Sunday 20 October 2019

Story was about banks, not individuals, claims ex-newspaper editor

DEFAMATION claim: Businessman Denis O’Brien. Picture: Collins
DEFAMATION claim: Businessman Denis O’Brien. Picture: Collins

Tim Healy

Former Sunday Business Post editor Ian Kehoe told a High Court jury that articles in the newspaper in March 2015 were not about businessman Denis O'Brien but about Ireland and a report that "cast a lie" about what the banks were telling everyone during the financial crash in 2008.

Mr O'Brien has sued Post Publications, publisher of the SBP, claiming the articles wrongly meant he was among a "gang" of 22 borrowers who "wrecked the country" and they defamed him and injured his reputation.

The defence denies those meanings, defamation or malicious publication and has pleaded "fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest".

Last Friday, Mr Kehoe said he and journalist Tom Lyons had discussed leaving Mr O'Brien out of the articles but decided he had to be left in because he was named in the report, given by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to the Government in November 2008, as among the 22 biggest borrowers with Irish banks in 2008.

There was an "immense fear factor" across the media around anything to do with Mr O'Brien and anything involving him had to "go through me" and lawyers. When Mr O'Brien's name was mentioned, it was like being "in a fire station with a light going around and around". "He is the only person in that category," he told his counsel Michael McDowell SC.

He and Mr Lyons had discussed, in the interests of a "quiet life", leaving Mr O'Brien out but decided it was "not our job to doctor a government report".

Core journalistic values mean treating all reports and individuals fairly, Mr O'Brien was named because he was one of the 22 named in the report, and the articles also reported Mr O'Brien had paid all his debts, he said.

Asked why not anonymise all 22, Mr Kehoe said he got into journalism because he believes in transparency and informing people what is going on. This story was about a report that showed how fundamentally the banks misled PwC at the time of the bank guarantee in September 2008, he said.

The PwC report showed an immense concentration of debt in a small group of people "who could have been the best or worst borrowers". It was not about Mr O'Brien or any other of the 22 individuals but about Ireland, Irish banks and why even now investment is not being put into areas "that so badly need it".

The story was of "immense public and national importance", he and Mr Lyons were fully engaged with it, he himself read the entire PwC report and went through the articles to ensure they were correct. He had not discussed the story with the company's then chairman, Conor Killeen, who at no time sought to exercise control over any editorial content.

Earlier, during continuing cross-examination of Mr Lyons, Paul O'Higgins SC put to him he had falsely stated in his articles that Mr O'Brien had large borrowings for land and development, the "nuclear button" in terms of the banks' exposure, when he, Mr Lyons, knew that was false and had then shredded the PwC report that could have "exonerated" Mr O'Brien.

Mr Lyons disagreed and said PwC had said the risk relating to land and development borrowings exposure isolated by PwC might relate only to "part of the [particular borrower's] connection".

Mr O'Higgins put to Mr Lyons he had falsely stated the PwC risk assessment of various borrowers was not in this particular report but in other reports.

Mr Lyons said he did not recall the particular page of the report and, because the copy of the report provided to him was in black and white, would not have seen the colours PwC used to identify particular risk assessment of individual borrowers.

The case resumes this Tuesday.

Sunday Independent

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