Wednesday 18 September 2019

Four journalists among 19 names found in probe of suspected INM data breach

Independent House on Dublin's Talbot Street
Independent House on Dublin's Talbot Street

Shane Phelan and Dearbhail McDonald

Four journalists were among 19 people identified as "persons of interest" on a list of names uncovered by the State's corporate watchdog as part of a probe into the suspected removal of data from Independent News & Media (INM).

According to the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE), the remaining people on the list included former INM directors and executives, two senior barristers and other individuals.

One of those named in the affidavit as a "journalist" has not worked in that role for many years. Another of those named was not a journalist with INM in 2014.

INM has a strict policy of stridently protecting journalists' work and sources, which is also encompassed in the Editorial Code of Conduct. The possibility raised by the ODCE in its affidavit, that journalists' emails may have been included in the outside scrutiny, has drawn criticism.

The Press Ombudsman expressed concern over the possible implications of the "data interrogation" revealed in the 'Sunday Independent' yesterday.

Ombudsman Peter Feeney said: "The protection of sources is terribly important for journalism. It is ring-fenced in principle six of the Press Council of Ireland Code of Practice because without that it is very hard for investigative journalism to take place. Journalism cannot operate without being able to protect sources."

In a circular to staff, INM editor-in-chief Stephen Rae said the welfare of staff was the company's primary concern and any team member named in the affidavit had been informed.

"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," he said.

Mr Rae said the group's newspapers and online sites stood for trusted, verified and independent journalism.

The National Union of Journalists, meanwhile, said it was "gravely concerned" by the 'Sunday Independent' revelation.

It has called for an investigation to be launched by the Data Protection Commissioner, in addition to the ODCE's ongoing probe into various corporate governance issues at INM.

Read More: ODCE claims INM data taken off site and 'interrogated' but 'board did not know'

In an affidavit submitted to the High Court as part of an application for the appointment of inspectors to investigate the affairs of INM, ODCE director Ian Drennan said data from former and current staff, including journalists, as well as former directors, may have been removed from the company's premises, taken out of the jurisdiction and "interrogated" in late 2014.

Mr Drennan claims the data interrogation was directed by the then-INM chairman Leslie Buckley, who stepped down last month. He also says INM told the ODCE that its board only became aware of the data interrogation exercise on August 11, 2017, when it was informed of it by the ODCE.

Mr Drennan's affidavit alleges invoices totalling approximately €60,000 associated with the data interrogation were not discharged by INM but by Blaydon Limited, an Isle of Man company beneficially owned by businessman Denis O'Brien.

Mr O'Brien is INM's largest shareholder and a long-time business associate of Mr Buckley. It is unclear if Mr O'Brien was aware of the data interrogation or the payment by Blaydon of the invoices.

INM told the ODCE it does not know why Blaydon discharged the costs.

Spokesmen for Mr O'Brien and Mr Buckley said they did not wish to comment.

According to Mr Drennan, Mr Buckley explained that the data interrogation was part of a "cost-reduction exercise". Mr Buckley told the ODCE he authorised the work so he could find out more detail about the awarding by INM of a professional services contract. He wanted to consider whether the cost and duration of the contract could be renegotiated.

The list of 19 names was in an Excel spreadsheet attached to emails exchanged by employees of companies external to INM who were involved in the data interrogation. It was obtained by the ODCE during a year-long investigation into various matters at INM.

The document refers to "email hits" being obtained against eight of the names, including against journalists' names, Mr Drennan claimed.

NUJ Irish secretary Seamus Dooley said the union was gravely concerned about the serious claims made by the ODCE. Mr Dooley called on INM to publicly clarify the extent to which the personal data of staff, including the confidential records of journalists, were compromised by the removal of the company's IT system's back-up tapes.

"The decision to remove records from the premises to another jurisdiction in itself compromised the privacy rights of employees," he said.

"Every employer has a legal obligation to protect personnel records."

Irish Independent

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