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State watchdog will ask the High Court to appoint inspectors to Independent News and Media today

It comes on the back of an alleged significant data breach at the media group.

Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

AFTER APPEARING PROMINENTLY in the media over the past few weeks, the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) will appear before the High Court today seeking to appoint inspectors to investigate Independent News and Media (INM).

The State’s corporate watchdog is taking the legal action over allegations that the emails of staff members at the country’s largest media group were accessed – without the employees’ knowledge – by a third-party firm.

The company, which runs titles including the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent and the Herald, confirmed in a statement last month that it was taking legal advice on whether the court would have sufficient grounds to appoint the inspectors.

Affidavit

As explained here, the recent furore was sparked by INM’s ill-fated bid for radio station Newstalk. In March 2017, the ODCE asked INM to “produce books and record” in relation to the proposed takeover.

As the ODCE’s involvement with INM persisted over the year, the watchdog announced on 23 March that it would be seeking to appoint inspectors.

In an affidavit from ODCE director Ian Drennan said that there was a removal of INM’s IT system’s back-up tapes from the company’s premises. According to the affidavit, they were moved to the premises of a company outside of this jurisdiction in October 2014.

Drennan said that INM data was subsequently interrogated over the course of many months.

He said: “During the course of the data interrogation, INM’s data appears to have been searched against the names of various individuals, including, amongst others, a number of INM journalists and two senior counsel.”

Drennan alleges in the affidavit that the data interrogation was directed by the then-chairman of INM, Leslie Buckley, who stepped down last month. The ODCE director claims that the INM board only became aware of the data interrogation exercise in August 2017.

He said that Buckley said the data interrogation was part of a “cost reduction exercise” but Drennan claims that some of the output of the work “does not have any obvious connection to the cost reduction purpose asserted by the chairman”.

Buckley, in a later statement, said he would “robustly defend [his] position against each and every allegation”.

According to ODCE director Drennan, its investigation uncovered emails containing a list of names which were to be searched for during the data interrogation.

It includes current journalists, former journalists, executives, staff members and two senior counsel not related to the company.

References are made in the affidavit to “email hits” against a number of the names listed.

Drennan said he wants to establish “whether journalists’ email, or other data, was accessed and, if so, by whom and for what purpose”.

It has been reported that well-known journalists such as Brendan O’Connor and Maeve Sheenan were among those whose data was allegedly accessed.

Concerns

The National Union of Journalists is one of several groups leading calls for clarity on the issue, with its Irish secretary Séamus Dooley saying “clear lines appear to have been crossed and it is in the long-term interest of the company and of Irish journalism that this matter is addressed as a matter or urgency”.

The Data Protection Commissioner has indicated that it will also conduct a probe into the alleged data breach at INM.

The editor-in-chief at INM, Stephen Rae has sought to assure staff that their welfare is the company’s priority.

Rae had told staff individuals from the company who had been named as having their emails searched had been informed, RTÉ reported.

He said: “Clearly we have to get to the bottom of what is alleged to have occurred and as always identify the actual facts of the case in the first instance and thereafter what lessons can be learned.”

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Sean Murray

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