Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Debating the media in its many facets

Vincent Browne wrote last Wednesday in 'The Irish Times' why he does not "believe Denis O'Brien is a fit person to be allowed (to) control the country's second most powerful media enterprise", Independent News and Media. He made several errors of fact. He described Mr O'Brien as the "owner" of INM. He is not the owner. The shareholders (of which Mr O'Brien is the biggest) are the owners.

Mr Browne published leaked material purporting to show how Mr O'Brien tried to interfere directly with editorial policy. In fact, none contained Mr O'Brien's direct participation, but were with a board member, Leslie Buckley.

The interference was indirect. Mr Buckley is a nominee of Mr O'Brien on the board with some entitlement to give advice, possibly even direction to the chief executive officer and to expect confidentiality.

On October 29, 2010, Mr Buckley contacted Gavin O'Reilly following a conversation Mr Buckley had had with Mr O'Brien reporting that he was "very upset" with Sam Smyth.

Mr Buckley made the not unreasonable point, which Mr Browne includes in his article, as to whether "Sam Smyth could be taken off the story of the Moriarty Tribunal and moved on to something else."

Mr Buckley was critical of possible "aggression" and "hostility" outside the Independent. Mr Smyth had, in Mr Buckley's view and Mr Browne's words, "done his job (on the tribunal) and should now be moved on to another story."

This is legitimate and should constitute part of the equally legitimate agenda- setting or policy-making for the group. Papers like the 'Daily Telegraph' and 'The Guardian' have broad editorial policies, not made up on the hoof by editors but developed and shaped by boards, trusts and owners of newspapers.

As a result we can predict where the 'Daily Telegraph' is heading on many issues. We understand, often instinctively, what the paper believes and what it stands for. The broad political, social, economic, international and other views and positions are carefully balanced between their boards and their editors.

And this is correct. Some publications -- 'The Guardian', 'The Economist' -- also stipulate protection of editorial independence.

The concept put forward by Vincent Browne is immediately recognisable as one of his by now well-known collections of media misconceptions.

He quotes for example the 2007 case where, "prior to the 2007 General Election, the 'Sunday Independent' pursued a relentless campaign against the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, then, immediately following a private meeting between Tony O'Reilly and Bertie Ahern, the line changed direction 180 degrees. The claims by the 'Sunday Independent' now that such interference never occurred are plainly false."

What is profoundly mistaken in what Mr Browne seems to claim about this is that it was all Tony O'Reilly's interference. What is left out of account is the part played by editor Aengus Fanning who "interviewed" Mr Ahern.

What lies behind this facile representation of a purported "interference" is the fact that Tony O'Reilly's much vaunted view on having a role of non-interference in the paper was not only quite disingenuous but was also deeply and increasingly damaging to the public appeal of the papers.

What did the papers under the O'Reilly ownership stand for? What were their attitudes on important political and social matters? Luckily, through the good instincts of journalists, much of this loss of definition and direction -- which should have been the input of the board but failed because of O'Reilly's passive and joke-enhanced presentation of his own role -- was produced by a mixed team of journalists.

It resulted in two major papers in the group, the Irish Independent and the 'Sunday Independent', presenting a version of events often at odds with reality and with each other. What Mr Browne condemns as "interference" is, in major world newspapers, the way they are run.

Newspapers are not, or should not be, a playground for their editors.

There was no group editorial policy and Tony O'Reilly was largely responsible. He made jokes about it.

But he had no defined purpose and little understanding.

His son, Gavin, when he took over, was even worse. Instead of dealing with a huge debt and reshaping the paper to give it a strong sense of direction and a panoply of beliefs that might constitute an editorial policy, he engaged in a ridiculous warfare with his biggest shareholder, believing that he would win. He lost, and we await the final outcome.

It is in the hope of a remedy in the future that changes have taken place and of course Mr O'Brien, as a major shareholder, is, or should become, part of the editorial policy-making structure in the paper which, in law and practice, should be the board.

It is beyond the capacity of individual editors to bring the group back from the brink of bankruptcy.

Vincent Browne translates the recorded conversations of Mr Buckley with Gavin O'Reilly and then presents them as Mr O'Brien's own words.

The result is muddled and ridiculous, rather like his tedious mantra about the redistribution of wealth.

When I joined the Irish Independent, in 1973, having worked for five years on the 'Sunday Independent', both papers had clear editorial principles largely set by two good editors and an outstanding chief executive, now forgotten, Bartle Pitcher.

We, the journalists working for them, knew where we were going and what the papers stood for, including conservative Catholic beliefs, now understandably modified, the interests of wealth and productivity together with a still widespread support for honesty and integrity in public life.

All of those things should be, and will be restored. Mr Browne has himself been a media owner -- 'Magill', 'Village', 'Sunday Tribune' -- and in my judgment made a hash of them all. He did not protect the money given him to run those publications. He did not make money. He disposed of them as best he could after they ran into financial difficulties. He solicited funding from many prominent business people including, latterly, Mr O'Brien. Did Browne vet his donors about non-interference? Did he share power and responsibility with his boards?

I was on one board and brought in another director, Cecil King.

Mr Browne neither shared power, nor debated his intentions nor told us what they were. In the end his high-handed approach over a series of articles based on what purported, wrongly, to be the diaries of Peter Berry, Secretary of the Department of Justice in Haughey's time, led to our resignations.

He still does most of the chat on his late-night show and I am not surprised that many prominent politicians and others refuse invitations to appear.

I hope he won't come near us.