INM seeking exploratory talks over legal claims following data breach

Approach seen as desire to establish if there is appetite among ‘INM 19’ for settlement

Thomas Leysen, chairman of Mediahuis, which bought INM in 2019.  Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

Thomas Leysen, chairman of Mediahuis, which bought INM in 2019. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

 

Independent News & Media has signalled its interest in exploratory talks over legal claims lodged following the data breach scandal that rocked the group when businessman Denis O’Brien was its main shareholder.

The claims centre on the searching of emails in 2014 that belonged to lawyers, senior journalists, former INM executives and public relations figures. The High Court has heard that back-up IT tapes from INM ended up in the hands of third-party companies for “data interrogation” on information relating to 19 named individuals, who became known as the INM 19.

They include current and former INM journalists Sam Smyth, Brendan O’Connor and Maeve Sheehan, former Moriarty tribunal lawyers including Jerry Healy and PR agents Rory Godson, Mark Kenny and Jonathan Neilan.

They also include Karl Brophy, a former INM journalist and executive, who is aligned with the family of Sir Anthony O’Reilly, who lost a bitter corporate battle against Mr O’Brien for control of INM.

Mediahuis Ireland

The company, now known as Mediahuis Ireland, still faces legal action from several of the people whose data was searched. In recent days, however, it has made an approach to legal representatives for some of the litigants.

The overture, acknowledged to The Irish Times by three people familiar with the cases, has been interpreted an invitation to “talks about talks” to examine whether there is any appetite for a settlement.

It remains unclear whether any of the litigants would enter talks after the company’s tentative approach. The engagement remains at the level of solicitors, with barristers not yet involved, which some observers see as a sign that it is at an early stage only.

The company had nothing to say when asked about the legal claims. “As I’m sure you can understand, Mediahuis Ireland does not comment on current litigation,” said Mary Gallagher, company secretary.

Some of the INM 19 individuals had come into conflict with Mr O’Brien, who then owned 29.9 per cent of the company and whose close associate Leslie Buckley was chairman of INM until March 2018. INM blamed Mr Buckley for the data breach. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Whistleblower

INM was sold to Mediahuis of Belgium in 2019. But the affair remains under investigation by High Court inspectors whose appointment in 2018 followed whistleblower complaints to the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement. Mr Buckley lost a court bid in February to have the inspectors removed from the company.

In a separate investigation that finished that same month, Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon found that the email search breached privacy law and had no legal basis.

The recent change to the name of the company, publisher of the Irish Independent and Sunday Independent, came two years after the €146.5 million deal that led to Mr O’Brien’s departure from the business. Mediahuis chairman Thomas Leysen said at the time that the High Court inspection was a factor in the price of the deal.