Saturday 25 January 2020

Conversation between PR man and minister did not appear on lobbying register

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

Shane Phelan

One aspect puzzling some observers of the storm surrounding Communications Minister Denis Naughten’s conversation with a PR executive acting for Independent News & Media (INM) is that it was not disclosed on the lobbying register. Indeed, the controversy highlights the confusion that can exist as to what amounts to lobbying.

Since September 2015, entities lobbying government ministers, departments, public bodies or designated public officials have had to disclose this activity on a register which is published online. And since last year there have been penalties for lobbyists who fail to make a return to the lobbying register, including fines and jail terms in serious cases.

So when PR executive Eoghan Ó Neachtáin rang Mr Naughten in November 2016 to find out his views on the proposed deal for INM to buy the Celtic Media newspaper group, was he technically engaged in the act of lobbying or simply asking questions for a client?

The minister says he expressed a personal view that the likely course of action would be a referral to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland for a “phase two assessment” in accordance with guidelines due to diversity and media plurality considerations. An account of the conversation made its way to INM chairman Leslie Buckley, who in turn forwarded it to INM’s largest shareholder Denis O’Brien.

The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement has expressed concern in court proceedings that this email from Mr Buckley to Mr O’Brien may amount to “inside information” within the meaning of EU market abuse regulations.

Heneghan PR, the firm where Mr Ó Neachtáin is director of public affairs, is no stranger to the lobbying register. In the past few years, it has listed various engagements on behalf of clients with TDs, ministers and government departments on issues as varied as broadband rollout and housing policy. Indeed, the register reflects that Mr Naughten was lobbied by the firm regarding solar energy two years ago.

The register also reflects that the firm was involved when INM lobbied then Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald in 2016 on libel laws and VAT on newspapers. The filing for that meetings says it was attended by Mr Buckley and former INM chief executive Robert Pitt.

But there is no filing in relation to the Ó Neachtain/Naughten conversation.

Heneghan PR certainly does not think the contact amounted to lobbying.

In a statement, it said: “The firm fully adheres to the lobbying legislation.”

For contact to amount to lobbying there must be three ingredients – a lobbyist, a designated person (politician or public official) being communicated with, and the subject matter. The subject matter must involve the initiation, development or modification of any public policy or of any public programme, the preparation or amendment of any law, or the award of any grant, loan or other financial support, contract or other agreement involving public funds.

In this instance, the PR firm would appear to be right as the call did not relate to the preparation or amendment of any law, but how legislation already in place would be implemented by the minister.

While the PR firm would seem to be in the clear, it is far from certain how the minister will now emerge.

Irish Independent

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