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Opinion: 'Lack of transparency makes it difficult to know who controls the Irish media'

Ensuring we have a free and pluralistic media is key to a healthy democracy, writes Anne-Marie McNally.

Anne-Marie McNally

THE ABILITY TO challenge vested interests, to speak the truth and to facilitate the robust debate necessary for a healthy democracy, is the fundamental purpose of a free media. It’s called media pluralism.

Anything that challenges that freedom and plurality directly challenges democracy. It really is that simple.

This issue has been around quite a while here in Ireland and is certainly not new. In fact one of the first times it was raised was in 1973 by the NUJ, who were reliably informed that they were fighting a losing battle, because “no politician would pick a fight with someone who prints newspapers.”

Ownership is concentrated in too few hands

In reality it’s not about picking a fight with anybody, the actual personalities involved are irrelevant, the principle is what matters. Recent studies are clear, most notably by Dr Roddy Flynn of DCU, that media plurality in Ireland is at high risk status. Ownership has become increasingly concentrated in too few hands.

Cross platform ownership – where someone controls media businesses across print, broadcast and online – has become an ever-increasing phenomenon. As fewer hands control more platforms, plurality is diluted and democracy is threatened.

Since 1973 this issue has raised its head at various points, however nothing substantial has been done to prevent the ever-increasing concentration of ownership.

Impossible to get figures and statistics for media ownership

Interestingly, there is currently no register which shows clearly who owns what. Simply trying to get actual figures for shareholdings and ownership of media companies can be an impossible task, and that lack of transparency makes it difficult to keep track of who exactly controls the news and media we consume.

It’s worth remembering that often times what is not reported is far more important than what is reported. To quote the New York Times slogan, “All the news that’s fit to print”.

The absence of data, particularly regarding cross media ownership, creates a basic problem. Since 2005 there have been six substantial media mergers or acquisitions, yet only one of those has come in for any kind of detailed scrutiny. However, all six ended up in the hands of major media players.

The only one scrutinised to any extent has been the current proposed acquisition of Celtic Media Group by Independent News and Media. Taoiseach Enda Kenny said this week in the Dáil he is ‘concerned’ about the proposed merger, which is currently being assessed by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland before the Minister for Communications Denis Naughten makes a decision on whether or not it  can go ahead.

Guidelines

The Media Merger Guidelines published by then Junior Minister Alex White in 2015, laid down a 20% “significant interest” test referring to a stake in a media business. Anything over that 20% would potentially not be in the public interest and anything above 10% gives rise for concern, according to the Guidelines.

RTÉ, as the National Broadcaster does dominate the broadcast media, but it is subject to rigorous oversight and regulation, with a clear public service remit. Yet we exist in a situation whereby news outlets currently dominating the market outside of RTÉ’s control in many cases have shareholders who hold in excess of 20%.

In the notable case of INM and Communicorp, the majority shareholder of INM owns 100% of Communicorp, thus giving significant control of both print and broadcast media in Ireland.

Other international players are also starting to make their presence felt in the Irish market with News Corp International and Liberty Global increasing their holdings of Irish media businesses.

Enforcing the 20% test

It seems obvious that an upper limit on the level of control any one individual or entity can have in a media business is the best way to protect media plurality. The 20% “significant interest” test laid down in the 2015 guidelines seems like as good a place as any to start.

The problem with those guidelines is that they have not been made applicable to anyone who holds above 20% in a media business and had done so before 2015.

If we know it is in the public interest to ensure a free and pluralistic media then where that public interest is currently compromised – even if it is by transactions which took place in the past – the onus is on us to rebalance the books so the public interest takes precedence.

The importance of a free and pluralistic media to a healthy democracy cannot be overstated, and the public interest in protecting this must be prioritised. That is why the Social Democrats have tabled the Media Ownership Bill 2017 which will be debated next Tuesday evening.

Anne-Marie McNally is Political Director of the Social Democrats and also serves as a party representative for Dublin Mid-West.

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Anne-Marie McNally

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