Independent News & Media (INM) significantly upped the ante in its ongoing battle with Denis O'Brien yesterday, branding the businessman a "dissident shareholder", questioning his motives in talking down the group while building up a 22.15pc stake and publishing 18 questions which it said should be asked of Mr O'Brien.
INM also published correspondence between Gavin O'Reilly, the INM chief operating officer, and Mr O'Brien from July 2003, in which the radio-to-mobile-phone tycoon accuses the Irish media group of using its titles to deliberately damage his reputation. INM said it presumed Mr O'Brien was referring to coverage of the Moriarty Tribunal, which is investigating the business dealings of former minister Michael Lowry, who, in 1996, awarded Mr O'Brien Ireland's first independent mobile phone licence.
In a statement yesterday INM said: "Having taken appropriate advice the board of INM believes that Mr O'Brien's comments and actions regarding INM, its board, management, strategy and governance, are designed to destabilise the company and run counter to the principals of a fair and orderly market for INM's shareholders.
"Consequently the board is now formally declaring Mr O'Brien a 'dissident shareholder', who consistently voices disagreement with the company's strategy while continuing to buy shares and who is not acting in the best interests of all stakeholders. The company will be responding to, and interacting with, Mr O'Brien on that basis henceforth." Mr O'Reilly said: "The purpose of this statement is to indicate to shareholders that enough is enough. Mr O'Brien is free to buy shares in our company. But he is not free to issue misleading statements about our company. He's running around the place throwing hand grenades and then hiding behind his PR people."
INM released letters yesterday which appear to give some insight into Mr O'Brien's motives. The first, dated June 23, 2003, is from Mr O'Reilly to Mr O'Brien congratulating him for his role in the Special Olympics. The second, dated July 3, 2003, is a reply from Mr O'Brien in which he accuses INM of using its Irish titles to "destroy my reputation". Later in this letter Mr O'Brien said he was "waiting for the appropriate time to rectify the damage".
Among the questions INM asked is one that takes issue with Mr O'Brien's claim that The Independent newspaper in the UK is loss-making and so should be sold. It states: "How then does he explain his own ownership of Communicorp which has never reported a profit... and continues to survive because Mr O'Brien's personal funds support the business?"
Yesterday Mr O'Brien called the INM statement "a highly personal and unwarranted attack".
"I have always been, and remain, committed to investing for long- term value for all shareholders."