Denis O’Brien’s influence over INM on the wane

Senior executive departures leave businessman’s board representation depleted

Stephen Rae: was installed during Leslie Buckley’s  regime but is standing down as editor-in-chief at Independent News & Media. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Stephen Rae: was installed during Leslie Buckley’s regime but is standing down as editor-in-chief at Independent News & Media. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

The news on Wednesday of further senior departures from Independent News & Media (INM) has confirmed an already-apparent trend. Slowly but surely, Denis O’Brien’s influence over the publishing company is being diminished.

So what next for Ireland’s largest publishing group? And more pertinently, given market rumours of stake-building in the company, who next?

Since the exit of Gavin O’Reilly as chief executive in April 2012 following a bruising battle with O’Brien, the latter, with his near 30 per cent stake and heavy influence on the board, has been by far INM’s most important figure.

Following O’Reilly’s departure, media regulators found that, strictly speaking, O’Brien did not control INM, even though Sir Anthony O’Reilly is generally accepted to have controlled the business for years with the same-sized stake.

Still, it was undeniable that nothing of strategic significance could ever have happened at INM without O’Brien’s imprimatur.

As well as his blocking stake, O’Brien’s closest ally and nominee Leslie Buckley was installed as chairman. His other board nominees included his long-time associates Lucy Gaffney and Paul Connolly.

That nexus has now been dismantled. Gaffney stood down as an INM director in October 2015, shortly before a proposed tie-up between INM and O’Brien’s Newstalk radio station was first discussed internally. O’Brien did not replace her with another nominee.

Newstalk deal

Throughout 2016 and 2017, an internal row raged with former chief executive Robert Pitt over the proposed Newstalk deal and other matters. The fallout from that tangle has contributed to the diminishment of O’Brien’s influence.

In January, as a State investigation into INM on the back of the Newstalk row was about to be stepped up, Buckley announced he would retire in March. For a time, it was rumoured that Connolly could replace him. But when the moment came, an outsider, Murdoch Mac Lennan, took the chair. A new broom.

That left only Connolly as O’Brien’s man on the board. Triona Mullane is considered non-independent by INM’s board due to her financial links to O’Brien. But she was never his formal nominee.

On Wednesday, it was announced that Connolly was also stepping down, just five days after he was re-elected at the agm. It also emerged that Stephen Rae, who was installed during the Buckley regime as the editor-in-chief, is also to leave.

O’Brien’s apparent influence over the board appears to have been swept away.

A spokesman for O’Brien did not respond when asked if the businessman was considering the future of his INM stake, or if he planned to renew his board representation. The company also declined to comment.

Whatever happens next, it feels as though we are approaching the end of a phase in INM’s modern history.

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