Magazine article The Spectator

Why Is the Government Backing a Sinn Fein Paper in Northern Ireland?

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Is the Government Backing a Sinn Fein Paper in Northern Ireland?

Article excerpt

Some months ago I wrote about the plans of a publisher loyal to Sinn Fein to launch a new daily newspaper in Northern Ireland. Part of me was inclined to cheer at the prospect of a new title, but the cry of joy was stifled by the realisation that the group behind the project has already received financial support from the government, and is angling for further handouts. Andersonstown News Group and a subsidiary, Preas an Phobail, have pocketed some £750,000 from government bodies since 1999. The publisher has applied for further funding from the government agency Invest Northern Ireland for its new title. Almost unbelievably, it seems it may get its money. The launch of Daily Ireland, which will also distribute in the Irish Republic, is planned for next February.

Let us set aside for a moment our distaste that a group which may be little more than a front for Sinn Fein should be receiving public funds. Even more outrageous is the effect that a government-supported title might have on existing newspapers, particularly the nationalist Irish News. This paper, which sells about 50,000 copies a day, has a largely Catholic readership, and has traditionally supported the SDLP. It is investing millions of pounds in new presses. (One of the very few publishers in the United Kingdom that can print a 'Berliner' or Le Monde-uze newspaper, it has decided to adopt a tabloid format.) Obviously a paper with such a modest circulation would be vulnerable to a new entrant appealing to largely the same audience. If Daily Ireland were wholly funded from private sources, there could be no objection. But in effect the government is contemplating interfering in the market to back a paper that would be very likely to take some sales from the Daily News.

As we all know, Tony Blair's much vaunted 'peace process' has the effect of encouraging the extremist DUP and Sinn Fein, while squeezing the more moderate Catholic SDLP and the official Unionists. Now Downing Street seems hell-bent on achieving a similar effect among newspaper readers. The moderate Unionist (and highly profitable) Belfast Telegraph would probably lose very few readers to Daily Ireland. This paper sells nearly 100,000 copies a day. The Irish News, as I have said, is much more at risk. Even taking into account the government's desire to sweeten Sinn Fein, the idea that it might promote Daily Ireland is preposterous. So far only a few Northern Ireland MPs at Westminster have even noticed what is going on. Could this be a cause that the Conservative party, which appears largely to have forgotten about the existence of Northern Ireland, might take up?

The appearance of a free edition of the London Evening Standard, available at lunchtime at some locations in central London outside the City, has baffled almost everyone. The first issue of Standard Lite on Tuesday looked like the Evening Standard on the outside, much more like the (also free) Metro on the inside. It is shorn of the Evening Standard's columnists - not in every case an absolute tragedy - and has no City coverage.

What is going on? I suggested to one Standard executive that Standard Lite might have the effect of encouraging readers to buy the real thing. He seemed doubtful. In fact his worry was that Standard Lite might be so successful that it would take circulation from the Evening Standard itself, which sells at 40 pence. …

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