Journalist denies articles were unfair to Denis O’Brien

Tom Lyons argues article headlined ‘The gang of 22’ was very positive about O’Brien

Denis O’Brien: claims the Sunday Business Post articles wrongly meant he was among a ‘gang’ of 22 borrowers who ‘wrecked the country’. Photograph: Collins Courts

Denis O’Brien: claims the Sunday Business Post articles wrongly meant he was among a ‘gang’ of 22 borrowers who ‘wrecked the country’. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

Journalist Tom Lyons has denied a number of articles published in the Sunday Business Post in 2015 meant Denis O’Brien was among those responsible for the financial crisis here in 2008.

The articles included one headlined “The gang of 22” and another headlined “People of influence, people of blame”.

Paul O’Higgins SC, for Mr O’Brien, suggested the articles unfairly meant Mr O’Brien was among 22 people who had a land and development exposure of some €8.8 billion, when Mr Lyons knew Mr O’Brien had no development loans.

Mr Lyons denied the articles suggested Mr O’Brien had a big land and development portfolio and said they rather identified him as someone who had various loans for property.

He said a pen profile of Mr O’Brien written by him in the article headlined “The gang of 22” was very positive about Mr O’Brien and made clear he was a successful businessman who had repaid everything.

Mr Lyons rejected a suggestion the articles, based on a report by PwC, did not tell the “truth” of that report.

He also denied a graphic headed with the words “Top secret”, and naming Mr O’Brien among eight other bank borrowers, involved selecting Mr O’Brien as being among “The principal offenders”.

The eight were just well-known people referred to in the PwC report, he said.

Mr Lyons remains under cross-examination in Mr O’Brien’s action alleging defamation in the Sunday Business Post articles published on March 15th, 2015.

After the jury was told on Thursday the case would run into next week, one of the 12 jurors was allowed leave as she is to go on holiday from this weekend.

Bank exposure

The focus of the articles was the PwC report concerning the exposure of Ireland’s banks in 2008, which was given to the government in November 2008 but not made public.

Mr Lyons obtained it from a source in 2015 and gave evidence he shredded it shortly after publication of the articles to protect the source.

Mr O’Brien claims the Sunday Business Post articles, which ran over six pages, wrongly meant he was among a “gang” of 22 borrowers who “wrecked the country” and that they have defamed him and injured his reputation.

The defendant denies the words complained of mean what Mr O’Brien says, denies defamation and malicious publication and has also pleaded “fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest”.

On Thursday Mr Lyons was asked about an article, commissioned by Mr Lyons and written by Gavin Sheridan.

Its headline, “People of Influence, people of blame”, was chosen by Mr Lyons and below that was a subheading: “The property bubble and subsequent bank bailout had devastating results for this country. It is time we were told exactly who was responsible.”

Mr Lyons said the people of blame was in the context of the banking inquiry then underway, where those being interviewed included former taoiseach Brian Cowen and former financial regulator Patrick Neary. He agreed developers were referred to. He said readers would recognise those people were in the middle of a “once in a lifetime” event.

He said the article was saying it was time the public was told exactly who was responsible for the crisis and that they have not been told. It asked who benefited from the “largesse of cheap and easy money from banks” but had not answered that question, he said.

‘Very important question’

When counsel suggested the people of blame being referred to included the 22 men, including Mr O’Brien, referred to in earlier articles as the banks’ biggest borrowers in 2008, Mr Lyons said Mr Sheridan’s article referred to politicians, civil servants, developers and bankers.

He asked was counsel saying this tied back to one person and said Mr Sheridan was writing about the banking inquiry, which itself was about what happened to Ireland, not what happened to Mr O’Brien. Mr Sheridan was asking a “very important” question, he said.

When Mr Lyons remarked counsel appeared to think there should be a different headline, Mr O’Higgins responded Mr O’Brien would perhaps not be in court if there was.

Mr Lyons was also asked about another article, written by him, headlined “The gang of 22”. Mr Lyons has denied that use of the word “gang” implied any wrongdoing.

In previous evidence, Mr Lyons had said Mr O’Brien had been referred to a number of times in a biography of him by Siobhán Creaton, as in a gang.

Mr O’Higgins put to him the use of “gang” depends on context and its use in the book included saying Mr O’Brien liked to go to matches with a “gang” of friends. The use of “The gang of 22” was different, counsel said.

Mr Lyons said the 22 were mainly decent people excluding one man who was convicted of fraud.

The case continues on Friday.