2016 Press Releases

Op-ed: Controlling the message

3 Oct 2016
Dr Finola Doyle O’Neill, Broadcast Historian with the School of History, UCC.

Dr Finola Doyle O’Neill, Broadcast Historian with the School of History, UCC, argues that media mogul Denis O’Brien could well be the key player in Ireland once Brexit is a reality.  

With recent allegations linking Irish business tycoon and media mogul, Denis O’Brien to Hillary Clinton’s campaign fund, (apparently as payback for funds he had received for his mobile phone company Digicel while Clinton was US Secretary of State), should the Irish electorate be concerned that Teresa May’s rush to implement Article 50 and exit the EU before March 2017, further cements O’Brien’s centrality as a key influencer in Ireland’s political and media landscape?

Cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan once coined the phrase ‘The medium is the Message’. In effect he proposed that the medium itself affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered via newspaper, radio or television, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself. In Understanding Media, McLuhan describes the content of a medium, be it newspaper/radio or TV, ‘as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.’ In other words, with O’Brien as chief shareholder in Independent News and Media, which include Irish titles such as The Evening Herald, The Irish/Sunday Independent, The Sunday World and owns 50% of the Irish Daily Star, will O’Brien in effect, act as gatekeeper in the attitude of the Irish media to Brexit?

As the Berlin wall was being dismantled in 1989, Denis O’Brien was building up his media empire. While the Germans were suddenly granted freedom of movement from East to West, from communism to capitalism, in Ireland a very pernicious curtailment of our freedom was being instigated with the setting up of O’ Brien’s Communicorp Group. It now controls 42 radio stations in eight countries across Europe. When you listen to newscasts on the following radio stations: Today FM, Dublin 98 (formerly 98FM), Newstalk, Spin 103.8, FM 104, they are all controlled by O’Brien. Former presenter on Today FM, well respected journalist Sam Smyth, was cautioned not to continue with a radio discussion on the findings of the Moriarty Tribunal Report in 2011. The Report had concluded that O’Brien had been given ‘substantive information’ which was of ‘significant value’ to him when he secured the licence for Esat Digifone. 

Owning 29% of the country’s largest newspaper group and 20% of the radio market in Ireland, O’Brien as a key influencer on how we view Brexit cannot be ignored. In terms of benefits to his other business interests, Brexit will enhance O’Brien’s share of the consumer market in Ireland and his success will be conveyed through his many media outlets. His ownership of the petrol stations brand Topaz, his 83% per cent shareholding in the aircraft leasing company Aergo which he founded in 1999, even his dig-out to the FAI in 2008 to fund the salary of former national soccer coach Giovanni Trapattoni, all make him a force to be reckoned with in Irish life. Even one of the most contested political issues in recent times, that of water charges, has Denis O’Brien at its core. O’ Brien bought Siteserv for 45 million euro in 2012 and within three weeks of its acquisition, it was awarded the contract from Bord Gáis to install water meters in homes throughout the country.   

O’Brien’s close affiliation to the Clintons has never been a secret. Bill has even used O’Brien’s private jet on a trip to Ireland in 2013. Nevertheless, the key issue for us Irish, is the following: If The Donald, albeit in a most unclear, inarticulate and Trumpesque logic, can consider the possibility of O’Brien as an influencer in the choice of America’s next President, should we not worry that O’Brien will also influence in some way, through his many media outlets in Ireland, the narrative of our response to Brexit and the imminent departure from Europe of our closest neighbours? 

Bobby Axel in the superb TV series Billions once said: "When did it become a crime to make money in this country?" Many have a grudging admiration for the entrepreneurial skills of O’Brien and his Midas touch in the business arena. However, when it is a matter of politics and the Affairs of the State, O’Brien has not been voted in by any electorate to determine Ireland’s response to Brexit, regardless of his monopoly of two thirds of our media outlets.   

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