Monday 21 October 2019

Communications Minister Denis Naughten apologises for speaking to lobbyist about media merger

Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Picture: Steve Humphreys

Kevin Doyle, Group Political Editor

COMMUNICATIONS Minister Denis Naughten has apologised for engaging with a lobbyist who contacted him about the potential merger of Independent News & Media (INM) and the Celtic Media group.

In a bid to draw a line under the controversy, Mr Naughten today admitted a “political mistake” for he wants to “sincerely apologise”.

His statement comes on the back of a call from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin for the minister to “state unequivocally that what was done was wrong”.

Mr Naughten has been engulfed in controversy since it emerged that Eoghan Ó Neacthan, a lobbyist working for INM, in November 2016 contacted him to discuss the proposed merger between the two newspaper groups.

During the short phonecall the Minister confirmed he was likely to refer the deal  to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) for review.

The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) has alleged in court documents that details of the conversation were passed on by Heneghan PR to then-INM chairman Leslie Buckley.

In turn Mr Buckley is alleged to have emailed INM’s largest shareholder Denis O’Brien, in a move the ODCE says this may amount to “inside information” and potentially a breach of stock market rules.

Speaking on Galway Bay FM today, Mr Naughten said “what was the sum total of a 30 second conversation” had taken up hours of debate in the Dáil and Seanad.

“But I know Fianna Fáil are still asking me to make a further statement on it. As I’ve already stated I sincerely regret giving an opinion.

“But I also said clearly that I would adhere to the advice of my officials at all times in this matter. That’s exactly what I did,” he said.

And going further than he had in his Dáil contributions, Mr Naughten said: “Never the less I do acknowledge it was a political mistake to have had this brief conversation. And I’ve learnt from that experience.

“And for my mistake I sincerely apologise for that. I hope this will draw a line under the matter and that we can move on and deal with the real issues that are facing this country at the moment.”

He added: “I’ve made a litany of statements at this stage. I do sincerely apologise for what happened. I didn’t give any confidential information because I didn’t have any confidential information available to me that this stage.”

The INM takeover was ultimately dropped before the BAI issued his opinion but the issue remains on the political agenda ahead of the Dáil’s return this afternoon.

Later on Tuesday, Mr Naughten was accused of “misleading the Dáil” following his dealings with the lobbyist.

Making the accusation in the Dáil Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said Mr Naughten should apologise to fellow TDs and correct the parliamentary record.

The Fianna Fáil leader said Mr Naughten had told a lobbyist during a phone call in 2016 that he believed a proposed deal, which would see INM buy a regional newspaper group called Celtic Media, would be referred to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland for consideration.

Mr Martin argued that three weeks later Mr Naughten told the Dáil he had made no decision and would make no statement on the matter.

“The Minister made a basic error of judgement. He should apologise and correct the record,” Mr Martin said.

The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said Mr Naughten had acknowledged he should have not had that phone conversation with the lobbyist in question. He said Mr Naughten had done no favours for anyone, divulged no confidential information, and was not responsible for what others did with certain information.

Mr Varadkar said at the time of the conversation with the lobbyist the deal had not been formally forwarded to him. When he spoke with the Dáil it had been sent on to him but no decision had been taken.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats have today published proposals for the strengthening of rules around lobbying.

In particularly they want to ‘name and shame’ lobbyists who contravene existing laws.

Currently the Standards in Public Office Commission has no authority to make public its investigations into reports that the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 has been breached.

TDs Catherine Muprhy and Roisin Shortall are also demanding a new Code of Conduct for lobbyists and spot check on the lobbying register.

A document produced, entitled ‘Making government more accountable’ also suggest training and awareness raising for ministers and senior civil servants.

Ms Shortall told reporters outside Leinster House that she still believes Mr Naughten should recuse himself from further media merger decisions.

The next major case to come across the Minister’s desk is likely to be the proposed acquisition of the publishing and media interests of Landmark Media Group.

Landmark’s interests include the Irish Examiner, Evening Echo and six regional titles.

Asked whether they had concerns about the Minister’s ability to over this process, Ms Mruphy said: “We’ve been given reasons to have concerns by virtue of what happened last week. It’s not that what happened last week is judged on what consequence there is for the Government and for the Minister.”

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