Naughten expresses ‘sincere regret’ over phone conversation on INM

Denis Naughten: ‘I do sincerely regret expressing a view’

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten has denied that he misled the Dáil in his December 2016 statement on the purposed purchase of Celtic Media by INM. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten has expressed “sincere regret” for contact he had with a lobbyist acting for Independent News and Media in relation to a proposed takeover by the company.

Mr Naughten, in a statement to the Dáil on Wednesday, said he only offered a “personal view” to the lobbyist and today said he now regretted “expressing my opinion”. 

He said he “acted to the letter of the law” when he had a conversation with lobbyist Eoghan Ó Neachtain in November 2016 about the mooted takeover of Celtic Media by INM. He also insisted he had “no inside information” to give.

The Irish Times reported on Wednesday details from court documents filed by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement as part of a bid to have High Court inspectors appointed to INM.

These referred to the Ó Neachtain conversation with Mr Naughten over whether the takeover would likely be referred to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). This was allegedly relayed to Denis O’Brien two months before a decision was made.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday morning, Mr Naughten said he is “not responsible” for how Mr Ó Neachtain interpreted the information and transmitted it back to Independent News and Media.

“First of all, I am in a very difficult position in that I am asked to comment on an alleged reference to me in an alleged affidavit,” Mr Naughten said. “We have all been cautioned by Mr Justice Peter Kelly.

“The view that I gave Mr Ó Neachtain was based solely on information that was in the public domain at that stage. I did not have any information as minister at the point I spoke with Mr O’Neachtain in early November (2016). As I pointed out, he was the one who informed me that the competition and consumer protection commission had made a decision on this.

“That was before the file actually came to me. When I spoke in the Dáil in early December the file had actually come to me. It was under active consideration and I told the Dáil in December that I was awaiting a report from my officials on that file and I would be making a decision based on that.

“I also stated to Mr Ó Neachtain in the very brief conversation that I had with him that I would be deciding solely on the advice that I was given by my officials and I would be acting on that.

“And I am not responsible for what way Mr Ó Neachtain interpreted that conversation or how he fed that back to his clients.

“I also want to say I sincerely regret expressing my opinion on this at the time. I said nothing wrong. Anyone who knows me knows that I am very accessible as a minister to my constituents, to my colleagues on all sides of the House in Leinster House and to the media.

“In fact my mobile phone number is on my website. I do sincerely regret expressing a view on it but I am absolutely clear that I said that I would abide by the recommendation of my officials and the files clearly show that I did that.

“I would provide the offer to anybody to come and view the files for themselves.”

Mr Varadkar is expected to come under pressure in relation to Mr Naughten’s Dáil statement. However, a spokesman for Mr Varadkar said on Wednesday the Taoiseach was satisfied with the explanation given by Mr Naughten to TDs. Last night at a Fine Gael event in Dublin the Taoiseach said Mr Naughten’s explanation was “clear”.

Earlier, Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy insisted there was no “nod and wink” between Mr Naughten and Mr Ó Neachtain.

“Denis did not give anyone a heads up on what he was going to do,” he said. “It was quite clear what he said to the person he was on the phone with, that he was going to do what his officials advised him to do.

“If a lobbyist is then going to interpret that for their own reasons.. that is a totally separate thing.

“But Denis did admit perhaps he shouldn’t have taken the phone call, but he did.

“I think saying I’ll be guided by my officials and I’ll follow the law as and when the process begins , I don’t think that is gold information,” he told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke. “Some people might try to sell that as gold, but I don’t think it is gold information. “There was no nod and wink, no one benefited from anything, because Denis had no information to give.”