Journalist recalls ‘fear factor’ when including Denis O’Brien in stories

Tom Lyons giving evidence in defamation trial over 2015 ‘Sunday Business Post’ articles

Tom Lyons gave evidence on Tuesday in a defamation case taken by businessman Denis O’Brien against the Sunday Business Post. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

Tom Lyons gave evidence on Tuesday in a defamation case taken by businessman Denis O’Brien against the Sunday Business Post. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

 

Articles about the Irish banks’ 22 biggest borrowers in 2008 were in the public interest and identifying Denis O’Brien as one of these was “not malicious”, journalist Tom Lyons has told the High Court.

Mr O’Brien was named among 22 people identified as the biggest borrowers from Irish banks in 2008 in an “astounding” report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to the government in November 2008 concerning the exposure of Irish banks, Mr Lyons said.

Articles published by the Sunday Business Post in March 2015 “faithfully reported” the PwC report and there was nothing malicious in including Mr O’Brien, who was “one of the good guys” in that he had paid off his loans over five years.

The PwC report put Mr O’Brien’s total indebtedness to Irish banks at €1 billion, including some €785 million to Anglo, and he was listed in the Sunday Business Post articles in the same sequence as in the report, he said.

The articles named all 22 because that was demonstrative of the concentrated risks in the banks, they were lending too much money to too few people which was “a big deal” in the PwC report.

Strong shape

He said Mr O’Brien was in “strong financial shape” in 2015 as he was three years earlier when Mr Lyons was involved in writing another article, in the Sunday Independent, about Anglo Irish Bank’s top 13 borrowers.

There was a “fear factor” about including Mr O’Brien in the articles but Mr Lyons and Sunday Business Post editor Ian Kehoe decided they had “to be brave” and not leave him out “because he is a special case or could sue us or affect our job prospects into the future”.

The PwC report addressed an “extraordinary time” in Irish life and the Irish public “deserved the answers”, Mr Lyons said.

He was giving evidence in Mr O’Brien’s continuing action alleging he was defamed in the articles of March 15th, 2015. He told Michael McDowell SC, for the newspaper, that he is an award winning journalist who was given the PwC report in 2015.

Mr Lyons said Anglo Irish Bank lost €30 billion, making it the worst bank in world history and such losses, plus those of other banks, meant Ireland had to suffer years of austerity.

He said PwC was asked to examine the state of health of the banks, which by November 2008 were guaranteed by the State. Its report was based on what the banks themselves told PwC and the government thought, from the report, that the problem was short term liquidity and not long term solvency.

‘Ridiculous’

Mr Lyons said he was never of the view that Mr O’Brien’s borrowing brought down the country. “That’s ridiculous, no individual could bring down the country.”

Based on what the banks told PwC, the report suggested total losses of between €8.6 billion and €10.6 billion but the ultimate figure was €64 billion.

When the newspaper was preparing the articles, Mr Kehoe was “all over them” and everything was checked, including by lawyers, Mr Lyons added.

While he accepted Mr O’Brien believes his banking affairs should be private, the PwC report was an important document prepared for the State concerning “big picture numbers” and the public interest “trumps one man’s private opinion”.

When writing the articles, Mr Lyons wanted to be fair to Mr O’Brien who was among a number of people doing his best in extraordinary circumstances and who had paid all his loans.

He considered each of the borrowings of the 22 to be disturbing in that it was troubling that anyone could borrow so much from a bank that was about to be nationalised and was hopelessly insolvent.