O'Brien denies being a tax exile

Paul Drury arriving at the Four Courts today for the third day of a High Court libel action for damages taken by Denis O?Brien. Photograph: Collins Courts

Paul Drury arriving at the Four Courts today for the third day of a High Court libel action for damages taken by Denis O?Brien. Photograph: Collins Courts

Fri, Feb 8, 2013, 00:00

Businessman Denis O’Brien has told the High Court it is incorrect to say he is a tax exile. He pays his taxes in Ireland and in all countries with which he and his company Digicel are connected, he said.

To say he was a tax exile because he lives abroad was not correct as he spent three-quarters of his time abroad because the Digicel Group, of which he is chairman, has interests from Fiji to the Caribbean, he said.

Today was the third day of Mr O’Brien’s action alleging he was defamed in an Irish Daily Mail article. He claims the article accused him of being a hypocrite over his efforts to assist in the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

The article, published on January 22nd, 2010 and written by Paul Drury, was headlined: “Moriarty is about to report, no wonder Denis O’Brien is acting the saint in stricken Haiti.”

Mr O’Brien claims it meant his actions in Haiti were motivated by self-interest and designed to deflect attention away from the Moriarty Tribunal report which contained findings adverse to Mr O’Brien which he strongly disputes.

The Mail, two of its editors and the author of the article deny the claims and plead it was a piece of opinion honestly held and based on facts Mr Drury believed were true.

Under continuing cross-examination yesterday by Oisin Quinn SC, for the defendants, Mr O’Brien said, as a shareholder in Esat Digifone which won the second mobile phone licence in 1995, he had received €295 million from the subsequent sale of the company to British Telecom in 2000.

He agreed he received hundreds of millions of dollars in dividends from the Digicel Group on 2012 but disagreed with counsel’s suggestion that, because he was now living “in a flat in Malta”, he did not pay any tax on that.

“I pay all my taxes in Ireland. I am a significant taxpayer in Ireland and that was one of the incorrect things [in the Mail article] describing me as a tax exile.”

He disagreed the main reason he moved to Malta was for tax. “I do not work in Ireland, I have some business here but 95 per cent of my businesses are scattered round the world.”

Pressed later by Mr Quinn, Mr O’Brien insisted a tax exile was someone who did not pay their taxes in Ireland.

“I pay all my PAYE and I would be one of the largest taxpayers,” he said.

Mr O’Brien agreed, as an owner of one of the biggest media companies in Ireland, Independent News and Media (INM), it was right for one to be free to express an opinion but said that applied only if they do not libel someone.

When counsel asked if he appreciated it was in the public interest for newspapers to get behind journalists who are prepared to say critical things about powerful people, Mr O’Brien said that while he was a shareholder in INM, he did not control it.

He did control the radio stations Newstalk and Today FM and they had a policy, if something incorrect was broadcast about someone, that they would ring that person immediately and say sorry and correct what has been said, he said.

This happened on a number of occasions and he himself rang the people involved who would say “at least they have owned up”, he said.

He believed this was the best way of dealing with people rather than “fighting behind lawyers.”

He disagreed he could have dealt with his case over the Mail article through a right of reply, which was offered, or through the Press Council. He said the Council does not have “any significant role.”

Earlier, Mr O’Brien agreed the Mail had published a number of other news articles about the Haiti earthquake before the Drury article, including ones which referred to Mr O’Brien’s €3.5 million donation to assist the relief effort.

He disagreed Mr Drury’s article was an expression of opinion as part of this news coverage.

The article was written “to make me look ridiculous and contemptible”, he said, as though he was trying to curry favour in the public eye because of an impending tribunal report, in a situation where 300,000 people had died in an earthquake including seven of his own Digicel staff.

The court also heard about efforts of Digicel personnel to assist RTE reporter Charlie Bird to get into the country after the earthquake.

Mr O’Brien agreed the company had organised Mr Bird’s flights in and out of the country because of major difficulties caused by the quake. It also loaned him a satellite phone and helped in getting a car for him and his camera man while in Haiti.

He said Mr Bird was “a little bit of high maintenance” and the company had helped him in the same way it had helped many others during the disaster, including aid workers.

Digicel’s head of group public relations Antonia Graham told the court Mr Bird was assisted because he was one of a couple of people “who got in early and got lucky.”

The case resumes on Tuesday before Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne and a jury.