Catherine Murphy, Social Democrats TD at the Newsocracy2 conference
The Writers Museum, Parnell Square, Dublin
At the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) Newsocracy2 conference.
Catherine Murphy, co-leader of the Social Democrats, said:
It’s a common misconception that my interest in media ownership issues arose because of what has now become the almost infamous weekend of so-called ‘constitutional crisis’ following by a speech in the Dáil regarding the Siteserv controversy
In fact in 2012 one of the first tasks I set my then new assistant was to write a Private Members Motion on media ownership. Now due to arrangements within the Technical Group that Motion never got the chance to be debated in the Dáil, it was a significant piece of work undertaken by my office and one that we have continued to pursue over the years.
Ironically my Siteserv investigations actually had no root whatsoever in the area of media control or ownership. I had started questioning how the Irish water contracts had been awarded and that led me down a rabbit hole within which the two issues overlapped.
I first raised concerns regarding the contracts and the personalities involved back in September 2014 and continued asking questions throughout late 2014, the Irish people had become owners of a bank which cost them upwards of €30bn and the distressed assets were to be sold, I felt my role was to make sure those distressed assets were disposed of for the maximum possible amount, in other words I was acting in the public interest in pursuing those contracts.
In April 2015 the Sunday Times broke the story on the front page. During this time I was confronted with various cease and desist letters from Mr Denis O’Brien’s camp.
Once the Sunday Times story ran it became a snowball and my questions and FOI’s made it clear to me at least that a serious investigation into the sale was warranted.
This led to a ridiculous scenario proposed by Government that KPMG – who had acted as advisers on the sale of Siteserv – would then be charged with reviewing the sales process.
I felt strongly this was not the appropriate measure and so in May 2015 my team and I complied a piece of legislation which would give the C&AG the powers to undertake the investigation. In order to introduce that Bill I had to make a 5 minute speech explaining what the Bill was about and why I was presenting it.
In that speech I outlined my concerns regarding the sales process and why I wanted a thorough investigation.
I could not have predicted the fallout of that speech. All media outlets immediately reported everything I had said but within hours everything had changed. The Irish Times had pulled their report from their website. The Journal.ie had removed it from their site and RTÉ – the National Broadcaster was reporting the fact that they could not report the contents of my speech.
At the same time RTÉ was in court and subject to a case involving an injunction by Mr Denis O’Brien, who is a serial litigant, I was not party to those proceedings and therefore could not have been aware there was crossover between the two. The Judge had issued a blanket ban on reporting the subject matter in this case.
The only media outlet which kept the story live was the small independent online news site Broadsheet.ie. Fundamentally the issue of parliamentary privilege was side-lined by all apart from Broadsheet. A speech, given by an elected representative on the floor of the National Parliament was being erased from the news cycle and the public record was effectively being tampered with.
Citizens who rely on mainstream media were left uniformed on a matter that had been raised in THEIR parliament. It was the ultimate disservice to citizens by the media upon which they are forced to rely. One powerful individual had effectively controlled the media by the mere threat of legal action.
Unbelievably this same individual also happened to be the largest private media owner in this country. (and still is!)
A weekend of confusion ensued when legal departments in newsrooms up and down the country refused to trust Article 15:13 of the Constitution when faced with a threat from this powerful individual.
Article 15:13 enshrines the concept pf parliamentary privilege and the reporting of any utterances made in the Oireachtas. O’Brien’s threat had challenged that concept and newsrooms had been chilled into acquiescence.
There were a few instances of people printing the speech and giving it out on the streets. Social Media was widely used to share it, at all times it remained on the Oireachtas/Parliament Website.
Broadsheet held out and on Sunday, the Sunday times ran the story and my speech in full. Others eventually followed suit but not before an entire weekend of confusion had ensued.
The reverberations of that weekend are still being felt with journalists and politicians acutely aware of how real the threat to our press freedom is and how a gagging order on the national parliament very nearly came to pass.
The following Tuesday the judge in the injunction case against RTE clarified that the injunction could not have applied to a speech made in the Dail.
The incident reinvigorated by interest in what I see as a fundamental pillar of democracy – a free and open media, capable of speaking truth to power and objectively challenging vested interests without fear or deference.
When we are faced with a situation where any powerful individual not only owns the significant majority of our print & broadcast media but also exerts such a severe chilling effect on titles not under his control then it is very clear we have a serious problem.
That is why today the Social Democrats will introduce the Media Ownership Bill 2017 into the Dáil and host a debate in Private Members Time on February 8th. The Bill sets out to retroactively apply the guideline which states that anything above a 20% shareholding in a media business may not be in the public interest.
Change is long overdue and we feel strongly that our Bill is a vital first step in bringing about change in this area.
Yesterday: Free Tomorrow?