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Minister Denis, billionaire Denis and a media merger: Dáil seeks clarity over who knew what when

Minister Denis Naughten is to make a speech on what he told INM about the media merger being referred to the BAI.

(Top) Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Communications Minister Denis Naughten; (bottom left) Denis O'Brien; (bottom right) Person reading Independent newspaper
(Top) Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Communications Minister Denis Naughten; (bottom left) Denis O'Brien; (bottom right) Person reading Independent newspaper
Image: RollingNews.ie

COMMUNICATIONS MINISTER DENIS Naughten will take questions in the Dáil today in relation to his contact with a PR agency over the proposed takeover of Celtic Media by Independent News and Media (INM).

You’ve probably been seeing a lot of headlines of late about INM, an alleged data breach and Denis O’Brien.

Today, another allegation made by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) as part of its application to have inspectors appointed to investigate corporate governance issues at INM has been reported by the Irish Times.

Here’s a who’s who before we go any further: 

The people it involves are as follows:

  • Minister for Communications, Denis Naughten
  • INM’s largest shareholder, Denis O’Brien
  • Former INM Chairperson, Leslie Buckley
  • Two PR executives from Heneghan PR – the company’s director of public affairs, Eoghan Ó Neachtain and PR executive Nigel Heneghan
  • Celtic Media, a newspaper publisher that owns several regional newspapers including some of Ireland’s most prominent local publications, including the Connaught Telegraph, the Anglo Celt and the Meath Chronicle.

What’s the issue?

INM announced in September 2016 that it intended to buy the newspapers owned by Celtic Media as part of a €4 million deal.

The acquisition would have brought the number of regional newspapers owned by INM from 13 to 20. That level of media ownership raised concerns.

The Irish Times reports today that in November 2016 details of a conversation between the minister and Eoghan Ó Neachtain, director of public affairs at Heneghan PR, was relayed to billionaire Denis O’Brien, who is INM’s largest shareholder.

During that conversation the minister reportedly advised that the proposed takeover of Celtic Media by INM would be referred to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). If that was the case, it means Naughten conveyed this to the PR executive two months before it was made public.

It is alleged Ó Neachtain told another PR executive – Nigel Heneghan – about the phonecall with the minister and he, in turn, relayed the information to INM’s then-chairman Leslie Buckley.

The uncovering of these facts in today’s Irish Times – through court documents – has raised questions.

Who was told what when?

It was the main topic in the Dáil today during Leaders’ Questions – with the Taoiseach stating:

“I am satisfied that Minister Naughten didn’t give out any information that was confidential.”

“We still don’t have all the facts as you might imagine, nobody does. We haven’t seen this affidavit,” he added, referring to the ODCE’s High Court action to have inspectors appointed to INM.

The Taoiseach said the minister has disputed the date in which a decision was made to refer the merger deal to the BAI (Taoiseach misspoke in Dáil when he cited 4 November as date that his officials recommended the referral).

He informs me the date was 4 January 2017, not November 2016. The information, as I said earlier, was not confidential. It is not unusual for PR companies and PR agents to use information that is not confidential or publicly available and make out somehow that it is confidential information.
Under the Lobbying Act, the onus is on the lobbyist to register. It is not a requirement that the politician do so.

The Taoiseach clarified:

I am advised that the mergers process went through the full rigour required under the Act and the guidelines afterwards were received by the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, on 21 November 2016.
The recommendation was made by officials on 4 January 2017 that the acquisition be referred for a phase-2 examination, and that was approved by the Minister on 10 January.

So, what’s the problem?

Pressure is now mounting on the minister to clarify the situation, with the opposition claiming that the minister misled the Dáil.

The Social Democrats said on 6 December 2016 the minister told TD Catherine Murphy on floor of Dáil that he hadn’t made a decision on the INM referral to BAI.

This would contradict the report today which claims he told Leslie Buckley and INM on 11 November 2016 that his decision was made.

If the minister is found to have misled the Dáil, it is a very serious matter. But it would be equally as detrimental if it is proved that Naughten fudged the process of how media deals are progressed in Ireland.

As with all media deals, the proposal to buy a media company must first be investigated by Ireland’s competition watchdog, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.

This happened in the case of Celtic Media. The commission found that the deal would not lead to a “substantial lessening of competition” in the industry, and gave it the green light.

With regulatory approval secure, the deal then had to be given the thumbs up by Minister for Communications Denis Naughten.

In January 2017, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland was tasked with investigating the deal and recommending whether it should be allowed go ahead or not. Although the final decision would still lie with the minister and Naughten had a deadline of June 8 2017.

Before that date was reached, INM issued a statement to say the proposed takeover was off.

Fast forward almost a year, and today’s revelations raise serious questions about how the deal was handled, and who was told what?

The minister is due to make a statement on the issue at 4pm today.

With additional reporting by Fora.ie. Comments closed due to ongoing court proceedings.

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