O'Brien threatens to sue 'Independent' journalist


THE LARGEST media owner in the State, Denis O’Brien, has threatened to sue Irish Independentjournalist Sam Smyth over comments made about the Moriarty tribunal.

Mr O’Brien is the largest shareholder in the Independent News & Media group, which owns the Irish Independent. He is also the owner of Communicorp, which owns Today FM, on which Smyth presents a current affairs programme every Sunday.

Mr O’Brien, through his solicitors Meagher Associates, has written to Smyth over comments made on the TV3 show Tonight with Vincent Browneon June 24th, and in an article in the Irish Independenton May 27th.

Regarding comments made on the TV3 show, a letter received the next day accused Smyth of maliciously attacking Mr O’Brien and making defamatory comment.

Mr O’Brien has not threatened to sue the TV station, which is owned by Doughty Hanson, a UK private equity group. It is unusual for a case to be taken directly against a journalist, and not against the company that carried the allegedly defamatory comment. It is understood Smyth has sought indemnity from TV3. A spokeswoman for the station said it had no comment on the matter.

Smyth received a second letter from Mr O’Brien’s solicitors on June 28th, threatening legal action over the article in the Irish Independent. It is understood this matter is being handled by solicitors for the Independent. A spokesman for the group would not comment.

Smyth is among a number of journalists who are scheduled to sit in for Mr Browne on the TV3 show during his summer vacation.

Contacted yesterday, Smyth confirmed receiving two letters from Mr O’Brien’s solicitors, but could not comment further. A spokesman for Mr O’Brien did not comment.

In November 2008 the tribunal issued confidential provisional findings on its long-running inquiry into whether Mr O’Brien made payments to former minister for communications Michael Lowry. It has made provisional findings regarding whether Mr Lowry interfered in any way in the awarding of the State’s second mobile phone licence to Mr O’Brien’s Esat Digifone in 1996.

Mr O’Brien, in subsequent comments to the media, disclosed aspects of the findings, and said they included findings that the licence had been illegally issued by the State, and that he had a corrupt relationship with Mr Lowry. Fresh evidence has been heard since then that has undermined some findings on the legality issue. The tribunal has not yet issued its final report.

Smyth has been the main reporter for the Independent group covering the tribunal. Smyth’s exclusive report in 1996 concerning work on Mr Lowry’s Co Tipperary home paid for by Dunnes Stores brought his ministerial career to a sudden end, and his departure from Fine Gael.

In time the report led to inquiries into payments to Mr Lowry and to the former taoiseach, the late Charles Haughey, the establishment of the McCracken (Dunnes payments) tribunal, and the establishment of the Moriarty tribunal.

In 1999, Mr Lowry took a case against Smyth personally arising out of comments he made on RTÉ’s Prime Timeprogramme. RTÉ provided indemnity cover to Smyth. The case was never proceeded with.

As well as being a billionaire telecoms and media tycoon, Mr O’Brien is the founder and main funder of the Frontline organisation, which provides support to defenders of human rights who are at risk.