Bruce is Browned off

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.

– Bruce Arnold

Irish Independent