Journalist denies ‘crazy conspiracy’ against Denis O’Brien

Tom Lyons says of businessman: ‘We thought he was a property developer’

Businessman Denis O’Brien alleges defamation in articles in the Sunday Business Post. Photograph: Collins Courts

Businessman Denis O’Brien alleges defamation in articles in the Sunday Business Post. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

Businessman Denis O’Brien’s inclusion in articles based on a report about the exposure of Irish banks in 2008 was not part of some “crazy conspiracy” to damage him, journalist Tom Lyons has told a High Court jury.

Mr Lyons said Mr O’Brien was included in the Sunday Business Post articles of March 15th, 2015 because he was named in that report by Price WaterhouseCoopers (PWC) as among the 22 biggest borrowers from Irish banks in 2008.

The PWC report was about the financial crash and what happened to Ireland, not about Mr O’Brien, he said.

The Sunday Business Post articles “faithfully reported” the PWC report and were not defamatory of Mr O’Brien, he said.

Nor were they malicious and, as a professional journalist, he felt “sick to the bottom of my stomach” such an allegation was made.

In cross-examination by Paul O’Higgins SC for Mr O’Brien, Mr Lyons said it was “ridiculous” to suggest he or then Sunday Business Post editor Ian Kehoe might have “made up” something about Mr O’Brien and “stuck him” in the middle of the articles.

To protect his source, Mr Lyons said he shredded the PWC report, labelled confidential, the day before Mr O’Brien’s solicitors sent their first letter complaining about it. He has no notes of the report but was confident the Sunday Business Post articles were a fair reflection of its contents.

Mr O’Higgins said his side has never seen the PWC report and suggested it was likely to have dealt with other dimensions to the banks’ story not covered in the Sunday Business Post articles.

Mr Lyons said: “We covered all the main points, I’m a very experienced journalist.”

The story was about Ireland, “the big picture” and the focus was not Mr O’Brien, he said.

“I know Mr O’Brien thinks the report is all about him but it wasn’t.”

One of the Sunday Business Post articles written by him got across the “top line numbers” as set out in the PWC report concerning Mr O’Brien, he said. PWC had put Mr O’Brien’s total borrowings from Irish banks in 2008 at €1 billion, including €785 million from Anglo and his article reported that and that Mr O’Brien was meeting all his repayments.

The 22 individuals were referred to as a group of borrowers at various stages throughout the report and dealt with individually towards the end of it and he believed two pages concerned Mr O’Brien individually.

The cross-examination of Mr Lyons will resume on Thursday in the action by Mr O’Brien against Post Publications alleging the articles defamed him because they wrongly meant he was among a “gang” of 22 borrowers who “wrecked the country” and injured his reputation.

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

On Wednesday, Mr Lyons told his counsel Michael McDowell SC he and the Sunday Business Post were “professional and analytical and diligent” in their approach to publication. There was “no agenda” in using a photo of Mr O’Brien among several photos of others used and photos were selected on the basis of what was available and who was best known among the group of 22.

Addressing Mr O’Brien’s claim he was wrongly described as a property developer when his core business was telecommunications and media, Mr Lyons said: “We thought he was a property developer.” He disagreed describing Mr O’Brien as a developer was a “gratuitous slur”.

He said the articles “faithfully reported” the PWC report and articles written by him also included material from the Dáil record in 2008 and “informed comment by me”.

He had commissioned Gavin Sheridan, journalist and transparency campaigner, to write one of the articles for which Mr Lyons chose the headline “People of Influence, people of blame”. Mr Lyons said he took responsibility for that article and defended it “100 per cent”.

He said a headline “The Gang of 22” in one of his articles meant a “group” and was “very obviously not a reference to criminality”.

He said he did not believe Mr O’Brien’s evidence that he had not read a biography of him written by Siobhán Creaton which, Mr Lyons said, included six references to Mr O’Brien being in a “gang”.

The 22 included some “pretty good guys” like Mr O’Brien who were caught on the wrong side of a property bubble, he said. He had no malice against any of them who included some very decent people, some of whom cost the taxpayer a lot of money and some like Mr O’Brien who did not cost the taxpayer money.

The Irish banks ended up owing some €64 billion, multiples of the exposure they had indicated to PWC when it was preparing the report, he said. To put €64 billion in context, that “would build 32 children’s hospitals”.