Ireland: time to act on media ownership


Europe’s media freedom campaigners have sounded a warning over the state of Irish media. At the ECPMF’s Dublin debate #newsocracy2, Dr. Roderick Flynn (Dublin City University) outlined the high-risk factors: abuse of repressive libel laws, concentration of media ownership, and lack of access for minorities to mainstream media.

There is a lack of regulatory safeguards for journalists, not enough political independence and a high risk of concentration when it comes to market plurality, Flynn said in his keynote speech, quoting from his study of the Irish media landscape in the Media Pluralism Monitor 2016. The results will be released in March 2017.

Also considered between medium and high risk in the monitor’s index are the factors transparency of media ownership; commercial and owner influence on editorial coverage; and political independence of Public Service Media (PSM) governance and funding. He blamed the economic conditions that make journalism a low-paid and precarious profession and suggests an online database of Irish media ownership and mechanisms for mainstreaming diversity.

Reinforcing the research results, Dr. Elda Brogi, scientific coordinator of the Media Pluralism Monitor, explained how the findings are compiled. She agreed Ireland has high risk factors compared with many other countries in the Europe-wide study, based at CMPF at the European University Institute in Fiesole, Italy. CPMF/EUI already monitored Ireland in 2015.

Transparency builds trust

Olaf Steenfadt, Project Director of Reporters without Borders’s Media Ownership Monitor, put the European situation into a global context. He emphasised that transparency about media ownership works in favour of the owners, because the public understands who is behind the news and is therefore more ready to trust it.

Taking up the political challenge, Catherine Murphy, an elected member of the Daíl (Irish parliament) told the #newsocracy2 delegates that competition laws had been ignored in the recent takeover of Celtic Media Holdings, which now belong to Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp. It is a multi-national corporation that owns a major part of national and local newspapers as well as several radio stations, in addition to radio groups and newspapers in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland.

Murphy went straight from the debate to the Daíl, where she moved a Private Members Bill  to make the anti-competition law retrospective in the case of Celtic Media Holdings. The basis for this unusual move was established in a legal opinion commissioned by MEP Lynn Boylan, from the London-based law firm Doughty Street chambers. She was acting on behalf of the GUENL group of green and left wing MEPs.

Boylan said, quoting from the legal opinion:

“On the concentration of media ownership in Ireland, we consider there to be a perfect storm which poses grave risks to freedom of expression and media pluralism in the Irish market”.

Impact on journalists

Trade union leader Séamus Dooley and Renate Schroeder – General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Director of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) – both emphasised that journalists are not to blame for the crisis. Dooley pointed out that not only investigative journalists but also those who write about sports or celebrities all have the right to do their jobs without threats, pressure or self-censorship.

There were angry clashes when it came to exploring how the concentration of media ownership affects the work of individual journalists, and the role of the NUJ was called into question. Representatives of the Irish Press Council and Ombudsman intervened in the debate to defend their roles as media watchdogs.

The meeting heard testimony from former Army soldier and whistleblower Dr. Tom Clonan. He revealed widespread sexual abuse of female soldiers in the Irish armed forces – including rape – and wrote a book about his experiences in the Middle East. He now writes on defence and security matters for The Irish Times.

“When you do something like this you feel so isolated” he commented. “Bullying is a major problem in Irish media.”

Investigative journalist Anton McCabe is based at Omagh in Northern Ireland (UK). He spoke of how hard it is to mount investigations – for example to expose illegal dumping of waste in a cross-border operation. Another example is the scandal over the subsidised heating scheme that led to the resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and the election campaign that is now underway in Northern Ireland. McCabe pointed out that even north of the border, the Denis O’Brien media empire accounts for most of the main newspapers and radio stations.

Gemma O’Doherty, a freelance journalist who is campaigning with bereaved families to uncover the truth about how their loved ones died, talked about how she won a claim for unfair dismissal from the Irish Independent and continues to work as a freelancer. She has released her documentary film on YouTube and screened it in church halls in Ireland and at Irish centres in the United States.

All three told the gathering about how they had been shunned and isolated for trying to uncover uncomfortable truths that the authorities tried to keep hidden.

Viability as key problem?

Chairing the meeting, ECPMF’s Jane Whyatt asked whether, in a small country, a concentration of ownership might not be a good thing, since it gives the media companies greater financial power through economies of scale. In the audience, Newstalk FM Chief-Executive Tim Collins commented: “Actually the greatest problem facing the Irish news media is viability.”

However, Flynn emphasised instead the importance of libel law reform. In Ireland, there is no upper limit on the amount of damages that can be demanded in a defamation case. And this means that wealthy public figures can use the law to create what he called a “chilling effect” on journalists, which might even lead to self-censorship.

As in the case of the competition law, the libel law is currently under review by the Irish government. And since #newsocracy2, the ministers know that Europe’s media watchdogs are waiting for some action.

Original article by Jane Whyatt and Nora Wehofsits on European Centre for Press and Media Freedom on 2nd February 2017

Deal by O’Brien’s Independent News and Media to take over Celtic Media group was repealed in July 2017 due to pressure by the Irish National Union of Journalists. You can read more here

Featured image ECPMF