Tycoons Tussle for Media Might

In July, Denis O'Brien's Communicorp added Today FM, FM 104 and Donegal based, Highland radio, to its existing stable which includes Newstalk, 98FM and Spin 103. The deal will give O'Brien dominance of national commercial radio and an even greater dominance in Dublin, where he would gain an 83.75 per cent share of the commercial market, and 46.4 per cent of the total market. That's three per cent ahead of RTE.

It's a fairly obvious observation that in a country purporting to be democratic, media diversity is crucial. It's also fairly obvious, despite being frequently denied, that media outlets tend to present a picture of the world that is favourable to the commercial and political interests of their owner. Consolidation of ownership tends to lead to less diversity of opinion and tends to give hugely disproportionate prominence to the views of those in ownership.

So, thank goodness that the deal will be examined by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI), the Competition Authority and the Minister for Enterprise. Not so fast. The BCI measures monopolies by counting the number of licenses owned without reference to listenership or market share. Despite its huge market share, Communicorp's seven stations represent only 24.25 per cent of the total number of commercial licences, a percentage that falls under the 25 per cent limit of acceptability. The Competition Authority is likely to cause O'Brien more problems. As Catherine O'Mahony pointed out in the Sunday Business Post, their focus will primarily be on advertising revenue. Their remit is to protect the interests of advertisers by ensuring that no company has such dominance that it can set artificially high advertising rates.

O'Brien's share of commercial radio in Dublin may be deemed monopolistic enough among certain advertising demographics that he will be forced to sell off a Dublin station. The only actor who has a remit to consider the public interest in the process is the Minister for Enterprise. Under section 23 of the Competition Act 2002, the minister may consider the extent to which the diversity of views prevalent in Irish society is reflected in each media sector. However, considering the government's history, ministerial approval will be the least of O'Brien's worries. Tony O'Reilly controls a greater share of the print market and while the government formally blocked him from taking a controlling stake in the Sunday Tribune, they have done nothing to prevent him from exercising de-facto control through financial dependency.

Which brings us to O'Brien's other headline acquisition: 8.35 per cent of Independent News & Media (INM) stock. Whether he intends to mount an attempt to take control of INM remains to be seen, but what is clear is that O'Brien feels that the coverage that he has received in the print media has been particularly unfair. On 13 July, O'Brien published a long article in Business and Finance magazine in which he excoriated the Moriarty tribunal and the media's coverage of his part in it. INM titles have indeed been enthusiastic in launching attacks on O'Brien. For example, on 20 June, Shane Ross devoted an article in the Independent to mocking the human stooges O'Brien sent to do battle for him at the INM AGM. Whether his contempt for these pathetic lackies was a glimpse into a soul tortured by self-loathing, or whether he just suffers from the usual media-commentator irony-bypass remains an open question.

Despite their initial loyal defence of their proprietors' interests, O'Brien's shares are already starting to have a moderating effect on the Sunday Independent's editorial line. Alan Ruddock admitted on 22 July that his presence on our share register is bound to impact on the way journalists perceive him, and it is bound to colour how they write about him. It would be nice to imagine that O'Brien might be a knight in shining armour, destined to undermine Tony O'Reilly's iron grip on Ireland's print media and usher in a new era of high standards. Unfortunately, however, O'Brien's criticisms of the media don't stretch much further than their damned cheek in not recognising his heroic status. In the face of some very tame criticism when he became resident abroad to avoid a €55 million tax bill, he complained that people are too negative towards politicians, government, and entrepreneurs. We are fast turning into a communist state. Those people who dared to suggest that it was a little, you know, greedy of him, were screaming like spoiled children. In Business and Finance, he claimed that the tribunals would be more at home in Zimbabwe.

In theory, the media is supposed to subject the powerful to scrutiny. It's not exactly encouraging when the boss considers this function to be equivalent to the crimes of totalitarian states. Finally, O'Brien's article showed that he is not one to be outdone in the irony-bypass department. In the course of his tale of persecution he turned to the money being made by lawyers at the tribunal. Getting €2,750 for turning up to work every day is nice if you can get it. Lets do the maths. If your company pays £15 million for a license, and you realise a personal profit of €316 million when you sell the company five years later, that's the equivalent of, oh, about €220,000 a day.