Archive for February 12th, 2012

“The key difference between the information the reader of one of those solid Sunday newspapers chews through, and many other sources of information, is that the newspaper stuff has been gathered by trained, professional reporters, filtered by trained, professional editors, considered, in some cases, by lawyers, sub-edited and double-checked before it arrives with the reader.” Chairman of old media group addressing Irish media conference on 6th February, 2012

This week started with the chairman of the newspaper group with includes the Irish Examiner and Sunday Business Post, making a presentation to a media conference in Dublin in which he strongly criticised the “new media”. G Alan Crosbie is the current incarnation of five generations of the Crosbie family that have controlled one of Ireland’s three main newspaper groups. His speech predictably provoked a negative reaction from new media companies. And although the NAMA wine lake blog is not a company, it is new media and some of the comments made did rankle. So to commemorate G Alan’s contribution, this Sunday’s slot is devoted to the media. Let’s start off with a few spot prizes in recognition of the old media companies.

The G. Alan Crosbie Award
This week’s award goes to Maeve Dineen, the Business Editor at the Irish Independent who, on Thursday, confused Brendan McDonagh, the NAMA CEO (pictured below, left) and Brendan McDonagh, the former HSBC North America boss (pictured right). Given the NAMA CEO’s profile in the past three years, you’d think a business editor would be able to differentiate between the two. Well done Maeve!

Runner-up goes to Shane Coleman, presenter of the Sunday Show on Newstalk radio, who on Sunday 29th January (from about 30:00 minutes in) repeatedly referred to the Swiss town where the annual World Economic Forum is held as “Davros”. Davros – pictured here – is the leader of the Daleks in Doctor Who. Davos is the town in Switzerland., A hearty handshake for Shane!

Stenographer of the Week
Stenography is the writing down of what someone says, remember those old US court dramas where someone would be beavering away at what looked like a mini-typewriter? That’s an example of stenography. Journalism is supposed to be a different profession where the journalist verifies claims, checks facts, adds context and produces a meaningful report for its target audience. Journalism ≠ Stenography. A great example of Irish journalism/stenography would be Geoff Percival’s reporting of NAMA’s financial results published a week ago where Geoff took the NAMA press release which highlighted a €317m profit and reported that verbatim as his headline. Geoff didn’t bother to tell you that NAMA’s reported profit was before impairment losses which totalled €1.5bn in 2010 which led to an overall loss at NAMA for the year of €1.1bn. Given the declines in commercial and residential property prices in Ireland in 2011, the impairment losses are likely to have been at a similar level last year.

But the winner of Stenographer of the Week is another report, and given the reception the programme received, is not likely to be a popular choice. RTE’s Prime Time broadcast a special report on organised prostitution inIreland during the week. A disturbing subject, it was widely praised and the programme had some genuinely clever aspects such as secretly filming a woman suspected of being involved in organising prostitution in her own home, and then having one of its production staff ring an anonymous mobile phone number pretending to look for work; although the filming wasn’t conclusive, if the film crew accurately synchronised the telephone conversation – played from the production staff member’s phone – with the video of the secret filming, then it looked pretty damning to me. On the other hand, there was little evidence of verification of claims made by former prostitutes, and is it not against RTE producer guidelines to broadcast secret filming of victims under the influence of drugs? But put all of that aside. The problem with the programme was that it didn’t place the subject in a criminal context. The programme claimed just two out of 14,000 Garda members look after organised prostitution, there was no attempt to get the Garda view of the problem generally or specifically of the material collected and broadcast. And from this perspective, the transporting of women around the country had little to do with “variety for punters” but more to do with control. And what did the programme do for these women? What are the Gardai/Google doing about the website featured? What’s happening to the millions of euro generated through organised prostitution? The programme left us high and dry with what is essentially a criminal matter.

Runner up goes to Morning Ireland and its interview with the NAMA chairman on Thursday evening. The NAMA chairman managed to get away with claiming that his Agency would cost €500m over its 10-year lifespan and because the Agency had secured €500m of additional security, it was implicitly paying for itself! As shown here yesterday, NAMA is in fact running up costs of some €250m a year before impairment costs (€1.5bn in 2010) and before accounting for any foreign exchange/derivative exposure. Also developers aren’t volunteering €500m unless they have to, and I wonder if the developers might be bring the assets to the table in order to secure €1bn of additional advances from NAMA or the prospect of getting 10% bonuses on the sale of assets above a certain value. Frank also managed to deflect questions about NAMA’s need for additional capital despite property prices still declining inIreland and he got away yet again with predicting stabilisation of prices when he has been shown to be wrong on the subject several times. However, it is not the role of the stenographer to challenge claims.

Golden Child of Journalism award
The Irish Times is known as the “newspaper of record” and just over a week ago, one of its contributors certainly displayed a phenomenal capacity to record. Isabel Morton who describes herself as a property consultant penned a 700-word article for the Irish Times on 2nd February 2012, from which over 200 of the words are direct quotations from a taxi driver during what Isabel claimed was a chance journey when her car apparently broke down. Now the words might well have actually been said by a real cabbie in a real taxi where Isabel was a real passenger, but if that is the case, you really have to be impressed at Isabel’s memory or her quick thinking with recording the driver or her short-hand.
The Irish Times – The. Newspaper. Of. Record.

“Shame on You” award
In 2008, an 18-year Romanian woman was abducted from the streets of Dublin, raped, shot dead and buried in a shallow grave, with the chief suspect being a Dublin criminal. Two weeks ago, her decomposed body was found. Her family who travelled by road and sea all the way from Romania came to bring the body home for burial. The family was interviewed by Gardai. The Sunday World had done a decent thing by organising a collection to help with repatriating the body, and there had been the usual Irish public response, and €2,550 was collected in days before the Department of Social Protection intervened and confirmed it would pay to repatriate the body. The family were said to have been “incredibly devastated and traumatised” when they had met Gardai and when the Sunday World met them, they were “visibly upset”. And then, and THEN, the Sunday World forces the family to come to its offices to accept a giant cheque for €2,550 and be photographed receiving the cheque. Here’s the picture.

A runner-up prize goes to Noel Curran, director general of RTE since February 2011. Despite the criticism above, of an aspect of this week’s Prime Time programme on organised prostitution, the country is crying out for a proper investigative format to uncover the secret dealings and injustices which are perceived to be rife in this country. Last year RTE shamed itself with broadcasting a “Prime Time Investigates” programme called “Mission to Prey” which claimed a priest had sexually abused a parishioner in Kenya which led to him fathering a child, the priest denied the allegations and offered proof which was rejected by RTE who went ahead to broadcast the programme in May 2011, only to concede in November 2011 when the priest took the broadcaster to court that the allegations were unfounded. We don’t know how much the episode cost RTE in libel and associated costs but €5m has been bandied about in the media. The RTE DG reacted by promising an investigation and review, pulling the entire series of Prime Time Investigates programmes from the winter schedule and re-deploying the production team on the “Mission to Prey” programme to “non-programme” duties – what does that even mean? Are they picking up leaves at Montrose? The shame is that it is now months since the series was pulled and Noel Curran still hasn’t indicated when it will be back on our screens.

“Thou shalt not steal”
G Alan held forth on a common criticism of new media when he said “The fact is that, to generate good information carries a cost. It requires money. Unless you steal it like most new media companies do” Take a look at the following sequence of reporting.

15th August 2011 – “Claims that NAMA has sold the Smurfit Kappa HQ in Dublin for €8m” on the NWL blog
16th August 2011 – “Smurfit Kappa to buy its Irish headquarters from NAMA” from Donal O’Donovan at the Independent

16th August 2011 – “NAMA racks up another sale in central London” on the NWL blog
17th August 2011 – “NAMA selling developer McCabe’s prestige UK site for £20m” from Siobhan Creaton at the Independent

17th August 2011 – “Sale of €35m landmark Dublin office block to test market” on the NWL blog
18th August 2011 – “Market test as Docklands building goes up for sale” from Emmet Oliver at the Independent

If the Independent had only copied the details correctly from this blog without accreditation, it would have been bad enough, but they managed to insert their own errors, such as the lease details on the Smurfit Kappa story, and Siobhan Creaton wrote “the site at Arlington Street, close to Mayfair, is earmarked to be developed into seven large apartments that could sell for as much as £500,000 (€570,000) each” – in fact the apartments are “earmarked” to sell for ten times these numbers which if Siobhan considered the GBP 20m purchase price reported on here – and copied in her report – she might have figured that  buying for 20m and selling for 7*500,000 didn’t make commercial sense! Now according to the Annual Report produced by WordPress – the folks who host the NWL blog –  “this blog was viewed about 1,000,000 times in 2011. If it were competing at London Olympic Stadium, it would take about 13 sold-out events for that many people to see it”. It’s not an objective on here to build audience and general viewing statistics aren’t really of much interest, but if WordPress is reporting usage accurately then this blog is hardly hidden under a bush(el!) and it’s certainly not a primary source of information. I wonder what would G Alan say about the sequence of reporting above?

The Kilkenny Advertiser shut its doors on Friday last and the Irish Examiner reported “stiff competition in the free paper market is understood to be behind the closure of the Kilkenny publication.” Last year we lost the Sunday Tribune. But these two closures hide an immense sea change in conditions in the Irish media sector.

For those of you that think that the property and banking sectors in Ireland are distorted, you may be surprised at the level of financial distortion in the media sector. It’s not just RTE and its €196m of licence fee income which drives up the cost of what are termed “acquisitions” in TV circles, foreign films, sitcoms and dramas which are priced according to country, and Ireland has a certain price because households are forced to stump up €160 each year for a TV licence.  We learned during the week that Ireland’s commercial TV channel TV3 has seen the temporary forgiving of €81m of loans and that the broadcaster has a debt mountain of some €130m.

The distortions are highlighted when you look at individual salaries. Now Pat Kenny is a talented presenter but according to RTE, he was paid €729,604 in 2009.  When you consider that Vincent Browne last year revealed that he earned €58,000 a year at TV3 and that in the UK which has a media market which is fifteen times the size of Ireland’s, Jeremy Paxman gets paid GBP 750,000 (€900,000) per annum, you really have to be impressed by RTE’s distortion of the market. How on earth didn’t the Government intervene in RTE’s salaries last year when it held a referendum on judicial pay and also how on earth can someone who seemingly earns €15,000 per week convincingly empathise with his audience, particularly when dealing with ever-present austerity measures.


But surely if there were deteriorating conditions in Irish journalism then the heavily-unionised sector would be out on the streets. There would at least be protests through the media and we would all know there was an issue. There has not been a dickybird from the National Union of Journalists for example, which should lead you to believe there is no issue. On the other hand, there are muted references to pay cuts in some media, usually by those who have the safety of a wide income base which doesn’t depend on one employer. And we found out in the wake of Eamon Dunphy’s departure from Newstalk in October 2011 that presenters were called on to “self-produce” and the news station was generally cutting costs. And I have noticed his replacement at Newstalk’s “Sunday Show”, Shane Coleman is no longer publicising the (free) Twitter machine but wants you to text him at €0.30-a-pop.

G Alan’s own company, Thomas Crosbie Holdings is loss-making. It reported a €6.3m loss in 2010 and its revenues fell €10.7m during the year to €72m. The Irish Times group which publishes both the Irish Times (CORRECTION: remove reference to Sunday Times) and which is controlled by the charitable trust, Irish Times Trust Limited, is understood to be still racking up monthly operating losses – in 2010 it made a €3m loss before a pension credit pulled it back to a €2m profit, in 2009 it made an operating loss of €4.9m. Revenues were down 7% in 2010. Irish News and Media (publishers of the Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, Evening Herald, Sunday World, Belfast Telegraph and regional newspapers) is profitable. Indeed it is a common refrain from its senior executives that all of its titles are individually profitable.

From this perspective, it is hard to see how the Irish Examiner/Irish Times and Sunday Business Post/(CORRECTION: remove reference to Sunday Times) weekend edition of the Irish Times will continue to operate on a loss making basis, and were it not for personal vanities, we might already have seen a merger of the two. Can a merger be resisted for much longer?

New media is indeed whittling away at the profitability of old media companies, but even if there wasn’t any new media, it seems that the distortions and vanity in the Irish media sector have been doing a decent enough job of cutting profits for some time.

To conclude
You come to Ireland expecting journalists to have a Joycean vocabulary, a Wildean wit and a Swiftean sense of satire – that’s the international literary reputation of the country. You come away feeling like a sex-tourist that had gone to Tirana having calculated that because Albania is a major source country for international sex trafficking that there’d be an abundance of supply and value for money, and instead you find that Albanian society is relatively conservative and that the country is really just an assembly and transport hub for non-EU trafficking. If Ireland is a bastion of great writing, then we hide it well. Of course it is easy to sit here in a smart camouflage sniping from 2km out, and it should be said that there is plenty of evidence of decent journalism in each of the three print groups and also on RTE, but G Alan’s tirade against new media on Monday last, seemed to be delivered from a past that is no longer relevant. As Eminem told Moby a decade ago “you’re too old. Let go, it’s over. Nobody listens to techno”. And that is not an ageist comment. Anyone who watched the 67-year old Vincent Browne give a master-class in journalism at the recent bailout troika news conference where personality, experience, knowledge of context and sharpness justifiably stole the show and became the news.

As it’s Sunday let me leave you with the imagining of an editorial meeting at the Irish Independent.

Jeremy Usborne: Listening to this, it did make me think, lately, I’ve been having some ideas and this is exactly the sort of thing that I was thinking of doing.
Super Hans: He’s nicked your idea?
Jeremy Usborne: Well, has he? That’s what I’m wondering. Nicked my idea and then done it back to me.
Super Hans: I reckon we should invite him down, I think we could teach this kid a thing or two.
Jeremy Usborne: Until he arrives, shall we send this out to promoters?
Super Hans: Yeah. I think this is probably the best example of the sort of stuff we do we’ve ever had.
Jeremy Usborne: Oh yeah, cos sometimes it’s really hard actually to do your own ideas.

Just kidding of course, because firstly it’s from the Channel 4 sit-com “Peep Show” and secondly, an editorial meeting at the Irish Independent? Mightn’t that just cost time and money at the “individually profitable” title? And because this is new media, you can watch the Peep Show sit-com here for free (you might need to use a UK proxy mask like expatshield)


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