BAI declines to review its decision that O’Brien does not ‘control’ INM
His cross-media holdings still likely to be examined as part of overall report for Government
In 2012, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland examined Denis O’Brien’s level of control over INM, after he effectively led a campaign that forced Gavin O’Reilly out as chief executive, and concluded he did not have a controlling interest in the paper. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) said there was “no requirement” to review its determination that Denis O’Brien does not control Independent News and Media (INM), in response to a call from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) that it revisit the issue in light of recent revelations about INM.
The BAI confirmed, however, that it was due to compile a report for Government later this year on media plurality in the State, which on the basis of a previous report was likely to assess Mr O’Brien’s holdings.
The last such BAI plurality report, which covered the period from 2012-2014, closely examined Mr O’Brien’s cross-media holdings, including his near 30 per cent INM stake and his ownership of radio group Communicorp.
That report considered Mr O’Brien’s potential to “influence directly or indirectly, to an appreciable extent, the direction or policy” of INM.
The report’s authors, UK consultants Tim Suter and Robert Kenny, say they asked “a panel of media commentators and specialists” to assess the extent of Mr O’Brien’s Irish media holdings, and their impact on plurality.
Level of influence
The report concluded, however, that “we did not detect any particular change in the way INM/Communicorp was being run that could be attributed to any change of ownership”.
The BAI, which regulates only broadcasting companies, can take into account a radio licence owner’s other media interests when deciding that owner’s level of influence on plurality generally. It is the only body in the State with the power to assess cross-media ownership.
In 2012, the BAI examined Mr O’Brien’s level of control over INM, after he effectively led a campaign that forced Gavin O’Reilly out as chief executive. It concluded, however, that he did not have a controlling interest in the paper.
On Wednesday, the NUJ called upon it to review this decision, in light of details about Mr O’Brien’s influence over INM that have emerged recently in court papers filed as part of an action by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) to have High Court inspectors appointed to INM.
“[Mr O’Brien] clearly gained influence through [his associate] Leslie Buckley (who post the 2012 decision was appointed chairman of INM) on the pensions issue and other operational issues,” said Séamus Dooley, the secretary of the Irish branch of the NUJ.
He urged the BAI to “go back and have a look at this decision over his level of control”.
The BAI responded: “In light of the fact that there has been no change to Mr O’Brien’s media interests since , there is no requirement for the BAI to undertake another review of this nature.”
The Irish Times reported yesterday that, according to the ODCE’s court papers, Mr O’Brien’s close associate, former INM chairman Leslie Buckley, closely consulted with him regularly on a wide range of operational issues.
The ODCE even suggested that it appeared Mr O’Brien had helped to “draft” an INM statement defending a contentious 2016 move to kill off a pension scheme, which would have had the effect of slashing some former worker’s pensions by up to 70 per cent.
A compromise was later hammered out, in which INM wound up the scheme but agreed to contribute €50 million to a replacement scheme.
Mr Dooley said the suggestion in the ODCE affidavit that Mr O’Brien – who is neither a board member of INM nor a pensions trustee – was directly involved in the company’s handling of the pensions issue is “deeply worrying”.
“The Pensions Authority needs to examine if there are any issues there,” he said.
Meanwhile, an Irish Stock Exchange spokeswoman said it had “noted” The Irish Times reports about the ODCE’s significant concerns – as outlined in the High Court papers – about possible sharing of inside information and potential breaches of stock market rules concerning INM.
Asked about the corporate watchdog’s court claims, the Central Bank said it did not comment on investigations but that if a suspicion is brought to its attention that inside information had been unlawfully disclosed, it will examine the circumstances and take appropriate action.
Corporate watchdog Ian Drennan has alleged in court papers that then chairman Mr Buckley may have shared inside information about the company with Mr O’Brien, potentially breaching market abuse regulations.