed analysis and opinion pieces.

During her recent visit, a UN  Special Rapporteur received information about the reported use of litigation and the threat of legal action to intimidate journalists. As a result, she “underlined the importance of the role of the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council, established to safeguard and promote professional and ethical standards in Irish printed  media, and which can resolve complaints about the accuracy and fairness of coverage”.

Essentially, what is needed is a robust regulator that is independent of both the media and politicians. This characterises the Irish system and is what appealed to Leveson about it.  But, crucially, the system is optional, depending on the compliance of the wronged reader.

As the Village April-May edition moved towards print it became clear that Denis O’Brien is exercising a significant chilling effect on Irish media. His obsession with negative reporting of his travails in the Moriarty Tribunal has silenced a range of commentary.  The chill has stricken veteran journalists and broadcasters, Éamon Dunphy and Sam Smyth, who felt unable to write any sort of article about the media for Village, because of – perhaps conservative – legal advice about litigation initiated by Denis O’Brien. It affected Vincent Browne whose column on Denis O’Brien the Sunday Business Post would not publish, and who has received legal threats. It has taken out academic Elaine Byrne whose orientation on transparency attracted legal proceedings from O’Brien and who has, as a result, left the country. It muzzled a recent Sunday Times exposé of the confidential business relationship of O’Brien with property developer, Paddy McKillen.

The outstanding problem in Ireland, in a system that has overall worked relatively well down the years, is that deploying the mediating services of the Press Council and Press Ombudsman are optional. In his recent action against the Irish Daily Mail, Denis O’Brien, Ireland’s most influential media owner, who is moving towards control of Ireland’s largest press company, INM, seemed tellingly uninterested in availing of the services.

While it may be held against litigant that they did not avail of this service, there is no evidence that in practice it makes any difference to juries.  Village believes this must change. Perhaps a formula expressly suggesting that it is against the public interest for the litigation  to have bypassed the Press Council and that damages should be reduced accordingly, should be considered by the courts in defamation actions

Ireland is a small country, labouring under a colossal recession in part brought on by politicians who were too close to the construction sector, and facilitated in large part by a dormant or compliant media. It cannot afford the cosiness of media cartels. And it cannot afford silent media.