The confrontation between British parliamentarians and Rupert Murdoch contains important lessons for Irish citizens who are trying to devise effective bulwarks for the freedom of expression in the Republic.
Tory MP Louise Mensch cautioned last week against flabby indictments of Murdoch's professional fitness, especially when her Commons' committee had not agreed the criteria by which this incapacity should be judged. Mensch's plea for proportional analysis was met with a torrent of fishwives' abuse on the internet.
We seem to have the opposite problem in Ireland as regards our own media oligarchs, namely under-reacting to problems. As the Examiner's Sean Connolly told Sean Moncrieff on Newstalk, our own Denis O'Brien problem looms far larger than Murdoch, especially since he was dismantled by a tribunal of inquiry and is more powerful in Irish terms than Murdoch.
Mensch's plea for measured deliberation sent me back to basics, the text of the Moriarty report itself. I was struck again by Michael Moriarty's economy of language, rhetorical elegance and by the judge's obvious sense of humour.
In chapter three of part two of volume one of his report, the judge described a surreal situation where a cheque for £33,000 was bouncing around like an errant pin ball between Telenor, one of the companies in the O'Brien consortium, and Fine Gael. Justice Moriarty noted wryly that when it became clear that neither O'Brien nor Telenor nor Fine Gael actually wanted to keep that cheque, the tribunal received "requests from both the Mullingar Active Retirement Association and a CBS Monkstown junior school 'Children Help Children' project in Dublin, to the effect that if no one really wanted the money in question, each would be grateful to avail of it".
That's fairly odd all right, but not at all in the same league as the judge's chapter 4, where he describes a series of conversations that took place in 1996 and 1997 between Denis O'Brien and O'Brien's own CEO of the Esat consortium, Barry Maloney.
Now, if you read nothing else of this long report, I'd suggest making a pot of tea and slogging through pages 70 to 93. The judge describes CEO Maloney's version of these conversations and then chairman O'Brien's versions.
As the judge wrote laconically at the start of this chapter, "Although certain aspects of that conversation [in the latter months of 1996] are disputed, including its date and venue, it is not in issue that Mr O'Brien, in the course of urging Mr Maloney to expedite the making of certain payments relative to the licensing award, made a reference to having had to make two payments of £100,000 each, one of which was either stated, or understood to have been to Mr Lowry." [p 70]
Under the sub-heading 'What Was Said and Where', the judge recounted Barry Maloney's evidence that during one meeting with his old pal O'Brien in October or November 1996, he "recalled Mr O'Brien then saying: Well, you think you've got problems, I've had to make two payments of £100,000 each, one of which was to Michael Lowry". [p 73]
The judge wrote that CEO Maloney said he "was surprised and taken aback by this, viewing what he had heard as improper and possibly corrupt, and responded that he 'didn't want to know'". [p 73]
CEO Maloney told the judge how months later "it was O'Brien who referred to the content of the earlier conversation on a number of occasions". [p 73] CEO Maloney told the judge that just before O'Brien's marriage in August 1997, O'Brien mentioned the payment issue again, using words to the effect that: "Do you remember I told you about the payment to Lowry. Well, I just want to let you know I didn't do it. Thank God I didn't do it." [p 73]
Mr Justice Moriarty then describes CEO Maloney's version of a subsequent meeting with O'Brien where O'Brien told his CEO: "I know you must be worried, and I just want to assure you it didn't happen. I did not make the payment. It didn't go through." [p 74]
On page 74, the judge recounts more evidence from CEO Maloney about conversations he had with O'Brien where he said O'Brien told him: "Well, what I didn't tell you was that I was going to make the payment, but it got stuck with an intermediary. I thought about it but I didn't do it." [p 74]
The judge recounted the CEO Maloney's description of other meetings with O'Brien, including one at O'Brien's house late at night where the CEO asked him to delay the public offering of the company because of his concerns about earlier conversations with O'Brien about payments.
The judge gives O'Brien's versions of these meetings then from pages 77-93.
O'Brien admitted that during November 1996, he did say to his CEO that "If you think you have got problems paying these people, I have paid £200,000" or "words similar" to that. [p 77]
O'Brien told the judge that this remark of his was "a false statement" to his CEO, made because he was trying to get him to pay outstanding bills faster "by conveying that he himself was suffering pain".
O'Brien told the judge he "made no such payment", but as the judge wrote on page 77, "Whilst O'Brien did not then go on to say the remark was unfounded, he thought Mr Maloney would have known from his tone of voice that it was not to be taken at face value".
O'Brien said the same to Esat's lawyer who came to Boston later to grill him about his CEO's account of their conversations. According to the lawyer's notes as published by the judge on page 85 of chapter 4, O'Brien wanted the board to know that "a casual and untrue remark in a social context should not be blown into something which will have consequences out of all proportion to its significance".
According to the lawyer's notes used by the judge, O'Brien's response to his CEO's concerns was as follows: "My recollection of the conversation is that it was non-serious, ie, two very old pals bullshitting about business, sport and women out on a run one Sunday morning." [p 86]
When the lawyer asked if it was reasonable to believe such grave comments about paying politicians could be made in jest, O'Brien said, "Yes, anyone who knows me knows that I will laugh about anything. I have known Barry for 22 years, we have the most extraordinary experiences. Nothing was sacred between us and there was nothing that could not be joked about." On page 87, the judge described another portion of O'Brien's answer in Boston where he said, "I pretended that I had already made the payment, and I doubled for effect."
This, dear reader, is what the whole O'Brien saga is about. Who do you believe, Barry Maloney's testimony that O'Brien admitted to making payments to Lowry or O'Brien's contrary claim that while he said something about making payments, it was just idle bullshitting?
Mr Justice Moriarty concluded that O'Brien's shifting justifications for his remarks appeared "unconvincing and implausible". [p 93]
By the end of chapter four, Moriarty made Murdoch look like a much smaller problem for Ireland. If only we could redirect some of Westminster's righteous anger towards those who really deserve it!