Minister for Communications Denis Naughten has been urged to apologise to TDs and correct the Dáil record over his phone conversation with a lobbyist about the potential takeover of Celtic Media group by Independent News & Media (INM).
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin made the call in the Dáil on Tuesday but Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that Mr Naughten had accounted for his actions. He had said he regretted it, that it was a mistake and apologised.
Mr Varadkar was referring to an interview with the Minister broadcast on Galway Bay FM radio in which he acknowledged it was a “political mistake” to have had the conversation. He said “ I sincerely apologise for that”.
However, Mr Martin said Mr Naughten should apologise to TDs and correct the record of the House over the controversy.
In November 2016, Mr Naughten told former government press secretary Eoghan Ó Neachtain in a phone call that it was likely he would refer the proposed deal to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.
But three weeks after talking to the lobbyist, said Mr Martin, the Minister replied to questions in the Dáil from two TDs and said, “I have not made my views known and I will not make my views known”.
The Fianna Fáil leader added: “But he already had made his views known to the lobbyist, who informed his superiors, who informed the chairman of INM, who then told the major shareholder.”
Mr Martin said that “no other shareholder was informed”, including Celtic Media – subject of the takeover. “The Dáil was not told. The Dáil was misled. The Minister should apologise to the Dáil and he should correct the record of the House.”
Mr Varadkar said Mr Naughten did not do any favours for INM or for Denis O’Brien, the company’s largest shareholder. His action in fact was “to delay the proposed merger between the company and Celtic Media by referring it to the BAI.”
He added that Mr Naughten told the lobbyist he would be guided by official advice. The Taoiseach said “the Minister cannot be held personally responsible for what other people do with that information”.
Mr Martin described Mr Varadkar’s response as “incredible”. He said “when you give that commercially sensitive information to one party, you are actually responsible for what happens down the line because you should not give it in the first place”.He said Mr Naughten “was keeping that party on side, no question”. Mr Martin added that all the Minister had to do “at the very minimum, is admit that what he did was wrong”.
But the Taoiseach told him that when he took the unsolicited phone call from the lobbyist the matter was not before him. The lobbyist informed him that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission had made a decision to accept the proposed merger.
He said when the issue arose in the Dáil the process was before him. “He had no official advice or information to pass on.”
Meanwhile, the Social Democrats have called on Mr Naughten to recuse himself from any decisions related to the proposed purchase of Landmark Media Group by The Irish Times . The proposed sale includes The Irish Examiner, the Evening Echo and other media interests.
Social Democrats joint leader Catherine Murphy said while the party had no particular concerns about the acquisition itself, she did have problems regarding the Minister’s role in the process.
“We have been given reason to have concerns,” she said. “We have looked for the Minister to recuse himself in relation to media regulation and we are waiting for the Taoiseach to respond to that.”