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Anne Harris: Proud to work for a newspaper which takes on the rich and powerful directly

THE Irish Times ran a story yesterday which began by saying that Denis O'Brien has accused the Sunday Independent of "pernicious" and "unethical" journalism.

Read on and what you find are not Denis O'Brien's words but a paid employee doing Denis O'Brien's dirty work for him. The report is based on a letter written by Denis O'Brien's spokesperson, James Morrissey, to a member of INM management, which mysteriously found its way to the Irish Times.

Ethics in journalism -- like freedom of speech itself -- is a complex subject. But some aspects are time-honoured. Firstly, at least we sign our names to our criticisms. We'll leave hiding behind spokesmen and anonymous sources to others.

Secondly, Mr Morrissey states: "Not one request for a response emanated from the Sunday Independent to enable Mr O'Brien to give his side of the story and to defend himself."

The benign version of Mr Morrissey's statement is that he is being disingenuous. As recently as the middle of last week, we requested an interview with Mr O'Brien on the controversy over his purchase of Siteserv. He declined. We have a litany of requests for comments on stories -- mostly declined. But most importantly, last year, on the publication of the Moriarty tribunal report, we requested an interview with Mr O'Brien. It was to be done by me. He agreed at first and then, you guessed it -- declined.

So what story is Mr Morrissey talking about? If it's Mr O'Brien's proximity to the Taoiseach at the New York Stock Exchange, what should one have asked him? Was he there? The facts spoke for themselves. It was a political story.

The Taoiseach chose to be photographed in one of the most public places in the world in close proximity to a businessman against whom the Moriarty tribunal had made an adverse finding. We felt there was something wrong with that. We were not alone in that. The Taoiseach was on the spot and so we put questions to him and all the organisers. It is a massive story and if we were agenda-driven, then so were the Irish Times, RTE and the extremely robust Irish Examiner -- even the Financial Times.

Added to that, we commented on the fact that Mr O'Brien has very well-publicised intentions to seek to gain control of this newspaper group and that consequently his proximity to power is not healthy for press freedom. Again, we are not alone in our concerns about this. I can safely say the Labour Party, as well as other newspapers, shares our unease.

The letter leaked to the Irish Times is that kind of disproportionate response which typifies the politically driven agenda.

Clearly, the Sunday Independent has added its name to the long list of people whom Denis O'Brien has accused of being out to get him, top of the list being Mr Justice Moriarty. It is strange to see a man so rich and powerful bleating about his victim status. It reminds one of nothing as much as Julius Caesar's great motto from Carry On Cleo: "Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me!"

Consider instead how easy it would be for the staff of the Sunday Independent to kowtow to a man who is the biggest shareholder in this company with 21.6 per cent and who, it is reported, may soon be the owner. Far from being ashamed of working for Independent Newspapers, I would say many are proud to work for a newspaper which is willing to take on the rich and powerful directly.

Is that not what strong campaigning journalism is all about? That the powerful should have no hiding place when caught out in shady financial deeds?

Mr O'Brien may have his own list of those who he believes are waging an unfair war against him (a trait he shares with those other great blameless patriotic Irishmen, Padraig Flynn and Michael Lowry). But we, likewise, can add him to the equally long list of individuals whose actions have harmed this State and whose misdeeds have been exposed repeatedly in these pages -- Sinn Fein/IRA, not least.

It is hard on the rich and powerful. They are surrounded by people who give them versions of events which suit their own purpose. If Mr O'Brien ever ventured out from behind the wall of paid flunkeys all telling him what a great asset he is to Ireland's business community, he might get a reality check. He may find that his true reputation is the one which was exposed by Moriarty.

The fact is he has discredited himself beyond anything which strangers could do to his name.

One small footnote on ethical journalism. The Irish Times did not contact the Sunday Independent to check the veracity of James Morrissey's statement that Denis O'Brien was not contacted by us. They asked a company spokesperson. As if he had anything to do with it. That is not how things are done at the Sunday Independent.

"Journalism can never be silent. That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault," said Henry Anatole Grunwald, legendary editor-in-chief of Time magazine.

Yes, we have faults, but those faults are often our strengths too. We'll brave the risk in order to get the job done and make no apologies for it along the way.

Sunday Independent