O'Brien says 'Mail' article was 'spiteful'

Thu, Feb 7, 2013, 00:00

Businessman Denis O'Brien has told the High Court in Dublin that a newspaper article about his efforts to assist after the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010 was spiteful, grubby and offensive.

The article in the Irish Daily Mail was the opinion of the writer Paul Drury but it was based on poor research and was littered with mistakes, Mr O'Brien said yesterday.

Published by Mail publishers, Associated Newspapers, on January 22nd, 2010, the article was headlined: "Moriarty's about to report, no wonder Denis O'Brien's acting the saint in stricken Haiti".

Mr O'Brien, chairman of the Digicel Group whose worldwide interests include hundreds of millions of investment in the mobile phone infrastructure in Haiti, says he was defamed in that article because it meant his involvement in the Haitian relief effort was a hypocritical act primarily motivated by self-interest.

He claims it meant his work in Haiti was an "ingenious feint" designed to distract attention from the pending final report of the Moriarty tribunal into payments to politicians, which made findings adverse to Mr O'Brien over the awarding of the Republic's second mobile phone licence but which the businessman strongly disputes.

He is seeking damages over the article which he says caused him considerable distress and injury to his character and reputation.

The Irish Daily Mail denies his claims and says the article was a piece of opinion honestly held and based on facts the author honestly believed were true.

On the first day of the case yesterday, Mr O'Brien told the court that Digicel had invested heavily in Haiti before the January 2010 earthquake. His company was very successful there, being one of the largest employers with 880 people.

Devastation and chaos

When news of the earthquake broke, he travelled to the capital Port au Prince where he witnessed devastation and chaos including the sight of thousands of people living on the side of the roads because their homes had been completely destroyed, he said.

His main focus initially was the situation of the company's staff, seven of whom had lost their lives.

After helping them, it was a question of assisting the wider community and trying to get some co-ordination between the aid agencies so as to deliver help most effectively.

During these first few days in Haiti, he gave an interview to RTÉ's Charlie Bird who Mr O'Brien had assisted in getting on to a flight into Haiti because there were huge difficulties in doing so.

In the interview, which lasted about 3½ minutes, Mr O'Brien said the EU needed to get involved in the relief effort because it could not be all left to the Americans.

He returned to Ireland on January 19th and three days later, the Mail article was published.

"I thought it was a spiteful article and he [ the writer Paul Drury] had no idea what was happening in Haiti.

"It was really offensive and I thought it was grubby in the sense the journalist was trying to make out that I was only there for public relations reasons because the Moriarty tribunal report was coming out.

"I thought that was an insult, to be honest." He believed a reference in the article about him "popping up" alongside RTÉ reporter Charlie Bird was incorrect as he had at most spent 10 to 15 minutes in Mr Bird's company during several days in Haiti after the quake.

Closer interest

If Mr Drury had rung his office before publishing the article, he would have been told he had a closer interest in Haiti than in most of the other countries Digicel had invested in, visiting it every five or six weeks before the quake and 29 or 30 times after it.

"To go to Haiti is to get involved and see how can you do something to make it better.

"That sounds very grandiose but investment in a country will transform it, it may take years, but if you can get investors in with a functioning education system, you can change the country," he said.

Asked by his counsel Paul O'Higgins about a reference in the article to this being an effort to deflect attention from the impending Moriarty report, Mr O'Brien said he was trying to do good in Haiti and to suggest such could not be further from the truth.

Cross-examined by Oisín Quinn SC, for Associated Newspapers, Mr Drury and for its editor and editor in chief at the time of the publication, who are also defendants, Mr O'Brien said while Mr Drury may believe the article was an opinion piece, it was based on facts which "were obviously not well researched".

"To create an opinion, you need a basis to make it and you need a certain amount of research," he said.

The case continues before Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne and a jury of six men and six women.