Ireland’s communications minister has denied passing insider information to a PR executive amid claims he tipped him off about plans to refer a proposed media takeover to a regulator.
Denis Naughten told the Dail it would have been preferable if the conversation with the executive about Independent News and Media’s planned buyout of Celtic Media had not taken place, but he insisted he had acted within the “letter of the law”.
“I have nothing to hide in relation to this,” he said.
Mr Naughten made an unscheduled statement to the Dail to respond to claims that the PR firm subsequently passed details of the discussion to a senior figure within INM, two months before the referral to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) was officially announced.
It may have been preferable if the conversation had not taken placeDenis Naughten
The minister acknowledged that he told Heneghan PR’s Eoghan O’ Neachtain – a former Government press secretary – that his “personal view” was a referral to the BAI was likely, but he said he stressed to him that the “definitive” decision would be based on future advice of officials.
Opposition leaders in the Dail raised concerns about the claims reported by the Irish Times, in particular that Heneghan PR was acting for INM and forwarded Mr Naughten’s position to then INM chairman Leslie Buckley, who in turn, it is claimed, sent it to INM’s largest shareholder Denis O’Brien.
INM later dropped plans to buy the seven regional newspaper titles owned by Celtic Media.
Mr Naughten said there were clear guidelines on media plurality and concentration of ownership that indicated a referral was “always likely”, given Mr O’Brien’s already significant interests in the Irish media landscape.
“In fact I would have failed in my responsibilities under the law if I did not do so and would have been criticised in the House for not doing so,” he said.
The minister added: “There is nothing wrong or inappropriate for me as a minister saying to anyone or the public that if the plan for a media merger continues I would take advice on sending it to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.
“This is not inside information, but simply a reflection of the legislation itself.
“I had no inside information to give.
“It may have been preferable if the conversation had not taken place but I was by no means expressing a definitive view, nor could I do so at that time, nor did I state that the view expressed was a confidential one, as the article seems to assert.”
Mr Naughten was pressed by Fianna Fail TD Timmy Dooley to explain comments he made in the Dail around a month later, in December 2016, when he stated it would not be appropriate to make his views on the planned takeover known.
The minister again insisted he had not passed on insider information to Mr O’ Neachtain .
Wednesday’s Irish Times report alleged that the episode forms part of the affidavit compiled by Ireland’s corporate watchdog as part of its bid to have inspectors appointed to probe governance arrangements at INM.
The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) has applied to the High Court for permission to inspect the workings of INM – a legal move the media giant is opposing.
The latest claims were aired in the Dail chamber on Wednesday as the INM controversy again dominated exchanges between the Government and opposition parties.
Earlier, during leaders’ questions, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it would have been better if the minister had not spoken to the PR executive.
But he insisted Mr Naughten had not compromised sensitive material.
“None of us have seen this affidavit and this is of course a matter before the courts,” he said.
“I think it is fair to say it would have been better if this conversation had not happened however I am satisfied that minister Naughten did not give any information out that was confidential.
“There does seem to be some misunderstanding about the nature of this process – it’s not a secret process.”
He added: “It doesn’t appear to me that this is sensitive information or confidential information.
“It may be the case that the PR executive or the lobbyist claimed that it was, but that is part of what lobbyists do – they often take information that is publicly available or easily available and present it as being confidential in some way.”
For all the guff about ‘new politics’, is this where we are at now?Mary Lou McDonald
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin expressed concern.
“This may or may not have been a breach of new market abuse regulations,” he told the Dail.
He added: “Any reading of the situation would seem to suggest that the inside track is alive and well.”
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald said: “For all the guff about ‘new politics’, is this where we are at now?
“That the gold-plated few get access to ministers and get given a heads-up on decisions the minister has taken in advance. What kind of a way is that to conduct politics?”
Labour leader Brendan Howlin said the claims were “extraordinary”.
INM said it would not comment on the claims “for legal reasons”. Heneghan PR also declined to comment.