'I don't mind a bit of an oul' scrap every now and then. That's me'
James Osborne strides across the lobby of A&L Goodbody’s impressive headquarters in Dublin’s docklands and offers a warm handshake before enquiring of the receptionist as to which room we’d be using.
He spent 12 years from 1982 as the young buck managing partner of the law firm but these days is a “consultant”. The firm is very much “part of my DNA”, he says.
He uses A&L’s offices from time to time to support a career that is now built around a string of directorships, notably as chairman of book retailer Eason, Monaghan Mushrooms and Centric Health. He is also a long-standing non-executive board member of Ryanair and fills a similar role with the Irish domiciled Australian building materials group James Hardie.
His certificate to practise law has long since lapsed though the skills he acquired through a long and distinguished legal career continue to frame his working life.
Osborne is a reluctant interviewee, or so he keeps saying. He’s honouring a commitment from many months back that he would do an interview to give his perspective on the remarkable in-fighting within Independent News & Media last year.
Osborne was appointed as non-executive chairman of INM in October 2011. The company was a mess. It was hopelessly overleveraged during the worst credit crunch in memory. Newspaper advertising and circulation had fallen like a stone in the recession, putting profits into reverse. The pension scheme was massively in the red and a major restructuring was needed.
To top it all, the company’s two major shareholders – Sir Anthony O’Reilly and Denis O’Brien – were at loggerheads. O’Brien wanted Gavin O’Reilly removed as chief executive and actions taken to address the company’s difficulties.
Within six months, Osborne had removed O’Reilly as CEO after deciding that a change at the top was urgently needed. His reward from O’Brien was to be unceremoniously axed as chairman at the company’s AGM on June 8th after O’Brien and Dermot Desmond voted against his re-election.
Osborne had clashed with Paul Connolly – one of two O’Brien nominees on the board of INM – over Connolly’s decision to pursue a legal action against the €1.87 million exit package paid to Gavin O’Reilly on April 19th. It was an unprecedented move by Connolly and Osborne told him that INM would pursue him for the legal costs if the High Court struck it down.
On April 26th, Osborne asked Connolly to resign from the board of INM after he initiated his legal challenge and the board recommended to shareholders that they should oppose Connolly’s re-election at the AGM.
The spat with Connolly sealed Osborne’s fate with O’Brien. On closing INM’s AGM in June, Osborne quipped that this concludes the meeting of “NOT Independent News Media”.
“Maybe it should have been described as the Never Independent Newspaper,” he says now.
Where did it all go wrong?
Osborne traces it back to Saturday, April 14th, when he says Denis O’Brien rang him and demanded that an article about him be pulled from the following day’s Sunday Independent.
“I said, ‘No, that’s not what I’m going to do’,” Osborne explains.
“It was an article that turned out to be pretty innocuous . . . about the biggest borrowers with Anglo and he was one of them.”
Osborne concedes that some of the Sunday Independent’s coverage of O’Brien was over the top. There was one weekend in early April 2012 when he counted the number of references in the paper to O’Brien and was shocked by the result.
“I made it my business to count the number of times Denis was referred to in the Sunday Independent and I counted 106 times. I think I’m right in saying that was just the main paper. I didn’t bother with the travel section. That was ridiculous.”
Did he make that point to the editor Anne Harris or the then INM chief executive Gavin O’Reilly?
“I made it to Gavin and I made it to Denis actually. I said I think that’s crazy. It was unbalanced journalism in a collective sense.”
Osborne insists that he had no prior knowledge of this coverage of O’Brien’s business affairs.
“It was published and I read it like everyone else. The chairman doesn’t, and I don’t believe he should either, get Friday’s ideas of what’s going to go in the newspaper.”
Why did he take the job?
“I was approached on the basis that they wanted an independent chairman, but I’m not sure either party wanted an independent chairman. I don’t think the O’Reillys wanted an independent chairman and, as is perfectly obvious from the results , that Denis O’Brien didn’t want an independent chairman. So on that basis I wasn’t the right guy for the job because I was always going to be independent.”