Tuesday, 6 December 2016
38. To ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the steps that can be taken to address the anomaly whereby the significant interest test in the Consumer and Competition Authority Act 2014 has been exceeded by any person in the media sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38856/16]
This question has been prompted by a proposed acquisition involving Celtic Media Group. It concerns whether an anomaly in the legislation exists with regard to the significant interest test and the Competition and Consumer Protection 2014 in situations where the 20% market test has been exceeded.
The Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014 gives the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the responsibility for assessing proposed media mergers and empowers the Minister to prevent any merger that is deemed likely to be contrary to the public interest in maintaining the plurality of media in the State. There is no retrospective element to this legislation. Attempting to intervene in the operation of a media business when no merger is planned would be difficult and, given that the purpose of the legislation is to safeguard media pluralism, is likely to be counter-productive.
Applying a retrospective element to the legislation could, effectively, mean empowering a Government Minister to interfere in the operation of any media organisation at any given time. This would raise a number of difficult questions about preserving the freedom and independence of the press even before one considers the legal and constitutional complexities associated with retrospective action of this kind.
In my view, the reforms introduced in the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014 have struck the correct balance in this area and are working well and, as a result, I am confident that we have a robust and effective set of measures in place to support and encourage a plural and diverse media.
I would describe something as working well when it is really tested and this is one of the tests. It concerns the proposed acquisition of Celtic Media Group where there is already a difficulty relating to the existing degree of media plurality. Media must be judged across a range of platforms. It is an evolving sector but this does not seem to have been factored into the process. This case involves Independent News & Media, Communicorp and the digital platforms that go with that. The lack of media plurality is an unhealthy situation in a democracy. The very fact that there is no prospect of retrospective action means that at the very least, we should not make a bad situation worse. Will this be considered in the context of the decision the Minister must make and will he look at it as more than property rights? Will media plurality from the citizen's perspective be the first item he will consider?
From the notification deadline on 24 November in respect of the proposed merger referenced by the Deputy, I have 30 working days to conduct a phase one assessment of the case. I will only make my assessment on media plurality guidelines. What I will consider in that context is set out on my Department's website. I have not received the report from my officials yet. When I do receive that report, I will read it and make the decision. I have three options. I can allow the merger to proceed, allow it to proceed with conditions or ask the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to conduct a more in-depth examination of the proposed measure. I will comply to the letter of the law in respect of this, as I have done with the other media merger requests that have come before me.
Will the Minister read into the record what the timeline is in the event that the Minister involves the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland? What timeline are we looking at? Will the fact that the 20% threshold has been reached and the fact that, should the Minister agree to this, there is no prospect of a retrospective decision enter into his consideration?
In respect of what I will and will not consider, I will consider everything that is appropriate for me to consider as set out in the 2014 Act and as set out on the Department's website. I am not sure about the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland timeline because I have had a number of applications that I have had to consider up to now, none of which have been referred to the authority, but I will clarify that for the Deputy. I am not sure about the exact timeline within which the authority must report back to me but I will come back to the Deputy about that.