Friday 20 September 2019

Legal heavyweights hired by INM ahead of ODCE High Court hearing

Paul Gallagher SC. Photo: Tom Burke
Paul Gallagher SC. Photo: Tom Burke

Shane Phelan and Dearbhail McDonald

Independent News & Media (INM) has hired a heavyweight legal team to represent it when the corporate watchdog seeks to appoint inspectors to the country’s largest media company later this month.

Paul Gallagher SC, a former attorney general, and Shane Murphy SC, who is currently representing the Garda Commissioner at the Disclosures Tribunal, will appear for the media group.

The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) will move an application for the appointment of inspectors to INM on April 16.

The move comes following a year-old long investigation into various corporate governance matters at the company, including a suspected data breach in October 2014.

The ODCE has claimed data relating to a number of former and current staff, including journalists, former directors and several other individuals, was removed from the company’s premises, taken out of the jurisdiction and “interrogated” in October 2014.

INM’s board is currently taking legal advice on its options. It can acquiesce to the application, oppose it, or, as is thought more likely, seek to have it narrowed.

Shane Murphy SC. Photo: Garrett White/Collins
Shane Murphy SC. Photo: Garrett White/Collins

INM chief executive Michael Doorly briefed senior editorial executives on the suspected data breach yesterday.

According to an affidavit filed with the court by ODCE director Ian Drennan, 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.

It is alleged the data was accessed by at least six companies external to the media group.

The company has said it became aware of this new information only on March 23, when it received documentation from the ODCE, accompanying its notice of intention to appoint inspectors under section 748 of the Companies Act 2014.

INM subsequently informed the Data Protection Commissioner, who now intends to launch an investigation.

Mr Drennan has alleged the data interrogation was directed by then INM chairman Leslie Buckley and that two invoices associated with it were paid by Blaydon Limited, an Isle of Man company beneficially owned by INM’s largest shareholder Denis O’Brien.

Neither Mr Buckley nor Mr O’Brien have issued a statement on the allegations despite a number of requests for comment over the past week.

Press ombudsman Peter Feeney expressed “deep concern” over the alleged data breach, which he said could undermine investigative journalism. Speaking on RTÉ Radio, Mr Feeney said that senior editorial managers at INM must feel badly let down.

Mr Feeney said it was “probably premature to speculate too much about what was the real explanation for what happened”.

But he said he found it “deeply disturbing” that communications between journalists and third parties could have been accessed”.

“A lot of journalism depends on people passing on information to journalists. The journalist then goes and investigates it and if there’s a story in it that story will be published,” he said.

“If a person has a doubt whether the guarantee of confidentiality means anything then they won’t pass on that information and that journalism will suffer.”

Among other matters, the ODCE wants inspectors to examine the INM board’s handling of protected disclosures made by Mr Pitt and INM chief financial officer Ryan Preston.

Its inquiries are seeking to determine if fair procedures were applied and if the Protected Disclosures Act was complied  with.

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