It is not a question of whether, but how many, more people will become embroiled in the developing row between Independent News and Media and the Office of the Director of Public Enforcement (ODCE). The battle should more accurately be described as one between the biggest shareholder in INM, Denis O’Brien, his appointed chairman to the company and confidant, Leslie Buckley, and Ian Drennan the director of the ODCE who is seeking to appoint High Court inspectors to examine aspects of the media corporations’ governance.
In the latest twist to the saga the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Denis Naughten was almost forced to fall on his sword after it emerged that he gave commercially sensitive information to lobbyist, Eoghan O Neachtain, indicating a probable referral of the attempted media purchase of Celtic Media Group by INM to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI).
Heneghan PR for whom O’Neachtain works, was acting for INM when the lobbyist made the call to Naughten in November 2016, and company boss, Nigel Heneghan, promptly informed his client Leslie Buckley about the news that a referral to the BAI was likely. Buckley immediately passed it on to O’Brien, who controls 29.9% of INM, but apparently did not extend the same courtesy to other board members at the time.
When asked about a possible referral by him of the Celtic Media purchase proposal to the BAI by Independent TD Catherine Murphy and Brian Stanley of Sinn Féin three weeks after the phone call with the lobbyist, Naughten had refused to confirm his likely course of action to the Dáil.
In the normal course of events, in a normal democracy, a minister passing on such market-sensitive information to a company, or in this case to its largest shareholder, would precipitate a thorough investigation and probably a ministerial head on a plate. Not so in this case. Incredibly, the independent minister insisted that he was only expressing a ‘personal opinion’ to O’Neachtain, whom he said he knows socially from Connacht rugby circles. He confirmed that he had taken no notes of the call. He also said that he met Buckley at an event organised by INM in May 2017 just a month before INM cancelled the acquisition of Celtic Media and just before the minister was to determine whether the deal should proceed. He told the Dáil that he was “trying to recall the detail of that but I do not recall him (Buckley) raising with me at that stage” the issues pertaining to the Celtic Media purchase.
In his affidavit to the High Court, heavily leaked, Drennan has suggested that the minister’s action may have breached corporate governance rules insofar as commercially sensitive information was provided to just one shareholder of INM in advance of the likely referral of the Celtic Media purchase to the BAI.
By fully supporting the minister, Leo Varadkar may well find himself the focus of criticism further down the road by the corporate watchdog for pre-empting an investigation by the High Court inspectors he is seeking to have appointed to investigate a string of alleged serious, including criminal, behaviour in INM.
Varadkar has until now managed to avoid any entanglement in the uncomfortable and controversial relationship between O’Brien and Fine Gael, going back to the mid-1990s when the businessman won the hugely lucrative second mobile phone licence with the assistance of then communications minister, Michael Lowry. The party managed to clear its debt within a few years and although its main fundraiser, Lowry, was forced out in the wake of the Moriarty tribunal investigation, the links between O’Brien and senior party figures, including former leader Enda Kenny and current EU commissioner, Phil Hogan, has long persisted.
The main opposition parties have concentrated on this potential exposure of the Taoiseach to the ongoing dispute between the INM and the ODCE, which is investigating an alleged data breach by the company affecting senior staff, journalists, lawyers and others as well as issues over the, since abandoned, attempt by Buckley to get INM to buy Newstalk, the radio station controlled by O’Brien. According to a protected disclosure by former INM chief executive, Robert Pitt, Buckley tried to get the board to pay substantially more for Newstalk than he and his advisors thought it was worth.
O’Neachtain, of course, is a former press officer for Fianna Fáil and once toiled day and night to defend Bertie Ahern as he sought to explain his inexplicable financial arrangements to the Mahon Tribunal during the period he was a finance minister, without a bank account. No doubt he knows where other Fianna Fáil skeletons are buried and indeed must be aware of a thing orf two about Fine Gael having advised Enda Kenny during his term at Taoiseach.
But Fianna Fáil is also holding fire because it does not want to provoke a general election which would edge closer if Naughten were forced out of cabinet and government, potentially weakening the wafer-thin voting balance in the current Dáil. Besides, following the next election the party may need the support of independents like Naughten. Sinn Féin is reluctant to do anything which could jeopardise the stability of government in advance of the referendum to repeal the 8th amendment in late May.