Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Undue Control of Media in Ireland

Denis O'Brien (left) and Alex White: What are
the Media Mergers Guidelines really all about?
Communications Minister Alex White has published the department's 'Media Mergers Guidelines' an initiated a consultation therein.  Much public attention has shifted to Mr Denis O'Brien, whose empire has recently extended to include the top two non-RTE national radio stations as well as a significant (though according to the courts non-controlling) stake in Independent News and Media.  It has been suggested that perhaps Mr O'Brien's acquisition of Today FM in particular would not have passed a new 'undue control' test that the department proposes to introduce. Whatever the wrongs and the rights of it, it remains unlikely that the BAI would ever seek retrospective enforcement, and force a breakup of the O'Brien empire; for one thing, such a process would outlast any Chairman so brazen as to initiate it, so one is bound to wonder what the point would be.

The test, of course, does not apply to the State.  The extent to which the State herself controls media should not be questioned, it seems; in any case, were the test to be applied to the State, and its control of television, radio and Internet content, it would fail most dramatically.  One has to ask the question why? Why should these principles not apply to the State? Is it because the State is - by default - right in its assertions, to be presumed as our leading light? Or is it because our government institutions - in this case the BAI are fundamentally and unapologetically Statist?

Commercially, the market is a basket case. The TV License still predominantly goes to RTE, which also controls the preponderance of ad euros in the market on all three major media - tv, radio and internet.  The ability of third parties to compete is severely limited, resulting - for example - in a dearth of investigative journalism, and an abundance of salacious, strictly come dancing type and largely imported, ad-laden programming to masquerade for third party media competition.  There is no functioning media market in Ireland.

Culturally, the position is even worse.  Without the endorsement of the national broadcaster, cultural development has almost no chance of success.  Theatre productions, musical development, writers, all require the RTE platform to succeed.  The state is almost as much a gate to cultural expression in this country, in effect, as it is in China.

Politically, the persistent relationship between the political parties and the major RTE journalists is nauseating. The PR industry - ex-RTE execs; the political consultants - ex-RTE execs, and the broad cosy consensus that barely permits back-benchers an occasional appearance on Vincent Browne stifles public debate and significantly contributes to the persistent lack of political reform in Ireland.

The undue control that RTE continues to exert over the affairs of the country - its overbearing dominance of the media 'market', it's veto on cultural development, and its symbiosis with the political elite - prevents the country from moving forward.  The test?  The test fails because it seeks to emasculate any attempt to stand up a substantial opposition in media, any critical mass of alternate opinion. The test fails because the arbiter is not independent. The test fails because it does not recognise the real problem in Irish media.

Until RTE is broken up, and its power is genuinely distributed to the market, the BAI is merely a fig leaf of bureaucracy, a paper tiger pretending to advance the interests of the people, while all the time defending the preeminent position of those who empower it - the State.

Which brings us back to the test. Why do we wish to not have one person -  or group of people - having undue control over media in Ireland?  The only reason the guidelines offer (section 5.10) is that the 'BAI has a statutory remit to protect media plurality in broadcasting'.  If that were really the case, then the BAI should make the case to break up RTE.  Otherwise, it's failing in its statutory remit. 

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