By Patrick Brogan
In a speech Hillary Clinton made to the World Federalist Association, the then US First Lady said; “For more than a generation in America, it wasn’t the news until Walter Cronkite said it was the news.” This idea of one person telling society what is news and what isn’t should be deeply troubling, even if this person is a beloved public figure. However, even “the most trusted man in America” wasn’t infallible as this Newsweek article points out.
Whether people like to believe it or not, the media has a massive influence over the society it operates in. For this reason, it is known as the “fourth estate”. The other three refer to political classes and according to the Open School of Journalism, the ” press is called the fourth estate in the United States usually because they observe the political process. They do this to make sure the participants do not exploit the democratic system. They play a crucial role in the outcome of political issues and candidates.” Although we have made references exclusively to the United States, these issues are important all over the world. Not least, on our little rain-soaked island.
Regular visitors to this site and the listeners of our podcast will be familiar with our attitude towards Mr Denis O’Brien, and it isn’t always a positive one. Actually, it never is. Rather than clogging up this article with links from the Navigator, just type his name into “search” on this site. Now, before we get into some of the personal traits that we find troubling here, let’s look at what he owns. The non-media business interests are just as important as the media. For why? I’ll get into that in a little bit.
O’Brien is involved in a pretty diverse range of businesses. He started off in aviation, under the guidance of Ryanair founder, Tony Ryan. He then moved into radio, which he still has interests in and then telecommunications, again, he is still a major player in this industry. Then we have his interests in Millington, owner of Actavo — formerly Siteserv–, the company that provides building services like satellite installation and scaffolding. Demirica Limited; which sells electronic products online.
He also previously held Topaz in his portfolio, of which former Taoiseach Brian Cowen was a board member. In December 2015, it was announced that Canadian firm Couche-Tard was buying O’Brien’s shares for around €400 million. It is another one of his fossil fuel investments that causes concern, also. O’Brien owns 7.16% of Sterling Energy. This company is involved in mining in Cameroon, Madagascar, Mauritania and Somaliland. War on Want published a report on the mining and drilling industries in Africa and the impact it has on society there. The publication, titled The New Colonialism, names Sterling Energy as a part of a group of companies exploiting Africa and whose conclusion was;
The scale of the UK’s involvement in the
exploitation of Africa’s minerals, oil and gas
resources is staggering. The number of
companies involved, the resource wealth they
control and the profits they syphon away are
astonishing. This leaves African countries
losing tens of billions every year, higher than
some countries’ gdp. Whilst Africa is stripped
bare of its resources and of its revenues,
leaving it poorer still, it still remains one of the
main beneficiaries of British aid.
This might look like a bit of a side track, but it is important to highlight how a company O’Brien is involved in makes profits at the expense of others.
There is no doubt O’Brien is a big beast in Irish media circles. Irish radio is listened to by over 80% of the population, about 3 million people. And O’Brien’s Communicorp runs some of Ireland’s most listened to stations. Today FM, 98 FM, Newstalk and Spin are all under this umbrella. Their numbers are below that of RTÉ‘s flagship programmes, and despite controversies involving George Hook and Al Porter leading to a reduction in its listenership, it is still nothing to be sneezed at. Pat Kenny’s show on Newstalk has over 300,000 people tuned in according to the latest figures while Sean Moncrief and Ivan Yates receive an audience of 82,000 and 139,000 on the same station. The influence Newstalk has on public political discourse is evident, even if it is still a bit behind RTÉ in that regard.
Then we must consider the print media. As the largest shareholder in Independent News and Media, his influence on the Irish tabloid scene is enormous. His dailys are read by close to 200,000 people here and the Sunday papers have huge readership with Sunday Independent and The Sunday World alone coming close to the 300k mark.
This level of influence would ordinarily be worrying, but with somebody with O’Brien’s track record, it is downright horrifying.
There are too many cases where O’Brien’s greed has had a negative impact on society. The most egregious of these is the Moriarty Tribunal. Ireland, since its birth, was awash with corruption and politicians like Charles Haughey, Michael Lowry, Bertie Ahern and Ray Burke all took full advantage of this. So too did businessmen like Ben Dunne, and Denis O’Brien got his first big break in this murky world of elitist subterfuge.
Back in 1996, when mobile phones were all the rage, the Irish Government decided to award a second mobile phone network license and opened it up to tender. In this case, the private company that won was Esat Digifone, a company with shares divided amongst O’Brien’s Communicorp and Telenor AB. Questions were asked as to how the worst bid on paper ended up with the license.
This led to the mobile phone license case being included in the Moriarty Tribunal. The findings were not pretty. Mr Justice Michael Moriarty concluded Lowry had given key information to O’Brien and that O’Brien had made payments to Lowry for undue influence in the decision. Lowry made the final decision by himself and O’Brien had bribed him to make sure it went his way. Truly disgraceful. While it may look like O’Brien got away with daylight robbery, the findings never fully go away and even the Criminal Assets Bureau were investigating this matter as recently as two years ago.
The Sacking of Democracy
I don’t think the sub-heading is too dramatic as this is exactly what O’Brien tried to do when he took the Dáil to court over the use of parliamentary privilege by two sitting TDs. Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats used Dáil privilege to highlight Denis O’Brien’s ridiculously favourable loans with the IBRC and Sinn Féin‘s Pearse Doherty raised a similar issue. O’Brien ended up bringing the Clerk of the Dáil to court over the TDs statements, thereby silencing the Irish parliament and effectively suing the State and he also brought out an injunction against the state broadcaster RTÉ, and a raft of others covering the story, thereby silencing the media. He eventually lost the case, but it set a very dangerous precedent.
The war on the media continues, even within his own company. #INM19 was trending on Twitter although the Irish mainstream media was suspiciously quiet on the matter. Allegations surfaced that INM journalists were targeted by Leslie Buckley on behalf of O’Brien. Their emails may have been hacked and their sources revealed as a result. Even within his own company, O’Brien is destroying journalism. The Phoenix does an excellent job giving some of the background to this story and it centres around O’Brien’s rivalry with former owners the O’Reilly family.
The media O’Brien is in control of appears to be going out of its way to destroy journalism in this country. Newstalk banned The Irish Times journalists from its programmes after one their journalists, Fintan O’Toole, criticised George Hook after comments he made about rape and O’Toole referred to Newstalk as a sexist organisation.
Gemma O’Doherty won an unfair dismissal case against her former employers Irish Independent. Gemma was covering the penalty points scandal when she doorstepped the then Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan. Her story was spiked and was later given redundancy and she believed this went back to the penalty points story. As we later found out, her editor at the time, Stephen Rae, is alleged to be one of the people who had penalty points wiped. Although it would be unfair to say that O’Brien was directly involved in this, he has helped create this toxic culture in which the press protects the elite rather than investigating them.
And as other media publications cover the numerous incidents of O’Brien’s nefarious activity, they aren’t covered in his own papers or radio stations. An example of this is an article from Edel Kennedy in the Indo. Quality, explosive journalism. Pay attention to how the scandal from the Moriarty Tribunal barely gets a mention. And this is the key. O’Brien has the money and control to throw a blanket over any unfavourable news stories breaking. His paying off of politicians, his involvement with Irish Water and his dealing with the Clintons hardly get a mention in this country because he owns one-half of the media and will sue the other if his name is mentioned. It would be impressive were it not so corrosive to Irish society.
Not Gone Unnoticed
There are plenty of detractors.The international media monitor, Reporters Sans Frontiéres, report on the state of media freedom ranked Ireland as 14th on its index and stated; “The highly concentrated nature of media ownership in Ireland poses a major threat to press freedom. Independent News and Media (INM) controls 40% of the daily and Sunday newspaper market. The 1937 constitution guarantees media freedom but defamation lawsuits are common.” A nod to O’Brien without explicitly saying so. Ireland has continually slipped down this index over the years.
Lynn Boylan MEP conducted an independent report on behalf of European United Left/Nordic Green Left. The conclusion was;
“We conclude that there are extremely grave concerns about the high concentration of
media ownership in the Irish market, and in particular regarding the position of INM
and Mr. Denis O’Brien. Accumulation of communicative power within the news
markets is at endemic levels and so Ireland has one of the most concentrated media
markets of any democracy. This feature – alarming in itself – must be viewed
alongside the other gravely concerning aspects of the Irish media landscape which
we have highlighted: sustained and regular threats of legal action by Mr. O’Brien to
media organisations and journalists who are engaged in newsgathering or reporting
about his activities, and the ‘chilling effect’ of the current defamation laws. This is
a toxic combination for freedom of expression and media plurality.”
We covered this at the time on our podcast, which you can listen to here and we asked Lynn Boylan for a statement and this is what she said; “The Media industry is an industry unlike any other. It is considered by many to be the fourth pillar of democracy, therefore for any democracy to be healthy there must be an open and diverse media. A media that holds the powerful to account, a media that seeks the truth and ensures the public’s access to that truth.
“The combination of outdated defamation laws in Ireland, Mr O’Briens many business interests and the fact that he is a serial litigator has had a chilling effect on news coverage in Ireland.”
There are numerous other European and international organisations that feel that the concentration of media ownership is at dangerous levels. It also must be mentioned that the Irish news wires are controlled by O’Brien or RTÉ, so even if neither control certain independent outlets, they are supplying them with news, further consolidating the problem. In Ireland, it’s not the news unless DO’B says it’s the news.
The consequences of a subservient media are very clear and there are many examples to fall back on to illustrate its detrimental effect on the world, whether it was William Randolf Hearst banging the drum to lead the US into war with Spain, the lies told about Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction or in the present day when outlets blindly follow the narrative of Russia hacking the US election without asking for any evidence.
In Ireland, we have massive issues regarding the health service, homelessness, housing and many other social issues and this leads directly back to the media as these issues are not covered without offering a solution because that would impact on the rich, the media tycoons. And the Government are complicit in all of this. After those reports we mentioned were published, Communications Minister Denis Naughten claimed there was no issue with media ownership in Ireland. Given O’Brien’s previous relationship with politicians in this country, it is only logical to be deeply suspicious as to why they back O’Brien when all the evidence suggests that Irish media ownership is already at dangerous levels.
If you want news, don’t pick O’Brien’s papers as they are spin pieces. There are many sites online that provide news and some of these are even willing to criticise O’Brien. Ireland’s defamation laws are described as outdated and these need to be changed, but with the current Government, I doubt there is the political will to do so.
It is upon the people of the country to demand change. While the cynics out there will say nothing ever changes I would point to the Government taking a step back over Irish Water, the same-sex marriage referendum and the current Repeal the 8th movement to suggest change is not only possible but is the reality. If we can change media ownership in this country it will broaden debate and lead to a broadening of the mind and surely this is the cornerstone of a democratic society?
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Cover pic taken from WikiCommons courtesy of ITU Pictures