Is this government committed to media diversity?
Why has Pat Rabbitte failed to act on the issue of concentration of media ownership? By Vincent Browne.
Last year, the businessman Denis O'Brien addressed the proper role of the owner/controller of a media enterprise, saying that the owner/controller should act "at an appropriate distance from editorial matters" and should be aware of "the responsibility that rests with media owners not to interfere with editorial content”.
On Friday 11 January, the Irish Times published an interview with James Osborne, the former chairman of Independent News & Media (INM), which O'Brien now controls. Osborne is quoted as saying that, on 14 April last year, a Saturday, O'Brien phoned him and demanded that an article about him be withdrawn from the following day's Sunday Independent.
Osborne said he responded: "No, that's not what I'm going to do." And he did not do that. He recalled in the interview that the article turned out to be "pretty innocuous". It was about the biggest borrowers with Anglo Irish Bank, O'Brien being among them.
Osborne was removed as chairman of INM six months later. Is it reasonable to suppose that among the factors which influenced O'Brien to vote for his removal was Osborne's refusal to help him breach the appropriate distance from editorial that media owners ought to respect?
This followed the effort made by O'Brien's representatives to have journalist Sam Smyth removed as one of the INM reporters covering issues to do with him at the Moriarty Tribunal, or to have another reporter working with him at the tribunal.
On 29 October 2010, Leslie Buckley, who was then a director on the INM board and is now chairman of INM in succession to the ousted Osborne, contacted Gavin O'Reilly, the then chief executive of INM, to say that Buckley had had a conversation with O'Brien, who was "very upset with Sam Smyth". O'Brien alleged Smyth was conducting "almost a vendetta" against him, and he wanted to know whether Smyth could be taken off the Moriarty Tribunal story.
A week later, Gavin O'Reilly had a transcript compiled of a phone message left by Leslie Buckley: "Hi Gavin, Leslie here. Got your text message. Really what we are talking about, is there somebody who can be down there [at the tribunal]. I know there are other reporters, really kind of writing pretty positive situations. There was one good story last week carried - I can't remember who - but, by and large, it's generally negative stuff. Someone with our friend down there I think really trying to ensure that a good balanced story comes out. That would be much appreciated. Give me a bell as I'd like to try to resolve this."
Neither O'Brien nor Buckley has challenged the authenticity of these memos and communications since they became publicly available.
How does such conduct measure up to what O'Brien claims is the proper role of the owner/controller of a media enterprise to act "at an appropriate distance from editorial matters", and to be aware of "the responsibility that rests with media owners not to interfere with editorial content"?
Sam Smyth left INM last September. Several months previously, he had been let go from his role as presenter of a Sunday morning radio programme on a station controlled by O'Brien.
Today FM said that his departure was linked to falling listenership to his show, but this has been challenged by Smyth.
Smyth broke some of the biggest scandals in our society. For instance, it was he who broke the story of the undeclared (for tax and other purposes) subventions given to Michael Lowry by Dunnes Stores. He added much-needed credibility to the Irish Independent over the years.
But he was on contract, rather than being a staff journalist, and his contract was not renewed. For several months before he left, few articles with his byline appeared.
And what about the issue of media diversity? The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, the body with responsibility for the broadcast media, has also played dead in relation to the concentrating of media ownership. Six months ago, it justified this on the grounds that O'Brien did not control INM. Now, with his nominee as chairman, can there be any doubt?
And why has Pat Rabbitte, who pirouetted around this issue some time ago - indicating he was going to deal with the issue of the concentration of media ownership - failed to act?
Has he simply been wrestling with his conscience all this time?