History

The Irish media landscape is inextricably linked with Ireland’s history as an element of the British Empire. UK papers and periodicals formed a key element of the Irish media market from the 18th century onwards. This changed after the 1800 Act of Union (uniting the parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland). When a vibrant indigenous press emerged in the 19th century, the outlets were often political in nature aligned with either nationalist/independence causes or espousing the value of the political union with Britain.

For example, arguably the leading paper of the 19th Century, The Freeman’s Journal was established in 1763 and was originally associated with nationalist-leaning Protestant politicians like Henry Grattan (although it adopted a notably more pro-British approach after the title was acquired by Francis Higgins in 1783). In 1841, the paper was acquired by the Gray family and reverted to a constitutional nationalist outlook, becoming one of the leading supporters of Charles Stewart Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party by the 1880s.

Similarly, The Irish Times, long considered the Irish paper of record, was originally established by Lawrence Knox in 1859 as a moderate nationalist paper. That orientation radically altered towards becoming the voice of Irish unionism after the paper was acquired in 1873 by the Arnott family, then best known as the owners of a – still extant – Dublin department store.

The Irish Independent was originally established as a political outlet in 1896, supporting the Parnellite-wing of the Irish Parliamentary Party. With its 1906 re-launch under the ownership of industrialist William Martin Murphy, the paper adopted a markedly more commercial orientation. In a small market, (the population of the island of Ireland in 1911 was 4.38m), maintaining narrow political orientations alienated potential readers. This encouraged papers to adopt a less sectarian editorial line (although both the Irish Independent and the Freeman’s Journal broadly supported pro-independence (or “Home Rule”) politics in the pre-independence era).

The War of Independence 1919 – 1921 was a protracted guerrilla military struggle with Britain. Negotiations between an Irish parliament and the British government resulted in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, establishing an Irish Free State which enjoyed most (though not all) the privileges of independent statehood. In 1949, the Irish government declared the state to be a republic, and the “Republic of Ireland” remains the official nomenclature. The Treaty enshrined the division of the island of Ireland into two territories: the 26-country Irish Free State and the Protestant-majority Northern Ireland consisting of the six northernmost countries which remained a component of the United Kingdom. 

That division was reflected in the media landscape as well. The Northern Irish paper’s market shrank to de-facto six counties. This impacted not only the Belfast-published press (Belfast Telegraph, the Irish News and the News-Letter, one of the oldest English-language newspapers still in publication). It equally diminished the sales of Dublin-based press (with the exception of the Irish Times).

The newspaper market in the rest of the country changed as well, due to immediate post-independence politics in the Irish Free State. Six months after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty which established the new state, a violent civil war broke out between those factions of the Sinn Féin party which could not tolerate the conditions imposed by the Treaty (including the partition of the country) and those who regarded the Treaty as a “stepping stone” towards full statehood. In March 1922 the printing presses of the Freeman’s Journal in Dublin were destroyed by individuals associated with the anti-Treaty faction who objected to the paper’s pro-Treaty editorial line. Although the paper subsequently reappeared, it never quite recovered and completely ceased publication in 1924. Ironically, the leader of the anti-Treaty forces, Eamon de Valera, sought to acquire the title, convinced that the mainstream national press was more or less unanimously in favour of accepting the Treaty. However, de Valera was outbid by the Irish Independent which saw an opportunity to keep a potential rival off the shelves. The Irish Independent absorbed The Freeman’s Journal into its masthead (retaining it there until the 1990s).

Post Civil War - Fianna Fáils’s press

As the post-Civil War period saw Irish politics re-oriented around the parties that emerged from that conflict – the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedhael (later Fine Gael) and anti-Treaty Fianna Fáil. The then-leader of Fianna Fáil, Eamon de Valera, exploited funds raised in the US during the War of Independence to establish an entirely new newspaper group. The de Valera family owned and controlled the Irish Press Group until the papers ceased publication in 1995. Its leading publication, The Irish Press, went on sale in September 1931. A year later, the Fianna Fail’s had its first election success. Though not directly owned by the Fianna Fail party, the three papers in the  Irish Press Group (a Sunday paper was launched in 1949 and a evening edition in 1954) were the closest thing to a “party press” in post-Independence Ireland.

Independence and a Broadcaster

The post-Independence relationship with the UK also shaped the introduction of broadcasting in Ireland. Two years after starting to broadcast in the UK, the BBC began a service from Belfast (“2BE”) in September 1924, the signal of which spilled into the Irish Free State. This, along with requests to the Irish Post Office from radio set manufacturers for a licence to operate a broadcast radio service, encouraged the nascent state to explore the establishment of a radio station. The clear preference of the first Irish Postmaster-General, JJ Walsh, was for a privately-owned but state-licensed service, in order to avoid costs associated with establishing and running a broadcaster. However, Walsh was overruled by a special parliamentary committee established to inquire into the matter. They argued that the potential contribution of such a service to commercial and cultural progress was too great to be left in commercial hands.  The 2RN station began broadcasting from Dublin in January 1926. Eleven months later, the Wireless Telegraphy Act established the exclusive right of the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs to acquire or establish broadcasting stations.
As a result, from 1926 until the passage of the 1960 Broadcasting Act, the various incarnations of 2RN (Radio Athlone 1933 – 1938, Radio Eireann 1938 – 1966) were directly run by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, with all staff theoretically directly answerable to the Minister. Though not quite a “state broadcaster” in the totalitarian sense, this direct state ownership clearly limited the scope for political independence and, for the most part, politics and political debate was simply absent from the airwaves until the 1960s. The service was initially funded by a combination of a licence fee levied on ownership of radio sets and revenues from a duty levied on imported radio sets. Advertising was theoretically permitted. But it was only after a Fianna Fail administration decided to absorb the import duty revenues into general Exchequer funding in 1932 (thus depriving the radio service of its main source of income), that the station began to actively seek out commercial support through selling spot ads and programme sponsorship. Even after it did so, the station struggled financially: the prominence of music in the schedules of the 1920s and 1930s owed much to the fact that it was a relatively cheap form of content.

Independence for the Broadcaster

A more arms-length relationship between state and broadcaster started with the 1960 Broadcasting Act. The Act was initially prompted by the need to make provision for the establishment of a television broadcasting service. As with radio, the initial preference was to leave the Irish national television service in private hands to avoid taking on the cost of establishing such a service. However, again, concern that a profit-motive would deter a private company from exploiting the medium to achieve more culturally-oriented objectives saw the government opt to place television in state ownership. At the same time, the Broadcasting Act provided an opportunity to remove some of the restrictions – both financial and editorial - associated with direct state ownership. The Broadcasting Act established an Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTE) Authority – appointed by the Minister for Post and Telegraphs – to take responsibility for the day-to-day operation of both radio and television. Direct state control was limited to powers referred to in Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act. This permitted the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs to direct the Authority “in writing to refrain from broadcasting any particular matter or matter of any particular class” and “to allocate broadcasting time for any announcements by or on behalf of any Minister of State in connection with the functions of that Minister of State”.

Troubles over the Troubles

The new, more distant relationship between broadcaster and state after the Broadcasting Act was characterised by recurring tensions between both parties. Initially politicians seemed unprepared for the possibility that the new broadcaster might use its (at least theoretically) enhanced independence to scrutinise the activities of various arms of the state. These tensions came to a head over RTE’s coverage of “The Troubles” (as the post-1969 sectarian/political tensions involving paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland was framed). For the Irish government those groups were illegitimately using violence to achieve political ends, terrorists and criminals. For RTE, those same groups nonetheless represented the views of at least elements of the Northern Irish population and, as such, RTE had a responsibility to reflect those views. The state disagreed and, in 1972, the then Minister for Posts and Telegraphs summarily dismissed the entire RTE Authority (which he and his Fianna Fail predecessors had appointed) after RTE continued to broadcast interviews with representatives of paramilitaries. The situation was only partially resolved by the 1976 Broadcasting (Amendment) Act. It introduced a requirement for parliamentary approval before the RTE Authority could be dismissed, and for the state to draw up a written list of paramilitary bodies which could not be allowed access to the airwaves. That list, drawn up under Section 31 of the 1960 Broadcasting Act, would remain in place until 1994.

RTE’s Monopoly

The state’s overt control of at least elements of the output of the national (state-owned) broadcaster threw the absence of any commercial competition into sharp relief. Both print and broadcast media had faced de facto competition from their inception, mainly from UK-based newspapers and, in particular, television broadcasters. By the mid-1980s, television viewers on the east coast or in areas with cable television services could, in addition to RTE’s two channels, choose to watch any of four UK-based channel: BBC 1, BBC2 (established in 1964), UTV (the Northern Irish independent television franchise holder since 1959) and Channel 4 (set up in 1982). However, while RTE might have faced some competition for audiences, it enjoyed a de jure monopoly in the Irish advertising market. This dominance was to some extent challenged by the arrival of local “pirate” radio stations (mainly based in Dublin) in the late 1970s and 1980s. The success of the latter suggested not only that there was an appetite amongst listeners for greater choice than RTE’s two television channels and three radio stations could offer, but also that there was a commercially viable market for broadcasting alternatives.

This impetus towards competition (which reflected a wider European Community – which Ireland joined in 1973 -  orientation towards the deregulation of broadcasting) found legislative expression in the 1988 Radio and Television Act. The Act provided for the establishment of 24 local, commercial radio stations, a national commercial radio broadcaster and a national commercial television station. It also provided for the establishment of the Independent Radio and Television Commission (IRTC) to regulate the new commercial entities. Local radio stations proved an immediate success, while the national stations experienced some growing pains - the first nationally licenced radio station went bust after two years and the television station took a decade to go on air.

Growing Economy, Private Media and Foreign Investments

The initial struggles of the national commercial broadcasters notwithstanding, the timing of the introduction of commercial broadcast media proved fortuitous. Ireland would go through a period of unprecedented economic growth known as the “Celtic Tiger” from 1995 until 2008. Driven by a combination of Foreign Direct Investment-friendly low corporation tax and the impact of EU Structural and Cohesion Funds on physical infrastructure and education, the Irish economy grew at an average rate of 9.4% between 1995 and 2000. Even after growth slowed as the 20th century closed, annual economic growth remained at an average of 5.9% between 2000 and 2009. Average wages and disposable income shot up, driving rapid increases in consumer expenditure and, as a corollary, expenditure on advertising across commercial media. RTÉ’s advertising income leapt from €84m in 1993 to €245m by 2007. In 1995, the 11 national titles represented by the National Newspapers of Ireland earned €117m in advertising revenues. By 2007, this trebled to €367m.  Newspaper circulation also shot up. Total Sunday sales of Irish-based titles increased from 659,000 in 1995 to 909,000 in 2004. Daily sales peaked at 507,000 in 2007, up from 371,000 in 1995.

The increased revenues of Irish print and broadcast media, attracted the attention of foreign media groups and ushered in a decade of mergers, acquisitions and increasing concentration of ownership. While some Irish regional papers had remained in the hands of the same family since the 19th century until the 1990s,  by 2010, every title with a circulation in excess of 20,000 had been absorbed into a larger media group. One of these, Independent News and Media (IMN), had been involved in the regional sector since the 1970s. However, by 2010, IMN was joined by the Cork-based Thomas Crosbie Holdings and no less than four UK-based press groups: Johnson Press, the Alpha Newspaper Group, Andersonstown News Group and Dunfermline Press.  Similarly when local radio licences were initially offered in 1988, the consortia behind individual stations were local in nature, driven by local business people, lawyers, accountants and so forth. However, after the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (successor to the IRTC) relaxed rules on multiple station ownership in 2001, there was a flurry of acquisitions and mergers in radio. By 2011, 27 of the 35 commercial radio stations operating in Ireland had been subsumed into larger media groups. These included Communicorp, Thomas Crosbie Holdings, UTV, Wilton Radio, Clare FM and the Radio Kerry Group.

A New Era of Cross-Media Ownership

This also led to varying levels of cross-media ownership. Of course, RTE was the largest player in both radio and television. But by 2011, the Connacht Tribune (one of the best-selling regional papers) also owned Galway Bay FM while Thomas Crosbie Holdings owned two national papers (The Irish Examiner and The Sunday Business Post) and four local/regional radio stations. The most prominent example of cross-media ownership was Denis O’Brien whose Communicorp vehicle owned five stations (including both national commercial stations) by 2011. In 2006 O’Brien began buying up shares in Independent News and Media (IMN) and by 2010 he held the single largest shareholding in the group. By March 2009, O’Brien was able to add three associates to the IMN Board of Directors ultimately affording him sufficient influence to oust longtime IMN Chairman, Tony O’Reilly.

Although his media portfolio lacked a television division, the public perception of O’Brien’s influence across several media created a degree of public disquiet. Public discourse focused on the 2011 findings of the Moriarty Tribunal, a government inquiry into the 1995 awarding of a licence to operate a mobile phone service to Mr O’Brien. The licence proved very lucrative for Mr O’Brien who earned more than €300m when he sold ESAT Telecom, the company which operated the mobile phone service to British Telecom in 2000. However, the Moriarty Tribunal concluded that the licence had been secured for Mr O’Brien by the then Minister for Communications, Michael Lowry following indirect financial transfers to Lowry from Mr. O’Brien. Although the findings of the Tribunal did not constitute a legal basis for a prosecution, the assertion that a competitive bidding process had been influenced by undisclosed payments coloured the public and political perception of Mr O’Brien.

That an individual so closely associated with the mobile licence award process had been able to acquire and maintain an influential position within elements of the Irish media while regulatory authorities such as the Competition Authority and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland looked on, prompted calls for an overhaul of media ownership regulation. In 2008 an advisory committee on media mergers established under the auspices of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment had made a number of recommendations for reforming the assessment and approval of media mergers, key amongst which was an emphasis on the inherently political (as opposed to merely market-focused) nature of the subject. Although the recommendations of the committee were more or less entirely accepted at a political level it would be a further six years before they found legislative expression in the form of the 2014 Competition and Consumer Protection Act.  

2008: Crashing (Media) Markets

In the interim, the market context for media mergers had radically altered. The impact of the global recession was particularly acute in Ireland. The 13 years of Celtic Tiger growth were replaced almost overnight by national financial calamity. The bursting of a property market bubble and the associated near-collapse of the Irish banking system saw the economy contract rapidly and by 2010 the Irish government had entered talks with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Union (“the Troika”)  regarding the terms of a €67 billion financial bailout. The terms of the loan imposed austerity measures on the state as a whole leading to significant cutbacks in public expenditure. The associated decline in consumer expenditure saw the advertising market contract sharply and commercial media revenues collapse. RTE’s commercial income fell by 27% between 2008 and 2009 and continued to fall until 2015 when the easing of austerity conditions saw revenues if not recover then at least plateau. The print sector was particularly damaged by the recession. Print circulation plummeted - and has continued to do so ever since - leading to a concomitant decline in advertising income. Advertising revenue had reached  €367m in 2007 but fell by a third between 2008 and 2009. By 2020 newspaper print advertising revenue had fallen to €67m, equivalent to just 18% of the 2007 peak, (although this was partially compensated for the emergence of digital advertising). And, in consequence, interest in media acquisitions almost completely disappeared. The experience of the Johnston Press in Ireland typified this. Having spent over €200m building a 14-title Irish regional press group in the 2000s, in 2014 it sold the entire group to the UK-based Mediaforce for just €8.7m.

For a period, Irish media, like the country as a whole, struggled to stay afloat. Some didn’t: the Sunday Tribune and Irish Star on Sunday both ceased operations in 2011. The situation was further complicated by the contemporaneous emergence of competition from an entirely new quarter: online media. In the early 2000s, internet advertising scarcely registered as a market but by 2010 figures from the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) put the value of the Irish online advertising market at €110m. And, in contrast to legacy media sectors, online advertising appeared immune to the wider economic malaise. Again based on IAB figures, total online adspend reached €340m in 2015 and €574m in 2018. And the €861m figure for 2022 comfortably outstrips the cumulative value of the rest of the Irish advertising market. 

Acquisitions after the Bailout

Ireland exited the bailout in December 2013 regaining a degree of economic sovereignty. The freefall in most economic indicators began to slow and by 2014 there were renewed signs of - modest - economic recovery. This, coupled with the much lower valuations put on Irish media outlets, saw a renewed interest in Irish-facing media outlets from international players. The passage of the 2014 Competition and Consumer Protection Act theoretically introduced a much stricter regime of media ownership regulation. Yet it was immediately followed by a six-year wave of mergers and acquisitions. Notably, not one of these was blocked by the relevant authorities - the new Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, successive Ministers for Communication or the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. In 2015, US cable giant Liberty Global paid Doughty Hanson, the owners of TV3, €80m for the two-channel station, less than a third of what Doughty Hanson had laid out to acquire just the TV3 channel in 2006. A year later Liberty Global acquired a third channel from Ulster Television (UTV), rebranding the group as Virgin Media Television Ireland. At more or less the same time, in July 2016, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation acquired UTV’s radio subsidiary, the Wireless Group with its six local channels across Ireland. (News Corporation's Irish footprint would be somewhat reduced with the sale of Sky Digital and Sky Television in 2018 but this transaction simply saw one US media giant (the cable company Comcast) replace another in the Irish market.) In 2020, Independent News and Media (IMN) sold its 50% share in the Irish Daily Star to UK publisher REACH PLC. By this stage IMN itself was no longer in Irish hands after lead shareholders Denis O’Brien and Dermot Dermot had accepted a 2019 offer of €145.6m for the group from the Belgian publisher Mediahuis. O’Brien’s exit from the Irish market was completed in 2021 when he sold Communicorp in its entirety to the German behemoth Bauer Media for a sum believed to be in excess of €100m.

In consequence, as of 2023, there are just a handful of indigenously-owned media outlets left in Ireland: RTE, TG4 and the Irish Times (none of which is available for sale because of their particular ownership structures), Journal Media Ltd and the regional press owner, the Celtic Media Group. The 2021 Future of Media Commission report describes a media sector in a state of some turmoil, facing declining or, at least flat revenues, ever-increasing competition from online platforms and a wave of mis- and disinformation. There are also increasing pressures to accept further concentration of ownership as the price for keeping media outlets in business. In their 2018 update of their Ownership and Control policy, the BAI identified “sustainability” as a priority informing their assessments of media mergers. In effect: it might be better to allow a newspaper or radio station to be acquired by a larger media group if the alternative would see an economically non-viable media outlet entirely cease operating.   

Sources

Michael Foley “Newspaper advert revenue up by 4.7%” Irish Times 13 Mar 1996, p.7

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