10 December, 2014 / Editorial of The Irish Times
Need to curb further monopolisation in the interest of diversity
The belated publication by Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Alex White of a framework for the regulation of media mergers and acquisitions is welcome. The consultation he has launched is premised rightly on the fear that “the concentration of ownership of media organisations into the hands of a relatively small number of individuals or businesses represents a potential detriment to media plurality. It runs counter to the public interest that the organs of free expression should be overly influenced and potentially controlled by any one individual, group or organisation.”
For some years this paper has expressed concern at the fact that Independent News and Media and its effectively controlling shareholder Denis O’Brien through hisCommunicorp Group, dominate the media market to an unhealthy degree clearly contrary to the spirit of media pluralism – the Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, Herald, Sunday World, Star, Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Life , and 13 weekly regional newspapers all belong to INM, while Communicorp controls Newstalk, Today FM, Dublin’s 98 (formerly 98FM), Spin 1038 and Spin South West, as well as 37 other radio stations in seven other European countries.
It is right that the State should try to curb further monopolisation, and the Minister’s guidelines provide a useful and largely sensible set of criteria by which to judge both degrees of erosion of plurality and measures of “significant interest”, holdings which would allow “influence directly or indirectly, to an appreciable extent, the direction or policy of the media business”.
The proposals are rightly criticised, however, by the National Union of Journalists for “closing the door after the horse has bolted” by appearing to address only future mergers and not the reality of current over-concentration. That concern can be met by requiring that within two years of enactment of the legislation, individuals and companies controlling substantial parts of the sector be required to demonstrate how they plan to comply with the guidelines, if necessary by divestment of assets, physical and organisational separation of parts of their businesses, or by other means.
Mr White also proposes a central role for the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) in assessing mergers prior to a ministerial decision. While his Department may understandably not wish to become embroiled in the detailed assessment, the involvement of the BAI in adjudicating on print or online merger inquiries will certainly not be acceptable to either sector which are not represented on it. A role for the Press Council in this regard might be possible, although the latter might baulk at the responsibility, and the adjudication on cross-sectoral mergers would remain problematic. The Minister has performed a useful service, however, in launching the discussion, and it is to be hoped that legislation will follow soon.