The chief executive of Independent News & Media (INM) has said the company will ask High Court inspectors to examine allegations that the hard drives and emails of editors and other senior staff were searched without their permission.
Michael Doorly told a meeting of staff at the media group’s Dublin headquarters that he was “deeply concerned” by what was being alleged.
He described the claims as “just unbelievable”.
INM publishes a number of leading titles, including Independent.ie, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent, the Sunday World and the Herald.
According to an IT consultant, Mr Doorly’s predecessor as chief executive, Robert Pitt, ordered a search of hard drives and emails of up to six editors after details of a memo from his personal assistant was published in ‘The Phoenix’ magazine.
Mr Pitt has declined to comment on the data interrogation claims, outlined in a letter sent by IT consultant Derek Mizak to the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC).
Mr Mizak claims he was asked by Mr Pitt to conduct the exercise in June 2015.
He has alleged it was conducted at night, with hard drives reportedly being removed and data copied, before the hard drives were returned.
This was allegedly done without the knowledge of the staff members involved.
“It is an allegation at the moment. I hate to think that a CEO would have done this,” Mr Doorly said.
In the course of an hour-long meeting, during which staff expressed a range of concerns, Mr Doorly disclosed that INM has spent €2.5m to date on legal costs associated with an investigation by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) into a separate 2014 data interrogation and other corporate controversies.
The ODCE probe led to the appointment of High Court inspectors to the company in September.
Mr Doorly said the company was now going to request that the inspectors investigate Mr Mizak’s claims.
“We, as a company, are now going to inform the inspectors of this particular issue and suggest to them they might consider their terms of reference and widen their investigation to include this, because they didn’t know about it,” he said.
Mr Doorly said the matter was already being examined by the DPC, who received correspondence from Mr Mizak on November 26.
He said the claims would also be investigated as part of a review being conducted for INM by consultancy firm Deloitte.
“We are going to have to investigate exactly what went on,” he said.
“I am committed to finding out what happened. I will do all in my power to find out exactly what happened here.”
He added: “Anything that hurts the reputation of this organisation is not acceptable.
“I will do everything I can to restore confidence and resolve this issue and protect the good names of all who work here. This is a core personal priority of mine.”
However, he cautioned that the Deloitte review may not provide answers as it does not have powers of compellability and certain individuals had not been cooperating with it.
Mr Doorly said that while there had been an awareness of some other issues contained in Mr Mizak’s letter to the Data Protection Commissioner, he had not previously known about the alleged 2015 incident.
“We certainly knew there had been a kerfuffle, as somebody described it, over an email that was leaked to Phoenix magazine,” he said.
“But we did not know that the CEO, as is alleged, engaged Derek Mizak, who it seems, with the help of one or two people who were previously in the IT team, appears to have removed PCs off desktops, copied the hard drives and put them back again.”
During the meeting, Mr Doorly sought to reassure staff that their data was safe.
He said it could now only be accessed in exceptional circumstances under a "triple-lock" mechanism, where approval is needed from three senior executives if any editorial employee's data is to be accessed by the company.
It has previous been explained to staff that there are rare circumstances where this may be necessary, such as in the defence of litigation or complying with court orders.
Mr Doorly committed to conducting an audit, looking back over the past 12 months, to ensure this system was operating correctly.
He said he wanted to ensure that under his watch nobody is accessing any staff data outside of the triple-lock mechanism.
At the meeting, Irish Independent editor Fionnán Sheahan said what was being alleged was “beyond excusable”.
“It is legally questionable. It is morally reprehensible, and it is certainly ethically repugnant as well that this could happen to staff,” he said.
Mr Sheahan said he was not reassured by what he had heard at the meeting and that there needed to be a more serious conversation about the issues raised by the Mizak allegations.
He said that while he was reassured by recent management changes made within INM, the problem was that staff did not trust their past employers.
Mr Doorly agreed this was a difficulty and agreed with Mr Sheahan’s sentiments on the alleged 2015 data interrogation.
On the issue of legal costs associated with the ODCE investigation, Mr Doorly said: “The legal consequences of actions taken by certain members that have led us into this situation will not impact on operations.”
He said these costs were considered “exceptional items” and had been “ringfenced”.
“We are a fortunate company in that we do have some cash and it is being paid out of that, not out of operations,” he said.
However, Mr Doorly declined to answer a number of questions from staff members about rumoured redundancies in the new year.
“I can’t comment on the business going forward. We are just doing budgets and our plans for next year, looking at our revenues and looking at everything,” he said.
The High Court inspectors, barrister Sean Gillane SC and solicitor Richard Fleck, have started the process of interviewing key figures involved in various INM controversies.
Their remit includes probing the alleged interrogation of INM data, including that of journalists, staff and directors, by outside parties in 2014.
This is alleged to have been authorised by then INM chairman Leslie Buckley and paid for by a company owned by INM’s largest shareholder, Denis O’Brien.
The inspectors are also investigating claims senior INM executives came under pressure from Mr Buckley in 2016 to pay an inflated price for Newstalk, a radio station owned by Mr O’Brien. The purchase was abandoned.
Concerns that “inside information” may have been passed by Mr Buckley to Mr O’Brien are also being investigated.
Mr Buckley denies any wrongdoing, while Mr O’Brien has yet to comment.
Protected disclosures by Mr Pitt and INM chief financial officer Ryan Preston prompted the ODCE inquiries.