O'Brien threatens to sue 'Sunday Independent'

DENIS O’BRIEN has accused the Sunday Independent of defaming him in two articles published this month and is demanding a “full…

DENIS O'BRIEN has accused the Sunday Independentof defaming him in two articles published this month and is demanding a "full retraction and apology" from the newspaper, which he part owns.

This is the latest twist in Mr O’Brien’s row with Independent News & Media (IN&M), where he is the largest shareholder, with a 21.6 per cent stake.

The two sides have clashed in recent years about governance issues, strategy and director appointments.

Meagher Solicitors, acting for Mr O'Brien, wrote to Sunday Independenteditor Aengus Fanning on October 21st to complain about articles written by Trinity College Dublin lecturer Elaine Byrne and reporter Ronald Quinlan.

Ms Byrne’s article related to the decision of the Government to invite Mr O’Brien to the Global Economic Forum at Dublin Castle. This was in spite of representations from Barry Maloney, a former business associate of Mr O’Brien at Esat Telecom, not to do so given findings from the Moriarty tribunal about the awarding of the second mobile phone licence.

Mr Quinlan’s article dealt with the decision by Today FM, which is owned by Mr O’Brien, to drop Sam Smyth’s Sunday morning radio show from its schedule.

Mr Smyth has been a critic of Mr O’Brien in relation to the tribunal and its findings.

The letter said Ms Byrne’s article was a “truly objectionable piece of journalism, strewn with factual inaccuracies and devoid of any balance or objectivity”.

“It, coupled with Mr Quinlan’s article, is grossly defamatory of our client in alleging that he has interfered with the editorial independence of the media organisation which he owns.”

The letter said it was clear from Ms Byrne’s comments “via other forums, including an avalanche of commentary via her Twitter account” that she has a “personal animus against our client and is clearly pursuing an agenda without any balance or objectivity”.

The letter described Ms Byrne’s comments in relation to Mr O’Brien’s tax status as “snide and uninformed”.

“Yet again, if Ms Byrne had made any effort to research the actual facts she would have educated herself that our client pays income tax on all income earned in Ireland together with significant amounts of employment and other taxes arising from his Irish business interests.”

The letter said Ms Byrne’s claim that Mr O’Brien moved to Portugal after the sale of Esat Telecom to BT in 2000 to avoid paying capital gains tax was “another reckless factual inaccuracy”.

“The fact of the matter is that our client had moved to Portugal before the sale of Esat Telecom to BT for perfectly valid and legitimate personal and business reasons,” it added.

The letter claims that IN&M deliberately chose Ms Byrne to write her piece, given her previous negative comments in the media in relation to Mr O’Brien.

“Further, it seems that you as editor were negligent and/or malicious in failing to research, investigate and verify the facts.”

In closing, the letter seeks a retraction and apology to appear in a “prominent position” in the next edition of the paper.

“Let us have your proposals to address the grave wrong, in terms to be agreed with this office,” the letter added.

IN&M confirmed receipt of the letter from Mr O’Brien’s lawyers.

“Mr O’Brien’s complaints are currently being considered by our lawyers and it would be inappropriate, at this stage, to comment on them,” a spokesman said.

“However, while IN&M management has a strict policy of non-interference in editorial matters we, as a company, will always vigorously defend freedom of expression and the absolute and unequivocal right of our journalists and contributors to report and comment on matters of public interest and national importance.

“We believe that this is absolutely essential in order to preserve a free press in Ireland.”

Ms Byrne said she wished to thank Mr O’Brien “for his interesting letter and look forward to responding in due course”.

Mr O’Brien declined to comment.