Media since 1960
Media since 1960
At the launch of Irish television on New Years Eve 1961, the Irish president, Eamon de Valera, knew that he was ushering in change. After suggesting that the new medium could impart knowledge, he came to what he really thought: Television, he said, "can lead through demoralisation to decadence and disillusion. Sometimes one hears that one must give the people what they want. And the competition unfortunately is in the wrong direction, so standards become lower and lower" (Hall, p. 69).
De Valera himself had been responsible for a previous seismic shift in the Irish media when he founded the Irish Press in 1931. The Irish Press was the only newspaper established since independence that overtly supported one political party, Fianna Fáil. In 1949 the Sunday Press was launched, and a further paper was added to the press group when the Evening Press was founded in 1954. By 1961 the Irish Press Group, now consisting of three newspapers, still supported the political party founded by de Valera, Fianna Fáil; the Independent Group, which also included three titles, was conservative, middle-class, and Catholic, broadly supporting the Fine Gael Party. The Irish Times was bought mainly by the small Protestant population but also provided a space for dissenting voices in an otherwise conformist Ireland. Around the country in every small town there were family-owned weekly provincial newspapers that reported on the local courts, the cattle marts, and other local events, much as they had done since the nineteenth century. Irish radio consisted of one station, Radio Éireann, which later became part of RTÉ (Radio Telefís Éireann), the state radio and television company, funded by license fees and advertising.
The 1960s was a period of rapid change in Ireland as elsewhere. Television, through current-affairs coverage and chat shows, was a modernizing force. The "Late Late Show," presented by Gay Byrne until the late 1990s, became a forum for discussion and debate about issues relating to the church, the family, and politics, of a kind which had never existed before. The Irish Times, which was in decline along with its Protestant readership, took advantage of the opportunities offered by social developments. Under its editor Douglas Gageby and news editor Donal Foley, it tapped into a middle class emerging in urban centers that worked in new industries and the public services. The newspaper became the voice for this new liberal constituency. Instead of being concerned with the traditional loyalties of newspaper buying in Ireland, where one bought the newspaper closest to one's family's political allegiance, the Irish Times introduced new writers, often women, and began to use specialist correspondents and more foreign news. Change at the Independent was slower but speeded up with the purchase of a major stake in the newspaper by an international businessman, Tony O'Reilly, in 1973. Under O'Reilly the press group Independent Newspapers became more middle-market in its audience, led by human-interest stories. It gradually shook off its Catholic conservatism, and the Sunday Independent especially became a platform for controversial and sometimes outrageous columnists and celebrity and fashion news. The Irish Press group, which had offered an alternative to the unionist Irish Times and the conservative Irish Independent, failed to respond to the change. By the 1980s the influence on the newspaper group of the de Valera family had ceased to be dynamic. For advertisers, theIrish Press's readership profile compared badly with its competitors': It consisted mainly of older men living in rural Ireland with little disposable income. The company's financial problems were exacerbated by management problems, and the three Irish Press titles folded in 1995.
In addition to Irish newspapers, a number of British newspapers are sold widely in Ireland, where they are read avidly. This is not a new phenomenon, but has been growing since at least the foundation of the Free State in 1922. The enduring presence in Ireland of the British media is a colonial legacy that has never been completely explained: Nowhere else in the world does the population of one country read in such great numbers the newspapers of another. One-third of all Sunday newspaper sales in Ireland and a quarter of all daily sales are of newspapers, mainly tabloids, published in Britain. In the mid-1990s British newspapers, especially Rupert Murdoch's News International titles, began to produce so-called Irish editions, with Irish news on the front page and some sports on the back, wrapped around an essentially British product. Traditionally, Irish newspapers have seen their role as essentially serious; this has left a gap for entertainment-led media, which has been filled by British newspapers, especially the tabloids. Irish publishers have also moved to fill that market gap with newspapers that are similar in style to their British counterparts, such as Ireland's daily tabloid, Star, and the Sunday World.
While huge changes were taking place within the existing Irish media, the Broadcasting Act of 1988 was the most significant institutional change. The act allowed for the establishment of commercial radio and television, and soon there were several local radio stations. They quickly won audience approval. In time a new national radio service, Today FM, came on air and then in 1998, TV3, a national commercial television station, was launched.
Foreign ownership of the Irish media became an issue when the Irish Press closed in 1995. A number of overseas companies had indicated interest in buying the group's three titles, but various factors, including a purchase of 24 percent of the company by Independent Newspapers, made it a less attractive proposition. (In fact, an American newspaper owner, Ralph Ingersoll, had already invested in the Irish Press in 1989.) TV3 was 45 percent owned, and fully managed, by the Canadian company CanWest. Later, a British television company also bought into TV3, thereby ensuring its access to a number of popular television programs, to the detriment of RTÉ. RTÉ's public-service role is now constantly challenged by those who believe that RTÉ's license-fee income gives it an unfair advantage and distorts the market. In 2001 the commercial broadcasting regulator, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, changed its rules, making it easier for bigger media players to buy into Ireland's radio and television industry. The British company Scottish Radio Holdings immediately bought the national commercial radio station Today FM. Early in 2003 the government announced an increase in the license fee, which will be linked to inflation, increasing automatically rather than as the each current government sees fit. This move guaranteed the RTÉ's future.
Ireland's economic performance since the mid-1990s has attracted overseas interest, but at the same time, Ireland's largest media company, Independent News and Media, the owner of the Independent group, now dominates Irish media to an alarming extent. It has three Independent titles, including the best-selling Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, and Evening Herald, as well as the Sunday World. It also has interests in the Sunday Tribune, the Star, and a string of weekly local newspapers in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland, as well as interests in a cable-television franchise and telecommunications companies. Independent News and Media also owns the London Independent as well as newspaper groups in South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.
Back in 1961 de Valera saw a small, Irish-owned, conservative media that was still coming to terms with its place in an independent Ireland. Television was the force that pushed the media to look outwards, to engage in debate about Ireland's role in the world, modernization, and social and political development. With the advent of television, the forces de Valera represented lost control of the political and cultural agenda. Today the Irish media is one of the most competitive in Europe, with four daily national newspaper titles and five Sunday national newspaper titles serving a population of around four million. Its television competes for viewers and advertising revenue with British channels, which can be accessed by over 70 percent of Irish homes. Within the Irish media, assumptions about public service, quality, ownership, and diversity are constantly challenged.
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O'Brien, Mark. De Valera, Fianna Fáil, and the Irish Press. 2001.
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