Dearbhail McDonald, group business editor of Independent News and Media (INM), is one of the best journalists in Ireland and no shrinking violet. Last Sunday morning, she tweeted a link to a story she had worked on with two of her colleagues, Irish Independent legal affairs editor Shane Phelan and Sunday Independent business editor Samantha McCaughren – both of whom are also highly experienced and well respected professionals.
The story was a terrific piece of journalism: “ODCE claims INM data taken off site and ‘interrogated’ but ‘board did not know’.”
The three reporters had managed to get sight of a High Court affidavit written by the director of corporate enforcement, Ian Drennan. They quoted Drennan, referring to events in October 2014, as writing that: "During the course of the data interrogation, INM's data appears to have been interrogated and searched against the names of various individuals, including, amongst others, a number of INM journalists and two senior counsel."
There is nothing at all unusual about a journalist using social media to draw attention to a good story. What was remarkable, however, was the tone of McDonald's tweet: "Words can't explain how proud I am to work among a cadre of dedicated, professional and brave journalists – and many others – at #INM Breaking this story today with @shanephelanindo & @SMcCaughren was no easy task but a necessary one."
Is it not striking that in a democracy with a constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, journalists have to be “brave” to report the news and that publishing a good old-fashioned scoop is “no easy task”?
McDonald, moreover, was not exaggerating. The work she, Phelan and McCaughren have done on the mind-boggling story of what has gone on at their own workplace really is brave. They deserve enormous credit for serving the public interest by bringing to light behaviour that has serious implications for Irish democracy.
In the affidavit, Drennan claims that the "data interrogation" of the electronic records of journalists and others at INM was directed by the then chairman of INM, Leslie Buckley, who stepped down last month. He also claims that two invoices, totalling approximately €60,000 associated with the "data interrogation", were paid out to an outfit called Trusted Data Solutions by Blaydon Limited, an Isle of Man entity beneficially owned by INM's largest shareholder Denis O'Brien.
Protecting sources is a basic rule – but journalists do not imagine that they have to protect them from their own newspapers
In subsequent reporting, the names of high-profile journalists Maeve Sheehan, Brendan O'Connor and Sam Smyth, and two senior counsel for the Moriarty Tribunal that investigated Michael Lowry's role in the awarding of a mobile phone licence to Denis O'Brien, have surfaced as being among the 19 "persons of interest" whose digital records were specifically targeted.
All of these people will have cause for concern, but for the journalists involved, the prospect of a data breach cuts to the very heart of their professional ethic. Protecting sources is a basic rule – but journalists do not imagine that they have to protect them from their own newspapers. It is hard to imagine a more fundamental betrayal of the ideal of a free press than a newspaper’s undermining its own journalists in this way.
As the veteran former Independent security reporter Don Lavery put it: "I never put anything sensitive in my computer, emails etc. Especially anything related to sources, on the basis that it could be hacked. Never guessed it might be my own employer."
Denis O'Brien is a major backer of the excellent human rights organisation Front Line Defenders. One of its recent projects has been on the insidious effects of digital surveillance, not just by states, but by private actors: in 2016 it reported that "journalists and political opposition, have been systematically targeted with digital surveillance practices in almost every country in the world . . . but digital surveillance has also been privatised and is now accessible to anyone who is willing to pay".
It highlighted in particular the effects of this surveillance in spreading fear. One human rights activist in Gambia was quoted in its report: “Surveillance affects me psychologically, whenever I sit and have a keyboard in front of me. I ask myself, does anybody out there have the capacity to look at what I am doing? Who else out there is looking at what I am doing? And as a result of that I am extra careful with the very choice of words. I am highly selective . . . It is like a threat hanging over you.”
As chairman of the board of trustees of Front Line Defenders, O'Brien undoubtedly deplores these practices and their effects. His personal sincerity is not in question. But he also has grave difficulty with criticism of himself or his companies or with reporting that, in his view, undermines his interests or reputation. He has long seen himself as a victim of widespread media and political efforts to do him down. He was – and apparently remains – particularly enraged by media coverage of the Moriarty tribunal and its revelations of his financial ties to Lowry.
In 2003,O'Brien wrote to Gavin O'Reilly, then chief executive of INM: "As far as I am concerned, Independent News and Media have spent the last seven years trying to destroy my reputation. Some of the coverage of my affairs, both business and personal, in the Sunday Tribune, Sunday Independent, Irish Independent and Evening Herald have caused hurt and enormous damage to my reputation, not to mention the emotional distress suffered by my wife, Catherine and my family."
O'Brien's sense of victimhood – and concomitant desire to control unfavourable reporting or commentary – seems only to have grown
In October 2010, when O’Brien was a major but not yet controlling shareholder of INM, O’Reilly noted a call from Buckley to say that “Denis” was “very upset at Sam Smyth”, the INM journalist whose work had been central to the establishment of the tribunal and that “Sam needed to be moved on” from the story.
Since then, O'Brien's sense of victimhood – and concomitant desire to control unfavourable reporting or commentary – seems only to have grown. He resorts, as is his right, to the courts in actions against journalists, politicians, the Oireachtas and the Red Flag consultancy.
His Communicorp broadcasting company has operated a total ban on contributors to The Irish Times appearing on its stations, after criticism of one of them, Newstalk, by this writer, whose work, O'Brien has said, "needs to be stamped out in Ireland". The wealthier and more powerful he grows, the more insecure and thin-skinned he seems to become.
There is no doubt that this sense of victimhood is sincere, that he genuinely sees himself as an embattled figure, struggling to hold back the tide of vituperation and misrepresentation that threatens to drown him and all he has achieved. The problem is that this vision of the world is at odds with the reality that O’Brien controls a very large slice of the Irish media.
The lifeblood of a robust democracy is scrutiny, argument, independent reporting and diversity of opinion; it is like having Scrooge in charge of the Christmas feast or asking a prude to run an orgy – there is just a mismatch between the temperament and the task.
Caught in this gap are the journalists who work for O’Brien’s newspapers and radio stations. Rightly or wrongly, they too feel the need to be “extra careful with the very choice of words”. It is cheering that they can be brave enough to report the news – and deeply worrying that they have to be.