Media firm's proposal 'novel and without precedent'
The legal bid by Independent News and Media to deal a "knock-out blow" to efforts by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) to have High Court inspectors appointed to Ireland's largest media company has received its own, not entirely unexpected setback.
Yesterday, High Court Judge Mr Justice Seamus Noonan dismissed INM's key proposition that the publicly listed company had a right to be consulted before legal proceedings were instituted by the ODCE, on foot of a year-long investigation by the company law watchdog.
The ODCE, led by director Ian Drennan, wants to appoint High Court inspectors to INM - the publisher of a host of titles, including the Irish Independent and Independent.ie - to investigate a range of issues.
These include a major suspected data breach, the proposed purchase by INM of radio station Newstalk, a company owned by Denis O'Brien - INM's largest single shareholder - as well as a proposed fee payment by lsland Capital, a company linked to Mr O'Brien.
Neither the purchase nor the payment proceeded, but the issues form part of a tranche of issues the ODCE says may form part of an "extensive" "range of potentially unlawful conduct" that may have taken place within INM.
Had INM's judicial review action succeeded, it could have had major implications for all public bodies and regulators. In his ruling, Judge Noonan described INM's fundamental proposition that it had a right to be consulted by the ODCE before it applied to court as "novel and without precedent".
The judge also said, that as a matter of law, the position could not be sustained.
Barring an appeal against Judge Noonan's ruling, the INM/ODCE affair will come back under the domain of High Court president Mr Justice Peter Kelly, who is expected to fix a date next week for the hearing of the ODCE's application to have inspectors appointed.
It's true that many a novel and unprecedented legal issue has been knocked down by the High Court only to be upheld in the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court - or further afield.
However, INM's own decision to instigate legal proceedings against its former chairman, Leslie Buckley, appears to militate against the likelihood of an appeal - the company will oppose the bid to have inspectors appointed when the case is heard by Judge Kelly.
The ODCE wants to investigate whether Mr Buckley, a long-time associate of Mr O'Brien, directed the data exercise that has given rise to fears that the data of 19 people, including current and former INM journalists and staff, may have been accessed by third parties.
Mr Buckley says he will "fully and robustly" defend himself against each and every allegation.
Adding to INM's woes is the prospect of another arm of the State investigating matters of concern raised by the ODCE.
As Judge Noonan delivered his ruling yesterday, lawyers for the Central Bank moved an application for formal access to court papers in the ODCE.
One of the ODCE's concerns is that Mr Buckley may have shared "inside information" with Mr O'Brien, including that the latter may have received stock market announcements ahead of other shareholders.
Amid all the uncertainty surrounding INM, one thing's for sure: this is one story that is set to dominate for some time.