Q&A: What is going on in the INM controversy?

A guide to the alleged data breach in 2014 at Ireland’s largest newspaper publisher

 

There have been headlines about an alleged data breach and an attempt to open a corporate investigation into happenings at Ireland’s largest newspaper publisher, Independent News & Media (INM). But what is actually going on?

What’s this about Brendan O’Connor’s emails?

The name of the well-known columnist, deputy editor of the Sunday Independent, and host of Cutting Edge on RTÉ appears on a list of 19 “persons of interest” in a document filed recently in the High Court.

The document – an affidavit from the Director of Corporate Enforcement, Ian Drennan – says that in 2014 there was a “data breach” at INM that apparently involved the information on the media group’s server being copied and given to specialists outside the group, who then reconstructed the data so that it could be searched.

It appears that whoever was analysing the data would have been able to, for instance, look at emails to and from journalists and others in the INM group, or search for any mentions of the 19 “persons of interest”.

Remember, most servers keep copies of emails going back years.

Who would want to look at Brendan O’Connor’s emails?

We don’t know yet, but the circumstances and timing of the alleged breach, and the names of the other “persons of interest”, are interesting.

What do you mean?

Two of those on the list are barristers who never wrote for the group’s newspapers or provided any legal advice to it, but who for many years worked for the Moriarty tribunal.

That tribunal investigated the granting of the State’s second mobile phone licence to a consortium, Esat Digifone, established by businessman Denis O’Brien.

And?

O’Brien is the largest shareholder in INM and up to recently his associate, Leslie Buckley, served as its chairman. O’Brien was very unhappy with the Moriarty tribunal and was criticised in its 2011 report for his commentary about one of the tribunal’s barristers, Jerry Healy SC, who is one of the 19 people named in Drennan’s affidavit.

The tribunal report found that financial transactions between O’Brien and former minister for communications Michael Lowry were linked to the awarding of the licence, which occurred under Lowry’s watch. Both men contested the tribunal’s findings.

What’s that got to do with INM?

O’Brien fought a long battle with former INM shareholder Anthony O’Reilly over the group and by 2011 had replaced him as its largest shareholder. O’Reilly’s son, Gavin, left his job as INM chief executive the following year. O’Brien had long felt that coverage in the media group of the tribunal’s inquiries was biased against him.

Interestingly, after he became the largest shareholder, the Sunday Independent, Ireland’s biggest-selling Sunday paper, continued to focus on O’Brien. The paper’s editor, Anne Harris, left that role in December 2014, when her contract was not renewed.

So is she on the list?

We don’t know for sure, as the full list has not yet emerged. But a person who is on the list is Mandy Scott, a former PA who would have had access to the emails of both O’Reillys, as well as to the former corporate affairs director of INM, Karl Brophy, who has a long and ongoing record of disputes with O’Brien.

So someone got access to a few emails?

Well, we don’t know the full extent of it yet, but it appears to be the case that third parties had access to the entirety of the data on the INM server. They would therefore have had access to information on internal discussions about editorial matters, as well as, possibly, highly confidential material about journalistic sources.

The barristers have said they were not sources, but the people searching for mentions of them in the INM data, if that ever happened, would not have known that.

So it’s a media story?

The head of the National Union of Journalists in Ireland, Séamus Dooley, has described it as the State’s “Leveson moment”, referring to the huge controversy in the UK about journalists hacking into people’s phones, usually those of celebrities. However, here it is the journalists who have to worry about their privacy.

But it is also a corporate Ireland story. Drennan wants the High Court to appoint inspectors to INM to examine whether it was being run in an unlawful manner. As well as the alleged data breach, Drennan is concerned about an apparent attempt to sell a radio station owned by O’Brien, Newstalk, to INM, for a price that the then chief executive of INM, Robert Pitt, said was excessive.

So is this about O’Brien?

He hasn’t commented yet. But according to reports in the Independent that have not been denied, it was a company belonging to O’Brien that paid the bill arising from the alleged data breach. This company, Blaydon Ltd, is registered in the Isle of Man and it is not possible from public filings to tell who owns it. However, the Paradise Papers leaks, in November of last year, disclosed that it was used by O’Brien for processing certain banking transactions.

What has Buckley said?

He says the extraction of the data from the INM server and the giving of the data to a company in Wales called Trusted Data Solutions was done as part of a cost-cutting project he was part of while serving as chairman of INM.

What next?

A High Court hearing, on April 16th, will decide whether Drennan’s application for the appointment of an inspector is successful or not.