Who's telling you how to think?
BY MICHAEL PIERSE
Despite the extensive influence of media ownership on our perception and understanding of events and current affairs, isn't it stange that there has been so little debate and academic study of media ownership in Ireland?
For an industry that bears much of the burden of investigation and intrusion in our society, isn't it strange also that we see very little criticism in the press, radio and TV of the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few affluent moguls?
The Competition and Mergers Review Group has urged the 26-County Minister for Enterprise to encourage the plurality of newspaper ownership, plurality of titles and the diversity of views contained therein
overdue report from the 26-County Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Mary Harney, said to be due some time in the Autumn, may open the can of worms on a debate which is also long overdue in Irish society.
The sale of the Belfast Telegraph to Tony O'Reilly's Independent News and Media attracted headlines last March, largely because complaints about it were raised by the Ulster Unionist Party's deputy leader, John Taylor (who also, incidentally, holds major shares in local newspapers north of the border).
But Taylor's complaints were not confined to the claimed political consequences of a Dublin company's trespass into unionist territory - the Belfast Telegraph's traditional line has been a `moderate' unionist one. He also raised an issue of more significance to the newspaper industry as a whole - the impact of the sale of the Belfast Telegraph on competition in the market.
Taylor claimed that the sale would give Independent News a 100 per cent ownership of Sunday newspapers in the Six Counties, ownership of its only sporting paper, of one-third of its farming press, of the largest daily newspapers throughout Ireland, and of the largest evening paper in Dublin.
In a report by Goodbody Stockbrokers two years ago, it was estimated that Independent News owned 70 per cent of the domestic newspapers in the 26 Counties. Other reports indicate that Independent News controls 51 per cent of the market in South Africa and is concentrating on its growth worldwide. It must be remembered also, that incursions into other parts of the media market, including radio, newspaper distribution and communications technology, make groups like Independent News very powerful, some would say unfairly so. In Ireland, it seems that there is very little independence in the media sector from O'Reilly's Independent News.
The Competition and Mergers Review Group has made recommendations on regulating changes of ownership and on amending the legislation governing mergers. Issues arising from concentration of ownership are considered, as is the question of cross-ownership between the newspaper sector and broadcasting.
The recommendations endorsed by the review group urge the 26-County Minister for Enterprise to encourage the plurality of newspaper ownership, plurality of titles and the diversity of views contained therein. They say that the minister's powers should be widened to include not just the restriction of ownership, but to allow the curtailing the control of newspapers by means other than the ownership of shares. Media ownership, they say, should be considered across the board, classifying radio, digital, TV and newspaper ownerships as parts of the same industry.
If there is a willingness in government circles to move beyond their current, toothless, attitude towards media moguls, they will undoubtedly face a number of difficulties. Not least of these are the objections posed by the powerful media lobby in Ireland, but also the lack of study that has been done into ownership and cross-ownership of media in this country. The influence of foreign-owned companies may prove particularly difficult to estimate. The likes of Rupert Murdoch's News International has more tentacles wrapped around more companies worldwide than can be calculated with any degree of ease.
Dominance rules in general are very relevant in Ireland. In a relatively small economy, with fewer competitors in each market, it is easier to be dominant in Ireland than in many other countries.
Some of these dominant businesses are semi-state companies, while others are dominant national and multinational companies.
A business is dominant where it has sufficient market power to act independently of its competitors and customers. A business that abuses its dominance in Ireland or ``a substantial part'' of Ireland can be severely punished under Irish law. But 26-County law does not prohibit dominance. Instead, it is only the ``abuse'' of dominance that is prohibited.
Under the law, businesses abusing dominance may be broken up, fined and sued for damages and punitive damages. The fines can be up to £3 million or 10 per cent of company's turnover, whichever is higher. Directors and executives may be fined up to £3 million and imprisoned for up to two years.
A business could also be broken up under Section 14 of the Competition Act, 1991. The provision has not yet been used and some legal commentators suspect that it is unconstitutional.
Abuses of dominance would include predatory pricing, unjustifiable refusal to supply, excessive pricing and even inefficiency. The fact that inefficiency may be an abuse of dominance may have considerable significance for a number of Irish businesses. Indeed, this reason has been used for the sale of companies such as Telecom Éireann or as arguments for the privatisation of transport systems. But - as we have recently found out - the supposedly shining hope of private sector competition, as embodied by Eircom, is far more prone to inefficiency.
So, how can these laws be enforced? Competition lawyers can file a complaint with the Competition Authority or the European Commission.
Equally, proceedings may be brought before the Circuit Court or High Court, claiming damages and punitive damages, injunctions and declarations. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Competition Authority may also seek injunctions and declarations.
It is extraordinary that academics have carried out so little research on the concentration of media ownership in a few hands, in Ireland and elsewhere. Indeed, those who do pluck up the courage to criticise media giants are accused of harbouring ulterior motives. One thing is certain, such concentration of ownership is not in the interests of democracy.