Sunday 21 April 2019

Anne Harris: O’Brien – the real issue is press freedom

Fearless newspapers are essential in a country whose political culture is marked by 'endemic corruption', writes Anne Harris

Anne Harris

Earlier last week, I had my first conversation (excepting a few words at the funeral of my husband Aengus Fanning) with James Osborne, the former chairman of Independent News & Media, who was voted out in an O'Brien-led boardroom bloodbath at the AGM.



In the course of the conversation, he informed me that in April of this year Denis O'Brien, the major shareholder in INM, had called him up to get him to "pull" an article in this newspaper.

The article related to Denis O'Brien's borrowings from Anglo Irish Bank. A spokesman for Denis O'Brien yesterday denied that this took place.

Osborne says he talked him down, telling him he was behaving like a "spoiled teenager". To Osborne's eternal credit, this was the first I knew of the alleged editorial interference.

The article was published under the heading 'Anglo Irish's Top 13 Buccaneer Borrowers'. It was fair to Denis O'Brien, making clear that he was one of those paying the bank back. O'Brien knew of it because we had contacted his spokesperson for a comment.

What matters, if Osborne is correct, is O'Brien's response. Censorship was his instinctive response to something that he perceived would be critical and touching on his financial interests.

This is the man who controls the largest media group in the country.

This is the man who Mr Justice Moriarty found had funnelled hundreds of thousands of pounds in "clandestine circumstances" to Michael Lowry on foot of the mobile phone licence on which he made his fortune.

This is the man about whom Taoiseach Enda Kenny has had nothing to say.

Since then, Denis O'Brien has increased his share in INM to over 29 per cent and his friend Dermot Desmond has also increased his share.

Nobody has referred this to the Competition Authority -- O'Brien's ownership of several radio stations might have made this a cross-ownership issue -- but this hardly matters any more since he would easily divest himself of the radio stations.

The issue is no longer one of media ownership. The issue is freedom of the press. And there is no more important issue in a country which, according to Mr Justice Mahon, has an "endemic corruption" in its political culture.

A free press holds a mirror up to society. The mirror allows for self-examination. Many in power avoid that mirror because they do not like what is then reflected back at them.

Optics matter in politics. Enda Kenny has been controversially pictured at the New York Stock Exchange with Denis O'Brien, about whom the Moriarty tribunal made adverse findings and who has been a major contributor to Fine Gael.

Many miles away, last Sunday afternoon in Poland, a sharp-eyed photographer from the Irish Independent spotted disgraced former chief executive and later chairman of Anglo Irish Bank Seanie FitzPatrick, festooned in green, perambulating the streets of Poznan with friends.

The next day, along with the photographs, the Irish Independent carried a report of FitzPatrick's sojourn in a €550-a-night hotel in the company of PJ Mara, whose most high-profile role these days is as member of the board of Denis O'Brien's Digicel.

On Tuesday, under the banner headline 'Booze Brothers', the Daily Mirror expanded the story with an account of a long, late-night session later the same night in the Brovaria Hotel which FitzPatrick enjoyed with Denis O'Brien.

Denis O'Brien stands by his friends to a defiant extent -- we all know that. On receiving one Businessperson of the Year award in recent years, he said: "This one's for Seanie. There will always be a steak at my barbeque for Seanie." That, of course, is Denis O'Brien's personal prerogative.

But there's a difference between the barbeque and the Brovaria. At the very least, it's a matter of decorum. Leaving to one side the question of who was footing the bill for Seanie's trip (as chief banker to the buccaneers, FitzPatrick presumably has many buddies more than willing to spare a dime), to stay at a €550-a-night hotel during the Euros is, by any standard, sticking it up to the impoverished Irish public.

Seanie FitzPatrick's actions as chief executive and later chairman of Anglo Irish Bank were among the main factors contributing to the economic wasteland that is Ireland today.

If a savage indignation lacerates our breasts, then that is probably as it should be.

Indeed, if the recession had not made melancholics of us all, that indignation would become a gale that could sweep a significant demographic in its path: from Fine Gael's head office at Mount Street, across Merrion Street, through the corridors of Leinster House, to the office of the Taoiseach and across the river to honky-tonk Talbot Street, where we humble hacks ply our trade. And where, very occasionally, a story of classical symmetry enfolds.

Classical symmetry like O'Brien hob-nobbing very publicly with the disgraced Anglo Irish banker. You have to wonder how many degrees of separation is that from Enda?

In politics, like in marrying your cousin, degrees of separation matter. Get them wrong and the DNA is tainted and future generations suffer.

In case Enda has forgotten what Seanie FitzPatrick, Denis O'Brien's drinking companion, got up to, here's a reminder. Anglo Irish Bank is costing the Irish taxpayer more than €40bn.

Personally, Sean FitzPatrick drew €87m in directors' loans from Anglo over eight years, which he concealed from shareholders by temporarily warehousing it at Irish Nationwide when the annual report was published, transferring them back afterwards.

Sean FitzPatrick has been twice arrested and questioned by the garda fraud squad and is still under investigation by it in relation to "back-to-back" deposits of €7.45bn from Irish Life & Permanent to Anglo, which served to artificially boost its balance sheet in 2008. Last year, the DPP asked the Chartered Accountancy Regulatory Board to postpone public questioning of Sean FitzPatrick, in case it might prejudice any criminal charges he might face.

As time goes on, the exhausted Irish public are losing their belief that Seanie FitzPatrick will ever be punished under law for what he has done to this country.

Sean FitzPatrick aside, it is the association with Denis O'Brien which could cost Enda Kenny politically. A battle not fought is a battle postponed.

The clear danger to Irish democracy is not just a press baron who rides roughshod over national sensibilities and who might attempt censorship in his own self-interest; it is that the major party in Government has nothing to say about it.

The fact that Kenny did not deal in a clear and unambiguous way with Mr Justice Moriarty's findings could come back to haunt him. But it is never too late for the Taoiseach to do the right thing.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss