Lawyer to review INM board row switched after O’Brien intervened

Media group’s then chair consulted businessman over appointment, affidavit says

A barrister to be appointed to review a boardroom dispute at Independent News & Media (INM) was changed following an intervention by the group's largest shareholder, Denis O'Brien, according to an affidavit before the High Court.

At the time the board wanted to conduct a governance review arising from a dispute over the proposed sale to INM of Newstalk, a radio station owned by Mr O’Brien.

Board members had approved the appointment of Brian O'Moore SC but it was not proceeded with after the then chairman of INM, Leslie Buckley, who had consulted Mr O'Brien, intervened, according to the affidavit. It is also stated in the affidavit that the board was not told of Mr O'Brien's preference that Mr O'Moore not be appointed.

Mr O'Brien's involvement in a matter which directly concerned him is one of the issues raised by the Director of Corporate Enforcement, Ian Drennan, whose application for the appointment of inspectors to INM is to be heard in the High Court on Monday week. Mr O'Brien's apparent role in vetoing the barrister is one of the matters Mr Drennan wants investigated by High Court inspectors.

Dispute

A dispute arose in INM in 2016 when it was suggested that it might buy Newstalk for up to €35 million at a time when the then chief executive, Robert Pitt, believed it was worth as little as €10 million.

The board later appointed David Barniville, a former chairman of the Bar Council and now High Court judge, and Northern Ireland accountant Stephen Kingon, to conduct the review. There is no suggestion Mr O'Brien had any role in their selection.

Mr O'Moore acts for businessman Declan Ganley in a case before the courts over the granting of the State's second mobile phone licence to Mr O'Brien's Esat Digifone.

The governance review came to no definitive finding because of a conflict between the submissions from Mr Buckley and those of the company's most senior executives.

Mr O’Brien is INM’s largest shareholder, owning a 29.9 per cent stake in the group. Mr Buckley was his nominee to the board. A request for a comment from Mr O’Brien met with no response. A spokesman for Mr Buckley said he did not wish to comment.

Senior staff at INM were called to meet chief executive Michael Doorly and editor-in-chief Stephen Rae yesterday about the alleged data breach. Employees are concerned that management has so far been unable to provide clarity around what personal information may have been compromised.

“There is a real sense of frustration about it,” said one source. “Nobody is being told anything about it and it seems to be getting worse.”