Concentration of Ireland's media ownership 'high risk' - unpublished report for EU

Wednesday 09 March 2016 08.08
The report is examining media plurality in Ireland for the first time, alongside 18 other EU states
The report is examining media plurality in Ireland for the first time, alongside 18 other EU states

Ireland is exposed to a "high risk" over its concentration of media ownership, according to the findings of an unpublished report for the EU Commission, details of which have been seen by RTÉ's This Week.

The report is examining media plurality in Ireland for the first time, alongside 18 other EU states.

The examination was conducted for the EU Commission by the Florence-based European University Institute's Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF). The Irish research was led by academics at Dublin City University's School of Communications.

The scoring system used in the report rates countries across a range of indicators, between a low and high of 0.00 and 1.00, with scores recorded above 0.66 being described as representing a "high risk".

According to documents seen by RTÉ, which were circulated to stakeholders on the margins of an international conference in Italy last year, the score awarded for Ireland in the 'concentration of media ownership' category was in excess of 0.70, placing it firmly in the highest level of concern.

It is understood that the report is due to conclude that a lack of specific legal barriers to concentrated media ownership put Ireland at the highest risk level, in their assessment of threats to media pluralism here.

Ireland's Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014 does refer to the "undesirability of allowing any one undertaking to hold significant interests (which is defined as in excess of a 20% share) within a sector or across different sectors of media business in the state" when assessing media mergers. However, there is no retrospective power to amend the level of control enjoyed by anyone whose current holdings might already exceed that level.

One individual, Denis O'Brien, enjoys a dominant position within the Irish print sector, due to his ownership of a significant minority stake in Independent News and Media.

He also has significant holdings in the commercial radio sector, as chairman and principal shareholder of Communicorp.

Documents seen by the programme also indicate that RTÉ is described as playing a "dominant" role in the broadcasting sector.

Neither the outgoing Minister for Communications Alex White, who lost his Dáil seat in last weekend's General Election, nor his ministerial predecessor Pat Rabbitte, who also retired from the Dáil at the end of the last parliament, were available for comment this weekend.

Irish Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, Seamus Dooley, said he was "not surprised" at the conclusion that the concentration in media ownership here constituted a high risk to plurality in the sector.

Speaking to RTÉ's This Week he said the ownership of media in a small number of hands was "problematic, in terms of the capacity of one person, or company, to influence public opinion, and you can see the relevance of that in the context of something like a general election".

Mr Dooley said the NUJ did not agree with the outgoing Minister, Alex White, that it was not possible to retrospectively deal with media ownership, and said if legislation was required then that option should be looked at. He said the NUJ wanted a special commission to be established by the Oireachtas to examine the issue of plurality and concentration in media ownership.

According to the website of the CMPF, the criteria for assessing threats to media plurality includes legal and economic indicators that assess the high, medium or low risk whether a national media landscape is highly concentrated across different media outlets. It says that media ownership concentration is commonly considered one of the key factors that determine a threat to media pluralism.

The more concentrated the market is, the more exposed it is to a lack of variety in content availability in respect of the plurality of the political, cultural and societal diversities that characterise each country's media output, the CMPF concluded.

Among the legal indicators, the areas examined include regulatory safeguards against high concentration of ownership and/or control in media.

The economic indicators in the ownership domain is based on market shares, namely, the share of the total revenue in a market for each owner of the total market for each media platform.

The issue of concentration of media ownership was one of a handful of sub-categories within the 'Media Ownership Domain' element of the report.

The other areas include transparency of ownership, such as how evident it is to determine who owns what stake in which companies - which was an area Ireland scored well on.

When the combined scores from each sub-category were taken together and averaged, Ireland scored a 'medium risk' in the overall domain.