INM: A cautionary lesson

Denis Naughten’s explanation is limp and unconvincing

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten. File photograph:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten. File photograph:Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Information is power and power can beget money. That is why private emails between Leslie Buckley and Denis O’Brien were potentially in breach of stock market rules, according to the Director of Corporate Enforcement Ian Drennan. One of those messages, concerning a proposed takeover of Celtic Media by Independent News & Media, involved Minister for Communications Denis Naughten. In it, the Minister was said to favour referring the commercial initiative to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland for adjudication, in spite of a favourable decision by the competition regulator. That information preceded a formal ministerial decision by two months.

Mr Naughten now accepts it would have been better if his conversation with lobbyist Eoghan Ó Neachtáin - on which the email was based - had never taken place. But the Minister’s defence, that he had only expressed a private and personal view on what was likely to happen, is bunkum. On such a politically sensitive matter, the opinion of the minister in charge carries enormous weight. And it did. A recommendation from officials, that he should refer the takeover to the BAI, accorded with his personal view.

The outcome was unlikely to be different, given O’Brien’s major shareholding in INM and political alarm over his control of large sections of the media. Plurality of media ownership formed the basis for the BAI referral. The takeover bid for Celtic Media titles was subsequently dropped. Such a relaxed attitude towards ministerial decision-making is unacceptable and Cabinet members should take this controversy as a cautionary lesson. Offering private guidance to lobbyists, especially when the information may become financially sensitive, should not happen.

Ministerial lobbying is an intrinsic part of Irish political life and is provided for under legislation. Recording such interventions is mandatory, however, and did not happen in this instance. The Minister’s explanation is limp and unconvincing: lobbying wasn’t involved because only information was being requested. As for his acting to ‘ the letter of the law’, what about the spirit?

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