Wednesday 16 January 2019

Denis Naughten 'unlikely to be forced from office' over lobbyist call

FF holds its fire as Naughten 'dances on head of pin' over call

Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Doug O'Connor

Kevin Doyle and Cormac McQuinn

COMMUNICATIONS Minister Denis Naughten is unlikely to be forced from office in a row over whether he inappropriately informed a PR executive about his thinking on the proposed merger between Independent News & Media (INM) and Celtic Media.

Fianna Fáil last night stopped short of calling for him to resign, although the main Opposition party made it clear it intends to inflict maximum damage on the Government.

Spokesman Timmy Dooley said the Minister was “dancing on the head of a pin” with his explanations.

He questioned whether Taoiseach Leo Varadkar “can live” with the knowledge that a minister supplied information to a lobbyist that he wasn’t willing to state on the Dáil record.

Sinn Féin has decided not to place a motion of no confidence in the minister as it would risk collapsing the Government and derailing the referendum on the Eighth Amendment.

Fine Gael ministers have rallied around their Independent colleague in a bid to fend off the threat of a general election.

The Taoiseach said Mr Naughten’s explanation of events “was clear”, while Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan also offered support.

On Thursday morning, Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone offered her “full support” to her embattled colleague.

She described the answers given by the Communications Minister regarding his phonecall with a public relations executive as “comprehensive and honest”.

“Minister Naughten continues to have my full support as an Independent colleague. His portfolio covers important issues which impact on every community, not least climate change, the challenges in the area of communications and media, energy as well as the post office network.

“These are the issues which the public want Government to work on and deliver.”

Ms Zappone added: “It is important that given Minister Naughten’s full account that he now continues to give leadership on these and other issues.”

The controversy centres on a call Mr Naughten took from the director of public affairs at Heneghan PR, Eoghan Ó Neachtain in November 2016.

Mr Ó Neachtain, who was acting for INM, told the Minister that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission had approved the company’s acquisition of Celtic Media.

Mr Naughten expressed what he told the Dáil was “a purely personal view that the likely course of action would be a referral to a Phase Two assessment in accordance with the guidelines in light of the diversity and media plurality assessments required”.

He planned to refer the case to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) “in light of the scale of the proposed acquisition, its geographical concentration and the extent of ownership of regional media by INM at that point”.

As part of its application to have inspectors appointed to investigate corporate governance issues at INM, the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement’s (ODCE) alleges Mr Ó Neachtain briefed PR executive Nigel Heneghan about the call.

In turn, Mr Heneghan emailed INM’s then chairman Leslie Buckley, alerting him to the Minister’s thinking.

The State’s corporate watchdog claims Mr Buckley forwarded this message to INM’s largest shareholder, Denis O’Brien, in a move that may amount to “inside information” and potentially a breach of stock market rules.

During an hour-long Dáil session, Mr Naughten defended his position, saying it would have been “preferable if the conversation had not taken place”. But he repeatedly argued he didn’t express a “definitive view”.

The Minister said he had no inside information to offer the PR executive. “I did not give any definitive view to Mr Ó Neachtain. I made it quite clear to him that it was likely to go to Phase Two. 

“That was my own opinion but I also made it crystal clear to him that I would be going on the advice that was provided by my official,” he said.

In a further twist, it emerged Mr Heneghan is on the BAI’s compliance committee – but the minister said he had “no function”in judging potential mergers.

Housing minister Eoghan Murphy said last night that Mr Naughten answered every question put to him and answered them “very well”. He said it is “not even a question” that Mr Naughten should resign.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said Mr Naughten had addressed the issue “head-on”.

Irish Independent

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