Friday 25 May 2018

Minister insists he said 'nothing wrong or inappropriate' during call with PR exec about proposed merger between INM and Celtic Media

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

Kevin Doyle

COMMUNICATIONS Minister Denis Naughten has insisted he said “nothing wrong or inappropriate” during a phone call with a PR executive about the proposed merger between Independent News & Media (INM) and Celtic Media.

The minister is under fire after it emerged he discussed referring the potential deal to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) with a lobbyist for INM.

Details of the phonecall emerged in the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement’s (ODCE) application to have inspectors appointed to investigate corporate governance issues at INM.

It was reported today that details of a conversation between the Minister and Eoghan Ó Neachtain, director of public affairs at Heneghan PR, were relayed to INM’s largest shareholder Denis O’Brien in November 2016.

It is alleged Mr Ó Neachtain briefed PR executive Nigel Heneghan on the phonecall he had with the Minister. In turn Mr Heneghan alerted INM’s then chairman Leslie Buckly to the Minister’s thinking.

The State’s corporate watchdog has claimed Mr Buckley then emailed Mr O’Brien in a move that may amount to “inside information” and potentially a breach of stock market rules.

In the Dáil this evening, Mr Naughten confirmed that he received a call from Mr Ó Neachtain on either November 10 or 11, 2016.

He revealed the former government press secretary told him that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) had approved the INM acquisition.

“It was common knowledge that this was a significant acquisition with a significant geographical impact.

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

The Minister said it would have been “preferable if the conversation had not taken place” but repeatedly argued that he didn’t express a “definitive view”.

“Nor did I state that the view expressed was a confidential one as the article seems to assert. In fact, I clearly stated that I had made all previous decisions solely based on the advice provided to me by my officials and I reiterated that I would adhere to that approach in this case as well,” Mr Naughten said.

There is no note of the phonecall and the minister did not inform his officials about it.

Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley described the interaction as a “secret phone conversation”

He claimed it is “not credible” that a PR executive hired by INM would “attempt to mislead their client” by suggesting the phonecall was more than the minister is stating.

In response Mr Naughten said he is “crystal clear” that he gave his “own personal view” based on information already in the public domain.

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald accused the minister of acting “outside of the law” and in an “inappropriate” manner.

She said it was a “dereliction of duty by you as minister”.

Asked by Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin whether he had met any other people linked to INM during the process, Mr Naughten revealed he had a conversation with former INM chairman Lesley Buckley in May 2017.

He said this amounted to “small talk” at a Data Summit organised by INM in the RDS.

Following the debate, Mr Ó Neachtain told Independent.ie: “I agree completely with what the Minister had to say in the Dáil chamber.”

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