October 4, 2023
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Decline and fall of a newspaper empire

THE announcement that Independent News and Media is to be sold to a foreign company created little stir beyond the business pages of the surviving newspapers. None of those papers deemed it the main story of the day and it led no bulletin on radio or television.

Twenty years ago – ten, even – there would have been a huge fuss with TDs asking questions, unions threatening action and rivals shedding crocodile tears in their comment columns.

The relative lack of interest is symptomatic of the problem behind the sale of this once-mighty media group for a bargain price and at a huge loss to its main share-holder, Denis O’Brien.

Hardly anyone under the age of 40 is reading newspapers nowadays so nobody cares about their plight.

I am sorry to see their decline because it threatens journalism and, therefore, free speech and public knowledge. For the papers themselves, my feeling is directed more by nostalgia than real concern.

I served in the royal courts of Ireland’s two great newspaper families, the de Valeras and the O’Reillys. They were very different in style and substance but the fates of their dynasties were oddly similar, both brought down by unsustainable debt.

I worked with Eamon de Valera’s Irish Press group for a decade from 1978, then moved across the Liffey to Tony O’Reilly’s Independent Newspapers.

I never met the first Eamon de Valera. His son Vivion, a retired Army major, was running the show when I arrived in Brugh Quay. He was a modest little man who drove a modest little car and dressed in respectable dark suits, often swaddled in a fold-up plastic mac of a type that had been popular in the 1960s.

He interfered blatantly in the editorial affairs of his newspapers but mostly on matters of no real importance, usually in relation to the historical or technical accuracy of stories,  particularly those with a military connection.

When the Irish Press published the wrong name for a gun used in an Army exercise, he launched a hunt for the culprit, declaring his amazement that any reporter could make such a mistake or any sub-editor let it appear in the paper.

His newspapers were broadly supportive of Fianna Fáil but it didn’t seem to bother him much if they strayed from the party line. Matters of faith and morals concerned him more and he once pulled a movie ad from the paper because he thought it was too risqué. It was for the film, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Someone later pinned the ad on the editorial notice board with the warning caption: “But the Major Only Rings Once”.

He was a TD for Dublin North West and his political neutrality did not extend to his own affairs. He liked his speeches polished before publication and, on the rare occasions he spoke in the Dáil, would attempt to secure publication not of what he had actually said but of what he thought he should have said. These ambitions were usually thwarted by the News Editor or the Night Editor and, although the Major could have overruled them, he never did. After some huffing and puffing between news desk and night desk he would beat an orderly retreat, as befitted a military man.

He was succeeded by his son Eamon, who had a doctorate in chemistry and had worked for a large chemical company. I’m sure he must have rued the day he left it for he took over an Irish Press group weighed down with problems and lacking the money needed to revitalise its titles.

He entered into a disastrous partnership with an American publisher, Ralph Ingersoll, and then, in desperation, sold a stake in the company to Tony O’Reilly’s Independent Newspapers. The wolf now owned part of the farm and could devour the sheep at his leisure.

O’Reilly was a remarkable businessman. The Independent group he took over in 1973 had three titles, two of which – the Sunday Independent and the Evening Herald – lagged behind their Irish Press rivals in circulation. In a little over a decade he turned it into a major international publishing company while the Press group folded.

Excessive borrowing was his downfall but the money was borrowed for business expansion which created jobs and helped the economy. His efforts to keep Waterford Crystal manufacturing in Waterford were, perhaps, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It hurts to fall from a height. But I think history will remember Tony O’Reilly for the height rather than the fall. I don’t know how it will remember Denis O’Brien, but it won’t be for any contribution to newspapers.

If the deal goes through, the new owners of INM will be the Belgian company Mediahuis

I wish them well. Although it is too late, I fear, to salvage the print titles, they may find a way of making a profit from the digital versions.

But great Irish newspapers owned by great Irishmen are now, like yesterday’s news, a thing of the past. Thanks for the memories.



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