Monday 24 June 2019

Q&A: What's going on at INM? How big was suspected breach? Who is on the list?

Former INM chairman Leslie Buckley
Former INM chairman Leslie Buckley
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

What is going on at Independent News & Media (INM)? The company, Ireland's largest media group and publisher of the Irish Independent, is at the centre of controversy over a major suspected data breach.

It is feared magnetic tapes used as a back-up for the company's IT system were taken out of its premises, brought to another country and "interrogated".

There are fears the email communications of several people, including high-profile journalists like 'Sunday Independent' deputy editor and television presenter Brendan O'Connor may have been accessed.

How big was the suspected breach?

It has not been fully quantified, but things may become clearer as investigations by the corporate and data control watchdogs progress.

What is known is that in the course of its probe, the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement found a list of 19 names described as "persons of interest". This list was shared by people working for companies external to INM who allegedly accessed the data.

The Press Ombudsman and the National Union have expressed concerns that the confidentiality of sources may have been undermined.

Who was on the list?

The list contained Mr O'Connor, his 'Sunday Independent' colleague Maeve Sheehan and former INM journalist Sam Smyth.

It also included two senior barristers who worked for the Moriarty Tribunal. Several former INM directors and staff were also named, as were people working in public relations and investor relations. There was also a lawyer who works for telecommunications company Cable and Wireless.

Have any of the people on the list been in the news lately?

Yes. Former INM director of corporate affairs Karl Brophy, who now runs a public relations firm called Red Flag Consulting.

The firm and Mr Brophy are being sued by businessman Denis O'Brien, who alleges it engaged in a conspiracy against him and defamed him. The allegations are denied.

The case revolves around the creation of a dossier about Mr O'Brien. It has been ongoing since October 2015 and rarely far from the headlines. Mr O'Brien is INM's largest shareholder and his other major interests include telecommunications firm Digicel.

What was the purpose of the list?

While there has been much speculation, the document it was found on does not explain its purpose, other than to suggest the data was searched for the names.

How could the suspected data breach have happened?

The ODCE, which has been investigating a range of corporate governance issues at INM for the past year, alleges the suspected data breach was directed by former INM chairman Leslie Buckley, a close business associate of Mr O'Brien

It claims the data back-up tapes were taken in October 2014 and shared with at least six companies external to INM.

The ODCE also claims two invoices associated with the data interrogation were discharged by Blaydon Limited, a company owned by Mr O'Brien.

According to the ODCE, Mr Buckley claimed the data interrogation was part of "a cost reduction exercise". Mr Buckley is said to have told the watchdog he authorised the work so he could find out more detail about the awarding of a professional services contract and that he wanted to consider whether the cost and duration of this contract could be renegotiated.

Does the ODCE accept this explanation?

ODCE director Ian Drennan says he is not convinced and wants the issue probed further. He says some of the output of the data interrogation "does not have any obvious connection to the cost reduction purpose asserted" by Mr Buckley.

Have either Mr Buckley or Mr O'Brien commented publicly on the controversy?

Mr Buckley issued a statement yesterday saying he planned to defend his position robustly. A spokesman for Mr O'Brien said he was not commenting.

What else is the ODCE examining?

The watchdog wants inspectors to be appointed to INM by the High Court to examine other concerns too.

These relate to whether "inside information" was unlawfully disclosed to third parties outside INM; allegations by former INM chief executive Robert Pitt in relation to the aborted deal for INM to buy Newstalk; and concerns Mr Pitt raised about a proposed success fee for a company owned by Mr O'Brien in connection with the sale of shares INM held in an Australian media group.

The whole thing sounds pretty damaging. Does it threaten the future of the company?

INM's chief executive Michael Doorly has warned that there will be significant costs for the company if inspectors are appointed.

But he has given INM's 815 staff assurances that their jobs are not under threat.

He says the company is profitable and stable financially and is looking to the future.

Irish Independent

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