Saturday 20 October 2018

Martin tells of 'profound concern' at INM data breach allegations

Micheál Martin has committed to one more budget. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Micheál Martin has committed to one more budget. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has expressed "profound concern" at the implications for democracy arising from the major suspected data breach at Independent News & Media (INM).

Mr Martin became the first political leader to wade into the controversy surrounding the country's largest media group over revelations data, including the emails of journalists, executives and other staff may have been accessed by external companies in October 2014.

Among those whose emails are feared to have been accessed is high-profile journalist and broadcaster Brendan O'Connor, the deputy editor of the 'Sunday Independent'.

The so-called "data interrogation" was directed by former INM chairman Leslie Buckley and invoices associated with it were discharged by a company owned by INM's largest shareholder, businessman Denis O'Brien, the State's corporate watchdog has alleged.

The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) will next Monday ask the High Court to appoint inspectors to investigate the suspected data breach and a range of other corporate governance issues at the company, which publishes the Irish Independent.

"I think all of us have been taken aback by the revelations of the last week to 10 days," Mr Martin told RTÉ's 'The Week In Politics' programme.

Brendan O’Connor: emails feared to have been accessed. Photo: Andres Poveda
Brendan O’Connor: emails feared to have been accessed. Photo: Andres Poveda

"Obviously we have to await the full publication of the affidavit the ODCE will be presenting to the High Court, but from my perspective I am watching developments with really profound concern in terms of what it entails for us as a democracy.

"It will have to really involve the political system in making sure we make decisions that once and for all ring fence the independence of our media, underpin it and make sure it is free from any overbearing influences that can actually act to distort and undermine our democracy."

Mr Martin's comments came in the wake of concerns expressed by the Press Ombudsman and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) that the confidentiality of journalistic sources may have been compromised.

Speaking while presenting a radio show on RTÉ yesterday, Mr O'Connor said it had been "an extremely unsettling week".

"I don't know any more than what has been in the papers. All I know is that my name was on a list of persons of interest. That is as much as I know," he said.

In addition to the ODCE investigation, which has been looking into various matters at INM for the past year, the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) is to launch its own probe.

INM initially informed the DPC last August about the data interrogation, but the ODCE has alleged the company downplayed the seriousness of the matter.

Fresh contact was made with the DPC last month after INM was provided with new information by the ODCE.

The commissioner is currently undertaking a "scoping exercise" before progressing with a targeted investigation.

Two people have made complaints to the commissioner since the controversy broke and that figure is expected to increase.

INM has told the ODCE its board was unaware of the data interrogation.

According to the ODCE, Mr Buckley claimed it was part of a "cost-reduction exercise" where he was seeking to find more detail about the awarding of a professional services contract and that he wanted to consider whether the cost and duration of the contract could be renegotiated.

This has been queried by the ODCE.

Mr Buckley has said he plans to defend robustly his position, while Mr O'Brien has declined to comment.

NUJ Ireland secretary Séamus Dooley said yesterday he could not imagine any moral, ethical or legal justification for compromising the sources of journalists. The NUJ is to hold a briefing with INM staff on Wednesday and has been in "constructive" discussions with editorial management.

INM chief executive Michael Doorly has given assurances the 815 jobs in the company are safe and that it is profitable and financially stable.

However, he has said he cannot yet give staff assurances about what occurred in 2014 as this needed to be investigated.

Irish Independent

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business