The National Union of Journalists has called on Minister for Communications Denis Naughten to recuse himself from media regulation for telling a lobbyist for a media company about plans to review a takeover it was planning.
Séamus Dooley, the NUJ's Irish secretary, said it would be "entirely inappropriate" for Mr Naughten to retain responsibility for regulatory matters relating to Independent News & Media (INM) or radio group Communicorp while the High Court was considering if his behaviour led to a breach of stock market rules on inside information.
The Irish Times revealed last week that Mr Naughten told a lobbyist working for INM on a phone call in 2016 that he intended to refer the company's proposed takeover of Celtic Media regional newspaper group to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, a regulator, two months before he officially announced his decision.
Mr Naughten's view, expressed to lobbyist Eoghan Ó Neachtain, a former government press secretary, was passed on to INM's then chairman Leslie Buckley, who then informed Denis O'Brien, INM's biggest shareholder and the owner of Communicorp.
The contacts were disclosed in court papers filed by the State’s corporate watchdog, who investigated INM and said Mr Buckley may have shared “inside information” and potentially breached market abuse regulations.
Director of corporate enforcement Ian Drennan is seeking to have High Court inspectors appointed to investigate this and a range of other issues at INM.
In his court papers, Mr Drennan claims that a range of breaches may have possibly occurred at INM including breaches by the company under legislation in which the Minister for Communications has a role.
Mr Dooley criticised Mr Naughten’s refusal to engage directly with the NUJ on the later-abandoned merger while he had “no difficulty in taking a phone call from a third-party PR consultant” about the proposed takeover.
Perceived conflict of interest
Speaking on Sunday at the NUJ's delegate conference in Southport, England, Mr Dooley called on the Minister to recuse himself voluntarily from involvement in media regulation "in order to avoid a conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest" pending the outcome of the INM case.
Discussing the controversy on Sunday, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said he would not have a personal conversation as Mr Naughten said he did with a lobbyist acting for INM.
In defending what he said on the phone call, Mr Naughten sought to draw a distinction between the “purely personal view” he shared with the lobbyist and a subsequent decision affecting INM he would make as a minister.
Asked on RTÉ's The Week in Politics if he would ever give a "personal opinion" in such circumstances, Mr Flanagan said: "I wouldn't because I'm speaking as Minister for Justice."
When asked if he would ever speak in a personal capacity as a Minister, Mr Flanagan said: “Well, as Minister for Justice it’s very difficult to speak in a personal capacity. I acknowledge my role and capacity.”
Mr Flanagan said Mr Naughten had acknowledged he had made a mistake, but insisted that no confidential or market sensitive information was passed by the Minister to INM through its lobbyist.
“This was not the third secret of Fatima. The dogs in the street were barking it,” said Mr Flanagan.
However, senior Fine Gael sources said they expected the controversy to drag into this week. Privately, Fine Gael Ministers are sharply critical of Mr Naughten.
Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy said she had “a serious concern” about future conflicts of interest and that the Minister should recuse himself because he had an “ongoing responsibility” for regulating media mergers.
“If we are to have confidence in the decisions that are going to be made, he has to recuse himself,” she said.