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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 5°C
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Freedom of Expression

"Mr O'Brien is a media baron" - RTÉ fights action against Denis O'Brien

The businessman is seeking an injunction against the broadcast of an RTÉ news item.

Updated 6.30 pm

RTÉ HAS ARGUED in court that Denis O’Brien has used his wealth to acquire power and he cannot be afforded the same privacy as other citizens.

Speaking on the second day of the businessman’s injunction action against the broadcaster, RTÉ’s lawyers said that somebody with O’Brien’s power can never be considered a “private person”.

“In short, Mr O’Brien is a media baron, to use an old fashioned term,” David Holland SC for RTÉ told the High Court.

“And he is the most powerful media baron in Ireland.”

O’Brien is seeking to prevent the broadcast of an item to be featured on RTÉ’s Six One News by business editor David Murphy.

O’Brien claims the report contains details of his private finances that are protected by confidentiality.

Speaking to Judge Donald Binchy, Holland listed O’Brien’s media interests.

He said the businessman, “personally owns just less that 30% of Independent News & Media, the country’s largest media group.”

Holland said that he “does not suggest that O’Brien has misused his power” but said that he “cannot complain if the media do their job”.

O’Brien, he said, “is in a very different place” to other members of the public and his legal team’s assertion that he should be afforded the same protection as others is “naive”.

‘Genie is out of the bottle’

RTÉ also argued that much of the information O’Brien is seeking to prevent from being broadcast is already public.

“All RTÉ is seeking to do is to put flesh on the bones of the information that is in the public domain,” Holland argued. The public, he said, “have seen the sketch and RTÉ wants to colour it in.”

The planned RTÉ news report features content from a letter from Denis O’Brien to KPMG liquidator Kieran Wallace. It contains details of his total indebtedness to IBRC, and the speed at which he sought to repay it.

Michael Cush SC, for O’Brien, argued that the broadcast of the details would cause O’Brien “incalculable losses” in his dealings with financial institutions.

It would, he continued, damage him “in a manner that he’ll never be able to prove”.

Under Dáil privilege last week, independent TD Catherine Murphy said O’Brien was seeking to repay loans on the same terms he had with IBRC.

Cush said that some of what Murphy said was “simply inaccurate”.

“The regrettable fact for Mr O’Brien is that it’s privileged,” he said.

“Whether they be true or not is beside the point,” Holland argued for RTÉ.

“The point is that these genies are out of the bottle and they can’t be put back in.”

Holland also made reference to statements made in the Dáil by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin TD.

Martin’s statements related to concerns within the Department of Finance about how major clients were being dealt with by IBRC, one of whom was O’Brien.

“Are RTÉ supposed to pretend it was never said?”, asked Holland.

“Where does it stop?”

Cush had earlier told the court that O’Brien is seeking to prevent broadcast of the news story because of “a matter of principle”.

He told the High Court that, although the report does not allege any wrongdoing on O’Brien’s behalf, “If O’Brien lets this go, where does it stop?”.

Judge Binchy was told by O’Brien’s legal team that there are certain claims about his finances that are “perfectly legitimate” to report.

These included that he is “very wealthy” and that he was “major debtor” to IBRC.

Cush argued that the “line is crossed” when a number of specific details are reported.

These include the “precise size” of the of the loans, “the precise speed” of the repayments and and “the precise details of his negotiations with the bank.”

Public interest

Liquidators for IBRC are also seeking an injunction to prevent the broadcast.

Michael Collins SC, for IBRC, argued that there is “no dispute that this information is confidential”.

He argued that there is a “heavy burden” on anyone who seeks to say that a breach of that confidentiality is justified.

“RTÉ cannot cloak the dealings between a bank and private customer under a veneer of public interest merely because they might be of interest to the public,” he said.

Yesterday, lawyers for O’Brien were granted an order restricting the reporting of certain details of the case. As a result, some details of today’s proceedings cannot be reported.

The case resumes tomorrow.

Read: Denis O’Brien begins injunction case against RTÉ – reporting restrictions imposed on media >