1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee at which communications and media mergers are discussed; and when it last met. (Question 17973/18 asked on 02 May 2018)
The Taoiseach: I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
The object of Cabinet Committee D, infrastructure, is to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the development and implementation of policy on housing infrastructure investment and delivery, climate action and the delivery of Project Ireland 2040.
Deputy Micheál Martin: On a point of order, the Taoiseach’s reply does not pertain to Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive.
The Taoiseach: The date is correct on the folder but not on the replies.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The questions relate to communications and media mergers.
The Taoiseach: I apologise.
Media mergers are regulatory issues to be dealt with by the appropriate regulatory authority which, in the first instance, is the Consumer and Competition Protection Commission, CCPC. Should the commission clear the transaction to proceed, it is then referred to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to conduct an initial assessment of the likely impact of the transaction on plurality in the media in the State. Following that assessment, the Minister has the option of allowing the transaction to proceed, allowing it to proceed with conditions or referring it to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, for a phase 2 or full merger examination. In the cases referred for a phase 2 examination, the BAI must make a recommendation on whether the merger should be allowed to proceed, proceed with conditions or not to be allowed to proceed. The Minister must then make a final decision on whether the merger should be allowed to proceed, proceed with conditions or not to be allowed to proceed.
The purpose of the media mergers regime is to safeguard the diversity and pluralism of media in the State and foster regulatory environments that will enable media companies to flourish, as well as to ensure a range of diverse views are heard. These policy matters are for the Minister and questions should be directed to him in the first instance. Any issue arising that would require a Government decision would be dealt with by the Government as a whole rather than a Cabinet committee.
Deputy Micheál Martin: After many days of controversy, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, finally got around to admitting he should not have spoken to a lobbyist for a media company, Independent News & Media, INM, about a media merger it was promoting. He still claims that he did nothing wrong but admits that he should not have done it and said he would not do it again. The Taoiseach has agreed with the analysis that a Minister outlining how he intends to handle a referral to a lobbyist breaks no rules, even where the company concerned views the information as significant and commercially sensitive. Is he happy that this is supposedly within the rules? Will he tell us if he intends to change the rules in order that in any future case there would be a clear sanction to prevent behaviour such as this? Has the Government approached the Stock Exchange, the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, the Competition Authority or any other official body to ask if they agree that the information provided by the Minister was not commercially sensitive?
This entire affair highlights the fact that there is effectively no national policy on media diversity or media viability, which is just as important. Many organisations representing people working in the sector, as well as the companies, have spent much of recent years calling for a strategy to ensure a professional Irish media sector can survive in the era of the low-cost aggregators and unedited sites. Are we likely to see a response soon to any of these demands? I put it to the Taoiseach that a strategic Cabinet approach to media diversity and viability is called for. Given the most recent revelations, it is something the Government will have to consider very seriously.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: It is important to return to the conduct of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, with reference to the proposed takeover of Celtic Media by Independent News & Media. The Minister has yet to give a credible answer or explanation for his conduct in providing what could be fairly regarded as confidential information for a lobbyist acting on behalf of INM, an interested party in a media merger. The Taoiseach might like to take the opportunity to offer an explanation for that conduct.
During his statement on the matter in the Dáil on 18 April the Minister confirmed that in November 2016 he had spoken to Mr. Eoghan Ó Neachtain who, as we know, was acting on behalf of INM. More importantly, the Minister knew this at the time. He stated that in the conversation with Mr. Ó Neachtain he had expressed a purely personal view that the likely course of action would be a referral for a phase 2 assessment in accordance with the guidelines on diversity and media plurality. The statement directly contradicts what the Minister told the Dáil on 6 December 2016 in response to a question from my colleague, Teachta Brian Stanley. It is now clear that the Minister misled the Dáil on his likely action on the proposed takeover.
The Minister was not merely a well informed observer in this process. He was not in a position to provide a purely personal view. He was the Minister with statutory responsibility for the process and it is clear he provided confidential information for one party in that process. Has the Taoiseach raised the matter with the Minister subsequent to the events of the week before last? Has he urged the Minister to provide a clarifying statement and an apology for the Dáil? There should be a correction of the Official Report of the Dáil.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: There are many issues arising from the recent controversy surrounding INM, including the lobbying of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, and the data breach involving journalists’ and barristers’ emails. Another issue which to my mind is the most important is the lack of media plurality in this country. The hallmark of any meaningful democracy is genuine freedom of the press and media and that it is not dominated by one or a small number of individuals. In this country, however, Mr. Denis O’Brien - one of the richest men in this country - dominates or outright owns the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent, the Sunday World, the Evening Herald, 50% of the Daily Star, a host of local newspapers, Today FM, Newstalk, Dublin’s 98FM, Spin 103, Spin Southwest and we can carry on through the list.
This is outrageous. It is particularly so in the light of the allegations made. I was reading back over emails from Mr. Gavin O’Reilly back in 2010 where he was rebutting requests from Mr. Leslie Buckley, Mr. Denis O’Brien’s representative on the board. He was asking that Mr. Sam Smyth be moved off his coverage of the Tribunal of Inquiry into certain Payments to Politicians and Related Matters. That was direct interference in the freedom of journalists to write. Mr. Smyth subsequently lost his job. To add to that, Mr. O’Brien is a tax refugee. Then the Taoiseach has private meetings with this guy in Davos. It is extraordinary. Is the Taoiseach concerned about the monopoly of one individual over the Irish media and does he have any desire to do, or intention of doing, anything about that? The Taoiseach says it is the BAI and it is this, that and the other. In the end, as he said, it is the Government, the Cabinet or the Minister. It is a political decision. Are we going to do something about this? If we are not, we cannot talk in a meaningful way about press freedom, plurality and diversity in this country.
Deputy Brendan Howlin: Deputy Boyd Barrett makes a strong point. We need to face up to the requirement for plurality in the media so that there is more than one control mechanism for the media people access in this country. Over the weekend, I read speculation that the Taoiseach was talking about legislation in this area. Is the Government concerned at the increased concentration of media ownership in Ireland? Should an independent commission be established to pull together all the strands of views on that and to address that in a very open way to ensure there are not the type of constraints referenced on any journalist. I refer to them acting freely, fairly and openly in our society. It is an important bulwark in any society.
On the issues surrounding the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, I am not going to revisit them except to say that I can half understand a Minister getting a phone call and not instantly realising he should not be taking the call and stopping it but not recognising that was wrong.
Deputy Micheál Martin: That is the point.
Deputy Brendan Howlin: That is a point not only for the Minister, Deputy Naughten, but for the Taoiseach. If the Minister had said he was caught off guard, he was thinking of other things, he should never have taken the call, the caller got through directly, he should never have imparted any information. It should never happen again and that acknowledgment would be really important. I invite the Taoiseach to make that acknowledgement today.
In my own time in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, when we were dealing with public private partnerships, PPPs, I established a protocol that was published on the departmental website - it is still there - that said if a person has an interest in a PPP then he or she could not contact the Minister or any of his or her political staff directly. There is a published conduit for a person to put in a submission, query anything or provide data to the Department. It is completely wrong that it would be done in a covert way. It was not in the public domain and it was information that was subsequently withheld from the Dáil. Will the Taoiseach acknowledge this was something that should not have happened? Are there protocols to deal with this matter in future?
The Taoiseach: In respect of the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, I do not want to go over old ground. The Minister, Deputy Naughten, has made his position clear on a number of occasions. I have said I am satisfied with the explanations he has given. He has apologised already and that is on the record of the Dáil. He has also said that he would not take such calls in the future. He has acknowledged that. It is important to point out that he did not do any favours for anyone. I appreciate that nobody in this House has alleged that he has done any favours for anyone but sometimes even without an allegation that impression can be created. We should all be clear in our comments that no favours were done for anyone. In fact, the Minister, Deputy Naughten, did the opposite of what I image INM would have wanted. He referred the proposed merger to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and, therefore, delayed it. It is important that we are clear in our commentary about that. He followed the advice of his officials and followed the law at all times. That is what any Minister would do and should do. He indicated in the phone call to the lobbyist that was what he would do. He would follow the advice of his officials and follow the law.
Deputy Micheál Martin: That was wrong.
The Taoiseach: That should not be a revelation to anyone. I have not approached the Stock Exchange or the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, ODCE, about it. The ODCE acts independently. If there is a concern, I am sure if the director deems it appropriate to investigate, he will do so.
Turning to media diversity, in any business competition is a good thing, whether that is a service, goods or anything else. It gives consumers more choice and reduces prices. Competition is especially important in the media. It is not a normal business. It is part of our democracy and we need to have a diversity of voices in our media. I do not think it is the role of politicians to decide what is the appropriate percentage that a media company should hold. We have the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC. The appropriate role is for it to assess any proposals for mergers and to see whether that would give any player in the market a position that is too large. I would not like to see Ministers adjudicating as to whether 27% is okay but 28% is not or to be in that space. These things should be independent of politics and politicians. They should be determined by a body such as the CCPC when it comes to a merger such as this, with the BAI having a role too. I think that system is the right one and the policy is correct as we have it.
I read the Reporters Without Borders media freedom index report recently. It is interesting reading. Deputy Brendan Howlin referred to it as well. It gives us a relatively high rating in respect of media freedom. We are in the first tier but down slightly on previous years. I think we are around 13th or 14th in the world out of nearly 200 countries. However, a few things were pointed out. It pointed to what it believes is RTÉ being too large in the broadcasting space, INM being too large in the print space and our defamation laws being too much on the side of the person who was defamed. I imagine those defamed would have one view and defamers would have a different view. The issue of the protection of sources was also raised. We discussed that yesterday. I am not sure if Deputies have proposals as to how we could reduce RTÉ’s position in broadcast media or INM’s position in print. However, given that Reporters Without Borders put those two together, as two of the four issues it believes need to dealt with, when we talk about this we need to talk about both issues as well. That is the analysis it put forward.
I am not sure if there has been some false reporting, but for clarity I did not have a private meeting with Mr. Denis O’Brien in Davos. No meeting was scheduled. We did not sit down together across a table or sit down together at all. He was in Davos. I was in Davos. I ran into him in a corridor. It was very public. We exchanged pleasantries and that was it.