Thursday 22 August 2019

High Court to decide if INM report can be shared

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Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The President of the High Court will decide at a later date whether several different parties are entitled to a copy of an interim report by inspectors investigating matters at Independent News & Media (INM).

But the applications were each objected to by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE), whose probe led to the appointment of the inspectors, barrister Sean Gillane SC and solicitor and corporate governance expert Richard Fleck.

The interim report was provided to the court last month.

However, the only party who has an automatic entitlement to view it is the ODCE.

Applications were made today by INM, former INM chief executives Robert Pitt and Vincent Crowley, former INM Ireland chief executive Joe Webb, former INM chairman Leslie Buckley, the Central Bank, Sunday Independent journalist Maeve Sheehan and public relations practitioner Rory Godson.

Applications were also made by IT expert Derek Mizak, former INM director Allan Marshall and a number of individuals and companies associated with an alleged interrogation of data taken from INM’s premises.

Neil Steen SC, for the ODCE, said the report did not reach any conclusions.

He said it outlined progress made by the inspectors to date, how they intended to proceed and certain evidential issues.

He said that if the report was not released to any of the parties there would be no potential for reputational damage.

Mr Steen said it had been a feature of the matter to date that information tended to percolate into the public sphere once it was outside the control of the ODCE.

He said the investigation was in its early stages and akin to a police investigation. The barrister said nobody would be entitled to material from an ongoing police inquiry.

Mr Justice Kelly said he would reserve his judgment on the various applications.

The inspectors are investigating a range of issues at the company, which owns flagship titles including, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent, the Herald, the Sunday World and the Belfast Telegraph.

These include the alleged data breach in 2014, where it is feared data tapes were taken off site and details relating to at least 19 people were searched for by companies and individuals outside of INM.

INM has said this exercise was carried out at the behest of its former chairman, Leslie Buckley, and that the rest of its then board did not know about it.

Mr Buckley has pledged to robustly defend himself.

According to the ODCE, the exercise was paid for by a company owned by INM shareholder Denis O’Brien. Mr O’Brien has yet to comment on the matter.

The inspectors’ terms of reference entitle them to investigate most of the issues raised by the ODCE, including the adequacy of the INM board’s response to protected disclosures made by former chief executive Robert Pitt and former chief financial officer Ryan Preston.

Also being examined are concerns over the circumstances surrounding a proposed acquisition by INM of Newstalk, a radio station owned by Mr O’Brien. The proposal was ultimately abandoned.

Mr Pitt had concerns he was put under pressure by Mr Buckley to pay a higher price for the radio station than the then chief executive believed it was worth.

During today's hearing, Shane Murphy SC for INM, said the company was in a unique position and it's interests would be directly affected by any inspectors report, whether interim or final.

He said past practice of the High Court was in favour of releasing the document.

Mr Murphy said he had no idea what was in the report, but the court had discretion to redact certain portions if this was deemed necessary.

Barrister Brian Gageby, for Mr Buckley, said his client was someone very much concerned with the outcome of the report, both interim and final.

He also said Mr Buckley was willing to give undertakings regarding the confidentiality of the interim report.

Paul McGarry SC, for Mr Mizak and other parties associated with the alleged data interrogation, also made the case for the disclosure of the interim report.

He said his clients were more than just interested parties in the matter.

Barrister Tom Mallon, for Mr Pitt, said his client was at the core of the matter as he had made protected disclosures.

He said Mr Pitt had cooperated fully with the investigation and had maintained the confidentiality of the process.

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