Street of Shame woos the Irish: British papers are invading Dublin with low prices, royalty and a touch of sleaze. Rob Brown reports

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The Independent Online
Is the Republic of Ireland being recolonised, this time by Rupert Murdoch's global media empire? Visit Dublin and you may be surprised by the number of British papers lurking on the news-stands alongside the Irish Independent and Irish Times. It is not simply because of the time of year. They are not being flown over, as to Tenerife or Malaga, for British holidaymakers. London's leading tabloids and broadsheets are assiduously wooing citizens of the republic all year round.

The Brits are making big inroads on the Irish market, much to the chagrin of Ireland's own newspaper editors and proprietors. An independent economic consultants' report drawn up for the trade body National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI), has warned that, unless something is done to stem the tide of cheap, mass-market tabloid newspapers from Britain, 'it is likely one or more Irish newspaper companies will close down or pass into foreign control'.

British papers account for more than a fifth of the half-million copies of daily newspapers sold in the Irish Republic each day and almost a third of the 1.3m Sundays sold. Making the fastest gains is Mr Murdoch. Sales of the Sun in the republic have soared to 50,000 in recent months and the News of the World sells 167,000 copies. At the quality end of the market, Mr Murdoch's Sunday Times has also been expanding steadily: it now sells 75,000 copies across Ireland, including 50,000 in the South - a 30 per cent rise in the past year.

Strategists at Wapping are considering adding a dedicated Irish section to the ST's mega-package. News International has also been considering establishing a satellite printing plant near Dublin. Why are the Irish, more than 70 years after the foundation of their Free State, still in Fleet Street's thrall?

It has to be understood that the Irish retain strong cultural ties with Britain. Many have worked here for some part of their lives or have close relatives across the water. They tune into Coronation Street as avidly in Dublin as in London or Manchester. As well as receiving Britain's four terrestrial channels, many Irish people subscribe to satellite TV. The Irish are also passionately interested in British football. And, for all their republican pride, they are as enthralled and amused as anyone else by the antics of our Royal Family.

Ireland's own newspapers are absurdly expensive. The Irish Times, a one-section broadsheet with scarcely a dash of colour to relieve its grey appearance, retails for 85p - almost double the price of most British broadsheets.

Dublin's press proprietors complain bitterly about the fact that Irish papers are subject to 12.5 per cent VAT. Although British papers are subject to the same sales tax on entering the republic, their much greater economies of scale enable them to take this in their stride, according to their Dublin rivals.

'The papers over here need a good kick up the arse,' says Alan Ruddock, a 33-year-old Dubliner who has been dispatched from the Sunday Times's city desk to spearhead its assault on the Irish market. Mr Ruddock believes the British assault is bringing a much- needed injection of competition to a market dangerously dominated by Dr Tony O'Reilly.

Chairman of the global food giant Heinz, Dr O'Reilly is the major shareholder in Ireland's hugely profitable Independent Newspapers. This group also has a 30 per cent stake in the Sunday Tribune and has been eyeing up the ailing Irish Press Group, founded by Eamon de Valera in the Thirties to bolster the republican cause.

'British newspapers show scant interest intellectually or culturally in Ireland,' claims Dr O'Reilly. 'They are effectively dumped in Ireland.' The 'beans baron' has warned that the Irish press faces 'brutal rationalisation by a British publisher a la Wapping'.

The Wapping ethic has not yet drifted across the Irish Sea. Greatly relieved about that is Peter Murtagh, who recently gave up being news editor of the Guardian to edit the upmarket Sunday Tribune. Mr Murtagh was a Wapping refusenik, resigning as head of the Sunday Times Insight team after Mr Murdoch created his new-technology fortress. 'The Sunday Times will never be perceived as an Irish newspaper, no matter how many shamrock-covered sections they tack on,' he declares.

Mr Murtagh says he is delighted to be back in Dublin because, as he puts it, 'Irish newspapers are far less corrupted than British newspapers'. Irish papers have certainly never sought to serve up the same sleaze and titillation as the British tabloids. In stark contrast to the UK, there is an established convention that journalists should not hound politicians about their private lives and sexual transgressions. (The Irish Times justified its expose of the Bishop Casey affair on the grounds that diocesan funds were involved in the cover-up.)

But that unwritten tradition may evaporate as Britain's tabloids cultivate a latent demand. 'We have a salacious interest in what the sinners of England are getting up to because, of course, we have no sinners of our own,' laughs Conor Brady, editor of the Irish Times.

Mr Brady can afford to be relaxed since the house journal of the Irish establishment is controlled by a non- profit-making trust. But he is 'worried all right' about the impact on the Irish newspaper scene and Irish public life.

'Newspapers are intrinsically bound up with the health of a nation, the vibrancy of its democracy and its cultural self-esteem,' says Mr Murtagh. But he also echoes the argument that Ireland's papers must put their house in order if they are to repel this British onslaught.

Rob Brown is media editor of 'Scotland on Sunday' and writes regularly on Irish affairs.