Sitting comfortably in a Dublin pub overlooking the River Liffey, Peter Vandermeersch’s first reaction was both emphatic and categoric: No. 

Having just turned 57, the Belgian-born journalist and editor had the next phase of his life sketched out and it involved a reporting sinecure in Paris, not a management function in Dublin.

Just weeks before, Vandermeersch had announced his intention to step down as editor of NRC Handelsblad, the paper of record in the Netherlands, and his final executive function was to appoint himself to its Paris bureau. 

Vandermeersch had gone through all the usual rituals of departure – he had bid farewell to his staff during a speech on the floor of the newsroom, and explained on national television that he did not believe anyone should be in the job for more than ten years (he had just reached nine).  

Now, however, sitting in a pub in Dublin, Vandermeersch’s grand Parisian plan was quickly coming unstuck. 

Sitting around the table was Thomas Leysen, the wealthy Belgian industrialist who chaired Mediahuis, the media group with operations across Belgium and the Netherlands. The group’s chief executive Gert Ysebaert was there also. 

For several months, they had been quietly plotting a €146 million takeover of Independent News & Media, the publicly quoted Irish publisher that was battling a series of corporate governance scandals and declining margins. 

Now, they were on the cusp of success, having convinced its two largest shareholders, the telecoms magnate Denis O’Brien and the financier Dermot Desmond, to sell out. 

With an Irish wife and a familiarity with the Irish media landscape, Vandermeersch had been helping in an advisory capacity since his employer first began running the rule over INM in the summer of 2018.

By April 2019, it was becoming increasingly obvious that Leysen and Ysebaert had a different role in mind for Vandermeersch. 

“We were sitting in a bar thinking about who could become publisher here,” Vandermeersch says. “At a certain moment, they said: ‘You have to do it’. I said ‘No, no, no. I am going to Paris’.”

Over breakfast the following morning, Leysen and Ysebaert reiterated their view, and Vandermeersch acceded to their request to become publisher, a role that sits above the editors of each title with responsibility for all editorial management and customer engagement. 

“In half a day,” he says, “I changed my mind.”


“My mantra in the newsroom is ‘less reporting, more journalism’.”

We meet on a Friday morning in a hotel near Dublin’s IFSC. Vandermeersch has spent much of the week travelling and is scheduled to fly back to Holland for the weekend to fulfil a television engagement. He arrives early, carrying a black backpack and a cycling helmet.

He is tall, slim and fit, sporting designer glasses and designer stubble. He has long been one of the most recognisable journalists in both Holland and Belgium, two countries where he has edited well respected, well read titles. 

He has not sought a list of questions or topics in advance of our interview. Instead, he answers each question with a candour that is often missing from such interviews – from his initial impression of INM (“Morale was extremely low”) to the company’s previous digital strategy (“There was not one”) to his impression of Ireland (“A first-world city with Google and Facebook and sometimes a third-world city with taxi drivers not accepting credit cards”).

“As a company we say we love paper and we do love paper.”

Since starting full time in August, Vandermeersch has been a man in a hurry. There has been an overhaul of editorial functions and responsibility – he had just appointed Alan English as the new editor of The Sunday Independent days before we met, and a radical reimagining of its online offer is set to be unveiled in the coming days, a move that will see INM put its content behind a paywall for the first time. 

He has also been reviewing each area of INM’s operations to assess where costs can be pared back and where investment is required, while also engaging with the court-appointed inspectors probing governance issues under the group’s previous regime. 

We begin with the new digital strategy, which will be rolled out in early February. 

Ian Kehoe (IK): A fundamental shift is coming. Up until now, INM has given away all of its content for free. Now, it is introducing a paywall. What can we expect from this change?

Peter Vandermeersch (PV): As a company we say we love paper and we do love paper. We have big, big newspapers in Belgium and the Netherlands, and we believe that each has a future. What I tend to say to the guys in Talbot Street is that when I was a young journalist in the 1980s, there was no website, there was only print. My son is studying international relations in London and if he would go in journalism – and I don’t think he will, but imagine he goes in journalism – when he’s my age, there only will be digital. 

We are the generation, two or three generations maybe, who have to manage both. I really, really think that we love print, but we think digital is the future. To be honest, when we came here to Talbot Street, we thought first of the digital side of the business – there was none. The Sunday World does not have a website. The Herald has a website, but nobody is looking at it. And we have a website,, which is where we put our content, but everything is for free. And that content is often not representing what the newspaper is representing, where we were chasing clicks with stuff that we would never put in the paper. We are changing that.

IK: So, you believe this clickbait journalism is downgrading the quality of the product?

PV: And it downgrades our brand. I said it two weeks ago in a speech for the whole organisation, where I said: “It’s digital first and that means print second.” So, it’s not digital first and also print first. Digital first doesn’t necessarily mean that we publish everything which we have digital first. We want to do what we did in Belgium and the Netherlands, a big digital company which also has print. There is one big difference with Belgium and the Netherlands and that’s also, for me, a big question mark  – in Belgium and the Netherlands, we have really big print subscriptions.

There, when I was editor of NRC and I introduced the paywall, it was quite easy because people are used to paying. The moment that you put the paywall on your website, all the people who have a subscription in print can go behind the paywall and read.

On February 11, when we launch the [INM] paywall, the first articles which will be behind the paywall will have zero people who can read them, because people have to start taking subscriptions.

And so how can we turn readers here in Ireland – well, how can we do two things? We have a big website with lots of visitors; 12 million uniques a month, that’s massive. But how can we turn them into paying customers? 

Think about it. We’re bakers and we make croissants and if you come to one door, our print door; you pay for the croissants. But if you come to the back door, the digital door; we give them away for free. Well, from now on, also at the back door we’ll ask the two and a half euros a week for the croissants there.

IK: And is that the price point you are looking at?

PV: That will be the price. We will launch with two bundles. A bundle where you can read everything on the website, two and a half euros a week, so ten a month and for the whole website. Or with the PDF newspaper it will be three euros or twelve a month. That’s the starting bundle.

“My mantra in the newsroom is ‘less reporting, more journalism’.”

IK: It will require a real shift in consumer behaviour.

PV: We have to start playing with the model and then probably do other bits because in the Netherlands, for example, we see that long-time subscriptions work very well. People take subscriptions on digital for three years. In that sense, I have to say that February 11 is a step in the unknown, unchartered waters.

In my office here, we have a little group preparing the whole project. I said okay, there’s a case of champagne to be won for who can predict how many subscribers. We start February 11, how many subscriptions do we have? How many digital, paid-for subscriptions will we have on February 29? The lowest one is 150 and the highest one is 1,250.

IK: What is your estimate? 

PV: I’m on the optimistic side, but obviously the wall won’t come down immediately. We will do it gradually. In the beginning, there probably won’t be enough articles behind the paywall to make you take a subscription.

IK: So, it is similar to the model of The Telegraph in Britain, where premium content has gradually been put behind a paywall.

PV: That’s it. That has been started before I arrived here, in that you have registrations and that is a kind of proxy for paying because with the registrations, you see for example what people are viewing. A wonderful analysis of Paul Kimmage, a wonderful political article by Fionnan Sheehan. 

So, it is basically what you guys are doing at The Currency, it’s premium. My mantra in the newsroom is “less reporting, more journalism”. Less telling people that yesterday there was a debate between blah blah blah, everybody knows it. But can Kevin Doyle tell you something about what it all means, something you might not have seen. 

To be honest, the whole company and the whole newsroom up to now has been set up not to miss anything. Sometimes I have the impression that their highest aim is not to miss anything. Not to miss anything? We’re missing the whole time. So, let’s take all this time and effort and energy and put them in an in-depth story about something RTÉ didn’t have. And if you can do that, I’m convinced people will take subscriptions because they want them.

IK: But that will require a shift in the type of content being produced at present. No one will pay for something they can get on RTÉ. 

PV: That’s it, and RTÉ is doing a good job so let’s make sure that RTÉ is doing that. And when the Six Nations is starting in a week, well let’s make sure that we have this wonderful unique content about the Irish team after Joe Schmidt and things like that. And not, just telling you who won. 


Peter Vandermeersch on his role as publisher

“We have it in some of our newspapers. We like these duos. Marc Vangeel who is the CEO, he’s working on everything which is finance, distribution, commerce, technology. And as a publisher, I’m in the B2C market. I’m basically in charge of the whole editorial side and the customer side. Customer care. So, for example, our big project [the digital paywall] I’m developing with the editors of the website, deciding about what bundles we will offer. It’s basically trying to bring the editorial side forward to give the whole customer side more options. That’s what I do.”


“It’s a decent price but it’s a price which apparently other big players didn’t want to pay.”

Taking a new posting in a new company in a new country is quite a challenge. Vandermeersch, however, arrived into a company facing an existential crisis. INM was beset by scandals, investigations and high-level acrimony. Rank and file morale was on the floor and margins were being eroded.

The scale of the problems was evidenced by the purchase price of just over €145 million. Stripping out the cash in the bank of nearly €82 million, Mediahuis acquired INM for less than three years of annual profits. In June 2007, INM had reached a peak market value of €3 billion. When the deal was rubberstamped last May, the value was around €65 million.

The price irked many investors, who voiced their disapproval at a testy AGM in the Westbury Hotel in Dublin. Shareholder Dermot Godsil was “appalled” by the offer and surprised that the board was recommending it. Donald Pratt, former co-owner of food and fashion retailer Avoca and an INM shareholder, described the deal as “crazy”. 

“This company can make €30 million a year and should be on a PE [price to earnings ratio] of at least 10,” said Pratt, implying a value of €380m. “You’re giving the bloody company away.”

Commenting on the deal, the Sunday Times said the sale was simply an “exercise in ignominy”. 

Certainly, the company had endured a torrid time, even apart from its confused editorial strategy. The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) had sought the appointment of High Court inspectors to investigate the conduct of the company, following protected disclosures by its then chief executive and chief financial officer. These include a large-scale removal of data from the offices of INM to an external company, and board conflict over a proposed takeover of Denis O’Brien’s radio station Newstalk.

Leslie Buckley, the former chairman and a close associate of O’Brien, sanctioned the data removal and was central to the dispute over a bid for Newstalk. Buckley has denied any wrongdoing.

The Mediahuis deal came from left field, but fitted in with the Belgian company’s strategy of scaling up into new markets and investing in market leading brands. 

However, it drew its own criticism, when, within months of acquiring INM, it transferred €60 million of INM’s €80 million cash to its continental parent. 

IK: Was the ODCE investigation and the High Court inspectors an issue when you were looking at buying INM?

PV:  Definitely. So, we had been advised, and it’s clear that it was a concern. It’s also clear that it was quite difficult to realise what could be the financial implications of that – what was the implication on the price that we are paying. There really has been lots of talk about that, but maybe more than the financial side it was about the morale side.

This was a big thing – we’re buying a company in which things like that had been happening. Can we make clear that this is not who we are? Can we restore the confidence between management and the floor? And that will be a process which takes a long time. 

That being said, Mediahuis will keep cutting costs but also keep investing. What we’ve seen at INM before we arrived was that in lots of cases, costs were just cut and there was no investment, even in the newsroom. At the moment we are in the whole process of stopping things, but also launching things. We are announcing next week several new appointments, several people we attracted to the company which is investing. That’s basically what we’re doing in our newspapers the whole time and, in that sense, we are investing in the website and other areas.

“I understand it’s difficult for a company to explain and maybe we didn’t explain it well enough inside.”

IK: So, there will be more targeted cost cutting?

PV: At a certain moment there will be difficult decisions to be made, like we make everywhere. But we will also invest.

IK: People say you got to get a decent price for a company that was generating an awful lot of cash. There was certainly some shareholder agitation. 

PV: We got it at a decent price, but we didn’t get it that cheap either. When we put down our offer, lots of others had been looking at it, it’s not that we were the only ones in the market and they decided it was too expensive. Lots of international players, also British players and other players, had been looking at it and said: “No, no this is too expensive.” It’s a decent price but it’s a price which apparently other big players didn’t want to pay.

IK: And what about the transfer of €60 million? That griped with a lot of staff who felt their assets were being sweated. 

PV: It is true that and there has been a whole discussion about the cash-pooling and that €60 million. I understand it’s difficult for a company to explain and maybe we didn’t explain it well enough inside, saying that if we put the €60 million in the bank here we have to pay because of negative rates. While cash-pooling, it’s a loan which we give to the mother company and we get a little bit of money back and we can ask if we can get it – it is Friday today, if we want it by Tuesday we can have it back. But in a company where the morale was so low, where things have been done which clearly were not transparent, I understand…

IK: Well, it formed a narrative that you were just sweeping the cash. 

PV: From an aesthetic point of view, I understand very well that people say it’s over €60 million and that’s going to Belgium or Holland. Everybody you explain it to understands it but from an aesthetic point of view it is: “Where is our €60 million?”

IK: You mentioned morale. How big an issue was this?

PV: Morale was extremely low. We had never seen a company in which morale was so low. Even buying it, we realised it, but then being here it was much, much worse than we ever realised before we bought. Understandably, if you see what happened in cost cutting – in all of our companies we do cost cutting – but if you see the way in which the cost cutting had been done here and obviously the scandals which are still in front of the inspector’s report, we still have to wait for it.

IK: Have you an involvement in the inspector’s work?

PV: It’s previous. It’s not about us, Mediahuis and the management and all, but it’s about us INM and we bought that company. So in that sense, it’s clear that some of the people and some of our lawyers are extremely busy with it.

IK: And many of the issues are not going away, with the company saying it could pursue former board members in court.

PV: That’s it, so we have to see what’s going to happen there. I keep far away from it in that sense, things that happened before I was there. But as a company, you have responsibility and I understand that the morale is low because of that.

IK: The company has obviously moved from being listed to being privately owned. What has that transition been like? Is it a better model for a small publishing company?

PV: Mediahuis in general has been working with lots of different models. We have been looking at Plc, we have been looking at privately owned, in trust in Holland, we even bought a newspaper which was in the hands of a bishop and we have been seeing lots of models. We really believe in the privately owned structure which we have. Basically Mediahuis is mostly families, Dutch and Belgian families which are in there for many, many years, some of them more than a hundred years. We really believe in a structure like that, we don’t believe in the pressures of the market with the Plc. We see how the company was managed here, it was the quarterly results, very short term. Here we really believe being privately owned, we can work to the next three or five years. 


Stopping people from stealing content

The transition to paywall will bring a new issue that INM has not had to face before: the protection of intellectual property. Many companies have carved out a niche circulating copyrighted material to clients, while other firms distribute articles to all employees, in clear breach of media firm’s terms and conditions. 

I tell Vandermeersch that this is something we have encountered in this business, and ask for his views on how INM will protect its intellectual property. “It is a big issue and it is a big issue for the whole sector,” he says. 

“I was working also in Holland and we really have to produce premium content and then we have to protect and defend the premium content. My wife is a copyright lawyer, so she’s helping me in the sense that some websites and indeed some PR firms are stealing our content. We have to become much harder about it. You don’t go into the bakery and take a croissant to resell them. No, you pay for it and you can buy more croissants and resell them, but then you have to buy them. I know it’s a stupid metaphor but it’s when you tell people, it has value. And I’m really concerned about this kind of attitude – intellectual property is for free – building what we’re building with Mediahuis. Also, with Mediahuis we have much more competence in defending these things and protecting this intellectual right. We would have done it for years and it’s very important.


“We may be a small player, but we can go to these advertisers with special offers.”

His time in Ireland has been brief, but Peter Vandermeersch has already overseen significant changes at INM. New editors have been appointed to a variety of titles including The Sunday Independent, The Belfast Telegraph and a new role has been created straddling digital and the daily Irish Independent. He is now leading a project to look at every columnist and every writer in the organisation to determine who should stay and who should go. The aim, he says, is to make each title fit for purpose for the future.

There is also a change of emphasis and strategy. Whereas the previous management sought to unify the titles in a centralised structure, Vandermeersch says he wants to build the brand of each title. The digital offer was previously centred around clickbait and free content. That is changing.

All of those raises issues, however, particularly the fundamental shift from free content to a paywall. Around 8 per cent of group revenues previously came from online advertising and digital, but the move to paywall will impact the group’s capacity to charge premium online advertising. 

IK: How does online advertising fit into this model? Because the Irish digital advertising market has not been the panacea that many people thought it would be. The transition from print has not happened as people would have thought.

PV: No, no. It’s true. And that’s one of the things, the same, we have to defend that. When we came here, we were amazed that digital was not developed but we were also amazed how much advertising goes into the paper, definitely in print, still.

From February 11, the two numbers I will look at the whole time are: did our subscriptions go up, and how much does this affect our advertising numbers? I have to say in Holland, where we did the same with De Telegraaf, the advertising numbers were not affected. On the contrary, at a certain moment advertisers realised that readers who are behind the paywall are very interesting readers because they’re readers who love the product. That’s the readers who, as an advertiser,  you also want to reach, and we could start to increase the yield.

IK: And advertisers also know they are willing to spend money. 

PV: That’s it, it will also be a question of – and it’s a big word of course – educating the advertising market. We want to say to them at the end of the year that we have five, six, seven thousand paid-for digital readers on the Indo behind the paywall. They’re really the readers you want to reach when you’re Supervalu or when you’re Apple or whatever, and that maybe you have to pay more for these readers. 

IK: And you also know more about them.

PV: Yeah, that’s it. Who they are, how they behave and, in that sense, you can say when you look a bit from a distance, wow, there’s really lots to do. Yes, there’s lots to do but this being said, lots of that we have been doing in the Netherlands. The nice thing is that whenever we have a problem, I can call someone with 20 years’ experience in this market. They’d love to come to Dublin of course, and so in that sense I think that being in the group is extremely good for INM because all this experience is coming to you.

IK: The online market is absolutely dominated by Facebook and Google. They are mopping up upwards of 90 per cent of the online advertising market. It’s tough to compete especially with them.

PV: That’s it, and that’s why we really believe that in the end, if our companies will survive it will be because of readers. Readers paying for a copy. NRC has 85 per cent of its revenue from readers and only 15 per cent anymore from advertising. Here it’s 60 per cent advertising, 40 per cent readers. Let’s be happy with that for the moment. But at a certain moment it will change.

This being said, the ad team here can compete with the big boys if we serve our advertisers better. We may be a small player, but we can go to these advertisers with special offers. If we know our readers very well, probably better than the Googles and the Facebooks, we can say: “Look, these 8,000 people living here in Dublin, behaving like that, this can be really of lots worth for big advertisers.” I think we have to start to communicate. We definitely have to stop saying we reach 300,000 people in Ireland. We have a reach of 300,000 readers but nobody believes that 300,000 people saw that ad. Maybe 20,000 saw it, but if you know who the 20,000 are, it’s worth something. In that sense, like we’re developing the readers’ side of the company, and Richard McClean is doing that in INM, the advertisers are going to come. 

“Look, we don’t bring print anymore but we give you an iPad for free that means you can read.”

IK: There is always a tension between the print and digital offer. For every new digital reader you arguably lose a print reader. And most of the ad revenue comes from print. Are you conscious of the fact you may be cannibalising your print sale?

PV: I have said internally that the word cannibalise is forbidden. We build out our digital, the future is digital and so we have to protect our print as far as we can. But if we have to choose, it has to be digital. 

As long as people want to buy papers, let’s make sure because paper has a certain something for lots of people and a certain value which a website doesn’t have. For my son it’s already not the case, but for my generation it’s still the case. Definitely for my father who is 86, if it’s not in print it’s not serious. So, we’re on a scale there. 

As long as people want print, let’s bring them print. But if you have to choose, let’s go digital. Definitely in a country as Ireland, we’re delivering 70,000, 80,000 copies during the week of the Irish Independent. We have to deliver them down in Kerry and up in Donegal, in small villages. You know it of course yourself, it would be so much cheaper, so much easier if we could say at a certain moment of these people: “Look, we don’t bring print anymore but we give you an iPad for free that means you can read.” Things like that. And I’m sure we will start at a certain moment, we have to start to say okay, it’s clear Dublin and Cork and Galway are no problem. But can we still really go to the villages behind Dingle to deliver paper there? And so, that will be the whole thing and how can we manage that. Because our shareholders, they’re good shareholders, but they want profit at the end of the year.

IK: One of the previous strategies was greater group identity and less individual brands, particularly around the digital offer. You seem to be going against that now.

PV: We, as in Mediahuis, love brands and I think it’s good to have several. Basically, we have the Independent and the Sunday Independent, which already have different DNA but are close to each other. We have the Sunday World, we have the Herald and we have the Belfast Telegraph. And each of them has to develop their brand values. 

For example, I felt it was a stupid idea to take the Sunday World, stop your website and put Nicola Tallant’s stuff on the Independent website. Nicola Tallant is wonderful but she’s not the Independent. And so, for example in the Sunday World we’re developing a new website. We have to really defend our brand. The strength of the group must be in the back and not in the front. In that sense we will, these different brands, we will develop them in one way or another. 

IK: And does that mean you have to set up a different website for the Sunday Independent and the Irish Independent?

PV: No, one for the Sunday and the Indo. We have given it lots of thought and for the moment we want a strong, big paid-for website. Also, because by the nature of things it’s clear that when you’re talking about special articles and premium articles, the Indo and the Sindo are full of premium articles.


“Let us have a level playing field, but you have one player which is not on that field.” 

In his mind’s eye, Peter Vandermeersch can clearly remember the moment his life gravitated towards journalism. He was living in the Belgian city of Bruges (“a wonderful city in west Flanders”) and the movie All the President’s Men came to the local cinema. Enthralled by the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, he saw the film three times in the same week. 

“Basically, I wanted to be Robert Redford, discovering scandals,” he says. However, it took him a while to get there, after being convinced to study history in college. Indeed, he went three years into a history PHD before deciding that his heart was still with the idea of becoming a journalist.  

“At a certain moment I was sitting in the archives working on a 16th century document and I thought, ‘The 20th Century is so much more interesting than the 16th’ and I started to write. At that moment I started to write reviews for De Standaard, which is really the Irish Times of Flanders. I applied and I was correspondent in France, I was correspondent in America, for a while I was war correspondent,” he says. 

For a period, he covered the Troubles in the North, writing dispatches from the Falls Road and the Shankill Road. When he was 37, while he was working as a correspondent in the US, he got a call asking him back to Belgium to become editor of De Standaard.

He initially refused, but changed his mind after Gert Ysebaert gave him an ultimatum: “He said, ‘Okay Peter, you can stay in the States but then you have to stop sending everyday a mail how bad the newspaper’.” After ten years with De Standaard, he moved to Holland to take over at NRC

At both papers, he instituted radical change, both driving growth in quality and implementing digital changes. Given his experience, I want to ask him about his view of the Irish media landscape. 

IK: You have spent time in Ireland over the years. You are married to an Irishwoman. Now you are publisher of the biggest newspaper group. What is your take on the media industry here?

PV: It’s a curious landscape and at the same time it’s similar to what we encounter in one way or another in other markets. You have the public broadcaster and I have to say, more and more in Belgium and in Holland, we are annoyed or nervous or unhappy about the position of the national broadcaster because we just want a level playing field everywhere. And when we see the public money RTÉ has for its website… RTÉ is developing a website which is basically our competitor, so then I think – it’s not behaving as a public body. Sorry, I really was pissed off that we appointed Alan as editor of the biggest newspaper in this country, RTÉ doesn’t mention it, well this is not serious. Yet they mention Stars on Ice and other things, they don’t mention the appointment of Alan – because they are, in one way or another, a competitor. 

We have similar debates in France and The Netherlands. In France, for example, the government stepped in and said that the public service on its website should not publish long reads anymore. 

In Holland we are quite close to a deal in which the public service has to give their video images to all the private players, things like that and I think when I look at the landscape here that we have to start that debate.

IK: Well, there is a Commission on the future of public service media and that might well form part of that debate.

PV: Yeah, that is true. And apart from that of course we have the same competitors in here, the classic competitors, the Irish Times. I love competition, but I love competition with the Irish Times and with Virgin Media and others, and with you and and The Sunday Business Post. At least let’s have a level playing field, but you have one player which is not on that field. 

This being said, and I can be quite nervous about it, I’m a cyclist and I love cycling and in the Tour de France you don’t have to watch your competitors the whole time. You have to do your own Tour de France and we are trying to do our own Tour de France and the mountains are quite high, but on the other hand, we don’t want our competitor being pushed by a car.

“When I explained to my colleagues in The Netherlands that in the office next to me there is a lawyer sitting in on the 10 o’clock meetings being there the whole day and the whole night to be called, they just don’t believe me.”

IK: Libel is a big issue here. And we constantly talk about our draconian culture. How does it compare to where you’ve worked and operated newspapers?

PV: It’s extremely draconian. I have to say when we came to Ireland with INM it was a shock. I knew that libel was quite important and we thought it was a little bit like in Britain. I have been editor of De Standaard for 11 years and the highest libel claim I ever paid was €5,000.  €5,000 in 11 years. In Holland, I have been nine years and there once we settled for €7,000 or €8,000. Here we have claims of €400,000 and €500,000 and sometimes…

IK: And you can’t go to court because it’s so expensive.

PV: That’s it. And so it’s a sick culture, it’s really sick. When I explained to my colleagues in The Netherlands that in the office next to me there is a lawyer sitting in on the 10 o’clock meetings being there the whole day and the whole night to be called, they just don’t believe me. We have to do it and I understand that we have to be extremely careful – but there is a sick culture. I had one meeting with Leo Varadkar, which was a good meeting, presenting and telling him what we did and I said: “I know you can’t change it from one day to another, but we really have to think about it because it’s even implying press freedom; at a certain moment we don’t dare to write things anymore because there will be these claims.”

Peter Vandermeersch on INM’s regional titles

“When we arrived here in August, we said we have 10 priorities and one of the priorities was to develop basically the strategy of our regional brands. Then at Christmas we looked back and we said: ‘Nine of these priorities we did quite well’, building the website, starting to think about the strategy, things like that. But one we did not have a look at the last six months was the regional brands, and that’s now one of my projects when we launch the website in February. I want to start thinking about how will we go with the regionals. 

“I have to say that on the paper side, they’re doing okay. They could be doing better, but they’re not doing bad and now we will start to develop them. We really believe in local and hyper-local and imagine that at a certain moment you take a subscription for the Indo online and living in Kerry you get it all for one euro more a week. It could be a great combination. 

“The local papers were afraid that we bought the Indo and that we were not interested in the local ones. This is not true, the DNA of Mediahuis really is local papers. Basically, we don’t buy papers to close them, so it’s clear when we were looking at INM that we were thinking: ‘Okay there’s local papers in there, they have a big value and a big future’.”

In addition to defending the role of the local newspapers in his portfolio, Peter Vandermeersch is also keen to highlight the import of Mediahuis’s decision to invest at all in Ireland.

It is a fair argument, given it was the group’s first foray into an English-speaking market. It has been suggested it could use INM to facilitate greater presence in this space, with the company now talking about a network of foreign correspondents. 

The group has since been linked with a move for the Daily Telegraph, currently on the market, but Vandermeersch said the hype outweighed the group’s actual intent. 

“We always say at Mediahuis that we’re not in a hurry,” he says. “But when there are opportunities, we look into these opportunities. We have been looking since we acquired INM. We have been looking into several opportunities in Ireland and the UK.”

He adds: “Mediahuis is in an acquisitive mood. The CEO keeps repeating it, we want in years to come to develop to be one of the bigger players in Europe. And in that sense you shouldn’t underestimate what we’re doing in Ireland, because also for us it’s coming out of our comfort zone.”

According to Vandermeersch, there are now two big change projects under way at INM. The first is the transition from print to digital, while the second is the transformation from reporting to quality journalism. 

“There will be lots of changes, but they will be gradual,” he says. “I keep telling the people in the company that the idea of Mediahuis is not to fire people. The idea is to bring them with us from print to digital. We don’t have a secret idea to fire people. I think there’s lots of talent. It can be a cliché, but there are lots of extremely hard-working people here. We work much harder here in Talbot Street than we do in our Dutch papers, so I’m admiring how hard the people are working.”

Given his role is to increase relations between the titles and the readers, I ask how this process is going. “Sometimes I say, the reader is here and a newspaper is here, and we are quite far apart – so we have to bring them closer. I’m really obsessed with our customer the whole time. I’m wondering what is a reader wanting from the paper? What is it he or she wants, why is he or she paying that money?”