Naughten says ‘I had no inside information to give’ in phone call with PR executive on INM

Minister insists ‘I have acted to the letter of the law in the process’ on media acquisition

 

MARIE O’HALLORAN, MICHAEL O’REGAN

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten said there was “nothing wrong or inappropriate” for him to tell anyone he would take advice on sending a proposed media merger to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

“This is not inside information but simply a reflection of the legislation itself,” Mr Naughten said in a personal statement to the Dáil.

Mr Naughten added: “I had no inside information to give.”

The Roscommon-based Minister said “it may have been preferable if the conversation had not taken place but I was by no means expressing a personal view nor could I do so at that time”.

The Minister was addressing the Dáil in response to a report in The Irish Times that he had discussions with a public relations executive acting for Independent News & Media about his decision to refer its proposed takeover of the Celtic Media Group to the BAI.

The Minister said he spoke to the executive, Eoghan Ó Neachtain, former press secretary to a number of governments, on either November 10th or 11th, 2016. “He informed me that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission was after approving the Independent News & Media acquisition of the Celtic Media group.”He said this was before the commission told him as Minister of the decision.

“I expressed a purely personal view that the likely course of action” would be a referral to the BAI.

Mr Naughten said the view he asserted was not confidential as the report in The Irish Times, “seemed to suggest”.

The Minister said he answered six parliamentary questions on the issue and had been exhorted by the National Union of Journalists and political parties to have the issue investigated.

He added that “I am very happy for any member of Dáil Éireann to come to my office and see the entire file, because I have acted to the letter of the law in the process.”

He said he told the PR executive it was likely to be examined but equally that he would take the advice of his officials.

Fianna Fail communications spokesman Timmy Dooley said on December 6th 2016, in response to a question about his intentions on the proposed takeover, the Minister said he had not made his views known, and he was not going to, and that it would not be appropriate for him to comment while the matter was under consideration.

Yet, on November 12th, he had communicated information to a public relations executive that he was going to refer the decision to the BAI.

“How can you not understand that was providing privileged information,’’ Mr Dooley asked.

Mr Naughten said the application had come into his Department on November 21st.

The phone call he had with Mr Ó Neachtain was in early November.

“The only new information I gave at that time was that I would take the advice of my officials in making the decision,’’ he added.

He had said in the Dáil on December 6th that he had not, at that stage, received the report from his officials and that he would consider it when he received it.

Replying to Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, the Minister said there was no note in his department of his conversation with Mr Ó Neachtain.

He said he did not see its significance because it was a conversation he had based on information that was in the public domain.

“I had been provided with no detail,’’ he added.

Ms McDonald said the call should not have happened.

She claimed Mr Naughten had “wilfully and deliberately’’ misled the Dail.

He replied: “I did not wilfully, or in any other way, mislead the Dail.’’

Solidarity TD Mick Barry said Mr Ó Neachtain gave the Minister something in telling him that the “and you gave him something in return”.

Mr Barry said there was a trade of information and the first person to get the information was “the big business lobbyist”, which was quickly relayed to Denis O’Brien and which would affect the share price.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy asked the Minister did he not realise he needed to say to Mr Ó Neachtain: “I cannot talk to you on this issue”.

She said the Minister misled the Dail on December 6th, just under a month after his conversation with the lobbyist, when he outlined the process without telling them what he had told Mr Ó Neachtain, that a referral to the BAI was likely.

Mr Naughten again denied misleading the Dáil.

Green party leader Eamon Ryan asked what the Minister’s personal relationship with Mr Ó Neachtain. The Minister said he knew him through his role as government press secretary. He said he would have had conversations with him mostly about rugby because they were both interested in Connacht rugby.

The Minister concluded the 55 minute question and answer session by saying “I have absolutely nothing to hide in relation to this. I would actually encourage colleagues to look at the file which is in my department. I think it would lose value if it was redacted.”