Sunday 18 March 2018

The turbulent past of tabloid hack turned PR in court conspiracy case

Former journalist and Fine Gael spin doctor Karl Brophy is no stranger to controversy, writes Shane Phelan

Karl Brophy
Karl Brophy
Denis O'Brien
Gavin O'Reilly
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

When PR man Karl Brophy first joined forces with Gavin O'Reilly, he sent him an email stating his willingness to go to war for his new boss.

That was in late 2010 when Mr Brophy negotiated the terms of a lucrative position as director of corporate affairs at Independent News and Media (INM).

The discussions which led to his appointment to the strategic behind-the-scenes role are detailed in a raft of email correspondence which was filed with the High Court during litigation which arose after Brophy's contentious 2012 departure from INM.

These emails illustrate the closeness of two men long since departed from INM, but who are currently the subject of a litigation battle commenced by the company's biggest shareholder, billionaire Denis O'Brien.

The latest round in that battle returns to the Four Courts in the coming week, where Mr O'Brien is seeking access to computer files at Reg Flag Consulting, the small Dublin lobbying and public relations firm set up by Mr Brophy and Mr O'Reilly in 2013. The telecoms and media tycoon has alleged a client of Red Flag is engaged in a conspiracy against him.

Although the allegations have been strongly denied by Mr O'Reilly and Mr Brophy, they have served to place the focus on their business relationship and the longevity of their hostilities with Mr O'Brien.

The firm they now operate, Red Flag Consulting, says in its mission statement that it "advocates for positive relationships with governments and media, investors and influencers ... We engage on behalf of clients at every level and through every strategically important medium - Legislatures, Executive Bodies, Media and Regulatory Authorities - and with every relevant stakeholder - internal and external, national and international."

Mr Brophy's previous roles as a newspaper journalist, media executive and former party political spin doctor would seem to have been a preparation for such a role.

Nevertheless in his previous career Brophy had been no stranger to controversy.

He caused a particularly unusual difficulty for one former employer, Fine Gael, where he worked as a press officer in the mid-1990s.

After he left the party - and in the role of political journalist with the Irish Examiner - he intervened during a Fine Gael press conference. Then leader Michael Noonan told the assembled journalists that under-the-counter cash payments to staff - which led the party to make a settlement with the Revenue Commissioners - had ceased in 1995.

Brophy then intervened to point out that he had received a significant cash payment in 1997 - and the press conference was reduced to chaos.

Between 2005 and 2007, Brophy was the editor of the South African tabloid newspaper the Daily Voice - launched by INM. His newspaper became embroiled in controversy after it was accused of failing to fully protect the identities of children who were the victims of child pornography.

Brophy left South Africa in 2008 to return to Dublin and a career in public relations.

He took to the role of PR man with some gusto.

His undiplomatic manner is known to be able to drive journalists to distraction and he has been involved in more than one particularly heated argument with his former colleagues.

Many in journalism remember a heated incident in a popular city centre pub involving Brophy and a former colleague in journalism.

The emails from 2010 were filed with the High Court during litigation which arose following Brophy's 2012 departure from INM. They show Mr O'Reilly was quite keen to get Mr Brophy on board at INM at a time of considerable turbulence in the company.

Following one set of discussions, Mr Brophy noted: "I think, after the last couple of years, you need an executive ally whom you can absolutely rely on to go to war for, firstly, the company and, secondly, for you (or the other way around if you prefer)."

Later in the email, he said: "I do want to work with you. I do want to see off DOB and I'm confident that I can help build INM up to be a success again."

There has been bad blood between Mr O'Brien and the O'Reilly family since the battle to take over Eircom in 2001. This was won by a consortium involving Gavin's father, and predecessor as INM chief executive, Tony O'Reilly.

Mr O'Brien was aggrieved over newspaper coverage by INM titles of the Moriarty Tribunal, much of it during the Eircom battle. He also expressed concerns over how INM was run.

It is clear from the emails that Mr O'Reilly pursued Mr Brophy, a former journalist and Fine Gael press officer who had morphed into a slick public relations practitioner, for several months.

Discussions were conducted throughout the autumn and winter of 2010, via email, over lunch in Sydney, and at a meeting in Auckland, while both men were on separate trips to Australia and New Zealand with their partners.

As Mr Brophy noted in an email in September of that year: "We've discussed it at length now - both over cocktails and, more importantly, in complete sobriety."

They arranged one lunch meeting for that October at the upmarket Catalina seafood restaurant at Rose Bay in Sydney.

"Girls can join in - and if we get to awful and intricate money discussions, we can step outside for a fag," Mr O'Reilly wrote.

The same email showed signs of a deepening friendship. Mr O'Reilly advised Mr Brophy to visit Bondi, the Blue Mountains and to walk the Harbour Bridge while in Sydney, but to avoid Kangaroo Valley because there were "lots of cows frankly".

In a responding email, Mr Brophy sought recommendations on things to do in New Zealand, joking he would pass them off "as my own inspiration".

Other emails show Mr Brophy was not lacking in confidence and he told Mr O'Reilly he could make a huge difference to INM behind the scenes.

In one exchange, Mr Brophy said he was "arrogant enough to appreciate" that having him as an in-house public relations advisor would mitigate against the company's communications costs.

Although a salary of €350,000 was originally sought, Mr O'Reilly got him to accept the job for €300,000-a-year plus a company car.

Mr Brophy already had some history with Mr O'Brien when Mr O'Reilly recruited him. In 1998, while working for the Irish Daily Mirror, he had written a piece about the Flood Tribunal which resulted in a €750,000 libel award being made to the businessman.

When Mr Brophy joined INM, Mr O'Brien had a 22pc shareholding in the company and was calling for change at the top.

In a letter to chairman Brian Hillery in July 2011, he sought the departure of both Mr O'Reilly and Mr Hillery, citing what he described as "the absence of visionary and dynamic leadership".

Against this backdrop, Mr Brophy was fully aware his appointment would not go down well with Mr O'Brien.

"If DOB can't prevent the chap who libelled him taking a senior role in the company, it will be absolutely clear who is in charge and it will buttress your authority," Mr Brophy wrote in an email to Mr O'Reilly in September 2010.

Nevertheless, Mr Brophy fought hard to ensure he would get a soft landing in the event Mr O'Brien, who had been increasing his shareholding, garnering more influence at INM.

The contract he agreed meant the company had to give him 364 days notice if his employment was being terminated for any reason.

Mr Brophy started the job on January 31, 2011.

But by April of the following year Mr O'Reilly was ousted as chief executive of INM after finally losing his boardroom tussle with Mr O'Brien, who increased his stake in the company to 29pc.

Mr Brophy followed him out the door days later. His departure resulted in a High Court action in which he alleged Mr O'Brien was behind the decision to dismiss him.

The case was eventually settled, with Mr Brophy accepting Mr O'Brien had "no hand, act or part" in the decision to end his employment.

But far from signalling the end of the war Mr Brophy had referred to, hostilities are continuing to this day.

On Tuesday, a High Court battle will resume over Mr O'Brien's conspiracy allegations.

These claims were first made earlier this month when Mr O'Brien said he had received material on a USB stick delivered anonymously to him containing a dossier of documents, many of which be believes are defamatory.

Technical experts traced the origin of the documents to Red Flag's offices.

The claims caused a sensation, coming so soon after Mr O'Brien's decision to postpone his Digicel IPO.

Just who the mystery client of Red Flag might be has not been speculated upon by Mr O'Brien.

Lawyers for Mr Brophy and Mr O'Reilly deny there is any conspiracy at all.

Sunday Independent

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