By Gerard Cunningham and Michael Smith.
The agendas and non-agendas associated with Ireland’s most powerful media owner, Denis O’Brien, are so complex that Village decided to try to bring some loose science to bear from a survey of newspaper coverage and front pages.
The latest round of the Siteserv story broke on 19 April when Ministerial briefing notes, prepared by officials at the Department of Finance were released to Catherine Murphy TD, and printed in the Sunday Times, revealing concerns within the department that “a large number of transactions were poorly executed” by state-owned IBRC (Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, formerly Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society).
The reserved Irish Times took two days to get stuck in to the issue but in the subsequent two weeks published 50 articles about Siteserv, mostly by its business correspondents. Independent newspapers, in which Denis O’Brien holds a 29.9% stake deemed ‘uncontrolling’, printed just 21 in the same period, only eight of which were in its business pages.
On Sunday 26 April, the Sunday Times, which had set the ball rolling the previous week with “State memo slams IBRC Siteserv deal’ led now with “Share trades spike before Siteserv deal”, reporting a potentially incendiary “sharp rise” in shares traded in the days before IBRC received bids for the company.
“State should probe AIB and Nama write-offs”, the Sunday Business Post blared across eight columns in a twin-deck headline, reporting Mike Aynsley’s call to widen the inquiry into debt write-offs beyond Siteserv and IBRC, part of an extended interview they carried with the enraged former IBRC boss. The Post also revealed “big business names” who benefited from debt writedowns from the former Anglo bank, including Denis O’Brien, TV3, and Sean Quinn’s family.
The Irish Times doesn’t publish on Sundays, but the previous day’s Weekend Edition was still demurely on the shelves as the Sundays paraded their biases. It led with “IBRC declined to appoint senior civil servant to board, says Dukes”.
Only the Sunday Independent failed to lead with the story, preferring to go with promised pay rises for public sector workers based on briefings from unnamed “senior cabinet sources” and a “senior minister” in the lead-up to the Spring Statement. Siteserv did make the Independent’s front page, but below the fold, in a somewhat tangential story headlined “Revealed: Dukes wanted to oust Noonan’s man in IBRC”.
Between the covers, the Irish Times and Sunday Independent each devoted a full page to the story, while the Sunday Business Post spread its Aynsley interview over two pages. In a column dealing with the latest opinion poll results, Pat Rabbitte wondered if the Siteserv story might have contributed to the government’s declining numbers. The Sunday Independent inside followed the theme of its front-page story, concentrating on the rift between IBRC and the Department of Finance. The Irish Times also has a opinion column on the subject (two if you include Stephen Collins’ article, which really centred on the Oireachtas banking inquiry). The Sunday Times carried a full page of coverage on page 8, and another on the Dukes story. The Sunday Times capped off its coverage with an editorial drawing a line back to the Moriarty tribunal, framing the story pointedly around the long-term relationship between Denis O’Brien and Fine Gael, and the need for care from the Taoiseach.
There is a maxim in politics, coined by British Labour party director of communications Alastair Campbell, that “no minister can survive beyond a two-week feeding frenzy in the press”. Two of the three Sunday broadsheets – the Sunday Times and Sunday Business Post – led with Siteserv related stories for the second week on 3 May. The Sunday Times’ “Noonan kept in dark about Siteserv deal” again seemed particularly toxic to IBRC and its indulgence of O’Brien.
The Sunday Independent opted for the Lenihan family’s ongoing efforts to protect Brian Lenihan’s reputation. Maeve Sheehan had another Siteserv story on page 6, though it was double-edged with a sense that the pursuit of the Siteserv issue was prejudicing the possibility of IBRC getting a deal with the Quinn family, even though that might perhaps be in the public interest. The article also drew attention to the added conflict for KPMG , the accountancy firm appointed to review all major IBRC discounted sales including Siteserv, by virtue of KPMG having been paid €18,548 fees by Siteserv after it was liquidated.
The business section, even firebrand TD Shane Ross whom radio comedian Oliver Callan has been ridiculing for his long-standing awareness of where his bread is buttered, again failed to advance the scandal, though it did print a self-justifying interview with Alan Dukes, who downplayed it and feels he is being made a scapegoat.
The inquiry ensures this issue will run. It is fortunate for Noonan that it is not a minister who is the object of this particular feeding frenzy. Some organs appear more fired up by Siteserv than others. It will be interesting to hear how RTé, which was really very slow off the mark on the issue, and the Business Post, state their agendas in defending imminent proceedings from O’Brien who claims there is no public interest in publishing private details of his banking arrangements with IBRC.
Faced with accumulating antagonism, it may be fortunate for Mr O’Brien that the newspaper group he owns but does not control seems protective of him. •