Media monopolies a threat to press freedom

April 8, 2016 / By Roderick Flynn, Irish Examiner

A European project looking at media pluralism has found that ownership of newspapers and broadcasting outlets is becoming concentrated in fewer hands, says Roderick Flynn

THE extent to which media constitute a pluralistic public sphere has been an issue in Ireland for some decades. Concern has focused on the concentration of media ownership but this is just one dimension of media pluralism and diversity.

The publication of a European Commission-sponsored research project represents the beginning of an attempt build up a more comprehensive picture of media pluralism in Ireland and across Europe.

The context for the report is the growing European Commission concern regarding the implications of media market liberalisation. In classic liberal theory, a competitive media market serves to guarantee pluralism, by allowing competing groups within society to express their views and influence government decision-making.

In practice, over the past two decades, the European Commission has observed a growing concentration of media ownership right across European Union. The concern is that a reduction in media ownership diversity narrows the space for diversity of opinion.

However, the the risk to the preservation of a space for the expression of critical perspectives is undermined by other factors. The Irish report uses 231 separate indicators to assess pluralism under four domains.

These include basic indicators such as freedom of expression and public access to information; social indicators of the extent to which media outlets reflect all segments of the population; the extent to which media organisations are independent from political and commercial influence and; the extent of media ownership concentration.

The level of risks to media pluralism in Ireland vary across these domains. The overall result for basic protections is considered low — but only just. The guarantee of freedom of expression in Article 40.6.i of the Constitution is countered by prohibitions on speech undermining the State, and blasphemy.

The report also concludes that the increasing precariously work environment for journalists constitutes a medium risk, militating against the kind of in-depth, investigative reporting essential to properly scrutinise public and private institutions.

The Regency Hotel shooting reminds us that journalists face threats to their physical safety and journalists interviewed for the research assert that the State has used the Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011 to subject them to surveillance.

The absence of any a priori legal mechanisms in Ireland protecting individual journalists against changes in ownership or editorial line is also a concern.

In the other political, social inclusiveness and market plurality domains, the level of risk is assessed as “medium”, although high risks are recorded for individual indicators. Some of these risks are just that — risks rather than clear and present dangers.

In the Political Independence domain, the research records a medium risk of politicisation of media outlet control, citing the absence of legal prohibitions on political party ownership of media outlets.

In practice, of course — An Phoblacht aside — there has been no direct relationship between a party and a media outlet since the closure of the Irish Press Group in 1995. State advertising is also regarded as high-risk simply because there is no public record of how the State deploys its advertising budget.

At the other end of the scale, the research records a low risk of political bias in the media. If this surprises readers who followed coverage of the recent election, it should be stressed that this indicator solely applied to broadcasting and was based on a study of legislative and regulatory codes governing impartiality.

Both the 2009 Broadcasting Act and BAI codes strongly emphasise the need for fairness and balance in representing competing political perspectives, although the absence if any official routine monitoring of airtime allocation raises questions as to how this can be policed.

Ireland does not score well on social inclusiveness. One’s geographical location is a key determinant of media access: Although RTÉ broadcasts are universally available, broadband access varies wildly depending on location, with rural areas particularly disadvantaged. ‘National’ print and broadcast media are overwhelmingly centred in Dublin (with the obvious exception of this paper).

Furthermore, although the 2009 Broadcasting Act requires all broadcasters to “bear in mind” religious, ethical and cultural diversity this imposes no absolute requirement to provide access for social and cultural minorities to the airwaves and, in practice, such programming is largely limited to community media.

However, if there is a domain approaching a clear and present danger, it is market pluralism. Media ownership is less than transparent: Establishing a complete picture means expending significant time and financial resources at the Companies Records Office.

Nor is there a definitive limit on how much of a given media market a single media outlet may control. Although the 2014 Competition and Consumer Protection Act points to the “undesirability” of allowing any single undertaking to account for more than 20% of a given media market, those limits have already been exceeded.

Denis O’Brien personally controls the single largest stake (29.9%) in Independent News and Media which, in turn, accounts for 48% of all weekly national newspaper sales in Ireland. He also owns Communicorp, the radio stations of which account for more than 20% of the total radio market in Ireland.

The position of RTÉ, which retains the single largest market share in both the Irish television and radio markets, is more complex: The research as whole assumes that Public Service Media constitutes a bulwark against the more narrowly commercial objectives of private media firms but given the extent of RTÉ’s reliance on commercial revenues, it is open to question whether such distinctions can be sustained.

The research on which these conclusions are based is not without its flaws, deriving mainly from the small-scale of the funding behind it. More resources are required to subject media to content analysis to properly understand what perspectives and voices are and are not represented. Nonetheless, the research suggests there are significant issues to be addressed if we are to create something approaching a healthy public sphere.

Some of the solutions require new legislation and regulation; some mean investing significant financial resources into our media institutions.

Both will tal significant political will: Retrospective intervention in media ownership, for example, is routinely dismissed as impossible because of the constitution. But suggesting that the protection of property right supervenes all other constitutional rights — such as freedom of expression — is an ideological assertion, not a legal fact.

If we are truly interested in a functioning democracy, capable of reflecting the perspectives of all citizens, we need to ask whether we can afford to leave the functioning of the public sphere to a media market experiencing an ongoing crisis.

Roderick Flynn is a lecturer at the school of communications, Dublin City University. He is the author of the Irish report for on the EU-funded Media Pluralism Monitor.

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