This column tries to be as even-handed and dispassionate as possible in a fallen world. I do my best not to spare the newspapers I write for. But the piece that follows is not cool and objective. It is partisan, one-sided – and right.
An Irish billionaire named Denis O'Brien is attempting to wrest control of Independent News and Media, which owns the Belfast Telegraph, The Independent and Irish Independent. He says he intends to flog off The Independent and the IOS because they are loss-making. He has said some very rude things about Sir Anthony O'Reilly, and his management of Independent News and Media.
Let me declare an interest as one of the three people who helped start The Independent in 1986. One of the ironies of the present situation is that the paper was founded on a prospectus that was anti-proprietor. No investor was allowed to own more than 10 per cent. But when the group needed more cash in the early Nineties, it was forced to turn to two European publishers. Mirror Group Newspapers and the Irish-based Independent News and Media stepped in. It was pure coincidence that this group shared a name with the newspaper in which it was investing.
Independent News and Media eventually emerged as the sole owner of this paper and its Sunday sister, and has run them ever since. Sir Tony O'Reilly has invested tens of millions of pounds in the two titles, which is Mr O'Brien's main complaint. I am still not starry-eyed about any proprietor, but Sir Tony has honoured the traditions of The Independent, and never interfered in its editorial line.
These are not virtues likely to appeal to Mr O'Brien, and possibly some other shareholders. What can one say to them? Despite Sir Tony's support for The Independent titles, the company which he has controlled has a beady eye on the bottom line.
Its various operations in Ireland, South Africa, Australia and India, and The Belfast Telegraph in Northern Ireland, have just contributed to improved operating margins that have impressed analysts.
Nor is it unusual for a newspaper group to have one prestigious, loss-making title. News Corp, controlled by Rupert Murdoch, has kept afloat The Times, which over the past 20 years has lost much more money than The Independent. Lord Rothermere's Associated Newspapers bankrolls the Evening Standard. The Guardian Media Group absorbs the enormous losses of The Observer and The Guardian. Journalists who scorn the "loss-making Independent" are sometimes working for newspapers which are haemorrhaging considerably more cash.
Of course, no company likes losing money in any area, and there must always be a realistic plan to turn an unprofitable title into a profitable one, as I hope there is in the case of The Independent. In the meantime, proprietors have their differing motives for keeping faith. Tony O'Reilly's reasons for staying loyal to The Independent seem to me rather better founded than Mr Murdoch's with The Times or Lord Rothermere's with the Evening Standard. The Independent is by far his best known newspaper, and its international reputation has helped him develop businesses in several other countries. In other words, owning The Independent is not primarily an affair of the heart. No doubt Sir Tony feels proud of it, but he would not keep supporting it without sound commercial reasons.
Will Mr O'Brien succeed in gaining control of Independent News and Media? No one should underestimate him. He is a very successful businessman who has made a fortune out of communications. He evidently harbours animosity towards Sir Tony, and accuses his Irish newspapers of giving him unflattering coverage during his travails with a judicial inquiry that is looking into the means by which he acquired Ireland's second mobile licence.
Mr O'Brien has built up his holding in Independent News and Media so that he now speaks for just over 21 per cent of the group. He will surely buy more shares. If – when – he gets to 25 per cent he will be able to block resolutions, and generally make a serious nuisance of himself.
Sir Tony and his fellow directors control 28 per cent of the equity. If either man goes over 30 per cent, he will have to make a bid for the entire company, which would be very expensive. Could Mr O'Brien lay his hands on that much money? A damaging stand-off seems the more likely outcome.
It is very difficult to see the advantages Mr O'Brien would bring to Independent News and Media. For all his success as a businessman, he has no experience of publishing. Why would he run the group any better? So far as this newspaper and The Independent on Sunday are concerned, it would be a disaster for them if he ever called the shots. I am sure a buyer could be found, but there is absolutely no assurance that such a person would be sympathetic to them.
That is why anyone who admires The Independent, for all its imperfections, should be rooting for Sir Anthony O'Reilly. If The Independent had to have a proprietor – and history suggests that it did – it could have scarcely found a better one.