THE CHANGING LANDSCAPE OF THE IRISH PRESS
THE GROWING INFLUENCE OF BRITISH NEWSPAPERS IN THE REPUBLIC OF
IRELAND SINCE 1995
Escola Superior de Educação Jean Piaget/Nordeste,
Last year, about one third of the daily morning newspapers sold in the Republic of Ireland
were British1. This proportion has risen significantly since the mid-1990s but it is by no means
exceptional, since it was more or less the same in the 1920s, following the foundation of the Irish
Free State (Farrell 1984:18). Indeed, powerful British media groups have always found in Ireland a
natural extension of their market, encouraged by a growing cultural proximity and a common
language. This phenomenon is therefore not recent, but it has taken new proportions since British
tabloids began to see their circulation and advertising revenues stagnate, or even fall, during the
1990s in the United Kingdom2. Ireland is no longer a comparatively cheap way of adding a few
thousand copies to the total circulation but has become an objective in itself where Irish editions of
British titles are expected to make money of their own not only by high sales but also by increasing
their shares of the advertising market. Since the death of the Irish Press Group in 1995, for
example, the total circulation of British newspapers in Ireland has increased by almost 60%,
against less than 20 for their four Irish rivals3. In particular, News Corporation, Associated
Newspapers and Trinity Mirror, among others, are now bringing important changes to the press of
the Republic of Ireland. After presenting the current situation and the main changes which have
taken place recently, this paper will try to understand how such press groups may transform the
traditional landscape of the Irish press.
Before going any further in this analysis of the British papers in Ireland, one essential
question must be raised: basically, what makes a newspaper Irish or foreign? The answer is
probably not as obvious as it may seem. The Joint National Readership Research, for example, the
Irish equivalent of the British ABC, includes the Star, which is 50% British owned, as well as
Ireland on Sunday, property of a British group for several years, among Irish titles. What, then,
may be the criteria? In 1996, the Commission on the Newspaper Industry gave some light to this
debate, by stating the conditions for a newspaper to be considered Irish. According to the
Commission, it must direct its content to the Irish market, be published on Irish territory, be
controlled by Irish interests, have a majority of its staff resident in Ireland and be printed and
distributed by persons working in Ireland (Horgan 2001:160). The problem is clearly that most of
these conditions may apply to a growing number of British titles for sale in Ireland, which makes
any classification inevitably subjective. In want of a better definition, however, I will stick to these
criteria, and consider as Irish newspapers the following titles: The Irish Independent, Irish Times,
Star and Examiner as morning dailies, two evening papers, the Evening Herald and Evening Echo
and, on Sundays, the Sunday Independent, Sunday World, Sunday Tribune, Sunday Business Post
and Ireland on Sunday4.
Of the nine British daily newspapers available in the Republic of Ireland, the Sun, or Irish
Sun, is the one to have known the most spectacular evolution in the past decade. Its average
circulation, from around 30.000 in the early 1990s, is now about to overtake the Irish Times as the
second best-selling newspaper of the country, with almost 120.000 copies sold on average last
year. By itself, the Sun makes up for more than half of the British titles sold in Ireland. The
position of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation group is even stronger on the overcrowded
market of Sunday newspapers, where News of the World and the Sunday Times represent between
them about two thirds of the total of British titles sold5. The Irish Mirror also holds a strong
position with almost 80.000 copies sold daily last year, a growth of some 30% since 1995.
Beside these two eternal rivals, News Corporation and Trinity Mirror, we can’t minimize the
dramatic increase in the sales of Ireland on Sunday since Associated Newspapers bought it from
Scottish Radio Holdings in September 2001 for 12 million Euros. Thanks to a very dynamic
launching campaign, the owners of the Daily Mail have tripled the sales of their new title, whose
circulation now reaches 160.000. This tremendous success is expected to lead, sooner or later, to
the foundation of an Irish Daily Mail which could allow the owners of Associated Newspapers to
reproduce in Ireland, on a daily basis, the formula of so-called middle market journalism so
successful in Britain lately6.
Beyond the three giants mentioned so far, the Express Group has also often hit the news
recently. Co-owner, with Independent News and Media, of the Star, Ireland’s only daily tabloid
founded in 1988, the Express Group was in 2000 bought by Richard Desmond, whose nickname of
«king of porn» says a lot about his journalistic principles. On the basis of a recipe which has so far
proved successful on the British market – low prices, high profitability and sensationalist news –
Desmond has given a new vitality to the Star. At the same time, the operation was a hard blow for
the chairman of Independent News and Media Tony O’Reilly. Usually considered one of the
richest men in Ireland, O’Reilly, who was getting ready to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth,
suddenly found himself associated with the owner of titles as explicit as Asian Babes, Big Ones or
Nude Readers’ Wives. This embarrassing partnership was for some time the target of sarcastic
remarks on the part of the few papers still avoiding O’Reilly’s control, especially the Irish Times
and the Sunday Business Post.
Independent News and Media, however, is probably the only Irish publication able to
compete with its powerful British rivals. Occasionally, it has even come to defy them on their own
grounds, like when it bought the agonizing London Independent in 1997 or, more recently, the
Belfast Telegraph in a polemical operation7. Within the Irish market, O’Reilly seems to rely on an
increasingly dominant position since he controls, directly or indirectly, two thirds of the Irish
newspapers sold every day, and over three quarters of them on Sundays8. However, as John
Horgan has pointed out in an essay called Newspaper Ownership in Ireland and its Effects on
Media Diversity, the Independent group, as wealthy as it is, is still “a relatively small fish in the
ocean in which Murdoch and other media giants swim” (Cassidy & McGrady 2001:51). Besides,
O’Reilly’s leading titles, especially the Sunday Independent and Sunday World, are under growing
pressure from their British rivals which are clearly aiming their campaign at them. A good example
could be found in a full page advertisement by Ireland on Sunday in February this year, which
read, in huge characters: “165 000 readers: read it and weep, Tony” 9. This is only one episode in a
war which has opposed Independent News and Media and Associated Newspapers for some time.
Interestingly enough, this advertisement was published in the Independent’s archrival the Irish
Times, which considers itself outside this war because of its status of Ireland’s newspaper of
Indeed, the Irish Times has always made a point of staying aloof from the battle between the
Independent and the British titles. Well before its recent financial problems, the Irish Times has
always refused to acquire more titles and has boasted of its original, independent structure. Last
November, a speech by Conor Brady, the leaving editor, to his staff, illustrated how the Irish
Times likes to think of itself as “a newspaper that controls its own destiny, that stands for honest,
principled journalism, that isn’t in anybody’s pockets and that pays its own way”10. As Brady
himself pointed out, this is indeed a rare thing in the world of communication of the XXIst century.
In the end, the only exception has come from the usually discreet Examiner, of Cork, whose
owner Thomas Crosbie Holdings bought the Sunday Business Post from Trinity Mirror for 10
million Euros last year. Mary Harney, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment welcomed
the operation at the time, considering that it should improve competition in the national media
market11. This would probably be true if media competition in the Republic did not depend more
and more heavily on British groups.
When de Valera launched the Irish Press in September 1931, the first editorial of the new
paper claimed that its intention was “to be the voice of the people, to speak for them, to give
utterance to their ideals and to defend them against slander and false witness” 12. According to the
nationalist leader, British publications represented a threat to Ireland on four levels: economics,
politics, culture and nationality, this last one obviously including language and religion. Stephen
Brown, in his history of the press in Ireland first published in 1937, reflected this view:
The British press constitutes a perpetual menace to Ireland owing to its wide diffusion
in this country. […] The British newspapers are also a cultural menace diffusing, as
they do, a culture that is not merely alien but growing ever more pagan. Religion,
morals and Irish nationality are threatened likewise by this invasion. (Brown
Times have changed, however, and it is today mainly on economic and journalistic grounds that
British newspapers in Ireland are criticized.
In 1995, in a book called Ireland Today, Anatomy of a Changing State, Gemma Hussey still
claimed that “Irish newspapers, reflecting the ethos and the character of the country, are not guilty
of the worst sexual and sleazy excesses of the British tabloids” (Hussey 1995:339). The same year,
Aileen & Kathleen O’Meara, in their book Headlines or Deadlines, considered that “Unlike
England, the Irish newspaper market is not dominated by the tabloid style, which goes after
personality rather than news, using populist angles” (K. &. O’Meara 1995:4). These statements
may have had some justification at the time, but if British papers did show the way towards
sensationalism to their Irish colleagues, the least we can say is that some of them did not offer
much resistance before joining them in the gutter13. It is true, of course, that all the British papers
with any significant circulation in Ireland are, at best, middle market, and that the so-called quality
press represents just over 8% of the total of British sales14. But a glance at the Star, the Evening
Herald, the Sunday World, the Irish Independent or even the Irish Times doesn’t leave much doubt
that the tendency is at a general “tabloidation” (Villate-Compton 1999:145) of the press to which
Irish newspapers do not show any particular intention of being an exception. (To quote another
neologism, I have seen recently some observers use the term “murdochisation”.) To make matters
worse, the limited size of a market, in this case Ireland, leads newspapers, including the self-styled
quality ones, to extend their appeal to a wider range of audience15.
In terms of contents, it is important to insist on the fact that the British titles with the highest
circulation in Ireland are the ones that have increased their Irish contents, especially the titles
belonging to Murdoch. On the one hand, the Sun and News of the World have dedicated a growing
portion of their pages to Irish news while maintaining their traditional characteristics based on
sports, scandals and sex. (The same could be said, of course, of the Irish Mirror). On the other
hand, the Sunday Times has not only extended its Irish content but is now obviously targeting the
recruitment and property advertising market, with the launch of a new Ireland only business
section last year16. Besides, all three Murdoch-owned titles have their own editor for Ireland –
although sometimes based in London – and have recently opened their own commercial office in
Dublin. News Corporation also inaugurated last year a press center in Kells, Co. Meath,
strategically situated half way between Dublin and Belfast. This new printing plant, which cost
some 70 million pounds, can print 250.000 copies on weekdays and almost half a million on
Sundays (Horgan 2001: 173). Although a mere drop of water in the whole of the News
Corporation group, these investments show Rupert Murdoch’s ambition to consolidate his strong
position on the Irish market.
For many years, the British papers for sale in the Republic were identical to their British
editions and consequently gave little importance to Irish politics. This, too, has changed recently.
Once again, the best example of this recent interest in Irish politics came from two of Murdoch’s
titles, News of the World and the Sunday Times, which gave their support to the Fianna Fáil of
Bertie Ahern before the general elections of 1997 and 2002. Considering the ability of Murdoch-
owned papers to make or break politicians and governments in Britain in the past decades, this
says a lot about the integration of these newspapers in Irish society. In particular, it helps to
understand why big media tycoons are traditionally cherished by the rulers. (We could give the
examples of Tony Blair visiting Murdoch in Australia in 1998 or of Queen Elizabeth herself
knighting Tony O’Reilly three years later.) Even the Catholic Church doesn’t seem indifferent to
Murdoch’s charm, and made him a Knight Commander of Saint Gregory a few years ago17. Ireland
is no exception to this rule, and the Taoiseach made the inauguration of News Corporation’s print
centre one of his first public acts after his comfortable re-election in June last year. On that
occasion, Bertie Ahern even took the opportunity to qualify Murdoch as “one of the world’s
foremost leaders in media who has been held as one of the most outstanding Australian figures in
modern times”18. It is of course difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate the influence of this support
on the outcome of the election. But is nonetheless interesting to note that both O’Reilly and
Murdoch supported Bertie Ahern, for essentially commercial reasons, and took opposed stances on
the Gulf War earlier this year, with the papers owned by the Australian magnate following their
usual gung-ho line while the Independent titles took a firm stance against the war.
On a more economic level, British tabloids have reproduced in Ireland the price war which is
their daily routine in Britain, and have done so with means which are completely out of reach of
any of their Irish rivals, including the Irish Independent. Indeed, which of these could cut its price
by some 40% overnight, as both the Sun and the Mirror did in May last year19? This strategy has
an instant cost, of course, estimated at around one and a half million Euros a week for each title 20,
but since its objective is first of all to crush the competition, it is probably worth it (Curran &
Seaton 1991:117). This practice has often been criticized by Irish publishers in general, and by
Independent News and Media in particular, on the grounds that below cost sales are forbidden by
law. National Newspapers of Ireland, for example, explains on its website that “backed by
enormous economies of scale, certain British publishers can afford to sell their newspapers in
Ireland at a cover price which no Irish newspaper company can possibly compete with”
(http://www.nni.ie/press/htm). These claims, however, have so far never led to any sanction by the
authorities which have made it clear, since the death of the Irish Press Group in 1995, that they
saw the industry of the press as any other business and therefore ruled by current commercial
legislation – they have always refused, for example, to abolish, or at least reduce, VAT on
newspapers which, at 12.5%, is the highest of the European Union. Paradoxically, Independent
titles are the ones to suffer most from this war, their characteristics making them the logical preys
of the British tycoons. The Irish Independent, in particular, finds itself in a delicate position,
having to compete with the Irish Times at the quality end of the market and the British exports at
the other end21. At the same time, confident in their readers’ loyalty, O’Reilly’s titles have been
pushing up their cover prices to make second buys, mostly British, shrink significantly.
His position as the main opponent of British titles on Irish soil has led O’Reilly to present his
battle as a crusade against the common national enemy. When faced with the accusation of
representing a threat to the diversity of the national press, he plays the defense of Irish interests.
Although his position is increasingly seen as a monopoly (Cassidy & McGrady 2001: 48-52), the
Irish tycoon’s view is that anything is better than falling into the hands of a foreign – meaning
British – group. He has had the opportunity to put this theory into practice at least twice in the past,
first with the agonizing Irish Press and then with the Sunday Tribune, preferring each time to
waste his own money rather than allow a British group to acquire an already-made Irish title and
consequently to threaten his privileges (O’Brien 2001: 216-218). The position of the Independent
Group has sometimes found an official echo, for example in the Commission on the Newspaper
Industry, nominated after the polemic around the death of the Irish Press in 1995 and which
declared in its report that
there are good grounds for believing that the ownership by Independent
Newspapers of the Sunday World and its half share interest in the Star has had a
marked effect on curtailing the imported dominance of the tabloid market in Sunday
and daily papers in Ireland (Cassidy & McGrady 2001: 48).
This view of things, however, raises a fundamental question: is depending on a big Irish
multinational intrinsically and systematically better than belonging to a big British multinational?
In a collection of essays called Media in Ireland: the Search for Diversity and published in
1997, Damien Kiberd gave his opinion on the question:
Concentration of ownership can, in certain circumstances, lead to a reduction in the
diversity of views finding expression in the media. It can also reduce the range of
employment options available to journalists and editors, and can promote a climate
of self-censorship (Kiberd 1997:8).
According to this definition, any risk of monopoly, be it indigenous or foreign, is intrinsically
dangerous, since plurality of titles and diversity of ownership are two completely distinct things. In
1996, the Commission on the Newspaper Industry came to a similar conclusion: “The Commission
would be concerned that any further reduction of titles or increase in concentration of ownership in
the indigenous industry could severely curtail the diversity requisite to maintain a vigorous
democracy” (Horgan 2001:162). What can we say, then, of an Irish market where two groups,
O’Reilly’s Independent and Murdoch’s News International, control almost 60 % of all the papers
sold every day, and a record 78 % on Sundays22? And where, with the notable exceptions of the
Irish Times and the Examiner, all the national newspapers belong to a powerful international
group? Concentrated on a potential foreign threat, Irish nationalists have for many years closed
their eyes to the danger represented by a national monopoly, therefore failing to see that
concentration of the media could be a problem much worse than their nationality.
To conclude, let me remind that the growing importance of British media groups in Ireland is
not limited to News Corporation, Associated Newspapers or Trinity Mirror. Recently, other groups
such as Scottish Radio Holdings or Dumferline Press have invested in regional and local
publications23. It is not restricted to the press either, as Murdoch – again – clearly showed last year
when BskyB, which he owns, bought the exclusive rights to Ireland’s home games in the Euro
2004 qualifiers24. On the whole, indeed, Irish tabloid culture has come to share a lot with its British
model. To quote an article from the New Statesman from earlier this year, “where once British
newspapers replaced sex and scandal in their Irish editions with stories of miracles at Lourdes,
tabloid culture in Ireland is now pretty much the same as in Britain” 25. Irish newspapers themselves
seem aware of this situation, as an Irish Times article sadly expressed in December last year:
The big picture […] is not just that the sex industry is generating sufficient profits
to redraw the culture of publishers. Clearly, that says much about contemporary
culture. But what’s more disquieting and, ultimately, of far greater significance is
that, to big international media outfits, Ireland, like the rest of the world, is merely a
market to be serviced and exploited. Technology, globalisation and economics have
ensured that native media in small economies are under pressure26.
A bitter disappointment, indeed, but the Irish situation is by no means unique: countries like
Austria, Luxemburg, Belgium or even Scotland are all victims of the same phenomenon. In such
proportions, this phenomenon raises a vital question: what kind of redefinition will the old notion
of national press need in the future?
British titles represented 33,3% of the daily morning newspapers sold in the Republic of Ireland in 2002 (227.755 out of
684.402), against 26.8% in 1995.
This is relative, of course, since both the Sun and Daily Mirror still enjoy a circulation which would make any editor in any
other European country envious. Despite a recent decline in their sales in Great Britain their circulation for March 2003
were respectively of 3.521.548 and 1.997.846 according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation.
Total circulation of British papers in Ireland: 143.000 in 1995, 228.000 in 2002.
Total circulation of Irish papers: 385.000 in 1995, 459.000 in 2002.
The Dublin Daily, which was launched in March this year and whose main shareholder is the British group Archant, based
in Norwich, is not taken into account here.
In 2002, with an average circulation of 116.000 (against 56.000 in 1995), the Irish Sun represented 51% of all the British
sales in Ireland. On Sundays, News of the World and the Sunday Times made up, between them, for 65,6% of the total of
British papers sold.
Unlike its more sensationalist rivals, the Daily Mail has considerably improved its circulation since the mid-1990s: from
1,7 to 2,4 million between 1994 and 2002 (+41%).
In July 2000, Independent News & Media bought the Belfast Telegraph, Northern Ireland’s best-selling newspaper
(average circulation: around 110.000) for 300 million pounds. Despite objections on the unionist side, the operation was
finally approved by the authorities.
Among daily newspapers, Independent News & Media owns the Irish Independent, the Evening Herald and half of the
Star. On Sundays, it owns the Sunday Independent and the Sunday World and controls the Sunday Tribune.
Full page advertisement in the Irish Times, 28 February 2003.
“Departing editor speaks of paper’s duty to readers”, The Irish Times, 12 October 2002.
The Sunday Business Post, 11 June 2002.
Editorial of the Irish Press, 5 September 1931.
“It is customary among journalists - mindful of the watchfulness of their employers – to pretend that talk of the declining
media standards is exaggerated. But it is not possible to exaggerate. [...] This is not simply an issue of tabloid excess, but
extends to every branch of the national media, including […] the self-styled “quality!” newspapers. [...] Not only do the
supposed “quality” newspapers not object to this debasement of their industry and our profession, but most are now itching
to get down in the gutter with the worst of them. Usually, all it takes is the concoction of some spurious «public interest
dimension» to justify going where they would or could not go before”. John Waters, “Decline in media standards cannot be
exaggerated”, The Irish Times, 1 June 1999.
The combined sales of the Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, Times, Guardian and Independent were 18.746 in 2002, out
of a total of 227.755.
Opinion expressed by Fintan O’Toole in an interview with the author in March 2001: “The Irish market is so small: if El
Pais or Le Monde sold the same proportion of the market as The Irish Times, they would be huge newspapers. Precisely
because of this limited market, it does have to be a more populist newspaper. It is a difficult trick. If you publish an Irish
version of Le Monde, or of El Pais, you would sell very few copies. This is why The Irish Times has to be a kind of middle
market newspaper in English or German terms. There is no easy way out of that, it has to do with the size of the market.
You’re never going to solve that problem by increasing the size of the market”.
In order to attract advertisers, a full-page advert in this supplement is much cheaper than in any of its Irish competitors
(17.000 Euros against 25.000 for the Irish Times, for example, with approximately the same number of copies sold).
Jean-Claude Sergeant, “Rupert Murdoch, empereur des médias”, Le Monde Diplomatique, January 1999 and Fintan
O’Toole, “Misdirected honour for the knight of the gutter”, The Irish Times, 16 January 1998.
Paul Cullen, “Shark who likes football get Bertie’s good press”, The Irish Times, 12 July 2002.
In May 2002, the Irish Mirror cut down its price from 70 to 50 cents, immediately followed by the Irish Sun. A few weeks
later, both the Irish Independent and the Irish Times rose their prices by 10%, to 1.40 Euros.
Catherine O’Mahony, “British tabloid price spreads here”, The Sunday Business Post, 19 May 2002 and “Tabloid all
claiming victory in cut-price circulation battle”, The Sunday Business Post, 9 June 2002.
To quote Conor Brady, editor of the Irish Times until October 2002, in an interview with the author in December 2000:
“The Irish Independent has a very difficult task: they have to compete with us, at the quality end of the market; they have to
compete with The Examiner for the middle market in rural Ireland; then, they have to compete with the British exports such
as The Mail, The Sun or The Express. This means that they have to look in several directions at the same time”.
Between them, O’Reilly and Murdoch controlled in 2002 400.000 daily papers out of 684.000 and 955.000 out of
1.229.000 on Sundays.
In December 2002, for example, the Meath Chronicle – with its printing press – was bought by the Scottish group
Dumferline Press for 30 million Euros. Another group, Scottish Radio Holdings, owns several local Irish titles: the
Tipperary Star, Leitrim Observer, Longford Leader, Munster Advertiser and Limerick People.
Local radio stations have not escaped from this phenomenon either. Last year, for example, Midlands Radio 3 was bought
by Ray Trindle, who already owns many local and regional radio stations on the British market.
Maurice Walsh, “What if Ireland was still British?”, The New Statesman, 27 January 2003.
Eddie Holt, “Who’s watching the media”, The Irish Times, 2 December 2000.
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in Britain, London: Routledge.
FARRELL, Brian (ed) (1984), Communications and Community in Ireland, Dublin & Cork: Mercier
HORGAN, John (2001), Irish Media since 1922: a Critical History, London: Routledge.
HUSSEY, Gemma (1995), Ireland Today, Anatomy of a Changing State, London: Penguin.
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College of Dublin Press.
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KIBERD, Damien (ed) (1999), Media in Ireland: the Search for Ethical Journalism, Dublin: Open air.
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SEYMOUR-URE, Colin (1991), The British Press and Broadcasting since 1945, Oxford: Blackwell.
VILLATE-COMPTON, Pascale (1999), “La Mutation des journaux de qualité”, in Lemonnier, Bertrand
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