Belfast Telegraph

Chief executive abstains in vote to re-elect Buckley as INM chairman

By Gavin McLoughlin

Independent News & Media (INM) chief executive Robert Pitt abstained on a show of hands as shareholders voted on the re-election of INM chairman Leslie Buckley to the board.

The move underlines the deep divisions between the men atop Ireland's largest media company, which owns the Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Life, as it seeks to cope with challenging market conditions.

Mr Buckley was re-elected to the INM board yesterday, while Mr Pitt was not up for re-election. Mr Pitt has made a protected disclosure to the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) after a disagreement between the men over the potential acquisition of radio station Newstalk.

Asked about his relationship with Mr Pitt, Mr Buckley said: "If somebody makes a protected disclosure, that needs to be handled in a very proper and professional way and within a legal framework and that's exactly how that's being done."

He said the board, and a subcommittee of the board that was convened to look into the matter, were "working day and night on (shareholders') behalf to get this issue resolved".

Ryan Preston, the company's chief financial officer, voted in favour of Mr Buckley's re-election, as did the group's non-executive directors.

Mr Buckley said the company has no plans to pay a dividend, though it reviews its policy every year. He said the company needs its cash to meet pension obligations and pursue its acquisition strategy.

Mr Buckley said he was aware of rumours regarding Denis O'Brien, INM's largest shareholder with a 29.88% stake, wanting to take the company private, but that he had heard "no word of that at all".

Mr Buckley is a close business associate of Mr O'Brien.

The meeting was also addressed by Jerome Kennedy, who was INM's senior independent director before he decided not to put himself forward for re-election at yesterday's meeting. Mr Kennedy, formerly managing partner at KPMG, said there was nothing "untoward or ominous" behind his departure from the board.

He was the director to whom Mr Pitt made a complaint regarding the proposed purchase of Newstalk.

Mr Kennedy said his skillset complemented the financial restructuring of INM over the last five years, but that the demands of the next five years will be different.

"There's always a time when a non-executive director will have a look at the portfolio of directorships they have, the companies they are involved with."

He added: "They've got to balance the demands on their personal time."

Yesterday morning INM announced that revenue had fallen 8.4% year-on-year in the first half of 2017. Pre-tax profit fell 19.5% to €14.9m (£13.8m).

"The continued challenging trading conditions from the decline in circulation and publishing advertising have been magnified by the impact of a very punitive defamation regime and legal costs. Whilst digital revenues have grown, the growth is at a lower rate than previously envisaged," Mr Pitt said in a statement.

Belfast Telegraph

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