Denis O’Brien’s media departure: ‘No politician will shed any tears’
Politicians say O’Brien’s involvement in any issue tended to draw negative attention
Denis O’Brien, third from left, with former taoiseach Enda Kenny at the ringing of the bell at the NYSE on March 19th, 2012. Photograph: Ben Hider/NYSE Euronext/PA Wire
The sale of Communicorp for more than €100 million marks the exit of telecoms tycoon Denis O’Brien from the Irish media market after a decades-long presence that, at its peak, saw him exercise significant control over large swathes of print and broadcast media.
Inevitably, he loomed large in this period, including for politicians who encountered him as an investor, an owner of regulated entities and someone whose media interests were a powerful force in shaping political narratives.
O’Brien, political sources point out, was not the first figure whose concentration of media assets also concentrated political minds. Many point to the infamous “Payback Time” editorial that ran on the front page of the Irish Independent on the eve of the general election that swept Bertie Ahern to power.
The popular political belief, accurate or otherwise, was that this editorial reflected the views of then-owner Tony O’Reilly. Whatever the era, and rightly or wrongly, it is a received wisdom in politics that those who seek to accumulate media ownership do it, at least in part, to bolster their power. One source who has worked in both worlds remarks: “Politicians think: Why else would someone own media, except for f***ing power?”
In 2011 the Moriarty tribunal found that former minister for communications Michael Lowry “secured the winning” of the 1995 mobile phone licence competition for Denis O’Brien’s Esat Digifone – which is rejected by both O’Brien and Lowry.
Around this time, O’Brien was building out his media portfolio, buying up shares in Independent News & Media (INM), previously controlled by Tony O’Reilly. The face-off between O’Reilly and O’Brien over (a contest described by an ex-senior politician as “the two bulls in the field and who is the bigger”) led to his peak years of influence in Irish media.
Using the courts
Despite his commercial interest in the press, he never shied away from using the courts against the media when he felt wronged, or indeed against the Oireachtas in a 2017 case relating to statements made on his banking affairs.
This also saw a barrage of legal letters sent to media organisations for reporting the proceedings of Dáil Éireann, usually something that can be done with impunity.
Over the years, politicians who dealt with him, or his media interests, have a range of verdicts – from his being “perfectly pleasant and helpful”, to those working for him engaging in lobbying that left one senior politician feeling that “there was a gun being put to my head” on some issues.
Several political sources who spoke privately also registered the view that O’Brien’s involvement in an issue increased the chances of it garnering negative attention in the media – from water charges to the National Broadband Plan (where Actavo, an engineering company he controls, won contracts) to moves to buy up the Celtic Media group of newspapers.
“Once it had anything to do with Denis O’Brien it was an absolute lightning rod,” recalls a senior source. “I can tell you this much: there’s nobody in Leinster House to shed any tears to see him leaving the media scene in Ireland. ”
Former political staffers recall, and not fondly, the controversy around his presence on the stage with Enda Kenny at a New York Stock Exchange function, where he also crossed paths with Labour minister Joan Burton, prompting backlash for both due to recent findings about him in the report of the Moriarty tribunal.
In recent years, stories intertwining O’Brien, his media interests and the worlds of journalism and politics have multiplied: his legal case against the Oireachtas, the black-listing from his radio stations of journalists from this newspaper and online publisher the Currency; the loss of a high-profile libel case against the Sunday Business Post; and the ODCE investigation into INM.
Catherine Murphy, joint leader of the Social Democrats, who was at the centre of the case against the Oireachtas, says she welcomes his departure from media ownership in Ireland. “I don’t think he was a positive force in media,” she says.