From top: Celtic Media logo; Denis O’Brien, Catherine Murphy
In the dâil yesterday, Social Democrat founder Catherine Murphy challenged Taoiseach Enda Kenny on the sale of Celtic media Group to Denis O’Brien-controlled INM.
Celtic Media owns seven regional titles, including the Anglo Celt, the Meath Chronicle, the Offaly Independent, the Westmeath Examiner, the Westmeath Independent and Forum, a bi-weekly paper for south Meath.
Catherine Murphy: “Last week, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission approved the acquisition of the Celtic Media group by Independent News and Media, INM. It is now up to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, and presumably the Cabinet, to accept or reject this acquisition. Earlier this year, a report authored by Dr. Roddy Flynn of Dublin City University identified the concentration of media ownership in Ireland as a “high risk”. That was echoed earlier this year in a European Commission report, which found that the position in Ireland was the subject of the highest level of concern and identified a lack of legal barriers as an issue. Nessa Childers MEP held a conference earlier this year at which Dr. Flynn’s findings were reported. More recently, Lynn Boylan, MEP, commissioned an EU Parliament report, the findings of which expressed similarly grave concerns regarding the media landscape in Ireland.
It is difficult to understand how an agency involved in consumer protection could approve the proposed acquisition, particularly in a sector that has the potential to undermine our democracy.
INM publishes the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent, the Evening Herald, the Sunday World and the Belfast Telegraph. It has a 50% stake in the Irish Daily Star and controls 13 paid-for regional weekly newspapers. If INM’s acquisition of the Celtic Media group goes ahead, it will control 28 regional titles across the country in addition to the national titles I have mentioned.
The radio sector is also relevant in this context. Communicorp, which is owned by the same majority shareholder as INM, controls Newstalk, Today FM, 98FM, Spin 103 and Spin South West, or approximately 20% of the entire radio market. Although I appreciate that print and broadcast media are different, it is essential for the cross-ownership of INM and Communicorp to be considered in tandem.
As the Taoiseach knows, the Competition Act 2002 does not allow competition restrictions on media ownership to be retrospective. This raises further questions about the permitting of the proposed acquisition. If there is already a problem with the over-concentration of media ownership, why would the Government make that situation worse?
That is the obvious question. While media concentration is an issue in its own right, the ownership of such a large proportion of our print broadcasting and digital media by someone who has consistently used the courts to create a chilling effect on journalists and other media outlets has to be questioned in the most serious terms.
The person to whom I refer, Denis O’Brien, was the subject of adverse findings in the Moriarty tribunal, as the Taoiseach is aware. This media acquisition is clearly against the public interest. It is essential that vested interests are not once again placed ahead of the public interest. Will the Taoiseach oppose this acquisition?
Given the changing nature of media, does he support the National Union of Journalists’ call to initiate a public commission on the future of the media to examine ownership, editorial control, employment standards including pension rights and measures to protect editorial independence?
Does he believe State supports may be appropriate to ensure there is diversity of media ownership across all platforms?
Enda Kenny: “No, I do not support the call mentioned by Deputy Catherine Murphy. This report was commissioned by Lynn Boylan MEP and was based on a legal opinion from two firms based in London and Belfast, both of which primarily work in the field of human rights. The report seems to have been prompted in part by the 2015 report of the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom, a centre based in Florida and funded by the European Commission, which was published in March 2016.
I think everybody can agree that a free and pluralistic media is an essential component of a modern democracy. The report mentioned by the Deputy is being examined by the Minster for Communications, Climate Action and Environment on the basis of his responsibility for media plurality.
I understand he is to answer questions in the House tomorrow on that. In addition to operating the media mergers regime provided for in the revised Competition (Amendment) Act 2012, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment engages with the European Commission and the Council of Europe on all issues relating to media freedom and plurality.
It is also important to say that many of the issues and conclusions raised in the report were debated in the House during the passage of the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014, which revised the Competition Act 2002. As the Deputy is aware, the 2014 Act gives the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the power to block any media merger that is deemed likely to be contrary to the public interest in maintaining the plurality of media in the State.
Therefore, I do not see any reason for the setting up of a commission of inquiry into the matter. The Act did not give the Minister the power to act retrospectively or to assess a media business in the absence of a proposed merger, as to do so would be to interfere with the property rights enshrined in Article 43 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, which would raise a myriad of legal complexities.
Simply stating that it is legally possible to do so does not address any of the legal complexities involved and does not recognise the effect such a move could have on freedom of expression and investment in the sector.
In fact, the report itself recognises this is an extremely difficult area that would raise issues regarding property rights, market effects, procedural fairness and freedom of expression considerations.”
Murphy: “I am not entirely sure what to make of that response. The Constitution certainly does include a section on property rights but all rights have to be balanced and, indeed, the section in the Constitution is balanced by a second section which deals with the common good.
Essentially, the point I am making is that there is no reason for the Government to make matters worse where there is already a demonstrated difficulty with the excessive concentration of media ownership.
Why would it do that when retrospection is not permitted, according to the Taoiseach, although I believe that is open to challenge in the courts?
To take the position in rural areas, which I do not need to describe to the Taoiseach, the more concentrated media ownership gets in rural areas, the less informed people are going to become. What is proposed is that the current CEO of Celtic Media would become the managing director of all 28 INM regional titles.
This would mean the possibility of cross-selling of advertising and the possibility that people in rural areas will not be able to go into Eason’s, for example, and pick up alternative newspapers. The retrospection aspect is one that must be taken very seriously. What is the Taoiseach’s view of this acquisition of the Celtic Media group?”
Kenny: “I misinformed the Deputy in that the Minister is not here tomorrow due to the climate business in Marrakesh and the Minister for Education and Skills has a swap arrangement for tomorrow. Obviously, the most important of the considerations involved is the potential impact on media freedom if a Minister effectively has the power to break up a media business at any time. That could also have a severe impact on investment in the sector.”
Murphy: “What is the Taoiseach’s view?”
Kenny:“The issue was well debated here during the proceedings relating to the Act of 2014. The assertion that there are no representatives being appointed to the MSI-MED committee and none of the independent experts on that body are based in Ireland is misleading.
That committee is a sub-committee of the larger steering committee on media and information society and there is a principal officer of the Department who sits on it as well. Given that all these matters were discussed already in the context of the review of the Act, the Minister does not see what a commission of investigation or inquiry into this would be based on.”
Róisín Shortall: Does the Taoiseach agree with the merger now?
Kenny: “He does not have the power to act retrospectively on this, as I have pointed out.”
Previously: Same Old Firm
Transcript via Oireacthas.ie