Ireland’s media ownership concentration breeds pessimism

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”95135″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]There’s considerable disagreement about how to tackle Ireland’s lack of plurality of media ownership. At the same time, there’s a growing pessimism that anything will change in the short term.

“There is no doubt we have a high concentration of media ownership in Ireland…that 45 to 50 percent of weekly newspapers – daily titles, plus weekends – are owned by one media organisation is unusual by any standards. Few other democracies exhibit this degree of concentration,”  Dr Roderick Flynn, who focuses on media plurality at Dublin City University told Mapping Media Freedom.

Broadcasting in Ireland is dominated by the semi-state body, RTE. Its radio station, RTE Radio One, holds a clear majority of the most-listened-to shows. Its main TV station, RTE One, is equally dominant. The station also has a very significant presence online, and in addition, owns the Irish language station TG4. RTE received a license fee worth €178.9 million in 2015 but, significantly, the company also competes for advertising on all of its media platforms. However, it posted a €20 million loss last year.

In the commercial sector, the businessman Denis O’Brien plays a very significant role in the broadcasting and publishing landscape. He wholly owns Ireland’s largest commercial news radio stations – Newstalk and Today FM – through his Communicorp group. In addition, the company owns music radio stations such as Spin FM. O’Brien is also the largest shareholder in the Independent News and Media group. INM has full ownership of titles such as the Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, Herald, and Sunday World as well as holding a 50% stake in the Irish Daily Star. It also owns regional newspapers such as The Kerryman and The Sligo Champion. O’Brien’s stake in INM stands at 29.9%.

The National Union of Journalists has campaigned for decades for successive governments to legislate to ensure that media ownership in the country does not remain overly concentrated. However, the NUJ has little optimism that things are about to change. Acting general secretary Seamus Dooley summed-up the mood when he told MMF: “Irish politicians have shown cowardice in tackling issues of media ownership, so we would not be confident of reform in this area.”

This situation has had an impact on Ireland’s reputation. A 2017 report from Reporters Without Borders described media ownership in Ireland as “highly concentrated” and asserted that this posed “a major threat to press freedom.” Ireland has fallen from 9th to 14th place in the RWB standings.

A prominent member of the Irish parliament, Catherine Murphy, who is the co-founder of the Social Democrats party, told MMF: “I think the risks are considerable. The media needs to provide the public with a critical analysis on the major issues. When media ownership is concentrated in too few hands, then there is a danger of ‘group-think’ emerging. A practical example would have been the media coverage in advance of Ireland’s property crash.”

Earlier this year, Murphy introduced a private members bill on media ownership, however it was opposed by the coalition government. She is reserving her judgement on indications by the communications minister, Denis Naughten, that the issue will be tackled.

“I think there were some commitments given, and fine words too, but I would want to see the heads of a bill, or a memo going to cabinet, before I would take those commitments and words seriously. There is a laissez-faire approach often adopted by government. I’m afraid that it could all be lip-service”, Murphy said.

During the debate in parliament, Naughten, said: “I believe a strong and pluralistic media is at the heart of a free and open democracy.” However, he then said that the government would be opposing Murphy’s bill, partly on the basis that he believed that “… the current regime to assess media mergers is working well.”

Naughten also asserted that he was precluded by legislation from taking retrospective action because parliament “… has not provided for powers to retrospectively examine, review or intervene in past media mergers.” He argued that this could raise “significant constitutional issues”  because it would be required to be balanced with the right to private property.

Ireland’s capacity to examine media mergers was due to be tested this year when Independent News and Media proposed acquiring Celtic Media – a move which would have increased the number of INM’s regional newspaper titles from 13 to 20. Under cross-media ownership regulations, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) was charged with conducting a review, after which the minister for communications would take a decision. However, the €4 million deal was called-off at the last minute – something welcomed by the NUJ which argued that such a merger would have “further undermined media diversity in Ireland.”

Dooley said that the government needs to take a holistic approach, given the plethora of problems facing Irish media – including the flight of advertising to online: “The NUJ has called for a commission on the future of the media in Ireland. This would look at the future of print, broadcasting and digital media. The issue of ownership would form part of the terms of reference. Yes – the industry faces challenges. And the impact of Facebook and Google cannot be understated.”  

Other players in the Irish print media include The Irish Times, which is owned and controlled by a trust. Landmark Media controls another national newspaper, The Irish Examiner, as well as a number of regional titles and local radio stations. Landmark is owned by the Crosbie family. The news media giant, News Corp, owns the Irish edition of the Sunday Times, The Irish Sun, and the print-online The Times of Ireland. News Corp also owns several regional radio stations. The Irish Daily Mail is a division of the UK parent company.

The newest broadcasting entrant to the Irish market is the communications giant Liberty Global, which purchased the independent television network TV3. Subsequently, Liberty absorbed the ill-fated station, UTV Ireland, and its financial power has seen TV3 outbid RTE for sports rights.

Given the current situation, the NUJ is very concerned about the capacity of the public to access quality journalism on the major issues of the day. Seamus Dooley told MMF: “Owners seldom directly intervene to influence content. But corporate policies shape news, content and help influence views. So if the emphasis is on maximising profit, at the expense of editorial investment, then that has a significant impact.”

Flynn of DCU has conducted considerable research into this issue. In 2016, he wrote the report Media Pluralism Monitor Ireland and presented the data at a conference in Dublin in 2017 organised by the European Centre for Peace and Media Freedom.  He told MMF: “A point that goes slightly under the radar is that as well as owning the two biggest independent radio stations in the country – Newstalk and Today FM – Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp group also owns the Dublin stations 98FM and Spin 103.8. While RTE still accounts for 43% of the County Dublin market as a whole, this drops to 11.2% amongst the 15-24 year olds. By contrast, JNLR listenership figures released in July 2017 suggest that Communicorp-owned stations accounted for more than 52% of the market share in Dublin.”

According to Flynn, the problem is not limited to Dublin. “Newstalk’s so-called ‘rip-and-read’ news service is now used for national and international news bulletins by all regional radio stations in Ireland. That’s another example of the concentration of media ownership here,” he said.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1517486798990-b483150f-f681-9″ taxonomies=”6564″][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

Mapping Media Freedom

Click on the bubbles to view reports or double-click to zoom in on specific regions. The full site can be accessed at[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Padraig Reidy: Why use the “offended” line? Because it works

(Image: Ksenia Ragozina/Shutterstock)

(Image: Ksenia Ragozina/Shutterstock)

World Cup time! Hurray! An entire month of football! Rejoice as the pubs stay open late for weirdly timed matches! Gasp at your workmates’ expertise on Iran’s deployment of a false 9! Repeatedly smash yourself in the face with your iPad as you read yet another article by a broadsheet columnist complaining that people don’t pay as much attention to literary fiction as they do to sport!

While the competition officially kicks off tonight, the Brazilians, or, specifically, the archdiocese of Rio have dived in with an early tackle, reportedly threatening to sue Italian broadcaster RAI for an advert showing Rio’s famous Christ The Redeemer statue wearing the Jersey of Italy’s Azzurri.

Suing for what, exactly, is not clear. The church’s lawyer, Rodrigo Grazioli, has been quoted as saying “The Archdiocese is deeply offended. It’s as if Brazilian TV were to make a commercial in which mulatto girls engaged in lewd behaviour with the gladiators of the Colosseum.”

Leaving aside the bizarrely specific and racist mention of “mulatto girls”, and the fact that people involved with churches have to make absolutely everything, ever, about “lewd behaviour”, it’s still not clear what the exact complaint is. Is it the suggestion that the colossal statue might support Italy? That Jesus himself might support Italy? Is this about putting any jersey at all on Jesus, or specifically an Italian one? Is there something specifically blasphemous about suggesting that the Son of God is a catenaccio man?

Or is it something rather more prosaic, such as, say, the church claiming to hold copyright over the image of the statue?

If it is that, as the original O Globo newspaper report suggests, then Grazioli and his clients are being more than a little disingenuous in their outrage. If the issue is simply an objection to commercial usage of the image, than that’s what the complaint should be about.

So why the offended line? Why the suggestion of an insult to religion? Because, put simply, it works. Who wants to be offensive?

In Ireland this week, national broadcaster RTE refused to show a sketch as part of the Savage Eye sketch show. The sketch, now leaked on the web features a group of “wild nuns” ogling a muscular Jesus, in a spoof of Diet Coke ads of old. Comic David McSavage, the man responsible for the skit, has said the broadcaster is afraid of Ireland’s blasphemy laws; RTE says its own guidelines will not allow for “undue offence”.

I’m not even sure that, even if one was a supporter of laws against blasphemy, images of hunky Jesus, or Azzurri Jesus would necessarily count as blasphemous, at least not for Catholics.

On a panel on religious art a few years ago, I found myself simultaneously playing the role of token secularist and token Roman Catholic. The other panelists – art critics and Anglicans – were quite keen on abstraction in religious art. I found myself defending the more visceral, more Roman depictions of Jesus and God on the basis that the entire point of Jesus was his manifestation as human.

To ascribe certain human possibilities to him, such as lust, or even supporting a particular sports team, should not be considered transgressive; indeed I recall, in my youth, our parish priest would often offer up prayers for the local Gaelic football club, suggesting at least the possibility of partisanship. And the very fact that nuns are “brides of Christ” is suggestive of, well…

Catholicism doesn’t really have a problem with idolatry either. Catholics complaining about depictions of Christ do not have the same theological basis as Orthodox Sunni Muslims, who at least can point to some rules on portrayals (which is not to suggest that everyone should follow those rules). Catholics, with our brightly painted statues, sacred medals and all the rest, don’t really have a leg to stand on this one.

These squeals of “offence” are really demands for “respect”, in the Corleone sense. And since the Danish Muhammad cartoons, religions have been in a respect-based arms war. Every time you hear a conservative Christian moan that this or that comic or writer “wouldn’t say that about the Muslims”, remember, they are not praising their own faith’s humility, but condemning its timidity. The archdiocese of Rio is playing a version of this game with its claim to be offended by a Photoshopped football jersey. There’s no reason we should play along.

This article was published on June 12, 2014 at

Ireland’s RTE under fire for apology to Iona Institute

Rory O'Neill's alter ego Panti

Rory O’Neill’s alter ego Panti

Irish state-run television broadcaster RTE has come under heavy criticism after offering a full apology and possible financial compensation to the Iona Institute, a conservative Catholic lobby groups declared “homophobic” by a talk show guest.

The decision appears to have been reached under pressure from Irish Broadcasting Authority board member John Waters, who was also declared homophobic during the same segment. The allegations follow RTE’s decision to remove  the remarks, made by Rory O’Neill who performs as one of Ireland’s most acclaimed drag queens under the name Miss Panti, and extensive popular debate about the treatment of Ireland’s conservative lobby groups in mainstream media.

On RTE’s The Saturday Night Show, O’Neill declared a number of prominent Conservative advocates, specifically Breda O’Brien, John Waters, and “The Iona Institute crowd” homophobic. RTE removed the segment from its online player the following day, citing legal concerns as well as the recent murder of Iona Institute researcher Tom O’Gorman as a matter of “sensitivity”‘ although later admitting O’Gorman was not relevant to the program content. On January 25th, the show’s host Brendan O’Connor formally apologised for the distress caused to John Waters and other columnists. The Iona Institute has thanked RTE for the apology, which it called “an extremely valuable contribution to a calm and reasonable debate” and explained that RTE had also agreed to pay damages to the injured parties. When asked about the claim that damages would be paid over O’Neill’s comments, an RTE television spokesperson declined to comment. Neither side would confirm the identity of the claimants.

RTE’s sudden condemnation of the remarks has been linked to legal action pursued by John Waters, a conservative Catholic commentator and journalist, and board member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland . The Irish Independent cite anonymous sources confirming that legal representatives of Waters sent a legal letter to the broadcaster seeking the removal of the interview on the popular Saturday Night Show. It has since been restored to the website, though the offending portions of O’Neill’s interview have been edited out. Waters resigned from his position with the Irish Broadcasting Authority on January 23rd, after the letters had been drafted and sent. His decision to legally challenge RTE has been broadly criticized as an abuse of office. As solicitor Simon McGarr explains, this “was not merely a letter from an aggrieved citizen to a broadcaster. It was also a letter from one of that Broadcaster’s regulators seeking to have that broadcaster censor a citizen, who was both contributing to a matter of public debate and engaging in a defence of a minority of which he is a member, bona fide and without malice”. Waters has declined all requests for media comment.

Since his appearance on The Saturday Night Show, O’Neill has confirmed receiving personal legal correspondence from Breda O’Brien, David Quinn, Patricia Casey, and John Murray, all patrons of the Iona Institute. In a statement released on its blog, the Iona Institute defended the measure, explaining: “The problem is that merely believing that marriage is the sexual union of a man and a woman, and that children deserve the love of both a mother and a father whenever possible is automatically deemed to be ‘homophobic’ by those wishing to close down this debate.” This defamation, they claim, is harmful to political discussion.

Any private claims of defamation, explains barrister Brian Barrington, are unlikely to hold up in court, explaining: “Mr O’Neill’s comments arise in a context where the Iona Institute is well known in Ireland for its opposition to affording equal marriage rights to gays and lesbians and also for its opposition to same-sex parenting. It seeks to maintain the current discrimination whereby same-sex couples are prohibited from marrying whereas opposite sex couples are free to do so. In these circumstances, it is clear that Mr O’Neill was entirely entitled to express his honestly held opinion, which was based on facts that were reasonably known to the public.” Criticism of RTE for reacting to such a baseless legal case is well founded. “‘It is astonishing that RTE, a national broadcaster, should apologise for what Mr O’Neill has stated, censor his interview on the internet and award public money to those in the Iona Institute who have sought to prevent a free debate on equal marriage by preventing gay rights campaigners from uttering in future that opposition to same sex marriage is homophobic,” he explains.

Irish media have come under fire for a number of complaints of homophobia in recent weeks, including a discussion on RTE radio program The God Slot that discussed “curing” homosexuality and a Midwest Radio presenter’s decision to read a text on air that suggested children of gay couples could develop Aids. Ireland will legislate on a number of key gay rights issues in the coming years, including full legal recognition of gay adoptive parents, and a constitutional referendum on the legalisation of gay marriage is scheduled for 2015. The imminent debate has many calling for a “homophobia watchdog” to monitor public statements.

Una Mullally, a columnist for the Irish Times, explains: “‘Free speech’ is not a free pass to inflict psychological trauma just because you don’t want lesbians or gay people to get married. Opponents of marriage equality are not the victims in this debate.”

This article was posted on 30 January 2014 at

Ireland: Legal threats from Catholic commentators put drag artist Panti in a twist

Rory O'Neill's alter ego Panti

Rory O’Neill’s alter ego Panti

Is it possible to be opposed to gay rights without being homophobic? Is belief in a “cure” for homosexuality proof of prejudice against gay people?

On the other hand, is it libelous to call a Catholic commentator “homophobic”?

Ireland has been dealing with these questions for the past week.

On Saturday, Rory O’Neill, a well-known drag artist who has performed for many years under the name Panti, appeared on RTE’s The Saturday Night Show.

O’Neill made some interesting points at the progress gay people have made in Ireland, suggesting that because of the country’s small population, societal change can happen much more rapidly. He told chat show host Brendan O’Connor:

So much has changed. And I think em a small country like Ireland sometimes we get a bad rap because people think “oh small conservative country blah blah blah”. But actually I think a small country like Ireland changes much faster than a big country because absolutely…I’m..think about it every single person in this audience has a cousin or a neighbour or the guy that you work with who is a flaming queen. I mean you all know one. And it’s very hard to hold prejudices against people when you actually know those people. And Ireland because it’s such small communities grouped together, everybody knows the local gay and you know maybe twenty years ago it was okay to be really mean about him but nowadays it’s just not okay to be really mean about him. The only place that you see it’s okay to be really horrible and mean about gays is you know on the internet in the comments and you know people who make a living writing opinion pieces for newspapers.”

When pressed on whether he meant anyone specific, O’Neill named Irish Times columnists John Waters and Breda O’Brien, and also the Iona Institute, a conservative Catholic think tank whose founder, David Quinn, makes regular appearances in print and broadcast media (though O’Neill did not mention Quinn in person).

O’Neill went on to suggest that while these people may not actually describe themselves, or see themselves, as homophobic, their position on gay marriage, for example, was essentially homophobic:

What it boils down to is if you’re going to argue that gay people need to be treated in any way differently than everybody else or should be in anyway less, or their relationships should be in anyway less then I’m sorry, yes you are a homophobe and the good thing to do is to sit, step back, recognise that you have some homophobic tendencies and work on that.”

Robust, perhaps, but not an unheard of position, and one that the likes of Quinn, O’Brien and Waters could have responded to in their respective columns.

That’s not quite what has happened.

On Saturday night, the same night O’Neill was on TV denouncing the Iona Institute, a researcher for the organisation, Tom O’Gorman, was brutally killed in his home in Dublin, apparently after an argument over a chess game.

On Wednesday, news site reported that the national broadcaster had removed the edition of The Saturday Night Show from its RTE player website, edited out references to the various columnists and the Iona Institute, and uploaded the show again. RTE confirmed to the Journal that:

Last weekend’s The Saturday Night Show was removed from the Player due to potential legal issues and for reasons of sensitivity following the death of Tom O’Gorman as would be standard practice in such situations.”

The sensitivity question is an interesting one: While anyone would feel sympathy towards the members of the Iona Institute following the loss of their colleague, the slain O’Gorman himself was not named by O’Neill, and the fact of a brutal murder does not put the Institute’s views beyond debate.

So what were the “legal issues”? Could they be related to the murder investigation? Hard to see how.

Yesterday,, another news site, published a transcript of the deleted scenes, along with correspondence in which the national broadcaster warned them “You are hereby put on notice that the publication and continued publication of this interview and any transcripts thereof may be defamatory.”

“Concerns” had apparently been raised about the interview, though RTE did not say by whom.

Meanwhile, O’Neill tweeted that he had started receiving legal letters – again, he did not say from whom, except that some were expected and some were not.


The Irish Independent reported, however, that Waters lawyers had been in touch with RTE, and that O’Brien was seeking advice. The Iona Institute refused to comment.*

Just as that case moved into another stage, The God Slot, RTE radio’s flagship religion programme managed to start a whole new row over how Ireland talks about gay people. The show’s twitter account, trailing the contents of the Friday evening episode, tweeted: “Can gays be cured of being gay? Try The God Slot Fri 17/01”.

The crass wording led to an avalanche of criticism, which the poor soul running the account did not handle very well at all. In fact, they ended up saying critics who objected to the implication that gay people could be “cured” were, in fact, engaging in “fascism masquerading as liberalism” Both tweets have since been deleted, and RTE has attempted to explain that the item on the show is actually dedicated to refuting claims for “gay cures”. But the defensiveness with which the show initially handled criticism suggests that the RTE employee handling the account did not understand what people would perceive as wrong with the post.

The irony is that LGBT rights have made enormous progress in Ireland since homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993. People such as Panti were at the forefront of making gay people visible back then. These days, even sports stars such as hurler Donal Og Cusack can talk about their sexuality and get widespread support. Civil partnership is available for gay people, and there is a strong push for gay marriage.

There remains, though, a rump of conservative Catholicism which is moving from a point of authority to a point where it sees itself as victimised by a progressive, metropolitan elite. Hence the reported legal action against Panti. If the Catholic right was more confident in its arguments, it wouldn’t attempt to censor the other side. As commentator Gavan Titley put it: “Top tip: when you start losing the culture war you long hankered after, sue.”

*UPDATE: Panti has posted the following on Facebook regarding legal letters: “There has been a lot of speculation so for the sake of clarity: I have not received any correspondence, legal or otherwise, from John Waters. I have received four solicitors letters on behalf of Breda O’Brien, David Quinn, Patricia Casey, and John Murray, all of whom are associated with the Iona Institute. If you are going to comment, please be careful and measured!”

HT Niamh Puirseil on Twitter