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A Special Kind Of Independence


“I am a maximalist. I want more of everything.” (Sir Anthony O’Reilly, chief executive, Independent News & Media Plc) “More than a million species could die out as a result of global warming. And it is not an asteroid that will have caused this, of course: it is us. The Sixth Great Extinction will be an entirely human achievement… the effect on the atmosphere of two centuries of burning coal, gas and oil on an ever-increasing scale.” (Independent, Leader, ‘The sixth great extinction is avoidable – if we act now’, January 8, 2004)

Simon Kelner, editor-in-chief of the Independent and the Independent on Sunday in London, explained earlier this year what the name ‘Independent’ means to him:

“…there will be no retreat from the qualities that have underpinned The Independent since its launch. As we approach the general election, the role for an independent paper, one that is not driven by proprietorial agenda and that has no party allegiance, is as great as ever.” (Simon Kelner, ‘The Independent: a new look for the original quality compact newspaper’, The Independent, April 12, 2005)

In 2004, The Independent was named National Newspaper of the Year at the British Press Awards, “the Oscars of the newspaper industry.” The judging panel praised the paper’s launch of a compact [tabloid] version as a “heroic decision” and declared, “thanks to The Independent, the face of British national newspapers has been changed for ever”. The panel added that “the paper had also excelled in its journalism… The Independent’s approach to the war in Iraq meant it was already having a good year even before its mould-breaking revamp”. (Ian Burrell, ‘ “Mould-breaking” Independent named newspaper of the year at press awards’, The Independent, March 18, 2004)

Tristan Davies, editor of the sister paper, the Independent on Sunday, trumpeted his own title: “We punch far above our weight. Steve Richards and Andy McSmith have helped make us the strongest Sunday political team in Fleet Street, and we are a campaigning paper once more.” (David Lister, ‘The fight for hearts and minds’, The Independent, March 4, 2003)

As editor-in-chief of the Independent titles in London, Kelner’s pride is unbounded:

“I am tremendously proud of our front pages – which vary from an important piece of comment to a graphical presentation of a big, serious story to something with a campaigning edge. The Independent has always been a newspaper with strong opinions, and the views behind the news are what gives newspapers an advantage these days.

“We can’t compete with the electronic media for breaking news. But no other medium has the range, quality, depth and trustworthiness of the interpretation, comment and analysis provided by each and every one of our newspapers at such low prices.” (Simon Kelner, ‘Editors Agree: Size Does Matter’, The Independent, November 15, 2004)

In reality, British newspapers are “the least trusted in Europe”, according to research conducted by Eurobarometer, the polling arm of the European Commission. British papers are trusted by 20% of the population – less than half the European Union average of 46%. Fully 75% said they “tended not to trust” the written press. The next worst result was Italy – where the media is dominated by billionaire prime minister Silvio Berlusconi – where trust was 39%. (Ian Black, ‘British newspapers are “the least trusted in Europe”‘, The Guardian, April 24, 2002)

The Independent does boast Robert Fisk, one of the finest foreign reporters working in the British media, and a critical commentator on the way mainstream media so often slavishly channel government propaganda. Fisk says of his employer:

“I don’t work for Colin Powell, I work for a British newspaper called The Independent; if you read it, you’ll find that we are.” (‘Live From Iraq, an Un-Embedded Journalist’, Democracy Now!, March 25, 2003)

A Unique And Diverse Portfolio Of Market-Leading Brands

It should go without saying that a truly independent press would regularly investigate the business activities and interests of its managers and owners. The Times would examine critically the empire of its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch; the Guardian would examine the extensive business interests and establishment links of the Guardian Media Group directors; and the Independent would delve into the affairs of Irish billionaire Sir Anthony O’Reilly.

O’Reilly is chief executive of Independent News & Media Plc (INM), the multinational company that publishes the Independent and Independent on Sunday in London. The company describes itself as “a leading international media and communications group, with interests in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and most recently, India… the Group publishes over 176 newspaper and magazine titles with a weekly circulation of over 29 million copies and operates over 70 on-line editorial and classified sites.

“The Group is also the largest radio and outdoor advertising operator in Australasia – with leading outdoor advertising operations also in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia and in South Africa, through its joint venture company, Clear Channel Independent.

“The Group has grown consistently over the last 15 years by building a geographically unique and diverse portfolio of market-leading brands, and today manages gross assets of 3.9 billion euros, turnover of over 1.8 billion euros and employs over 11,000 people worldwide.” (Independent News & Media website, http://www.inmplc.com/main.php?menu=menu2&mb=cp)

Here we can identify the real function of a thriving media company. The focus is on ‘consistent growth’, a ‘diverse portfolio’, ‘market-leading brands’ and awe-inspiring ‘gross assets’ of billions of euros. News values, never mind the vital role of holding state and corporate power to account, hardly rate a mention.

The core objective of INM is to generate profit. It does so by providing a platform for other businesses to reach millions of potential customers. In essence, INM sells to wealthy advertisers the lucrative prospect of reaching affluent newspaper readerships who have money to spend on consumer goods and services.

O’Reilly explains:

“For the advertiser, the newspaper remains the most effective mechanism to convey to the potential consumer the virtue, value, colour and style of any new product, service or offering that he has.” (O’Reilly, Independent News & Media Plc Annual Report 2004, p.3)

This focus on profit and consumerism, rather than on news reporting and critical analysis, should come as no surprise. Consider the credentials of those involved. O’Reilly is a former chairman, president and CEO of H J Heinz, the leading food company. He is also a former member of the board of the New York Stock Exchange. His personal fortune, estimated at £1.3 billion, makes him the richest man in Ireland. He makes £15 million a year in salary and dividends. He is married to Chryss Goulandris, a Greek shipping heiress who has a personal fortune estimated at £442 million. (Colm Murphy, ‘The Rich List 2005: Ireland’s richest 250′, Sunday Times, April 3, 2005)

Together with brother-in-law Peter Goulandris, O’Reilly controls Waterford Wedgwood, the crystal and luxury goods manufacturer. O’Reilly has a controlling 72% share in Arcon, the zinc mining operation, and he has interests in oil and gas exploration. He also owns Fitzwilton, a large industrial group with core activities in food retail and light manufacturing. In 2004, he made a £29 million tax-free profit when a consortium he led refloated Eircom, the former Irish state phone monopoly.

O’Reilly has six children, “each of whom, Murdoch-style, has been put in charge of a part of the O’Reilly empire” (William Cash, ‘The luck of the Irish’, Evening Standard, February 27, 2004). His son Gavin runs the Irish operations of INM in Dublin and is tipped to take over at the top when his father retires. O’Reilly’s newspapers are dominant in the Irish market where they “hold a position of unchallengeable strength”. (‘O’Reilly’s global empire is still built on print’, Sunday Business Post, April 29, 2001)

In Australia, INM owns Australian Provincial Newspapers, the largest publisher of local papers. It was bought using the O’Reilly family trust to circumvent Australian rules on foreign media ownership: O’Reilly’s first wife is Australian and his children had Australian citizenship. The group also expanded into India this year when INM paid £19 million for a 26% stake in Jagran Prakashan, one of India’s leading newspaper groups and publisher of the world’s most widely read Hindi newspaper, the Dainik Jagran.

Billionaire O’Reilly sums up his feelings about the newspaper industry: “It’s a wonderful place to be.”

Is it any wonder, given that his 27% stake in the Independent group has risen in value from £276 million to £313 million? (Colm Murphy, op., cit)

The riches are not confined to the top man at Independent News & Media. Ivan Fallon, O’Reilly’s chief executive of INM in the UK, last year earned 979,000 euros, including fees and a bonus. (John Plunkett, ‘Media Guardian 100′, Guardian, July 18, 2005)

Fallon was also chief executive of mobile phone content company iTouch until May 2005. He stepped down after INM sold its 37% stake in the company to Japanese firm For-side.com for a £51 million profit. The newspaper group said it would use the proceeds “for general corporate purposes and to enhance the company’s market-leading publishing brands.” (Damian Reece, ‘Japanese buy I-Touch for £180m’, The Independent, April 29, 2005)

High-Ranking Acquaintances Of A Media “Maximalist”

Great wealth, then, is one attribute of a successful media owner. So, too, is the ability to cultivate an extensive network of highly-placed contacts. According to one report in the US press, “O’Reilly counts among his friends and acquaintances a veritable who’s who of world leaders and notables. His castle wall has a photo of him playing tennis at the White House with former President George Bush [Sr.], signed ‘Tony, greetings from the White House Field of Combat – George Bush.’” (Cristina Rouvalis, ‘Living large; Anthony O’Reilly rules a global business empire, enchants all those in his sphere and is now addressed as “Sir”‘, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 22, 2001)

O’Reilly enjoys a glamorous lifestyle and appreciates the importance of mixing with the movers and shakers:

“Entertaining celebrity friends on a grand scale is often done at one of O’Reilly’s five residences around the world.” As well as an Irish castle “overlooking 1,000 verdant acres that include a stud farm”, O’Reilly “owns a Georgian townhouse on fashionable Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin, a seaside home in Glandore, Ireland, a Deauville, France, chateau built on the ruins of the castle where William the Conqueror plotted his 1066 invasion of England” and “an island retreat with a private beach in Lyford Cay, Bahamas.” (ibid)

“I am a maximalist,” O’Reilly freely admits. “I want more of everything”. (Richard Siklos, ‘”I want more of everything”‘, Business Week, December 20, 1999)

Not just more wealth, but also more power. As one Irish newspaper puts it, O’Reilly’s “acquisition of a full stake in the Independent in London in 1998 gave him complete control of the British broadsheet and the attendant clout and respectability that he had craved.” (‘O’Reilly’s global empire is still built on print’, Sunday Business Post, April 29, 2001).

Journalism And The Gloss And Glitter Of Great Wealth

Should any of this matter? Does O’Reilly’s enormous wealth and craving for “clout and respectability” have any bearing on the ability of his newspapers to report honestly and accurately? Andrew Marr, former editor of the Independent and pillar of the liberal establishment, has this to say:

“[O'Reilly's] country house in Kildare, where the Liffey is just a stream, is Castlemartin, a beautiful home, warmer in style and furnishing than one imagines any Protestant ascendancy house would have been, with a constant stream of petitioning Irish politicians at the gate and rolling acres for the expensive horseflesh to frolic in all around. I mention this only because in the history of relations between proprietors and editors, the sheer gloss and glitter of great wealth, and its effect on middle-class British tradesmen, which is what journalists are, should not be underestimated.” (Marr, My Trade, Macmillan, 2004, pp.241-242)

Consider, too, that the non-executive directors on the board of INM are also selected for their “clout and respectability”. They therefore have close links with other important sectors of industry, investment and the establishment.

They include Ken Clarke, candidate for the Tory party leadership and deputy chairman of British American Tobacco; Brian Hillery, chairman of UniCredito Italiano Bank (Ireland) Plc and Providence Resources Plc; Baroness Margaret Jay, a former member of Tony Blair’s cabinet when she was leader of the House of Lords; and Brian Mulroney, a former Prime Minister of Canada and now a senior partner at the Montreal law firm of Ogilvy Renault. (http://www.inmplc.com/main.php?menu=menu2&mb=ned)

If the Independent newspapers did +not+ project the interests of such privileged individuals and sectors of society, these people would not be sitting comfortably as group directors. According to information published at INM’s website, there is no place on the INM board for those who might challenge the status quo: representatives of groups campaigning for environmental protection, better labour conditions, social justice or human rights. Some readers of the Independent may nonetheless regard it as a liberal, even somewhat critical, newspaper on domestic and global affairs. Certainly, the paper took an ‘anti-war’ line over the US-UK invasion; but with systematic and outrageous power-friendly distortions, omissions and apologetics. Almost with the sole exception of the admirable Robert Fisk, the Independent rarely strays beyond the standard framework of assuming ‘benign intentions’ for western leaders, as we have shown repeatedly (see our archive of media alerts at http://www.medialens.org/alerts/archive.php).

Noam Chomsky once responded to an example we sent him of the Independent’s abysmal, pro-government ‘reporting’ on Iraq before the 2003 invasion:

“It’s worth remembering that no matter how much they try, they [senior Independent journalists] are part of the British educated elite, that is, ideological fanatics who have long ago lost the capacity to think on any issue of human significance, and entirely in the grip of the state religion. They can concede errors or failures [by western leaders], but anything more is, literally, inconceivable.” (Noam Chomsky, email to David Cromwell, February 24, 2001)

Chomsky was not here referring to Fisk’s work, for which he has great respect.

On climate change, the paper +has+ carried several cover stories on the ever-increasing evidence of the calamity that may soon engulf us. But again, note that a major underlying cause, the profit-driven system of corporate globalisation – the determination of business maximalists to have more of everything – is not up for discussion in the paper. Should we be surprised, when the very people sitting on the company board of INM are major players driving this system forwards?

And so, it is entirely to be expected that the scope, content and background of O’Reilly’s business interests and establishment networking, and those of the other board directors, are off-limits in the pages of the Independent newspapers. Somehow, we are supposed to imagine that this is not important.

Responsible journalism demands that the activities of the Independent’s managers and owners (and those of other newspapers) should be accountable and transparent to its readership. Newspapers should tell us about the extensive business and establishment interests of their directors, and should reveal how much they earn from corporate advertising – and from which companies. In particular, owners and editors need to explain why they continue to accept advertising revenue from some of the very businesses whose practices are stoking up global warming, with likely catastrophic consequences.

David Cromwell is editor of Media Lens (http://www.medialens.org), together with David Edwards. Their first book, Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media, will be published in December by Pluto Press (http://www.plutobooks.com).

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