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Saturday 30 September 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Image: Newstalk
'Are public broadcasting licenses being adhered to in Communicorp stations?'
Media outlets hold great power. The public interest requires that the use of such power be carefully regulated, writes Brendan Howlin.

THE DEBATE AROUND media ownership in Ireland never seems to hold public attention for very long. The events of the last 24 hours should be a clarion call to make sure we take action before the issue drifts from the limelight once more.

Three weeks ago, we saw a storm of controversy around George Hook. His comments about rape were depressing, and they were dangerous. As ever, he was seeking to court public controversy, but this time he went too far. Newstalk promised an internal review, and in the end he apologised and was moved to a different time slot.

Out of proportion

Now, I don’t have a lot of time for presenters of the style of George Hook. But his apology seemed genuine. And the punishment of being moved from a daily show to a weekend slot may have been a proportionate one – not every unwise statement by a blowhard should automatically result in a sacking.

The banning of all Irish Times journalists from all Communicorp (the owners of Newstalk, Today FM, 98FM and Spin 1038) stations is far from proportionate. That this is the response to one opinion article, to which they were granted a right of reply, is deeply troubling.

On top of that, the statement by Dil Wickremasinghe last night raises real concerns about the sincerity of the review carried out by Newstalk into the Hook affair. Three weeks after the controversy, the man who made stupid and irresponsible comments about rape will continue to appear on that station. The woman who questioned Newstalk’s response to those events has been silenced.

The culture evident from these actions is a profoundly troubling one. Women, already completely absent from presenting roles during prime time on Newstalk since Sarah McInerney was moved to Saturday mornings at the expense of Sarah Carey, will now be removed from other shows if they dare to question that culture.

Sustaining a democracy requires robust and ongoing debate

While social media and online platforms are shifting the landscape somewhat, traditional media – both print and broadcast – remains the most prominent territory for such debate.

A meaningful debate requires the inclusion of minority and dissenting voices. This week, all opposition parties bar Fianna Fáil published our alternative visions for what could be included in the Budget next week. RTÉ made the frankly bizarre editorial decision to omit any reference to these alternative budgets from their evening news bulletins, and I’m sure I won’t be alone in formally complaining to them about that.

But the Communicorp decision to block all Irish Times voices on a permanent basis goes far beyond such editorial judgements. And it calls into question whether the public broadcasting licenses held by Communicorp stations are being adhered to.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) is required to consider whether news stations act with fairness, objectivity and impartiality in news and current affairs content. I am writing to them today to ask them to clarify whether the instruction on the part of Communicorp to its programme-makers is consistent with its statutory obligations as a licensed broadcaster. I hope they will take action.

The use of power should be carefully regulated

Beyond that, we need to consider once more the full implications of a concentration of media ownership in Ireland. Media outlets hold great power. The public interest requires that the use of such power be carefully regulated.

When we created a register of lobbying activities, we began to shine a light on who influences politics. When we legislated to protect whistle-blowers from vindictive punishment by their employers, we began to create a culture welcoming of honesty and integrity in all workplaces. When we created the Freedom of Information Act, we made sure that governments of all hues could be held to account by the public and the media.

The legislation in relation to media mergers was designed to make sure that no one person, or group of people, could have control of our media to an undue degree. The action taken by Communicorp this week clearly raises further questions as to whether that is now the case. A loss of media plurality will certainly undermine the valuable role played by the media in our democracy.

We need to deal with these questions. And we need to do so before the issue once more falls off the public agenda.

Brendan Howlin is Leader of the Labour Party.

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