Thursday, May 24, 2018

Book Review: Independent Newspapers: A History, edited by Mark O’Brien & Kevin Rafter

adamFor over a century, Independent Newspapers has been the most successful media organization in Ireland. From William Martin Murphy to Tony O’Reilly, the newspaper group has long been at the centre of public life, often in controversial circumstances. In this book, leading scholars examine the interaction between proprietors and the newspapers, the company’s journalists and journalism, and the relationship between the newspapers and Irish society. Adam Larragy feels the book will appeal to both historians of Ireland and to those seeking a greater understanding of the historical role of Independent Newspapers.
Independent Newspapers: A History. Mark O’Brien & Kevin Rafter (eds.) Four Courts Press. September 2012.
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In the preface to this collection of essays, the editors, Mark O’Brien and Kevin Rafter, note that unlike its two major rivals – the Irish Times and the Press Group – no single-authored history of Independent Newspapers has yet been published. This is surprising, given the dominant position Independent Newspapers has come to hold in the Irish newspaper market, and the extensive – some would say too extensive – role successive proprietors of the group have played in Irish politics. This collection of essays is particularly timely, as one of Ireland’s wealthiest and most controversial businessmen, Denis O’Brien, is currently seeking to wrest control of Independent News and Media from the O’Reilly family.
The group’s flagship paper, the Irish Independent, attracts the attention of the majority of the essays in this volume. Given its reputation as the voice of the conservative Catholic middle-class nationalism, it is perhaps surprising that the Independent was established by supporters of charismatic nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell. Following the O’Shea divorce case in 1890 in which Parnell was named as the cause of the divorce, the hierarchy of the Irish Catholic Church and Liberal Party called for Parnell’s removal as leader of the Irish Party, and the Irish Party divided along Parnellite and anti-Parnellite lines. Patrick Maume’s chapter recounts how Parnell, then in the final weeks of his life, planned to launch the Irish Daily Independent in response to losing the support of the Freeman’s Journal and the National Press. Newspapers were crucial to promulgating political and cultural ideas in late nineteenth century Ireland, and the Independent, first launched on 18 December 1891, reflected its Parnellite message in both its output and structures: the editor of this self-declared ‘people’s paper’ sat on its board; working men were invited to form share clubs and secure a share of the paper; union labour was employed; and the Dublin office of the Independent was used as the headquarters of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret society of physical-force nationalists who had gravitated towards Parnell. The Parnellites ultimately won the political struggle to control the Irish Party; but they lost the newspaper war. Despite efforts by wealthy Parnellites such as James L. Carew, proprietor of the Leinster Leader, to save the paper, the Independent was sold to William Martin Murphy, an ally of the anti-Parnellite Tim Healy, and the Irish Independent was re-launched in 1905 on a firmly commercial basis from its new site on Abbey Street in Dublin.
Maume, a historian of fin-de-siècle Irish nationalism, places the fate of the Independent within the context of competing visions of Irish nationalism. Arthur Griffith, an advanced nationalist, would claim the mantel of the Parnellite tradition in his newspaper, the United Irishman, while the Irish Independent would, under Healyite control, assail an Irish Party re-united under the Parnellite John Redmond. Yet, in the Irish public imagination Murphy is not associated with the nationalist cause, but rather, as the historian Padraig Yeates notes in his essay, with the brutal lock-out imposed on Dublin’s working class in 1913, and the Irish Independent’s editorial calling for the execution of two of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, Seán MacDermott and James Connolly. Yeates, an activist in the very trade union that Murphy attempted to crush, is admirably even-handed in his portrayal of Murphy. He shrewdly argues that Murphy’s newspapers owed their success to their ability to appeal to a class that shared Murphy’s – a business magnate with interests in trams, slum dwellings, and rail – own values: the conservative Catholic southern middle-class. Murphy was also something of a precursor for later proprietors of the Independent Group; he was deft in using government subsidies to support his business interests, such as the light rail network in Munster, and saw the advancement of his own commercial interest as synonymous with the national interest. The ability of the Irish Independent to re-orientate itself towards the popular Sinn Fein position during the Irish War of Independence is explored by Ian Kennelly, and Felix M. Larkin’s essay on T.R Harrington’s twenty-seven editorship emphasises the ability of the Independent Group – comprising the Sunday Independent, Evening Herald and Irish Independent – to follow conservative public opinion, ultimately leading it to support the Treaty and the conservative Cumann na nGaedheal party.
Later essays explore the role of the Irish and Sunday Independent in cleaving to the fiscally conservative economic orthodoxy of the 1950s, the international expansion of Independent News and Media following Tony O’Reilly’s acquisition of the group after the Sunday Independent’s revelation of the Irish Sweepstake scandal in 1973, the acquisition of many of Ireland’s local newspapers, and the influence of Vincent Doyle’s admiration of the Daily Mail on his 24 year editorship. All touch upon the groups’ rivalry with their once powerful rival, the de Valera-owned Press Group.
The final essay, by Kevin Rafter, examines the most pressing contemporary controversy confronting Independent News and Media; that of the role of proprietor. Under the Murphys’ proprietorship, the group supported Fine Gael – the predecessor of Cumman na nGaedhal – and a conservative economic policy. Under Tony O’Reilly – whose interests include oil exploration – and later, his son Gavin, the economic perspective did not change, though the papers became more pro-market rather than simply anti-public spending. Nevertheless, reading Gary Murphy’s essay on the group during the 1950s raises a wry smile, as its anti-welfare state conservative editorials are replicated today in the Irish Independent and Sunday Independent, albeit with a tabloid twist.
However, the O’Reillys did not publicly support a particular political party, and the controversial anti-Fine Gael/Labour coalition headline on the eve of the 1997 (‘It’s Payback Time’) election reflected adherence to conservative market economics, rather than the alternative Fianna Fail/PD coalition per se. Sources for evidence of the O’Reillys’ direct intervention are hard to find, and journalists such as Matt Cooper describe being approached by proxies rather than the proprietor directly. However, the INM’s newspapers have broadly reflected Tony O’Reilly’s political perspective, particularly in relation to militant republicanism and Provisional Sinn Fein. Denis O’Brien’s holdings of INM shares now outstrips the O’Reillys’, and Rafter concludes the final essay of the volume by pointing to the extensive influence O’Brien – whose large donations to politicians and Fine Gael and the connection of those payments to the granting of a mobile phone licence have come under scrutiny by an official Irish Tribunal of Inquiry – will yield through his ownership of other commercial broadcast mediums. O’Brien still remains short of the shareholding required to take control of the group, and the Irish cabinet minister responsible for media regulation has already indicated he wishes to bring forward a new rule on media ownership that could frustrate O’Brien’s ambitions.
This adds to the timeliness of this volume of essays, which contribute towards a greater understanding of the Independent Group’s past, and its uncertain trajectory. Understandably, the volume focuses on the Irish Independent, though an essay examining the role of the IrishStar and the Evening Herald would have been a welcome addition. Additionally, there is only one short chapter on O’Reilly’s internationalisation of the Independent group, which may disappoint non-Irish readers. Given the scope of the volume – covering over one hundred and twenty years of history – the book will appeal to both historians of Ireland and to those seeking a greater understanding of the historical role of Independent Newspapers.
Adam Larragy is a history PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research focuses on economic ideas in early nineteenth-century Britain. He holds a BA in economics and history from Trinity College, Dublin and an MA in International Political Economy from the University of Warwick. Read more reviews by Adam.

Editor's note: This review was originally published in The London School of Economics Review of Books, and has been reposted with permission. It is available under Creative Commons and the original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.